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ROSS McELWEE AT WORK

Time Indefinite-  A Review
The Harvard Advocate

Ross McElwee's cinematic genius achieves full expression in Time Indefinite . The film stunningly captures what it means to be a contemplative being conscious of mortality and the fragility of human happiness.

In the film, McElwee takes us on a cinematic journey, trying "to document little moments" from his life. These moments are varied enough to include family reunions, discussions with his film teacher about male/female relationships, visits with his dying grandmother, the making of his wedding invitations, and even his future wife's appointment with a gynecologist. These moments also include his reflections on his past, as when he recalls some of his childhood questions: "Do fish go to heaven? Is their heaven an aquarium? And if it is, then who cleans it?"

Although McElwee has a wellspring of humor, as evidenced by the Woody Allen-esque musings on fish-heaven, he is also willing to expose the viewer to the pain and sadness of life. McElwee is unafraid to show old age in all its unexalted reality or to discuss death in all its tragedy. At times death seems a very obsession: Having just observed that he's spent six out of his thirty rolls of film on a children's cemetery in Mexico, he wonders whether death must then be on his mind twenty percent of the time. Later, he ruefully observes that his deceased father's socks are still rolled up and ready to worn, implying that material possessions, ironically enough, can outlast the people who were supposed to use them.

McElwee has a keen cinematic eye for the existentially absurd. At one point, he decides that he must visit his father's house in order to reconcile himself to his father's permanent departure. While in the house, he muses incessantly on death before being interrupted by a bee infestation, which forces him to call a fumigation company called "Killo." Another absurdist scene, which recurs repeatedly, depicts the gardener Melvin trying with annoyed perseverance to start an uncooperative lawn mower. As he bends down again and again to pull the starting cable, with the motor only half-starting each time, I could not help thinking of Sisyphus on the rock struggling pointlessly to complete his pointless task. McElwee suggests that filmmaking is also absurd, as when he reveals that his family never even viewed the films they took so much time to make.

Another theme that pervades the movie is the ambiguous relationship between art and life. In one comical scene, McElwee films his blind date, to whom his friend Charlene has introduced him. Charlene, impatient with Ross's insistence on filming everything, agitatedly reminds him, "This is life--not art!" For McElwee the dilemma is for a time resolved with the birth of his son, which birth serves as a sudden and powerful affirmation of life and its intuitively felt interconnectedness. Not only does this affirmation counterbalance the implicit loneliness in Time Indefinite , but it imposes a certain urgency on practical survival that momentarily shakes his detached and contemplative posture as a philosophical filmmaker.

McElwee's "characters" are probably more intriguing than any that could be dreamed up by a screenwriter. Charlene, for example, is a unique composite of Southern sensibilities and self-reflective angst and insight. She also appears in Sherman's March , which more than Time Indefinite captures the great variety of personalities and characteristics one can find in just one section of America. The subjects of Sherman's March are refreshingly authentic and yet, in some ways, more fictional than real: a Hollywood-bound actress, a group of black auto mechanics, a traveling singer, a fanatic group of armed libertarians establishing a rural settlement, and a linguistics scholar living on two-person island.

The cinematography of Time Indefinite is captivating, original, and almost always memorable. At several points, McElwee includes the breathtaking view of the ocean from below a pier--a view he describes as "an exotic cathedral." During another unforgettable scene, McElwee fills the screen with an image of a dying fish's mouth gasping desperately for oxygen, as McElwee disturbingly notes that he himself is the last living thing that the fish will ever see.

As technology hastens the pace of life and reduces the average attention span, McElwee's approach to filmmaking is refreshing and resensitizing, for he focuses on his subject matter with thoughtfulness and care. Paradoxically, then, McElwee puts his inventive approach to filmmaking to the time-honored service of rendering the landscape of humanity with variousness and richness.


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