Put That In Your Pipe And Smoke It
In an industry teeming with digital video muckrakers, Ross McElwee may be the most good-natured documentarian alive--and among the most important and revered as well. His best-known work, Sherman's March (1986), is an aw-shucks masterpiece that finds McElwee, then a luckless bachelor, striking out with women and fretting over nuclear war; it places the filmmaker smack dab in between the direct cinema giants of the '60s (D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers) and the Big Agenda documentarians of today.
For more than 20 years, McElwee has been asking the tough questions--about existence, mortality, Burt Reynolds--in a voice that's recognizable as much for its self-deprecating tone as for its languorous Southern drawl. His latest film, Bright Leaves (which opens at the Bell on Thursday), is a genial examination of the tobacco legacy in McElwee's home state of North Carolina--including his own family's checkered involvement in the hotly contested crop. (The filmmaker's great-grandfather was a tobacco baron whose fortune was allegedly stolen by the Duke family patriarch.)
I caught up with a slightly exhausted McElwee in Chapel Hill recently to discuss the state of documentary filmmaking, his shameful laziness in putting out DVDs, and what it means to watch home movies in a theater.
City Pages: You've lived in Boston for years, but you continue to film in the South. Do you feel like an outsider when you come down here?
Ross McElwee: No. I feel like I have one foot in both places. I think a lot of what my films are about is the longing not to be an outsider. I'm a little bit haunted by it because I really still think of myself as a Southerner and yet I haven't really earned that. I don't live there anymore.
CP: It seems less of an issue for you to grapple with in Bright Leaves than in Sherman's March or Time Indefinite.
McElwee: I think that's true. I also think that in those two films you mention, I was primarily filming friends and family, so obviously the camera would be something of an obstacle. With Bright Leaves, there's more of a public issue attached to the film--although I don't really think of it as a "public issue" film. It took me out into the world a little more; the camera was seen as less of an obstacle, less of an unusual thing in terms of my interactions with people.
CP: Your subjects often reappear from film to film. Does that ease the charge of "exploitation" that people sometimes level at documentaries?
McElwee: Well, you can never reveal a person in all of [his or her] complexity, so in that sense you're always putting forth some version that's not the complete story. Therefore if you were really pressing, I guess you could say that [a given] person was getting exploited. But I think that I'm very conscious of this problem of exploiting people for documentary, although at times I've probably slipped into that mode. I'd like to think that the people I was less than extremely kind toward deserved it--like the rifle-toting survivalist in Sherman's March. But for the most part I really try to be fair to people. What I felt toward the people I was filming in Bright Leaves was a tremendous amount of affection--even for the tobacco growers. They're in a very difficult situation right now.
CP: Do you ever worry that people who see only Sherman's March or even Bright Leaves are missing chapters in an ongoing work in progress?
McElwee: I'd like for people to be able to see all of the films; there is a way in which each enriches the other, if you're inclined to see four or five of them. Part of the problem is mine in that I haven't given the distributor the materials needed to produce the DVDs. I'm just way behind the curve.
CP: This has been a banner year for the documentary as a commercial genre. Have you noticed a difference in response as you've taken the film around the country?
McElwee: I think the audiences are bigger, which is always pleasurable, and ultimately better for theatrical distribution. People are taking the whole endeavor a lot more seriously than they used to; it seems like less of a purely marginal pursuit and more of something of intrinsic value to the culture--both in terms of the kind of dialogue it can trigger, as with Michael Moore's films, but also in terms of entertainment value. Documentary had always been looked upon as the poor stepchild of fiction filmmaking. It used to be you'd make a documentary, get some recognition, and then write a script.
CP: In Bright Leaves, you feature clips from Bright Leaf, the old Hollywood film with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal that may or may not be based on your great-grandfather's life.
McElwee: I was interested in the degree to which any Hollywood film with human beings--as opposed to androids or special effects--has some element of documentary content. With Patricia Neal, it was especially rich [territory to explore] because during that four-year period in which she made two pictures with Gary Cooper, she was having a passionate affair with him. By her own description, this was the love of her life. So when they're embracing [in Bright Leaf] and you see her hand shoot up involuntarily, does that bring something back for her [when she watches the film now]? She was such a pro when I interviewed her; she just said, "No, I only think about my performance and whether it was good or not." That was as far as she would go with it. I tend not to believe her.
CP: You have established a very singular voice. But do you worry about your place in the market given all the exposure to documentaries in the last few years?
McElwee: Yeah, sure. Sometimes I think I'm making films that are too slow for today's audiences. My shots go on for 30 or 40 seconds--sometimes for more than a minute--and my narrations take their time. My films are not short: They're an hour and 45 minutes each. Maybe these kinds of films can't hope to power their way into the mainstream. I don't use music; I don't do all of these things that generally make films more [easily sold]. Chalk it up to stubbornness on my part or perversity or whatever, but for now I'm sticking to my way of making films.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.