Six O' Clock News


ROSS McELWEE AT WORK

THE MEANING OF LIFE
By Stephen Rodrick Boston Magazine, September 1994
Reprinted with permission of Boston Magazine.All rights reserved.

On the screen is a cancerous tumor the size of a large cantaloupe.

It is near the end of Time Indefinite, Ross McElwee's harrowing and very personal 1993 film about--well, about the meaning of life. Through his camera, he has captured if not the essence, a healthy slice of life in all its joy, sadness, and absurdity. As he examines and records his reactions to his marriage, his father's death, a miscarriage, and the birth of a son, McElwee renders the cosmic comprehensible. His camera is not an appendage but an extension of himself--so intertwined with his existence of memory and thought. The barrier between life and art is gone. All that remains is a life.

But now McElwee seems to have gone too far.

He takes us to see one of his brother's patients--a middle-aged woman who has shockingly managed to deny that she has had a malignant growth on her left breast for two, maybe three, years. She insists it suddenly appeared a few months ago, but her doctor knows it has been there much, much longer. Despite the smell, the pain, the pain, the obvious size, she has somehow ignored it.

McElwee puts the medical slide of the gruesome tumor on the screen--not fleetingly--but for 72 seconds. After watching it uncomfortably, a viewer's natural reaction is to look away.

"The first time I saw it I was embarrassed for him," says Charleen Swansea, former teacher, friend, and soul mate of McElwee's. "It was as if Ross was naked on the screen; I thought he had made a grave mistake. But then somehow he pulled us through the horror to the other side."

And he does. As the hideous image lingers, McElwee's lyrical voice-over suggests that the denial of a huge tumor isn't really that astounding. After all, don't we humans deny the certainty of death every day in order to go on living? We know it is there waiting for us; but is it beneficial to constantly be aware of it? How, then, do you fall in love--have a family--when it only ends in absolute separation? Are not some aspects of our existence so daunting, so overwhelming, that to always acknowledge their presence would destroy us?

By the time the tumor dissolves from the screen, but not from the viewer's consciousness, it no longer represents the physical blight of a deluded woman. It is a metaphor for the degree of self-deprecation we all introduce into our lives in order to prosper, to be happy. To deny death, we understand, is to live.

Welcome to the world of Ross McElwee.

Images whir. A jungle of hanging reels of film, Red Sox ticket stubs, and an autographed photo of Burt Reynolds decorate a small claustrophobic basment office in the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard, where McElwee teaches filmmmaking. Child of the South and current Brookline resident, Ross McElwee is about to screen footage for his newest documentary, Six O'Clock News, scheduled for a spring 1995 release. He has chosen people involved in tragic and strange TV news segments, tracked them down, and tried to look at larger issues of chance, fate, and faith through their eyes. He dims the lights, turns on the massive metallic Steenbeck--a six-plate editing machine blending synchronized sound, film, and narrated sound within one twenty-fourth of a second--and begins. A Korean restaurateur attempts to understand the murder of his wife. Despite having met him only eight days before, he speaks with raw, frank emotion rarely shown in documentaries; not as if he were confessing to an intrusive instrument, but was conversing with a trusted friend.

And in a way, he is. He has been captured on film by McElwee, 47, whose rusty beard, soft Southern accent, and folksy smile inspire reassurance. McElwee's natural comfort zone has allowed him to catch startling images and to amke some of the most arresting nonfiction films in recent memory. He films his subjects naturally and draws universal truths from their situations.

"Maybe it's because I'm from the South, but I just try to listen to them, let them tell their story in their own way," McElwee says. "I'm not sure what it says about modern times, but it's really amazing how grateful people are to you if you just listen to them. A camera gives the individual a chance to stand out. At least for a little while."

Documentary. The word conjures up a respectful visual examination of historical events or wild animals, along with the occasional relevant social issue. Pictures appear, narration is provided; another picture appears, and a leading expert or histroical figure drones facts, personal anecdotes, and/or reminiscences. In an acronym, PBS.

But there is another type of documentary operating on the fringes of American culture. It's called cinema verite--the product of small, often solitary crews trying to seize reality on film. Rather than operating on a budget of millions, these auteurs scrounge up a thousand here, a thousand there, from foundations. Many of these filmmakers edit other projects or teach to make ends meet. With most of American moviegoers herded off to huge multiplexes showing the same eight blockbusters, distribution of their films is restricted to the rare independent theaters and to college campuses. In short, nobody gets into cinema verite for the money.

