Six O' Clock News


ROSS McELWEE AT WORK

An Interview With Ross McElwee
By Gil Hahav The Harvard Advocate  Spring,1994

Traditional cinema provides viewers with a portrait of fictitious persons and places that often is made relevant to spectators only by their concerted and creative efforts to understand the filmmaker's intentions. As an alternative, documentary film entered the world of popular cinema early in this century using the images and stories of real life as its subject--which thus became that much more grounded in life itself and arguably more "accessible." But the subjects of these films were still apart from the life of the filmmaker; that is, they still stood as removed, intermediary objects of experience between the filmmaker and the viewer.

In his essay "The Documentary Gets Personal," the filmmaker and Harvard professor Alfred Guzetti chronicles the development of a radical type of cinema that expanded its scope to include those materials unaccounted for even by documentary. "It was the American avant-garde of the 1950s," he writes, "that took the first real steps toward a personal cinema...[with] film diaries [and recorded images of the filmmaker's]...immediate physical and family surroundings." Thus innovative filmmakers sought to personalize their subject, developing a genre the French would christen "cinema verite" (literally, "truth cinema").

Many filmmakers, according to Guzetti, criticized the dominant cinema (to which cinema verite offered a sharp contrast) for obstructing "the path to critical reflection by effacing the act of authorship, the circumstances of production, and the ways in which film is part of the world it portrays." In response to this conspicuous omission, cinema verite built upon foundations of documentary film by adding images from the filmmaker's actual experiences.

Several factors enabled this new movement in film to become both prolific and popular. Of great significance was the development of the lightweight camera and the synchronous audio-cassette recorder, which together made it possible for a single person to make a film and include whatever personal details he deemed film worthy. Moreover, several political and social developments made such intimate film more widely accepted. Explains Guzetti:

[A]s the American opposition to the
Vietnam War and the campaign for civil
rights peaked, the debates about politics,
power, and values widened to include a
realm previously thought of as personal.
Under the attacks of the women's
movement, the distinction between the
personal and the political gave way.

This collapse of boundaries, in turn, gave filmmakers license to use their own lives as vehicles for conveying large truths, for making statements that might transcend the purely personal.

Guzetti observes that this movement in film was mirrored in literature, with poets like Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop writing what is sometimes called "confessional peotry" and with other writers like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe experimenting by placing authorial personae at the center of their nonfiction.

Enter Ross McElwee, a contemplative filmmaker who focuses on the people and events of his life and adds a new dimension to cinema verite by including a stream-of-consciousness voice-over to accompany nearly every image in his films. In his latest film, the celebrated Time Indefinite, the open narrations range from despondent to humorous, and they enable the viewer to become intimately acquainted with his witty and captivating world view. At the most successful moments of his films, his narrations combine with images and sounds to suggest what it might be like to enter McElwee's consciousness and experience the world as he does. In Sherman's March, for instance, the viewer fairly accompanies McElwee on his itinerant search for love. Commenting on the uniqueness of McElwee's art, Stanley Cavell, a professor of philosophy and aesthetics at Harvard, says, "You have to find a new set of cinematic categories to capture the clarity of his films."

THA: A question that, implicitly and explicitly, pervades Time Indefinite is how to deal with our mortality and that of those we love. In what ways, if any, has filming those you love helped you to cope with or to accept their mortality?

McElwee: One of the conclusions I draw towards the end of the film--an obvious conclusion perhaps--is that one never really comes to terms with the death of a loved one, but one can learn to move on from that point and to find joy and satisfaction in other aspects of living--in my case, it was finally having a son of my own. The pain isn't exactly assuaged by this event, but it helps one to move on. The filmmaking itself, in its attempts to confront death directly, to somehow paint it into a corner, turns out to be just another denial of death--a way of distracting the filmmaker from dealing with death and then getting on with life. That's why I think the chapter of the film that deals with Lucille and Melvin's fiftieth wedding anniversary is important. I think the viewer, not to mention the filmmaker, takes a particular delight in observing the intricacies of the wedding preparation, and the humor and happiness that surround the event. The images of family are not meant to suggest salvation, exactly. But they do perhaps offer a sign of hope.

