Register Wednesday | June 26 | 2019

The Great American Documentarist

You should get to know Ross McElwee

Documentaries have left the ghetto for good, so why don't more people know about Ross McElwee's wonderful movies? Probably because McElwee still works in an intimate, individualist style, usually in a crew of one (he calls it "a sherpa mode of filmmaking"), and favors the personal over the political and the ordinary over the sensational. Thank goodness for his discretion, which has yielded films of rare dignity and elegant humor-indeed, some of the best nonfiction cinema ever produced in America.

Now that it is safe to accuse documentaries of having become crass, commercially self-interested and formulaic-mainstream, in other words-a McElwee survey seems like much-needed refreshment. His movies are not an acquired taste; they are palatable immediately, and The Ross McElwee DVD Collection, a recent arrival from First Run Features, makes an irresistible feast of six of McElwee's best works (plus some extras).

McElwee is an eloquent diarist who roams with his camera on purposeful odysseys, openly in search of his own story while welcoming the characters and events he encounters en route with affectionate curiosity. He takes his time to get where he's going, and the results are like artful home movies. In Backyard, a short subject from 1984, McElwee explains in his narration that he had set out to make "a film about the South, which for me meant making a film about my family." McElwee's emphatically first-person filmmaking always illuminates universal themes; a pattern he has sustained throughout his career.

It helps to have a lightness of touch like that displayed in McElwee's soft-spoken, self-deprecating narration, in which he achieves a balance of "regular guy"-ness and sly style that can't be faked and probably shouldn't be imitated. A typical sample of narration from 1986's Sherman's March sounds like this: "It's three in the morning and I can't sleep. I keep wondering how I should've responded to Pat's comment about not wearing any underpants. I mean, that's not like telling someone that you're not wearing any socks. Also, I've begun having my dreams about nuclear war again."

That film, which put McElwee on the map, begins as a high-minded effort to retrace General Sherman's infamous warpath during the Civil War, but before long the director reports, "It dawns on me that I have somehow wandered into the very cradle of southern womanhood." Fresh from a breakup, the bemused McElwee abandons his original plan and records instead an annotated parade of wonderful women, bringing relief to his anxieties about being a bachelor in a world which at any moment may be subjected to a nuclear holocaust. His tone, at once carnal and courtly, is well controlled and just right for the material.

McElwee's tonal control has allowed him to remain ethically serious without lapsing into polemic self-indulgence. 2004's Bright Leaves, his most complex work, began when a film-buff cousin told McElwee that his great-grandfather-the creator of Bull Durham cigarettes and a rival of James B. Duke-was the subject of the Gary Cooper movie, Bright Leaf (1950). McElwee investigated, turning in a funny, rueful personal essay on family lore, the legacy of the tobacco business, and what he calls "the narcotic effect" of filmmaking.

Filmmaking is among McElwee's great subjects, along with love, life and death. He confesses in 1993's Time Indefinite that "over the last fifteen years, I've edited and reedited this footage I've shot of my family, used it in various films I've made. But now I wonder if this just hasn't been a way of fondling the footage, trying to massage it back to life." Through his sense that places, people and ideas-however palpable-are fleeting, McElwee achieves a dreamlike, cinematic purity. In narration he often discusses his dreams with the hope that they will help him unpack the images and ideas he has accumulated in filming the life around him. That it is a life fraught with uncertainty but somehow always appears inviting is not a delusion or a trick; it's simply McElwee's willingness to look carefully.

One of this collection's deepest pleasures is McElwee's use of the recurrent, familiar characters who enrich his films with their with age and experience-like McElwee's friend and former teacher Charleen Swansea, whose vivacity and poetic southern wisdom make her a muse for the ages. Or his son Adrian, who becomes a poignant figure simply by growing up in front of his father's camera. Or McElwee himself, whose humane inquisitiveness only becomes more companionable as he becomes more familiar.

Michael Moore once appealed to McElwee for advice on making his film Roger & Me (1989). McElwee has said that Moore never wound up taking the advice, but in a crucial way he did follow the McElwee example-by becoming his own main character. That technique, combined with Moore's impulse to ruffle feathers, has helped to elevate the cultural clout of all documentaries. Nonfiction films today may finally have earned the privilege of immediate name recognition, but they've also become bluntly high-concept. Perhaps the trade-off to gaining mainstream acceptance is some erosion of subtlety-think of how easy it is to sum it up any recent popular documentary in only a few words. By contrast, McElwee's movies are deliberate marvels of nuance; they defy sound-byte descriptions. He made Six O' Clock News in 1997-a time, he says, when "documentaries, which are more or less films about reality, [were] actually not considered by most people to be real films."

McElwee's works flow with empathy and rhapsody-critics have likened him to Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor. Would it go too far to call him a modern Whitman?. He seems to understand that styles and stances will date themselves, and accordingly he makes movies about the simplest, most enduring stuff. Today McElwee seems like the truest compass we could ask for in a filmmaker, nonfiction or otherwise.
Jonathan Kiefer is Maisonneuve's film flaneur. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Jonathan Kiefer.