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A Valentine to filmmaker Ross McElwee

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Tv_lGood news today from the land of North Carolina. Durham’s well-regarded Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (I’ve never been, but I think my friend Scott Brown has) just announced that they’re going to give their 2007 Career Award to docmaker Ross McElwee in April.

Who, say you? Ross McElwee is on my Top 10 Directors of All Time list, maybe even Top Five. He’s the guy who basically invented the “personal documentary” form made popular by Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. His breakout movie was 1986’s Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. If you’ve never seen it, then run to a video store that hasn’t gone out of business yet and rent it tonight, because — can’t you tell from the title? — it’s perfect for Valentine’s Day. McElwee, whom we meet in the first scene, set out to make a straight doc on General William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea during the Civil War, but the filmmaker had just broken up with a girlfriend, and he was glum, and so he started to film his encounters with women as he was down South trying to get his movie going. It is funny, deep, epic, romantic, and cracked. (And, at 157 minutes, it’s just slightly overlong. If you’re feeling especially amorous tonight, watch half this evening and half tomorrow.)

Even better, I think, is McElwee’s second big movie, 1993’s Time Indefinite.This is the one that really makes me love him. Once again, McElweemounted the camera on his shoulder, obsessively shot his family andfriends, narrated in his entrancing North Carolina accent — and thistime, he managed to make the most quietly profound home movie ever.It’s the story of what happened to McElwee after his father died, andhe got married, and more. Few movies make you feel as good aboutfamily, and few docs are so casually beautiful — McElwee makes even ashot of a lamp, or an opened-mouthed red snapper before dinnertime,stand out. Artfully yet unpretentiously, his work elevates theeveryday.

“I think we all have lives that more or less have theseamazing encounters,” McElwee told me when I interviewed him on his backporch outside Boston for an EW story I wrote about him in 2005.“You sit around and have dinner with your friends, or go to a bar andtalk, and someone always tells you a story about someone theyencountered. Those are all filmable moments. It’s just that we don’tall make movies out of them.”

But McElwee does, and we are lucky. Three cheers to Full Frame for honoring him. McElwee’s two other must-see movies are called Six O’Clock News (pictured) and Bright Leaves, and not too long ago, First Run put out a nice box set of McElwee’s major films. So now go watch him.