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Past Article

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

"Things are both a lot harder now but also a lot easier."

SA: Your films tell a story and the story tends to be your own journey of the making of your documentary. You reflect on your journey, you reflect on your understanding as you go through the journey. Does your edited film reflect the journey you made in any kind of chronological specificity, or do you work with things, do you move things around?

RM: Oh, I move things around. The beginning and the end of Bright Leaves are pretty much chronologically set and most of the mileposts in between are chronologically accurate, but there was also a lot of shuffling of scenes. It's not truly the true chronology of the experience of filming it, nor should there be any reason it has to be, as far as I can determine. Why does it have to be? As long as the basic arc of the film holds a kind of experiential accuracy, I think you can shuffle scenes and move scenes. At least that's what I've decided for my own filmmaking, to make the narrative point and make it engaging enough to pull the viewer in.

SA: You still film pretty much solo: camera on one shoulder, mike in the hand.

RM: Or lavalier mike.

SA: But still a separate recording source hanging on your hip. Isn't that incredibly cumbersome?

RM: Yes, in a word. [laughs] It's an archaic way to make films, it's very cumbersome, and I may not make another film in that style. Digital video technology is improving at such a rapid rate, especially high definition. The arrival of HD means that I really have to seriously consider what the next format will be. I never questioned the point when I was beginning Bright Leaves. I'd just shot the very first bit of footage for it in 1997. That was a long time ago, when there was no doubt that film was still totally superior, in terms of projection for audiences, over whatever was available to someone like me. George Lucas can mount some incredible technology to film Star Wars on something other than film and it will work, but as far as a one-person crew, film was still the way to go. And yes, it's extremely difficult to make films like that, because you are managing two separate technological components: the sound recording and the filmmaking gear. Both require your attention to some degree, depending on what's happening in front of the camera.

Also, there's the demand that you become the human being behind the camera relating to the people you're filming in some way. All of that makes this filming very, very difficult. You have to keep your energy level up, you have to be in shape physically to do it, and you know, as I get older, I just wonder if can continue to keep shooting film. But I think even more of an issue is whether funding will be available to buy the film stock and process it and go through all of that to justify the expenditure, or will I have to switch over to digital video. I suspect I will, but I'll be really sad if I have to.

SA: Well, there is a certain aesthetic quality to 16mm. You don't see much documentary being made in 16mm anymore.

RM: Bright Leaves was [shot in] Super 16. So that's why its quality is even better than 16.

SA: You see a lot on DV, or even other forms of video, even non-digital video. You also sometimes see 35mm. But 16mm seems to harken back to a very different age, era and aesthetic.

RM: Yes. You know, I watched the first minute or so of Sherman's March just now, and the straight 16mm is grainier than Super 16. I was sitting there looking at it going, "My gosh, this is kind of rough." But on the other hand, the grain structure has this kind of an effect on the viewer, or at least some viewers. It just creates a replication of reality that is quite different from the way video, with its lines, draws us in. And in fact, there's software that tries to mimic grain for video, and I think there is a reason for that. I'm not sure I could put into words exactly what that is, why that film has this attraction. I think it's more the fact that we're accustomed to it. And I would also say at this point in the history of media, you have a whole generation that's growing up basically not really seeing projected films. They're seeing films either as video tapes or they're accustomed to video gaming. So that whole notion of the chemical presence of grain on celluloid, or acetate, is just something that doesn't mean anything to a whole new generation of mediaphiles. It's just different; it has this kind of effect of luminescence that harkens back to some way of connecting to reality that I think is just different than the way video presents it. It's very hard to describe. I'm sure that people could do it better than I, but there is that quality that film has. And I'd be reluctant to give that up, yet inevitably, I think, most of us are having to go the way of digital video and I'll probably do my next film in some form of that. I don't know what that will be yet.

SA: As sort of an aside, I saw re-release of George Lucas's THX-1138 at the Cinerama and I was struck by its visual quality. After all these images of this antiseptic society, there's a cut in to Robert Duvall and Maggie McOmie as they start to make love. And the camera gets right in and you see grain on the film and you see every speckle on their head and every imperfection. And it struck me as exactly the opposite of what George Lucas does now. By going back and completely restoring this film, he restored the quality of grain and low budget filmmaking, capturing imperfection and celebrating it in a way that I haven't seen on film in ages.