In its purest form, cinema verite lets the picture tell the story as an unbiased observer, providing none of the traditional documentary "voice of God" narration. The camera and its operator attempt to be as invisible as possible. If any voice is added, it tends to be in an unpretentious conversational style.

The genre also tends to be unpredeictable.

D.A. Pennebaker, one of its American founders, shot Norman Mailer's experimental film Maidstone, which includes a confrontation between Rip Torn and Mailer. Rip got carried away and beat Norman senseless with a hammer. A bloodied Mailer begged for help. Pennebaker kept on filming.

On a gray and dreary winter afternoon in the basement of Harvard's Sever Hall, McElwee hosts a gathering of some of the Boston-based contingent of alternative filmmakers. Along with students in McElwee's undergraduate filmmaking class, they're here to view a screening of Michel Negroponte's "Jupiter's Wife," a surreal account of the life of a former Central Park hansom cab driver, now homeless and living in the park. Negroponte--who teaches film at New York University--and McElwee are joined by Robb Moss and Alex Anthony, both area filmmakers. After the screening, students and established filmmakers comment and debate on how Negroponte might have executed a particularly difficult and crucial narration scene. Ideas ricochet around the room, interrupted only occasionally by the yelps of Anthony's baby.

That's what we do," McElwee says. "We screen each other's films, give advice and support, and write letters of recommendations for grants for each other. We know each other's children. It's a real sense of community."

That sense of community was born almost two decades ago a couple of miles up the road at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, under the tutelage of two American legends of verite, Richard "Ricky" Leacock and Ed Pincus. Leacock--instrumental in the creation of cableless cameras, recorders, and microphones allowing a camerman to film for hours without 200-pound cameras--is best known for his work on "Primary," and unnarrated 1960 film that captures the chaos, hysteria, and exhilaration of an American political campaign.

While Leacock was filming the world, Ed Pincus was filming himself--in excrutiating detail. Between 1971 and 1976, Pincus compiled hundreds of hours of film on his marriage, his infidelities, his dog, and acid trip, his friends (Leacock makes a couple of appearances), and his work. Eventually the edited hightlights emereged in 1982 as Diaries, a three-and-a-half hour memoir of his life.

The early seventies found Leacock and Pincus both teaching at MIT, where they met the aspiring young filmmaker from Charlotte, North Carolina. Ross McElwee had become interested in film when, while attending Brown University, he sat in on a student filmmmaking class at the Rhode Island School of Design. After graduating, in 1971, McElwee spent an unspectacular year at a Charlotte television station. He then headed to Paris, where he worked as an assistant to a photographer specializing in First Communion portraits. It was on a visit to the Cinematheque in Paris that McElwee determined to make filmmaking his vocation.

"I saw [Orson Welles's] Touch of Evil and was amazed," he recalls. "It sure beat taking pictures of Catholic kids. I decided then to do whatever it took to make films."

What that entailed was a month at a Stanford University filmmaking summer program and a year as an assistant cameraman for the fledgling Bill Moyers' Journal on PBS. Then McElwee headed for MIT.

"Ricky's work on Primary really influenced me," says McElwee. "He was capturing things with the camera that no one else was, and Ed's films excited me. Here was a way to document our world with a universality that could appeal to all people. There was nowhere else where you could work with these kinds of people. Nowhere since, either."

The MIT program quickly evolved into an aspiring alternative fimmakers' salon. Housed in a drafty and decrepit science building derisively labeled "the barn," students would learn the bare rudiments of camera and editing, then be sent out to make films with nominal guidance. Some would return with the strands of genius.

Moss, fellow Boston filmmaker and McElwee's regular Tuesday lunch partner, describes the camaraderie and chaos of the time.

"You were given a lot of equipment and told to go and do whatever you wanted and if that involved pointing the camera at your life, that was okay. Then you came back and all the students edited in the same room. I'd see Ross and Michel editing away behind a big cloud of smoke. We'd walk over, suggest different ways to cut a scene. The creative energy in that room was amazing. Looking back, it was completely insane but great."

