by Anne S. Lewis
Ross McElwee is a "personal" documentary maker, that self-described obsessed guy with a camera on his shoulder, who takes us along with him as he simultaneously lives and shoots his autobiography. For instance, we were there, feeling a bit out-of-place perhaps, as he dated his way through his Southern homeland in 1986's Sherman's March, his most widely distributed film, and we've been there, as well, as he and his camera have tried to make sense of the myriad life crises and milestones he's encountered -- deaths in the family, marriage, miscarriage -- questing for answers to the unanswerables. In Six O'Clock News, the 1997 film that he's bringing to Austin as part of the Texas Documentary Tour on Wednesday, February 17, McElwee, now a dad, tilts his camera at yet another of life's windmills: How does a parent come to grips with this dangerous, unpredictable world we live in?
When they were at home with their newborn son, McElwee and his wife, Marilyn Levine, found themselves watching more television, the filmmaker explains in his signature thinking-out-loud voiceover, and paying more attention to the news. A baby toy bleating a joyous "It's a Small World After All," then a cut to the living room television set, cacaphonically bleating the evening news' report of whatever mayhem and random violence have disrupted the peace that day outside the nursery. What parent hasn't been staggered by how much more dangerous the world suddenly appears once baby makes three? McElwee has to wonder what lulled him into to believing, all those years before becoming a dad, that the world was a safe and predictable place and that bad things happened only to other people.
Finding himself unable to shake certain images of human suffering that he sees on the news, McElwee grabs his camera and embarks upon a road trip to seek out the people behind the newscast footage. Unlike his prior autobiographical films, McElwee explains, Six O'Clock News is a look out at the world, to see how others deal with catastrophe and tragedy. "I wanted the film to be an odd kind of connect-the-dots portrait of the U.S. as seen through a series of portraits made through local TV news broadcasting," McElwee said, adding that he uses the television set in the film as a window from which he spots someone and then passes through to enter that person's world. His camera is aimed outward now, but the guy with the camera on his shoulder is still our narrator and one-man film crew, and we observe and contemplate each of these survivor's experiences through his quirky, stream-of-consciousness prism, asking -- always -- the elusive meaning-of-life questions.
So first we pay a visit to McElwee's longtime friend and spiritual advisor Charlene, a recurring subject in McElwee's films. The island off the coast of South Carolina that she lives on has just been hit by a hurricane. Charlene, at a low point -- she's lost a husband to suicide, a home to fire, and now the weather -- gives voice to that universal parental second thought: If she'd known how little control we actually have over our lives, she would never have chosen to become a parent.
Six O'Clock News
Watching the nightly news in a Mississippi motel room, McElwee's attention is next drawn to the painful TV image of Steve Im, a Korean immigrant left to raise his three children when his wife was brutally murdered at her wig shop during a robbery -- which netted $44. So we're off to Arkansas to meet Im and see how this victim of random violence is faring one year later. I won't ruin the surprise of what he discovers there, other than to say that this segment was McElwee's favorite, because of Im's "particularly American way of resurrecting his life."
At the end of McElwee's catastrophe trail -- something of an inversion of the old Charles Kuralt road trips -- talking to survivors of earthquakes and tornadoes, we've bunked in a number of kitschy, TV-equipped motels, including a tepee at an Arizona wigwam village, and even found ourselves, ironically, competing with the cameras and mikes of local TV reporters covering the same bad news. But still, we're short of epiphanies. So now we come full circle back to Charlene, whom we revisit on a sunny afternoon, as she chirpily prepares for a visit from her first grandchild. So much for her earlier pessimism -- she's clearly moved on. Maybe that's the answer.
McElwee, who is now 51, studied film at MIT, and teaches film production at Harvard, says he was influenced by the cinema vérité style of filmmakers Frederick Wiseman, Richard Leacock, and Ed Pincus. He describes his unscripted one-person-crew style of filmmaking -- he's the cameraman, interviewer, and sound recorder -- as having roots in cinema vérité but having gone beyond that genre when he added his own narration and presence in the film, two elements that would be anathema to the vérité school.
His old friend, Charlene, attributes McElwee's success in connecting with his subjects to his having been "a nerd adolescent" -- knowing what it was like not to fit in -- and to having retained the childlike curiosity and sensitivity that allows him to get inside others without seeming invasive.
Austin Chronicle: So you really just turn the camera on and start filming, with no idea of what your subjects are going to say?
Ross McElwee: Absolutely no idea. I've chosen not to do the kind of scripting, researching, or location pre-scouting that many documentary makers do because I feel you lose spontaneity and make people who are not actors feel as if they have to act.
AC: Your narrations are also unconventional, more like essays than narration of the visual footage, aren't they?
