American Storytellers
review by Gregory Avery, 5 December 2003

While I don't think it's good common practice to knock small films too harshly -- filmmaking is tough, from start to finish, whether you're working with one camera and a mike or with several million dollars -- it nonetheless must be said that the documentary American Storytellers has a number of things seriously wrong with it. A well-intentioned picture that Kevin Mukherji directed, edited, and acts as "silent host" for, it's meant to be both a homage to, and primer for, independent filmmaking, built on interviews with four American directors. John Sayles is one, yet Mukherji never mines a diverse and prolific filmography that ranges from Return of the Secaucus 7 to Lianna, Matewan, and Lone Star. Harold Ramis is also included, even though he has never worked outside of the Hollywood studio system, from his first job as co-writer on Animal House to his directoral debut in Caddyshack. And Forest Whitaker is best known for his acting work than his directoral efforts, one for H.B.O. and two others for Hollywood studios (Waiting to Exhale was harshly criticized for its non-stop music track from start to finish); Whitaker mentions some of the top-flight directors he's worked with, but doesn't mention Clint Eastwood, who cast him to play Charlie Parker in Bird and gave Whitaker a chance to give one of his best performances to date. (I suspect Whitaker was included so that Mukherji could include an African-American director, in which case why not John Singleton or Kasi Lemmons, instead?)

John McNaughton, who, along with Sayles, falls closest to being a bona fide independent filmmaker, says that he, in fact, LIKES working with the studio system rather than with independent companies, and offers as a cogent example the fate that befell a very good film that he directed, Normal Life, which was made for one company (October Films) that was then bought and turned into another (USA Films) whose new management decided that it didn't particularly like the film and dropped all support for it. (USA Films, in turn, was bought and turned into Focus Features.) The story also illustrates how American Storytellers feels like it's at least two or three years out of date -- the independent film boom of the 1990s officially came to an end when Good Machine, the production company that turned out several of director Ang Lee's films among others, was bought by Sony Universal in 2002. The Internet, which is not only changing how people look at movies but also the entire concept of mass entertainment as we know it, is scarcely mentioned at all during the documentary.

And the interviews themselves have a curious quality to them. McNaughton is never asked about what it was like to go from making his first feature, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, to working with Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman, Bill Murray and David Caruso on Mad Dog and Glory; he is also allowed to dismiss Henry as something that was made simply to get attention, which may have been the initial impulse at the time but definite choices were made in how to dramatize and present the story which caused people to give it such positive word-of-mouth that it finally received a theatrical release. (And Michael Rooker, who played Henry, landed the second lead in Oliver Stone's film J.F.K.) McNaughton, who looks like he's about to burst into tears at any moment (his has been the rockiest road of the four directors seen in the film), also makes the utterly perplexing statement, "I'd like to be remembered for the work, not for the external things." (To which you respond, such as...?)

Whitaker has a tendency to lower his head and start speaking into the palm of his right hand, and says that he is influenced by "primal religion", without elaborating why. Ramis talks on and on fatuously before finally arriving at some genuine point of interest (such as quoting from a beautiful poem that was written by a Vietnamese Buddhist monk), and says that he was influenced by the film Lawrence of Arabia "for some reason". And Sayles seems to have been interviewed for some other film entirely (he speaks to the camera while seated in a bookstore), his contributions rarely meshing with those made by the other three filmmakers. Sayles worked for Roger Corman, doing some famous script work for films such as Piranha and The Howling (which set the action in a northern California retreat where werewolves learned how to keep their "impulses" under control) before making Return of the Secaucus 7for $10,000, not a whole lot of money to make a film with in 1979 - 80. Sayles later went to Hollywood to film his much-admired but unproduced screenplay Eight Men Out, and the results turned out to be one of his least satisfying films as a director. (City of Hope and, particularly, Passion Fish got his street cred back.) Nobody, here, thinks to ask why.

Directed by:
Kevin Mukherji

Rated:
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.

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