A Book Review by Jeremy Carr.

The variance of the interviews in Mavericks is part of what makes the book such an engaging read. No two are exactly alike, and any given conversation yields surprising and rewarding conclusions.”

Gerald Peary makes it clear, from the very beginning, what readers can expect from Mavericks: Interviews with the World’s Iconoclast Filmmakers, his recently released collection of decades-spanning conversations published by The University Press of Kentucky. In his introduction, Peary situates the ensuing interviews primarily within the context of, on one hand, the auteur theory and its impact on critical perception and attribution, and, on the other, his own involvement with contemporary “campus issues” at the time of the earliest conversations: the war in Vietnam, strikes from Black students, debate over the unionization of teaching assistants, etc. These dual influences of cinematic provenance and political perspective inform nearly every interview that follows, focused as they are on topical issues and/or the singular role of the respective director (at times allowing also for significant collaborators).

That said, Peary acknowledges that by the end of the 1970s, his “hard-edged radicalism” had softened, and when moving into the 1980s and 1990s, he became more “inclusive” in his conceptualization of a “maverick” director; he was interested in not only politically-minded individuals, but those with “private idiosyncratic universes.” This is evident in Peary’s shift from a critical to a more inquisitive tone and in the changing selection of subjects, going from directors operating generally on the margins to relatively popular figures. Unwavering through all these interviews, though, which are mostly derived from newspapers and film-related publications, is a constancy of quality questions and an informed dialogue.

Peary’s initial activist agenda is most prominent early on, as he basically stated from the start. While Howard Alk, for instance, speaks of the necessary “objective evaluation” in his documentaries, a balancing of the given subject against, or in conjunction with, his own presentation or commentary, his desire to allow all relevant voices to be heard seems to run contrary to Peary’s preconceived view. Of the law officials featured in The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971), Alk says it is a “question of giving people a fair shake,” while Peary seems rather opposed to such an evenhanded slant.

There is a similar tenor to Peary’s interview with Marcel Ophuls, from 1973, in which he and Maureen Turim clearly set out to challenge the director of The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), later acknowledging, in hindsight, a potentially disrespectful approach. “We interviewed him and sometimes grilled him about his whole career,” writes Peary, adding in the introduction to the interview (beneficial and reflective intros begin each interview in the book), “should we have been more respectful of Ophuls’s accomplishments? We demanded that his interviews be less politically balanced and that he assume a more activist way of interrogation.” Questioning Ophuls about an individual who was not given the opportunity to express her story in the film, Peary and Turim essentially try to redo the picture in accordance to what they would have done, asking, “Shouldn’t you have made that happen?” They also frame some of their questions as personal declarations, or blend the two; for example, “It often feels that you are obsessed with balancing one side to another, being generous to everybody, the Truffaut school versus Godard. Why shouldn’t a documentarians take sides?” In any event, Ophuls’s “both sides” responses not exactly what Peary wanted to hear at the time are like many of the interviews included in Mavericks, insofar as they express an enduring relevance in what were, and remain, divisive times.

The tendency to project his own viewpoint on his subjects lingers in Peary’s 1978 interview with Hal Ashby, largely about Ashby’s 1978 film Coming Home. Peary’s provocation is obvious in his queries and responses and he evinces a particular glee in what he sees as confrontational lines of questioning, declaring that Ashby was “jolted anew” by the comparison between this wrenching post-Vietnam picture and Hollywood productions like the 1937 and 1954 versions of A Star is Born. Still, Peary writes, “Was I nitpicking? Hal Ashby took my criticisms graciously.”

Beyond these instances of arguably biased intention, Peary mostly affords the contained filmmakers ample opportunity to discuss their work and working methods. Given the outsider status of many of those featured, there is the repeated refrain of overcoming the powers that be (a certain government, industry standards, etc.) while also struggling with the all-important financing. Such is the case with the great Ousmane Sembéne (see top image), interviewed in 1973, who explains how his films were banned in Africa where the authorities held sway. And yet, at the same time, due to the illiteracy in Africa, the power of his cinema was crucial to dispersing a message to the populace that may otherwise have been wholly uninformed. He was, in other words, a maverick working toward the benefit of his people. Financing again appears in the 1985 interview with “Scotland’s Finest Filmmaker,” Bill Forsyth, who likewise laments the labors of low budget filmmaking but also, nevertheless, managed to achieve a potent cultural representation. In a 1993 interview with Gillo Pontecorvo, the politically-charged Italian filmmaker similarly reflects on how hard it has been to finance his productions, resulting in the large gaps in his filmography despite the quality of his preceding features. To this end, Peary’s interviews are valuable as sounding boards for these and other filmmakers, allowing them to reveal the behind-the-scenes efforts and strains and the end results that should not be taken for granted.

While the auteur theory has been utilized as a tool for appreciating the Hollywood icons who, in this view, managed to subvert the studio system by instilling in their work personal statements and styles, it has also allowed for the appreciation of filmmakers working outside the industry, independently, and it is in this arena that Mavericks most often excels.”

Sometimes, however, these maverick directors are only incidentally such, or it is the nature of their respective films as personal aesthetic statements that rouse a reaction, rather than some explicit, intended missive. Bernardo Bertolucci, speaking in 1977 about his 1976 opus 1900, discusses everything from the casting process (securing an expensive but charitable Burt Lancaster) to how, for him, 1900 is a “living epic poem, a saga, and not just a political manifesto.” In addition to affirming his intentions and view of 1900, Bertolucci briefly comments on the reputed and disputed depiction of actual sex in 1972’s Last Tango in Paris, which Peary, long before the issue became a significantly controversial matter, seems to confirm. Conversely, Mel Brooks, in a 1978 interview, almost has to fight to assert the politics of his work, countering, at least in the case of 1977’s High Anxiety, what Peary sees as the “lack of politics.” Brooks defends the political content of his films while recognizing the need to mix messages with commercial requirements, thus playing it semi-safe by making it funny.