RM: The narration is my reaction to what's happening. People are getting two versions of reality: what they're seeing on the screen -- the visual reality -- and my interpretive voiceover of what's being seen. I'm not telling them how to interpret what they're seeing but rather how I'm interpreting it. There's a difference. In a conventional nonfiction film the narrator tells the viewer how to interpret what's happening on screen. What I'm doing -- for better or worse -- is much more subjective, more personal. I'm very interested in the juxtaposition of the highly subjective in terms of my opinion -- who am I? I'm just the guy behind the camera, yet I'm offering up my opinions of what's happening in the world I'm filming -- with objectively gathered images from the real world, not the fictional world. I think the juxtaposition of those two things has the potential to be interesting.
AC: Your narratives seem so unscripted and spontaneous, just like this conversation we're having now. How do you compose these narrations?
RM: Creating my narration is an excruciating process for me; I'm not sure why. It takes me dozens of written drafts, followed by dozens of recording sessions, followed by dozens of editing sessions (in which the cadence and context of the voiceover is actually cut into the track to be played with the image and the sync sound) before I have something that seems to work for me. I would never make it as a TV news reporter, that's for sure. I occasionally jot down ideas for narrations while on a shooting location but almost all of the voiceover narration is created in the editing room, months later.
I also don't use music tracks in my films, which is unusual. I think I let my voiceover narration do what music often does, which is provide a reinforced way of engaging the audience.
AC: Did you succeed in Six O'Clock News in what you were trying to do?
RM: Pretty much. Sometimes, it's too rambling and I'm not sure I ever really completely cause the personal (as in my autobiographical presence in the film) and the public elements (the events we watch on the news) to coalesce as well as they should. But when you think about these films, they're all going to be somewhat sloppy in a sense because they're not highly controlled. They're essays but also sketches and from the point of view of having finished an essay or a sketch, I'm pretty pleased. Four months after I've finished, I always see things that I wish I'd done differently -- I never think they're as good as they could have been. But, as Charlene says, you have to move on. I torture myself enough as it is, taking two or three years to finish one of them, enough is enough, bring on the next.
AC: Are there pitfalls in using yourself as a subject?
RM: Solipsism and self-indulgence. I rely upon humor -- self-deprecating humor -- to keep the protagonist from taking himself too seriously. But I'm still not sure I'm maintaining the balance between seriousness and solipsism so I have these pre-release screenings and get feedback from audiences. But, in general, it's very difficult; one may often assume something will be interesting to others but, actually, it's deadly boring to them. And certainly there's no consensus that I'm totally successful in avoiding these pitfalls. I'm sure there are people out there who think I shouldn't be doing this kind of filmmaking.
AC: At various points in the film, someone always asks you when you're going to stop filming yourself and make a "real film." Is this a question you keep asking yourself?
RM: Well, that's always the question, isn't it? These little nonfiction essays, as you call them, and that's what they really are, are entertaining but they're very hard to make. They take a long time to complete, the audience will be small compared to even well-distributed independent fiction films -- so why keep doing this, why keep torturing yourself with this? It's also very hard to make these films alone. It's a psychological and physical and logistical struggle to get them done. Why not make a real movie? Well, that' s a valid question, one my father used to ask, especially as I get older and it gets harder to justify making these films while trying to support a family. I think there are wonderful things fiction can do, and I'm drawn to it like most of the under-50 population of U.S. who are writing scripts now. But, on the other hand, I'm doing this kind of film for which there is an audience out there. And there's the satisfaction of doing it my way from start to finish without large committees of people telling me what to do or how to shape what I'm trying to do -- there's a real pleasure in all of that. I love shooting; I love editing. Just enough people do seem to appreciate my films that it's sufficient encouragement for me to do the next one. But when the funding's not there and when the audience is gone, I'll quit. I'm not an idiot; I'll find something else to do.
AC: So did you find any answers in Six O'Clock News?
RM: Well, I wanted the film to reflect upon unanswerable questions like the existence of God, purpose of life, the whole question of mortality. The film's conclusion is that conclusions are very hard to draw but that life goes on, and one needs to keep going on with it -- which is also the conclusion of Sherman's March. That's one of the things that all my films keep emphasizing; just move on to the next step, move on to the next stage.
Six O'Clock News will be presented as part of the Texas Documentary Tour on Wednesday, February 10 at the Alamo Drafthouse, at 7 & 9:30pm; tickets for both shows go on sale at 6pm. Admission is $5 for the general public; $3.50 for Austin Film Society members and students. Ross McElwee will introduce the film and conduct a Q&A session after each screening. The Texas Documentary Tour is a co-presentation of the Austin Film Society, the University of Texas RTF Dept., The Austin Chronicle, and SXSW Film.