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Past Article

Ross McElwee's "Replication of Reality"
By Sean Axmaker
July 4, 2005 - 3:26 AM PDT

"A kind of force field."

First person documentarian Ross McElwee is not one to hide behind his camera. He tends to turn his lens on issues and people close to home, and even when he doesn't, they have a way of taking over. Case in point: Sherman's March. Ostensibly a historical documentary about the General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Civil War General who burned his way through Georgia as he marched on Atlanta, it becomes a meditation on nuclear war and McElwee's own love life. The camera becomes the intermediary between him and a series of eligible single women. That personal approach is just as strong in his latest documentary Bright Leaves, a film about the tobacco industry, smoking culture, and the lost McElwee tobacco legacy: his ancestor created the Bull Durham brand before he was bankrupted by a rival (that tale is fictionalized in the Hollywood film Bright Leaf [1950], albeit from a substantially different perspective). In between, McElwee muses on his relationship with his growing son.

Ross McElwee was the unofficial guest of honor at the First Person Festival, which marked the unofficial opening of the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle in 2004. Soft spoken and thoughtful, McElwee was a low key host who praised the Seattle audiences in general and the Film Forum in particular, entertaining his audiences before screenings of his films (and at one point during protracted technical difficulties) and smiling through his answers during the Q&A sessions afterwards. Between those sessions, he made time for an extended interview with me over some fine Northwest wine to discuss his career, his family, and why he makes movies the way he does.

Sean Axmaker: To be overly general, the documentary tradition is about making a case to an audience, persuading them to an idea. Your documentaries are more concerned with the process of investigation and asking questions, and in getting the audience to confront the questions themselves.

Ross McElwee: Just what they don't need, more questions. That's what I give them. [laughs] No, it's true. In no way do I attempt to propose what the solutions are to the various social issues that weave themselves through my films. I certainly didn't have any answers for nuclear weapons proliferation in Sherman's March and I didn't have any answers for violence in the media in Six O'Clock News, nor do I have any solutions for the deleterious effects of cigarettes posed in Bright Leaves. And yet, those themes all exist in those three movies, respectively.

When you really look carefully at documentary filmmaking, even filmmakers like Michael Moore don't actually propose answers; they just target the questions and then really make them salient. What your hope is, and I don't feel comfortable speaking for documentary filmmakers as a whole, but at least some of us hope that by raising some issues, other people will find the answers. Answers can't really be incorporated into these films as far as I know. I mean, in Harlan County, USA, for instance, I think it was clear that Barbara Kopple felt that the unions needed to be given what they were requesting from management and that would have solved the problem. So maybe that's an example of a film that actually did point directly to what the answer was, but I think that's more the exception than the rule in documentary filmmaking.

SA: You studied under Richard Leacock.

RM: Yes, at MIT.

SA: He was a significant force in cinéma vérité filmmaking, as a filmmaker and also as a cinematographer for the Maysles brothers and other people.

RM: And for Robert Flaherty. The direct line from Flaherty to the cinéma vérité revolution in the 60s was Ricky Leacock. Ricky was the cameraman on Louisana Story, which was one of Flaherty's last films.

SA: How did Leacock influence you as a filmmaker when you started to make films?

RM: I smiled when you said Ricky taught us. I think he taught by non-teaching. He was a very informal presence at MIT, to the point where he was often absent. But his absence represented something. He felt the most important thing to do was make films directly from your heart, from your passion, whatever that passion might be, and to not worry about targeting an audience or whether a film was acceptable by some kind of prevailing standards, i.e., the PBS definition of what a documentary should be. All his life, he fought against the expectations of what non-fiction film had to do in order to be justified. The series of cinéma vérité films that he produced for PBS called Living Camera, which I guess was the first television series that produced these kinds of documentaries back in the 60s, never showed one of his most famous films, A Happy Mother's Day, because it just didn't fall within their definition of what a documentary should be: it wasn't informative enough, it didn't have enough data.