Pincus recalls that he tried to ingrain his students with a sense of possibility and accessibility about film.

"Rather than teach them ny technique, I tried to impress on them that the camera could be used like any other artist's implement," Pincus says from his perch in vermont. "We told then to pursue the Latin phrase camera stilo, which means camera as pen. The camera could be used to express themselves."

That concept, camera stilo, is what McElwee brought to his films.

"It wasn't a technical approach I took away from MIT," says McElwee. "It was the urge to apply a personal vision of the world to film. Examine your own life and give it a universality that all people could draw from."

The life McElwee drew upon was that of an upper-middle-class kid in Charlotte. The son of a surgeon, McElwee remembers his childhood as uneventful, except that his uncles Fred and Nathan (affectionately nicknamed "Super-8 Nate") filmed McElwee's baptism as well as his first kiss and other furtive childhood endeavors. To today's vid kids making camcorder epics by the age of seven, this may not sound unusual. But to McElwee, a child of the fifties, it was strange and interesting.

"Looking back on what they filmed, they had an eye for good scenes," McElwee says. "My uncle Fred filmed his small lumber business and there is a real sens eof curiosity in what he filmed. They made me comfortable with film and interested in capturing life on it."

McElwee's adolescence became infinitely more interesting when he bagan hanging out at Charleen Swansea's house, which became a sanctuary for adolescent artist wannabes from different racial and economic backgrounds. Swansea--who had taken walks with an elderly Albert Einstein, had a friendship with Ezra Pound, and studied Dadaism--instilled a sense of possibility and wonder in McElwee and her other young friends.

"I tried to teach Ross and the others that outrageousness was appropriate," says Swanaea from her Isle of Palms home in North Carolina. "All of the kids including Ross were frustrated intellectuals. To have original ideas and also try to fit in socially in high school is impossible. At my house we all had a strong sense of family and community."

While at MIT McElwee decided to make his first feature-length film about Swansea's community. Returning to North Carolina in 1973, McElwee hung out with Swansea and her friends, blending his camera in as unobtrusively as possible. However, he got more than he bargained for. While the first 45 minutes of the hour-long film named Charleen is compelling--focusing on a charismatic teacher and artist in full bloom--the film's last 15 minutes record a personal tragedy.

"I actually thought I had finished filming when Charleen called and asked me to come over," McElwee recalls.

What Ross found was Swansea having a breakdown. After learning of a lover's infidelity, she had smashed panes of glass at his house with her hands. An emotional wreck, Swansea was recuperating at home after a stay in the hospital.

McElwee spent hours talking with his friend as she worked through her rage and grief. Sometimes the camera was on and sometimes it wasn't. In fact, Swansea says that some of the most moving conversations occurred when McElwee became so engrossed in their ralk he forgot to change film. What does appear in Charleen is a woman speaking to a friend about one of the most painful moments of her life in an articulate manner that anyone who has experienced similar pain immediately identifies with. You don't see the camera or sense its presence. What you see is a friend listening as a woman attempts to put her life back together after a catastrophe.

"To keep filming despite the situation required a ruthlessness," McElwee admits today. "You have to have the instinct to go for the jugular, to go for the shot no matter what is falling apart around you. Scenes like that are ones I stay up at night wondering whether I've gone too far."

After Charleen, McElwee went to make Backyard--a tentative look at his family that would lay the gorundwork for Time Indefinite--and Space Coast, and often hilarious account of the launching of rockets at Cape Canaveral. Both works show McElwee honing his ability to garner trust from his subjects--family or tourists--and to cadge them into speaking to a camera as freely as they would to a lunch companion.

"What Ross has is a remarkable ability to put people at ease with the camera," filmmaker Marilyn Levine says.

Levine shouls know. She is McElwee's wife and mother of their five-year-old son Adrian. Over the years, Levine has consented to McElwee's filming her doing everything imaginable from the mundane--moving day--to the personal--a trip to the gynecologist.

"I guess I have to trust him because he's my husband," Levine says with a laugh. "Ross has a quality about him the subconsciously tells you that he's not going to abuse you. He also has a fluidity about his use of the camera that is so subtle that it makes it seem like less of an imposition. He moves with a grace with the camera that is rare and wonderful."

Sherman's March is the film that brought all of McElwee's talents together.

