Mixed Reviews

Conversations with Filmmakers
University of Mississippi Press, $18.00 – $46.00
Reviewed by Jennifer M. Wood

On film and in print, everywhere you turn, it seems
directors are in the hot seat. They’re being grilled about
their upbringing, their education, their technique and their films—much
to the delight of moviemakers, who soak up the information. But
a careful observer knows that any one interview is only a snapshot
in time—a reflection of an individual’s attitude at
a given moment, not an accurate accounting of their general personality.
If you’re looking to ‘get to know’ your favorite
director on a more personal level, your best option is to befriend
them. Second best is reading about them in the University of Mississippi
Press’ Conversations with Filmmakers book series.

Initiated in August of 1998, Conversations with Filmmakers
commenced with the publication of Gerald Peary’s Quentin Tarantino:
Interviews. Two dozen new titles have been added since then, comprising
one of the largest and most eclectic book series dedicated specifically
to the art of directing. Holding up the back end of the list are
Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh, the
four most recent series inductees.

What makes the Conversations series different—and
better—than other, similar collections is the commitment to
quality moviemaking as a general rule, regardless of a director’s
age, nationality, current standing in the industry or the size of
his/her body of work. Contemporary giants like Soderbergh, Oliver
Stone and John Sayles are treated with just as much esteem as legends
like Wilder and John Huston. All-American directors like John Ford
and Steven Spielberg mix easily with such international greats as
Theo Angelopoulos and Zhang Yimou.

The books are a full compendium of the knowledge any
one person would need to gain a deeper understanding of an individual
artist’s work: a brief intro, touching upon the many milestones
(and in some cases, controversies) that have shaped a director’s
career; a timeline, offering both personal and professional accomplishments;
a complete filmography; and finally, the interviews. In soliciting
the included conversations, the Press makes only two stipulations:
all interviews must appear as they did in their original publication,
unedited; and are to be arranged by date of when the interview was
conducted (not published). Such demands may seem menial, simply
a matter of consistency, but they’re put in place to further
the reader’s understanding of who each given director is—both
as an artist and a person.

In 1989, when we first meet a 26-year-old Steven Soderbergh,
fresh off the heels of his Sundance and Cannes victories with sex,
lies, and videotape
, he’s being compared to everyone
from Steven Spielberg to Woody Allen. He volunteers his past as
a womanizing liar as the impetus for his debut feature. He was embarrassed
to think that his agent would demand a figure as high as $250,000
for him to write a script—or $500,000 to direct. Flash forward
to 2002: 13 years and 11 films later, the book closes with a transcript
from a conversation between Soderbergh and the press, backstage
at the 2001 Oscars, where he won as Best Director for Traffic.
His competition? Stephen Daldry for Billy Elliot, Ang Lee
for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ridley Scott for Gladiator
and Steven Soderbergh for Erin Brockovich.

Every successful moviemaker remembers his or her rise
from gopher to the top. For many, it’s a long and arduous
process, but one riddled with life lessons. Conversations with Filmmakers
documents the journey of 25 top directors—allowing readers
to learn and grow from the mistakes of their favorite directors.
It’s a unique collection. Soak it up.

Criterion’s Director-Approved DVDs
Criterion Collection, $29.95 – $59.95
Reviewed by Jennifer M. Wood

For most players, DVD distribution is a game of numbers.
Jam-pack three hours of bonus material onto one (or two, or three)
discs, regardless of content, and you’ve got a DVD that every
collector will want. In many cases, this has resulted in the inclusion
of such cheap “bonus” tactics as viewer recommendations
(“If you like this movie, you’ll love this one!”)
and additional trailers (meant simply to sell other titles in a
company’s catalog). In the midst of this DVD buying craze,
Criterion has remained loyal to its mission of “gathering
the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in
editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning,
original supplements.”

With a collection that encompasses the hallmark works
of such legendary directors as Renoir, Kurosawa, Cocteau, Bergman
and Hitchcock, their dedication to the discerning DVD collector
logically extends to the moviemakers behind the titles. As such,
they have created the Director-Approved series, with names as varied
as Martin Scorsese (The Last Temptation of Christ), Michael
Bay (Armageddon), Paul Morrissey (Flesh of Frankenstein),
Terry Gilliam (Brazil) and Jules Dassin (Rififi)
all signing on for the ride.