Ricky was furious about that, and I think much of the rest of his career was spent battling the forces of film distribution, to make them realize that there were other ways to make films. You didn't have to have a certain formula, you didn't have to be a certain way. A Happy Mother's Day is a classic; it is one of the founding works of cinéma vérité, and yet it was never shown on television. So what Ricky instilled in me, and I think some of the other people who were there also in the graduate program, was a sense of irreverence for norms of non-fiction filmmaking and that sense of just following your passions. We would quarrel about voice-over. He was adamantly against the use of voice-over. He felt autobiographical filmmaking wasn't justified unless the author was someone very, very special.

He made a portrait of John Kennedy, for instance, called Primary [with Robert Drew, Albert Maysles and D. A. Pennebaker], Kennedy running against Hubert Humphrey in the Wisconsin primary of 1960. He made a portrait of Leonard Bernstein. He's made a number of portraits of extraordinary people, and I think he felt those were somehow really justified. The way that he made those films was that, even though they were of very famous people, he didn't interview them, he didn't film them in formal situations, he didn't film them doing the work that they were known for. He preferred to film them eating an orange, he preferred to film them playing with their children, he never had direct conversations with them. So he coupled these two fascinations - one was public figures, but filming them in a non-public context. He was inspirational to me in that way, in those ways that I just described.

SA: The very act of observing changes behavior. It's a basic principle of physics and it's even more applicable to filmmaking: putting the camera on people changes the way they behave.

RM: That's totally true. Fred Wiseman does say that, basically, people are going to be who they are despite the presence of a camera and sometimes it takes them a little bit longer to forget you are there. Even if they are trying to remember not to be themselves, they inevitably become themselves when enough time goes by. I think there is some truth to that. But I think that's it's also clear the camera does have an effect upon what it's filming. It is less likely to have an effect in pure cinéma vérité. In Fred Wiseman's form of cinéma vérité, where you can be six to ten feet away from whatever is happening, not asking questions, not interacting with people, people can, in fact, forget the camera is there to some degree, maybe even to a great degree. But if you're doing filmmaking the way I'm doing it, which is interacting with people as I'm filming - sometimes I'm not interacting but they always know there's the possibility I'll step in to interact - there's no way they are not aware the camera is there. But I think it's part of what provides my films with the little trickle of electricity that goes through them. People realize that there is a kind of tension between the act of my filming and the fact that the subjects are aware of the fact that I'm filming and that creates a kind of force field, when it's working properly, that also pulls the audience into the circle.

SA: In some ways it becomes another element of what your films are about because you basically confront the idea that you're filming them. I love that fact that all through Sherman's March, the subjects constantly bring up the fact that you are communicating from behind a camera.

RM: Right. Again, in the conventions of documentary filmmaking, those are the parts that you would cut out, but to me it seemed extremely important to allow those references to stay in. In fact, they provide that humorous subtext for the whole endeavor of trying to make a documentary film as a crew of one person, when you are also trying to relate to people who are your friends and lovers and family members.

SA: In fact, very specifically, a lot of your films always come back to your relationships, to the people in your immediate universe, your family and your friends. I think of Charleen Swansea, who is in almost everything you do, and is a wonderful presence. At the same time, does that effect the relationship? Does having that camera on these people in your films affect your relationship to them when the camera is gone?

RM: I don't think so. I mean, you're talking about family and close friends here for the most part. No. I'm trying to think of how it is when I'm filming my brother or Charleen. No, basically we are the same. I think with Charleen, one could say there's a heightened element of performance that clicks into gear the minute I pick up the camera, but she's performing all the time in a way. She's amazingly electric in her presence as a teacher and as someone in social situations and at dinners. She loves being the center of attention and she gives a lot from that vantage point. She's not just taking, she's giving, she's making people laugh, she's making people think, making people enjoy themselves. I think all of that gets heightened when I bring the camera into play, no doubt about it. Other people: my brother, my family members, I think there's really no effect upon me not filming them.

SA: I guess in some ways, at least with the family, it's not too different from families that pull out the video camera at Christmas.

RM: Yes, right. It's the gestalt of home movie making. I think I'm not as threatening because I don't have a crew. There is a chance I am just doing home movies, you never know for sure with me. And some of my home movies end up being incorporated into more public films, but there is no way to know for sure.

next >>>

"A kind of force field."
"Things are both a lot harder now but also a lot easier."
"It's happening all over the world."

back to past articles


Sean Axmaker
A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.

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