There is something both fascinating and bizarre about Great Directors, a documentary in which an attractive woman named Angela Ismailos — “a Greek jetsetter” is the closest that the Internet comes to an explanation — talks to 10 filmmakers about their work, their inspirations, and their dreams. They do this in 84 minutes, including time for several shots of Ismailos listening intently, walking through evocatively designed archways, or just standing on the street while the camera swirls around her.
Who does she think she is? Michael Moore?
“Great Directors” is, in other words, a very personal project, extending to the choice of directors. They're the ones who made “film I hold very dear,” Ismailos says in an introduction before launching into scattered, but often compelling conversations with Bernardo Bertolucci, David Lynch, Liliana Cavani, Stephen Frears, Agnes Varda, Ken Loach, Todd Haynes, Catherine Breillat, Richard Linklater, and John Sayles.
We learn bits and pieces about each, and see smatterings of their work, many of which might inspire viewers to go out and watch (or rewatch) the originals. Bertolucci tells the story of how Pier Paolo Pasolini, a friend of the family, came calling one day. Young Bernardo ran and told his father, “I think he's a thief.” Nevertheless, Pasolini ended up hiring Bertolucci as an assistant on his first film, his entree to both filmmaking and Marxism.
Breillat credits Ingmar Bergman’s “The Naked Night” (1953) with inspiring her career: A quick survey of her early themes (a lonely masochistic woman, a young girl disgusted and excited by the sexual attentions of an older man) provides an ideal snapshot of her difficult, fraught cinema. David Lynch tells a funny story about how he was hired to direct his breakthrough movie, “The Elephant Man.” The producer, Mel Brooks, watched Lynch’s “Eraserhead,” then ran out of the screening room, embraced him, and said, “You’re a madman. I love you.’
Then there are the Gallic charms of “Varda” (“I really like getting older,” she says, followed by a Woody Allen-ish pause, and then, “I’m not totally excited about dying.”) Haynes is eloquent about the influences of Rainer Werner Fassbinder — whom we see in a scene from “Room 666,” a Wim Wenders documentary on great directors that could be a companion to this one — and Lynch says he doesn't like to talk about movies after he's made them. “The film is the talking,” he says.
Sayles, who writes mainstream movies (“Piranha,” “The Spiderwick Chronicles”) to finance his independent ones (“Matewan,” “Lone Star”), gives a concise lesson in Hollywood screenwriting when he describes how the Mel Gibson film “The Patriot” was cleaned up to remove references to slavery: “a very well-made lying piece of s---,” he calls it. Cavani is probably the least known of the great directors, but scenes from her 1974 shocker “The Night Porter” — a former Nazi and his prisoner meet up and re-enact their sadomasochistic relationship — still has the power to shock.
It all goes by in a flash, leaving a trail of unexamined history, unexpressed connections and half-glimpsed scenes: a once-over-heavily survey that tells you just enough to make you want to know more. For Jay Stone’s weekly movie podcast, go to www.canada.com/moviereviews.