Director-Approved titles bear the stamp of approval
of the individual directors, with a host of special features that
further add to the audience’s appreciation of the film. At
minimum, viewers can expect a new digital transfer (in many cases
has been overseen by the director or DP). Particularly with older
films like Dassin’s Rififi or Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball and Loves of a Blonde,
the addition of restored elements is a welcome reminder of just
what Criterion is capable of.

Audio commentary and director interviews are another
standard, in many cases with members of the cast and crew. The intention
of The Last Temptation of Christ, for example, is made
clearer when Martin Scorsese is joined by star Willem Dafoe and
writers Paul Schrader and Jay Cocks in the discussion of the making
of the biblical epic. In other cases, such additions as a 60-minute
doc on the making of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and a 44-page booklet on The Rolling Stones and Altamont that accompany
the Maysles’ Gimme Shelter help Criterion join the
ranks of the biggest distributors, creating truly must-have titles.

A Third Face
By Samuel Fuller
With Christa Lang Fuller and Jerome Henry Rudes
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002; 592 pp $35, hardcover

"Fuck the system. My film was going to be personal…”
He was speaking of his desire to make Park Row his way—as
a serious black and white period piece, rather than the bloated
musical comedy that his friend, Producer Darryl Zanuck, advised.
But he could’ve been describing his entire philosophy as a moviemaker.

Samuel Michael Fuller, who died in 1997 at the age
of 85, was a true American original, as straightforward, charismatic
and talented as they come. He made 29 tough, hardhitting movies
between 1949 and 1989, (including the classics Pickup on South
Street
, Underworld USA, Forty Guns, The
Naked Kiss
, The Big Red One and Shock Corridor),
but he knew that if he’d played ball with the studios he could’ve
made many more. No matter, he was a romantic, a dreamer and an idealist
to the end, and as this terrific memoir so vividly illustrates,
he had few regrets. In his tough-guy vernacular, Fuller never “lusted
after the loot. All I ever wanted was to write my stories and direct
them… I didn’t need much to make me happy other than
my Royal, plenty of ribbons, cigars and vodka… I took pride in
being an original, a director who creates characters, dialogue,
and action out of his own experience and imagination. From a blank
piece of paper, I made motion pictures.”

You couldn’t invent a life like Fuller’s,
which spanned most of the 20th Century. From New York newsboy in
the 1920s to journalist and vagabond in the ’30s to soldier
and novelist in the ’40s to Hollywood director in the ’50s
to independent moviemaker in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s
to indie icon in the ’90s, his life story could and should
someday be made into its own tough, hardhitting, “pisscutter
of a movie, by a director who has balls,” as Sam himself might’ve
said.

Fuller’s low-budget Shock Corridor (1963), shot in 10 days, was named by the Library of Congress as
one of their official 200 American Classics. That is independent
filmmaking. His memoir is chock full of advice for making movies
and for living. A few examples: “When a critic is complimentary,
he or she is brilliant, and when they knock the hell out of your
work, he or she is shortsighted and foolish.” “You’ve
got to know your ending before you shoot a single frame of film.
Otherwise your picture is like a goddamned train without a final
destination.” “People should read their own obituaries
while they still can. It’s a healthy exercise in living one’s
life to the fullest.” “Passion is the bedrock of great
moviemaking.” “You young people sitting around watching
the goddamned television. Get off your asses and go see the world!
You will always be wealthy if you count your riches as I do, in
adventures, full of life-changing experiences.”

Like all immortal artists, Sam Fuller’s greatest
work was himself. In his later years, he became a living touchstone;
independent-minded directors frequently sought him out. He became
friends with Jim Jarmusch, Tim Robbins, Quentin Tarantino, Wim Wenders,
Sara Driver, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme and many others. Though
I’ll always wish I’d met him, too, after reading The
Third Face
, I feel as if I had.

The Third Face was completed by Sam’s
devoted wife, the actress and scholar, Christa Lang Fuller, and
their friend, Jerome Rudes, a champion of indie film and founder
of The Avignon Film Festival. —Tim Rhys

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