THA: What did filming Sherman's March teach you about love and the process of looking for it?

McElwee: I'd never presume to make a pronouncement concerning what I think relationships between men and women are all about. I think it's abundantly clear, from Sherman's March , that I myself, haven't a clue--at least at that point in my life. I guess the one lesson I might have garnered from the experience of making Sherman's March was that true love, whatever that is, was unlikely to present itself as long as I was determined to track it down with a camera, and the audience knows this. But the humor of this knowledge, this audience one-upmanship, is one of the reasons why the film works--at least for most people who see it. In general, I'd have to agree with the philosophy stated in innumerable Broadway songs that love is likely to strike when you least expect it. That was certainly the case with me and Marilyn, my wife. And from then on, it's a matter of redefining what love means as you stay with someone.

THA: In general, how was the act of filming someone changed your relationship to that person?

McElwee: It totally depends upon which person you're referring to when you ask this question. But for me, generally speaking, filming someone--especially someone I know well--has the paradoxical effect of both distancing me slightly from that person while also leading me in many cases to probe more deeply my relationship with that person, to go into areas of inquiry or experience where I might not otherwise go. For instance, with my brother, a surgeon, I might well never have had the conversation I had concerning my father's death had I not filmed it. There's a way of avoiding such discussions in the South, and it's quite likely we'd never have attempted to discuss my father's death in any detail had I not wanted to film.

THA: Do you, or the other people you film, ever feel objectified or commodified--reduced to images destined for viewer consumption?

McElwee: To answer this question honestly, you'd have to ask people who have been filmed by me. As for myself, I can say that, on some level, I have felt at times oddly objectified by being the subject of my own films. It's at times a little awkward. When I've accompanied my films to festivals or openings, I've had this odd sense that people feel they know me, that they have me typed in a certain way. Perhaps it's similar to what actors feel when they appear in public. At times it's disconcerting, but how can I complain? No one's forcing me to make these self-reflexive films. And by and large, people are quite respectful. But they are curious, and they do ask questions in writing and in person that they certainly wouldn't ask other strangers. As for other people who appear in the films, my hope is that they do not feel they've been reduced to images destined for viewer consumption, as you say. I try to render people's lives with as much complexity and--when appropriate--affection as I can, which I hope prevents people from being reduced to mere images or symbols. I think this problem is much more prevalent on television news shows, where you have-types--the welfare mother, the flood victim, and so on--described in a few brief strokes, in a sound bite or two.

THA: Would you describe your films as solipsistic or self-reflective?

McElwee: I hope my work can be described as being more self-reflective than solipsistic. Solipsism is, of course, the great danger of working in this genre. But I try to avoid the pitfalls of solipsism by using as much humor as I can muster--often self-mocking humor--so that we don't take the solipsistic view of the filmmaker too seriously. And I also try to make my films open up to the world at large by allowing other people to occupy to screen, to have important roles in the film. What I try to do is establish an oscillating rhythm of sorts that moves from immersion in the outside world, with its never-ending and fascinating panoply of real-life people and events, to self-immersion and reflection upon my interactions with those people and events. It's difficult to sustain that rhythm, and I'm sure I periodically lapse into too much of one or the other. But I try to keep something of an equilibrium.

THA: When did you realize that you wanted to make films, and in particular cinema verite films?

McElwee: I became interested in the filmmaking process during my senior year at Brown, when I enrolled in still photography classes at the Rhode Island School of Design, which adjoins Brown's campus. I think I gradually began to think of myself more as a RISD student; I certainly spent most of my time there. I was particularly interested in watching the student fimmakers edit their work. I couldn't get into any of the filmmaking courses for various bureaucratic reasons, but I was very taken with the process. I'd also seen some interesting documentaries at Brown--films by Fred Wiseman and Richard Leacock--and the simplicity and rough-hewn quality of their work somehow must have lodged in my consciousness, because when I learned that Leacock was heading up a new documentary program at MIT, I thought that might be a good place for me to learn filmmaking. I applied and was accepted and I guess I've been more or less on the same course ever since.