How, where, and why a given filmmaker becomes a “maverick” fluctuates a good deal through the course of Peary’s conversations. In a 1987 interview with Norman Mailer, the daring comes from the content and the choice to engage with the unexpected and unconventional (his “16mm improvisatory features” from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and an adaptation of Tough Guys Don’t Dance), while the 1990 conversation with Volker Schlöndorff and The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood is, given the subject of the book and Schlöndorff’s own work, naturally controversial their two-fold slants are inevitably political. Indeed, a collaboration itself could be perceived as radical, as in the case of a 1992 conversation with Errol Morris, who discusses working with Stephen Hawking and adapting A Brief History of Time. Other times, the politics are inherent in a given subject, such as when William Styron and Charles Burnett, in 2001, discuss The Confessions of Nat Turner and the 2003 documentary Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property. See, too, “Samira Makhmalbaf in Kurdistan,” from 2001, and “Hany Abu-Assad: Palestine Now,” from 2005. In these later interviews, which discuss films where situations and circumstances are fundamentally political, Peary wisely lets the work and those who created it speak for themselves, and the printed outcome, especially in the case of these two conversations, is powerfully redolent.

Peary’s 1978 conversation with Roberta Findlay is roundly fascinating as she upholds her maverick status for not only being a female director, but also one who works in pornography. This interview (one of the best in the book) is insightful and refreshing in Findlay’s unpretentious sincerity; she speaks clear-eyed and candidly about her films and the stigma of her chosen field, which she accepts for what it is and, like Peary, maintains a perceptive, balanced view. The series of all-too-brief “Short Visits with Three European Masters” comprises interviews with Eric Rohmer (in 1978), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (in 1978), and Werner Herzog (in 1979), three of the more renowned directors included in Mavericks who Peary undoubtably wished to have spent more time with. All the same, Peary gets them to talk revealingly about their eclectic filmographies, which is something that certainly isn’t the case in the appropriately titled “A Rare-and-Brief Glimpse of Director Akira Kurosawa.” This 1986 piece about the Japanese master is more about the trials of actually securing an interview with the abrasive and standoffish Kurosawa, but Peary’s tale of what he was like at the time and the rules applied to conversing with the director are nonetheless amusing and illuminating.

The variance of the interviews in Mavericks is part of what makes the book such an engaging read. No two are exactly alike, and any given conversation yields surprising and rewarding conclusions. A 1979 interview with Martin Ritt, who is openly political, is interesting as a report on just how many films are credited to this underrated director, with an exceptional body of work despite a general lack of name recognition. The 1992 interview with Liv Ullmann, who was as engaged with the world as anyone here (Peary notes her humanitarian work UNICEF), ends up being more about her illustrious career than her activist pursuits, while the three-part Gus Van Sant discussions focus on the form and structure of such films as Gerry (2002) and Elephant (2003). Peary also attains some intriguing information out of Frederick Wiseman, in 1998, about how he chooses his topics, adopts his technique, and handles his subjects and those assisting. Like much else in Mavericks, it is a captivating look at a particular filmmaker’s occasionally unorthodox methodology.

While the auteur theory has been utilized as a tool for appreciating the Hollywood icons who, in this view, managed to subvert the studio system by instilling in their work personal statements and styles, it has also allowed for the appreciation of filmmakers working outside the industry, independently, and it is in this arena that Mavericks most often excels. The broad swath of director interviews included (among those not already mentioned: Margarethe von Trotta, Agnieszka Holland, and John Waters talk about “private idiosyncratic universes”) may not all be equal in terms of gleaned insight and, perhaps most lamentably, length, but Peary’s vast experience as a professor, critic, and documentarian is maintained throughout, as is his admirable historical knowledge of auteurs big and small. Aside from introducing the influences of these accumulated directors, who often speak of their favorite films and filmmakers (especially Jim Jarmusch, in 1997 and 2000, and Findlay, who notes her admiration for everything from films of Hollywood’s Golden Age to Leni Riefenstahl’s incendiary 1935 documentary Triumph of the Will), the cinematic reference-points help enlighten the works of some of the book’s lesser-known artists. I’ll admit my own ignorance of Benôit Jacquot, for example (interviewed in 2000 by Peary and Peter Brunette), but Peary’s familiarity, apparent in his detailed queries, yields an infectious quest for supplementary knowledge. Canvassing the careers of these diverse directors, through his questions and commentary, Peary succeeds in conveying a good idea about the films discussed, even the films one many not yet have seen. He knows his subjects all of the many subjects covered here and, as the author of any quality film book should do, he makes one want to seek out these movies and further explore these maverick moviemakers.

Jeremy Carr is a Contributing Editor at Film International and teaches film studies at Arizona State University. He writes for the publications Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. He is the author of Repulsion (1965) from Auteur Publishing and Kubrick and Control from Liverpool University Press a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretationfrom Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

One thought on “Rebel Revelations – Mavericks: Interviews with the World’s Iconoclast Filmmakers

  1. Thanks so much for such a thoughtful, knowledgeable review. As you note, I was an an irritating PC interview in my early days, and I don’t deny it in my introduction. Thankfully, those I interviewed, sometimes pretty exasperated, fought back, and those heated exchanges between us are, I think, pretty interesting. Anyway, that was long long ago and, as you also, noted, I calmed down by the 1980s. Thank God for that!

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