EW spotlights documentarian Ross McElwee
The only disappointment in meeting Ross McElwee — the documentary pioneer who expanded the genre with 1986’s Sherman’s Marchand keeps stretching it with the marvelous Bright Leaves — is that he’s not pointing a movie camera at you. ”Well, I can get one if you want!” says the bearded, Southern-accented Harvard prof, who suggests in his hilarious and profound first-person docs (others include 1993’s Time Indefinite and 1997’s Six O’Clock News; a boxed set is due from First Run in November) that he is terminally addicted to filming everyday life. ”Don’t tempt me.”
It’s tempting to tempt him. No one makes movies quite like these essay/ odysseys set largely in the South and shot almost entirely by McElwee, who also narrates, occasionally appears on camera, and does most of the editing. ”In my movies, I give the impression that I’m filming all the time,” he concedes, sitting in khakis and a long-sleeved flannel shirt on his flower-lined porch in Brookline, Mass. ”I think part of that is for comic effect, creating this persona of this guy who just can’t keep his hands off the camera. I’m not that obsessive, although I have been filming my family life on a regular basis since the ’70s, and then trying to find ways that footage can be integrated in films that tackle broader issues.”
Such as Bright Leaves, in which the North Carolina native grapples with his home state’s tobacco industry and incorporates copious home-movie footage, like of his son, Adrian, learning to tie his shoes. (Sounds crazy, but the combo works beautifully.) ”I didn’t want to make the standard anti-tobacco film,” McElwee says. ”I also didn’t want to make a historical film; Ken Burns does that superbly, but it’s not my territory. I was thinking, How can I bring this into the present tense, address tobacco and smoking and complex notions of addiction and denial in a more personal yet universal way?” In a funny eureka sequence, he finds his entry point: the 1950 Gary Cooper film Bright Leaf, supposedly based on Ross’ great-grandfather John Harvey McElwee, a fallen Southern tobacco baron.
And as in Sherman’s March — in which he ruminated on both the Civil War and his dating life through the eye of his 16mm camera — he’s constantly filming. ”It drove all of us crazy! I thought he was hiding behind the camera,” recalls Charleen Swansea, McElwee’s bighearted friend of 40 years and a scene-stealer in his autobiodocs. ”Ross is very curious. He finds life to be precious in its small manifestations and its big ones, and he doesn’t want to lose any of it. It took me years to understand that Ross wasn’t hiding behind the camera — he was using it to capture the moments that he valued in his life, and those were almost all moments. You can see that in Bright Leaves. Ross. Loves. Everything!”
McElwee even loves ”fiction films as much as the next guy,” he says, although he has turned down a few offers to make movies for Hollywood.