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
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
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
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