An Evening with Ross McElwee
On February 2 the IFC Center presented an evening with documentarian Ross McElwee as part of its “Stranger Than Fiction” series. McElwee, a transplanted southerner who now teaches at Harvard, is probably best known for his documentary “Sherman’s March” (1986). My personal favorite is his 2003 film “Bright Leaves.” The program consisted of two of McElwee’s earlier, lesser seen documentaries, “Charleen” (1980) and “Backyard (1984).” He was interviewed after each film by host Thom Powers. McElwee explained how these early films helped to develop his style.
McElwee’s films (which Powers pointed out are streamed on the Netflix website) come under the heading of “personal documentary.” His subjects are people in his life, himself included. McElwee explained that he felt that this autobiographical approach to filmmaking was the way for him to work as opposed to the more traditional method of making documentaries about well known people.
McElwee said that he tries to find heroism in every day life and that one’s subjects should have star quality. One person who certainly meets this criteria is McElwee’s former high school teacher Charleen Swansee who appears in quite a few of McElwee’s documentaries including the titular “Charleen.” As “Charleen” was made when McElwee was still a student he credits Charleen (no doubt her very strong and vivacious personality) as compensating for what the film may have lacked in terms of technical expertise.
McElwee said that while he is pleased with “Charleen” he found that he was not comfortable questioning his subjects from behind the camera while having them take the risk of appearing in front. As a result, in “Backyard” McElwee takes what would become his signature style further. He narrates the film in a humorous dead pan manner beginning to cultivate his film persona which he described as a “nerdy dufus.” He also appears in the film playing an out of tune piano and attempting to communicate, not too successfully, with his surgeon father. True to its title the film takes place in the backyard of McElwee’s parents’ home. The film deals with his brother leaving to go to medical school and with the racism inherent in southern culture that McElwee said he credits in part with his decision to move north.
One of the things that has always fascinated me about McElwee’s style is his choice to work as a one man film crew. He explained he did this to put his subjects at ease. Understand that this was in the days before the camcorder which one can operate easily to capture picture and sound. When shooting on film, picture and sound are recorded separately. McElwee had to operate and carry both a camera and tape recorder not to mention frequently changing film and tape. McElwee said that this approach made it difficult for him to concentrate on things such as shot composition and proper exposure. I had the opportunity to speak with McElwee after the screening and asked him how he managed to shoot in this manner. “It was a nightmare,” he told me. He said he hopes the roughness of his films are part of their gestalt. He told me that he now shoots in high definition…in other words he now uses a camcorder.