"I initially wanted to make a film about [William Tecumseh] Sherman," he says. "I had this $9,000 grant and I was all set to retrace the path Sherman's army took through the South. Then the event that changed my life occurred."

McElwee's girlfriend dumped him.

Plunged into despair, some of it tongue-in-cheek, McElwee changed his plan. While loosely following Sherman's footsteps and his lingering impact on the South, McElwee went searching for the perfect girl. Over the course of five months, he filmed, among others,a sometimes pantyless actress in pursuit of Burt Reynolds; an Atlanta interior designer with whacked-out survivalist friends; an aspiring rock star with teased hair and an attack dog; and a mystical linguist living off the Georgia coast.

McElwee interspersed his filmed liasions with his own neurotic and humorous musings about searching for love in a South overrun, not by Sherman, but by convenience stores, fallout shelters, and a man obsessed with a camera. His own physical awkwardness and self-deprecating sense of humor alleviate any sense of pathos overwhelming his film. In one scene, McElwee stands over the Congaree River outside Columbia, South Carolina, and begins a ponderous discourse about Sherman. Just as the viewer begins to roll his eyes, McElwee walks away and majestically descends the river's slope out of camera range. The next sound you hear is the gawky McElwee falling ass over applecart through brambles. This personal fusing of the sensibilities of Mark Twain and Woody Allen produces a minor masterpiece on romance and relationships.

"I think what makes Ross able to connect with his subjects is [that] he was a nerd adolescent," says Charleen Swansea. "He has retained the strength and tenderness of knowing what it's like to not quite fit in. He also still has that childlike curiosity and sensitivity that allows him to get inside others without seeming invasive."

Sherman's March became an art-house hit in 1986 and turned McElwee into a reluctant star; or at least what passes for stardom in the world of documentary film. People Magazine labeled him the most "offbeat success story" of the year. Fan letters started pouring in. Hollywood came beckoning. But McElwee didn't move out to Los Angeles. Instead, he met Levine and fell in love. The charming loser from Sherman's March filming his triumphant marriage seemed like the perfect happy-ending sequel.

"I originally was going to make a film about getting married--the frivolity and profundity of it all. How my family reacted to it, how I reacted to it. It seemed like a great topic."

Then some terrible things happened. In a matter of weeks, McElwee's grandmother died, Levine had a miscarraige, and McElwee's father suffered a fatal heart attack. The trio of tragedies followed an eerie pattern: losing a loved one every 10 years. A younger brother drowned when McElwee was 17, ten years later his mother died, and now these traumas at 37. For a while, McElwee considered abandoning the project. Instead, he turned to a personal cinematic meditation on mortality. Filming one's pursuit of babes across the Southland was one thing, but filming your family talking about death seemed too morbis, too voyeuristic. Yet after much thought, he decided to proceed.

"Obviously, it wazsn't easy," McElwee says. "But much of my work is about bringing some larger meaning from personal experience. It's important for me not to violate the power I have with the camera on my shoulder. I approach who I'm interviewing with affection and empathy; if I can't, I move on. My family knows that I love them and [they] understand my work, so I guess they trust me."

Time Indefinite is awash in wrenching moments accentuated by a sprinkling of McElwee's sardonic wit and sense of the absurd. He listens to his family's stumblings about the father's death, then juxtaposes those with serene comments on death by the family maid of 30 years. A trip to see Swansea finds her coping with the suicide of her husband while somehow retaining her will to thrive. A fish flopping on a pier sets off McElwee's memory of the discussion on the meaning of life with his father on the same pier 40 years before--do fishes have souls? Footage of McElwee and Levine searching for a crib is interspersed with shots of a children's cemetery in Mexico. A return visit to his father's home finds McElwee trying to forget about death. Then the bug exterminators show up.

In a rare moment, the filmmaker directly addresses his own camera about the meaning of life and family. Just as he begins to get serious, McElwee speaks over his own voice and mocks his own pomposity. On his it goes, until the viewer understands that death is all around us, and that that is precisely why life is all the more important.

Just for a moment McElwee suspends his musings to indulge in a little fantasy. there's some talk that Time Indefinite will be nominated for an Academy Award in 1995. Would Ross McElwee head out to Tinseltown to collect the award?

"Oh yeah," he smiles. "I'd certainly go. And I definitely would bring my camera."


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