But I should also say that while at Brown I took two courses and independent study with John Hawkes, a novelist who teaches literature and creative writing there. I was very influenced by his course and by his writing and by his emphasis on developing a voice in writing. For a while I was quite certain I wanted to become a fiction writer. I had entered college declaring my primary interest to be creative writing. And though I long ago abandoned any desire to try to make a living writing fiction, I suspect that some of what I learned and what I was interest in then has somehow leaked into my work through my attempts to apply a layer of subjective, meditative, highly personal narration to portions of my films--something not traditionally associated with documentary filmmaking. The narration is meant to affect the way viewers respond. It's meant to somehow lure them into my own psychological space.

THA: Beckett suggests in Waiting for Godot that life is just how you pass the time before you die. Do you find that filming your life hastens the passage of time or does it slow down? Does filming life make you more or less conscious of its brevity?

McElwee: For the most part, it's hard to argue with Beckett about that. I'd have to say that filming my life neither slows it down nor speeds it up. If anything, having filmed my own life does set up an odd syncopated duality between my present and my past. A kind of schizophrenia sets in as I edit, or perhaps "retroprhrenia" would be a better word-- but, at any rate, an odd sense of looking back from one present tense to what seems to be another very vivid present tense, the world as apprehended by the filmmaker a few years earlier with a cinema verite approach to his filmmaking.

As I neared the completion of Sherman's March, I kept thinking, that can't be me pursuing those women so haplessly. It was really as if I were watching the escapades of a younger sibling, someone who was like me perhaps but was not me. It was eerie at times. In The World Viewed, Stanley Cavell writes about the phenomenon of the child trying to understand the statement "This is your grandmother" upon being shown a photograph of the grandmother. At first the child does not accept that statement. Clearly, the photo is not the grandmother but rather a representation of the grandmother. The child is, for a day or week or whatever, baffled by this statement. But then one day, mysteriously, the child suddenly accepts the convention of that statement. Cavell asks what causes the child to suddenly accept the convention. That's a little of what it's like to work on an autobiographical film like this--at least for me. I'm constantly having to deal with the paradox of the footage not really containing "me," whatever that is. And yet it is me, or some version of me, dwelling in its own present tense--the present tense of the film--quite apart from the "me" that's editing that film. And, of course, the same was true with Time Indefinite. I couldn't even begin to edit that material, especially the material that dealt with my father's death, until several years after his death. And by then I was a father myself. Life had moved on and I had moved with it, but still I needed to reoccupy the personal past tense in order to re-create a present tense for the film. So while filming my life neither accelerates time nor slows it down for me, it certainly does lend a strangely disjointed sense to its passage.

THA: How do you decide what to say in your narrations?

McElwee: Occasionally I take notes on location, so to speak. An idea about something I've just filmed might pop into my head and I'll jot it down on a scrap of paper. But ninety percent of my writing is done ex post facto. After a certain point in the editing process, I begin editing with a word processor and a tape deck on the table beside me. I watch the footage and type out various responses to it. I then make sound recordings of the narrations and play them back as the scene runs. If it seems to work reasonably well, I record the narration in a narration booth, transfer the recording to 16mm magnetic stock, and cut it into my sound track. That all sounds very methodical and straightforward, but in reality it's excruciating for me to write my narrations. Partially because some part of me still resists doing it. Coming from a tradition of cinema verite, I still feel slightly queasy every time I narrate during one of my films. This is, after all, film; one feels the strong compulsion to let the images tell their own story. And in fact I try to let that happen as much as possible in my films. But then I have to remind myself that I am trying to do something different from classical cinema verite and that my approach to exploring other possibilities for the genre has to do with subjective writing. And so I return to the word processor. But it's very painful, trying to find the balance between whether I've said too much or not enough. I go through literally hundreds of pages of typed drafts and dozens and dozens of recorded versions of the narration track before I finally accept a version that works for me. It seems that it shouldn't be so difficult: after all, nothing I'm saying is terrifically complicated; there's no poetry of complicated syntax to wrestle with. Yet it takes me forever to get it right. I'm not sure why I find the writing much more difficult than the editing of the picture.