RM: That's really interesting. To me, the things you are talking about are exactly what I love about the old cinéma vérité films and what I'm totally unapologetic about in my own work, that graininess and the hand held quality of the camera. I think it has a subconscious effect on the viewer. It makes the viewer realize there is something edgy and something that is not quite under control here and therefore I'm interested. You know, which is why reality television is so popular. It's a little bit out of control, although it's totally under control in one way, but the actual moments in which people are losing it, the contestants are losing it, or crying, even though some of it is performance, some of it also has this edginess because it is from some version of real life. People respond to that. That's why reality television is so popular.

SA: I think that the same case can be made, but on a sort of a flip side, with the film Capturing the Friedmans, where all that home video footage just feels so raw and so real and it's almost too intimate, it's too scary. And the fact that it was shot on a home video camera - you can relate to its reality in a way similar to your own home videos. You don't have the professional filter.

RM: That's right. Although interestingly enough, I think the intelligent thing that Andrew Jarecki realized was that there is no way you can make a film just from that material, because you could sit and watch that stuff for 90 minutes, so he went the other direction with a lot of it. It's very stylized, very beautifully shot, with tripod shots of lawn sprinklers and those kinds of things, shot in film to counterpoint the home video. I thought that was a very good decision. You can only watch so much of this horribly grainy terrible home video stuff. What I try to do is take the feel of the home video approach and elevate it slightly by using film and by practicing the rudiments of basic cinematography, competent cinematography, so that it enters kind of a medium range of not quite being home movies, but also certainly not being polished, tripod-shot non-fiction or fiction film. It's somewhere in between.

SA: When you talked about Space Coast [McElwee's 1979 film about the people who live around Cape Canaveral] at the Northwest Film Forum last night, you said that there were frustrations in making that film, that you needed to find your own direction. Was Backyard [1984] the solution?

RM: Yes, exactly. It's really the film that, for me, began this whole pursuit of autobiographical filmmaking and the particular style I evolved for myself. I think it's very simple. It's a short film; it's only 40 minutes long, but it's got a kind of purity that I don't even think my other films have at this point. They are trying to do so many things. It's a very simple film. And also it really works best as a projected film and not as a video, so I'm doubly excited for those reasons.

SA: So why would you say it works better as a projected film rather than a video?

RM: Because a lot of what it is trying to describe non-verbally is distances between people and spaces, even though it's limited to filming in my immediate house and the backyard of my father's house in North Carolina. A lot of it is about spaces and distances and silences, and I think there's a way in which it works on video for sure, but if you see it projected on a larger screen, I just think it achieves more of what I'd intended it to achieve when I shot it. It was a test run for making Sherman's March. It's not as if it achieved wide distribution, but it did have some public screenings and made me realize that, in fact, this notion I had of an authorial presence, the filmmaker sometimes appearing in front of the camera, frequently giving up his subjective interpretation of what's happening, and also stepping back from what's going on and simply observing, that this had possibilities. It occurred to me to go ahead and try something more ambitious. Sherman's March was that more ambitious project. But Space Coast is a film that I love and am very happy to have made. It's a film that has had its own life; it played at some European festivals and was shown at the Whitney Museum. It got seen, it got its fair share of applause. But it still seemed too, in a way, derivative of Fred Wiseman and the whole school of cinéma vérité. I really wanted to break out and do something different. So Backyard was my experiment in that direction.

SA: Sherman's March was a breakthrough in finding an audience for that approach. I saw it in Eugene, Oregon, when it came out, a small college town, and the film came there for a theatrical run.

RM: It was a phenomenon. I was the last person on Earth to expect it to be as successful as it was. It played in hundreds of art houses around the country for weeks. It played in New York for three months. It was just amazing. If course, I think part of it was that, at that point, there simply weren't that many films out there that were independently produced, and certainly not any independently produced documentaries. The whole notion of independent filmmaking was being born at that point, and so it had a kind of freshness. Also its humor, its comic qualities, I think, helped it find an audience too. Now it is just so much more difficult to claim theatrical space in art house cinemas because there are so many films vying now for those screens. But on the other hand, we also have what we didn't have back then, which is VHS and DVD distribution. That didn't exist, really, when Sherman's March was released. VHS distribution was in its infancy. It's really quite wonderful that these films can now be recycled as many times as necessary for the people who are interested. It's not unlike jazz recordings, where people can really latch on to particular genre of jazz or a particular set of performers that they really like and make that their specialty. I think it's enabled a lot of filmmakers to find their niche in a way that wasn't possible back in 1980. So it equals out, and I keep thinking that things are both a lot harder now but also a lot easier.

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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view past articles

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