SundanceNow.com has put together a package of documentaries for August that draws attention and rewards extended viewing, the way a good art-house film series does.
It is a group of films by Charlotte native Ross McElwee, a pioneering documentarian whose work can be found here and there on websites but not with this kind of depth. (Amazon Instant Video comes closest, with four of his movies.)
McElwee has been the subject of surveys in the physical world of projectors and popcorn, including a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2005. As valuable as it may be to watch his poetic handmade films on a big screen, there’s also something to be said for watching them in marathon, in as close to a single sitting and with as few distractions as possible, which online streaming allows.
The eight films in SundanceNow’s Ross McElwee Spotlight constitute (in varying degrees) a single portrait of McElwee and his families – the one he grew up with in North Carolina and the one he has created in Massachusetts, where he teaches film at Harvard. Their cumulative effect is substantial, outweighing the self-indulgent philosophizing and narrative contrivances that can mar the individual movies.
McElwee is known for obsessively filming his life – a frequent motif is the weary father, wife, son or friend telling him to turn off the camera – and from “Backyard,” shot beginning in 1976, through “Photographic Memory” last year, he has been “fondling the footage” he’s taken of his family. (Those are his words, from the 1993 “Time Indefinite.”) He edits and re-edits the images, using them to different effect in successive movies as his ideas and perceptions, and sometimes the facts, change.
The master narrative of McElwee’s life, established in “Backyard,” involves a mother who died when he was a child; a doctor father who was loving but skeptical of his life and career choices; and a Southern insistence on good manners and the avoidance of unpleasantness.
The films, particularly “Backyard,” the popular “Sherman’s March” (1986), “Time Indefinite” and “Photographic Memory,” detail the push and pull of family and region as McElwee, ensconced in the academic and artistic citadels of the North, continually returns to roam the South, fretting about why he is so different. The series also includes “Charleen” (1977), “Something to Do With the Wall” (1991), “Six O’Clock News” (1996) and “Bright Leaves” (2003).
The films are chapters in a life, and their poignancy depends on having seen what came before.
“Sherman’s March” is McElwee’s sex film, a comic odyssey in which he consorts with a series of desirable but for various reasons unsuitable women, Southern belles who are, like him, losing their bloom. With its wryly absurdist, self-absorbed but self-deprecating humor, the film is like a Southern Protestant, nonfiction version of a Woody Allen comedy.
“Time Indefinite,” while it focuses on McElwee’s eventual marriage, is his death film, as family tragedies complicate his feelings about fatherhood.
Completing the cycle, for now, is “Photographic Memory,” a film largely about aging, in which McElwee goes to France to track down a mentor and a girlfriend from a long-ago visit while agonizing about his inability to get along with his teenage son. As always, he ties the foreground stories into the long arc of his family history, and the film powerfully conveys the terrifying transformation of American fatherhood in the space of just two generations, from the 1950s to now.
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