THA: Throughout Time Indefinite , you film what many would consider to be private or intimate moments. What makes you decide not to film certain subjects or events?

McElwee: I suppose there's some undefined rule of restraint, of discretion, a sense of wanting to challenge the viewer but not wanting to alienate the viewer. I found there were certain moments from my own life I simply couldn't film, for various reasons: my honeymoon, my father's funeral, the birth of my son. I can easily imagine another filmmaker filming such moments in various ways--it's been done. But for whatever reason, I chose not to do so. With Sherman's March it never seriously occurred to me that I should film, say, myself in bed with any of the women who appear in the film. It seemed that it would be the gesture of an exhibitionist to do so. But there are certainly a number of "personal" documentaries that have included such footage. And there are moments in Time Indefinite where I may step over the line. People have said they were very disturbed by the footage of the mastectomy patient in Time Indefinite. But I felt that this footage had to be in the film.

THA: Because the viewers of your films see, hear, and practically think everything that you do as you make your films, they virtually experience the phenomena of your consciousness. What do you think of virtual reality?

McElwee: Well, the difference between what I'm trying to do in inviting the viewer to occupy my life for a while and what virtual reality tries to accomplish, is that I do not cede to the viewer control of the film narratively, spatially, or psychologically. The viewer is along for the ride, and I guess you could say the ride takes place in "close quarters" but I maintained control. In virtual-reality environments, as I understand them, the thrill is that the viewer is in control, at least in the advanced versions of the technology. You can enter the door to the left or the door to the right or fly over the doors if you so desire. You certainly don't have that ability as a viewer of one of my films. Interactive cinema, like the kind of being developed at MIT's Media Lab, is a variation on this theme. The viewer is allowed to choose between numerous plot developments in seeing a fiction film, or to learn more about a specific area seen in a documentary film, merely by touching the screen and opening a window into this new area. This technology is all very seductive, but ultimately I guess I'm not all that interested in exploring it, at least for now. There's something about the engaged passivity of movie-going that still appeals to me. I like ceding the decision-making to the filmmaker when I go to see a film. Life is too full of decision-making as is. The authored story has been around since Homer. I think it is, in either fictional or nonfictional form, still a valid concept.

THA: In Time Indefinite, you describe yourself as "Monet with a movie camera." but aren't you also an actor? If not, then how do you prevent yourself from "performing" for the films of which you are the subject?

McElwee: I don't exactly prevent myself from "performing" in my films. My monologues are performances of a sort. My interactions with people as I am filming are a kind of performance, a way of behaving that has to be somewhat different than if I were not filming. It's strange--I've never had any desire to try acting. I never tried out for high school plays or the like. It's just never been of interest to me. But I began to realize with Backyard and even more so with Sherman's March that what was required of me was, in fact, a kind of muted performance based upon what was going on in my "real life" at the particular moment of my filming--not all that different from my "real" self, whatever that was at the time, but still somewhat different. "Performer" isn't quite the word; perhaps it's more of a persona that I'm evolving in the films. But I think the trick has been not to allow the persona to deviate too much from the context of the filming, to keep the credibility of the persona intact, which means allowing it to arise from the realness of the situation sparked by the filming.

THA: How do you conceive of the relationship between life and art?

McElwee: I view the relationship with a certain amount of irony and humor, since in this form of filmmaking life and art are so messily intertwined. As a filmmaker lured into this form of filmmaking, I often find myself falling into the crack between my films and my life. I allude to this in the films themselves. But on another level, I guess I would hope that my films, representing a direct intersection of "art and life" as they do, provide a heightened awareness of the complexity of life, the fragility and yet the durability of life as it's passed on from generation to generation. I would hope that my films might say something about universally shared hopes and fears of all kinds--philosophical, political, psychological, metaphysical. It's also important for me that I try to convey humor, something of a comic and ironic take on life. Life is so hard. Laughter's so important. That's one reason why people love movies so much. Cartoons, Hollywood comedies. Laughter does have that power to remove us, to transport us. We relish that--I do, at any rate. So if my films can also manage to make people laugh, then this makes me very happy.


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