This documentary, reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe, presents the thoughts of four filmmakers. Too bad one of them isn't Les Mayfield.
"I think stories are very important to the human race"—John McNaughton
Directed by Kevin Mukherji (Death and Taxis), American Storytellers is a documentary about what it takes to make movies in modern-day Hollywood. The film encompasses in-depth interviews with four popular American directors: John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Wild Things), Harold Ramis (Caddyshack, Analyze This), John Sayles (Matewan), and Forest Whitaker (Waiting to Exhale). Mukherji has each director explain how they got into the business, what constitutes an "independent film," and their general philosophies towards both filmmaking and life.
Reminiscent of an episode of Inside the Actor's Studio, American Storytellers is very comprehensive and offers some great accounts about filmmaking in general. Talking a leisurely approach, the film gives each of the directors an opportunity to talk at length about their careers, their influences, and their respective visions. Because it never goes for anything more ambitious than talking heads, the film is often only as interesting as the anecdotes of the participants, and is best when goes into the nuts and bolts of the business to give an "insider's" look at Hollywood. These men obviously have a lot of experience between them, and while not consistently entertaining, this documentary does succeed in getting them to come forth with information and stories that would be invaluable to young directors looking to break into show business.
It's strange then, that after spending 90 minutes listening to the thoughtful responses of these four filmmakers, that American Storytellers leaves the viewer with fewer answers than questions. Why were these particular directors chosen as representatives for this documentary? Why was it edited this way? And finally, what exactly is director Mukherji trying to say about filmmaking in America?
While there's no doubt that this documentary has assembled four interesting personalities, they are surely hundreds of filmmakers equally or more qualified to be talking about contemporary storytelling in Hollywood. Forest Whitaker is probably the oddest choice as an interview subject, considering that he's much better known as an actor than a director. Luckily, his interview segments are some of the best, and he proves to be a thoughtful, well-spoken subject.
Both John McNaughton and John Sayles have a few mildly interesting stories to tell, but overall, they don't have a lot to offer for this documentary, and I found many of their segments fell flat. Although McNaughton makes a good choice because of his experience both inside and outside the studio system, he tends to be a little long-winded in most of his answers. With an extensive background in fiction and writing, Sayles also seems like a sensible inclusion because he comes closest to being a "storyteller," but curiously, little is done with this fact. Instead, Sayles focuses on the more mundane aspects his own personal experience.
As the biggest name celebrity featured in this documentary, it's a relief that Harold Ramis also proves the most appealing, dishing industry gossip about people like Wild Wild West producer Jon Peters, and going into fascinating detail about the genesis of the first film he wrote, Animal House. As a writer, director, and actor, Ramis makes a great subject, but unlike the rest of the participants, he has never worked outside the studio system and probably wouldn't consider himself an "auteur" or a "storyteller."
Another frustrating aspect of the interviews is that the directors are far too selective in the talking about their films. Ramis talks about Ghostbusters, but not National Lampoon's Vacation or his script for Meatballs. Likewise, Whitaker talks about his first TV movie, Strapped, but not Hope Floats.
Even supposing these subjects were the best authorities of contemporary filmmaking, American Storytellers offers no real cohesive connection between the interviews beyond the fact that they have been edited into segments with titles like "acting" and "advice." This further muddles the purpose of the film, which seems torn between expressing an aesthetic of independent cinema and offering different approaches to committing a narrative to film. Unfortunately, it doesn't go very deeply into either area.
The quality of this release is also troublesome. Overall, the video isn't too bad. Shot in DV, it's free of artifacts, with relatively good contrast and perhaps only slightly weak blacks. The sound, though, is absolutely terrible. Not even presented in Dolby, the stereo track is barely listenable, showcasing some of the worst fidelity I've ever heard in the history of DVD. Every single interview is extremely harsh and tinny, with serious distortion to the point where I had to keep the volume at a very low level to reduce the strain on my ears.
The biggest question that the viewer of American Storytellers is left with is also the most troublesome. "Why was this documentary made?" Sure, it's nice to have a bunch of anecdotal interviews by interesting directors, but there's little meaning here beyond a brief survey of opinions and beliefs about the film industry in general. It's peculiar that Mukherji didn't bother to shape this raw material, some of which is quite fascinating, into something a little more concrete and significant. This might be a good rental if you have a particular interest in one of the interviewees, but as a document of storytelling on celluloid or a restatement of the importance of the auteur, there are better and more interesting documentary films available.
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