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Something to do with Ross McElwee

By Mark Mori

A closeup of  Ross McElwee, a white man with glasses and a camera.

While many documentary makers struggle to create the illusion of objectivity in their films, Ross McElwee has celebrated the inevitable subjectivity of the form. He has experimented with a highly personal style of filmmaking, working as a one-person film crew and using his ideas and curiosity, his dry, ironic humor and even his libido as primary motivating forces within his films. His two-and-a-half-hour autobiographical epic, Sherman's March, which landed him offers from nearly every major studio after its release in 1986, is already considered an American classic. McElwee turned Hollywood down, deciding that his way of making films just wasn't compatible with the commercial system."

McElwee's latest release, Something to Do with the Wall, produced with his wife Marilyn Levine, started out as a look at the Berlin Wall on its 25th anniversary. McElwee and Levine spent seven-and-a-half weeks filming in Berlin, and two years editing the footage between other projects. Days after they finished editing, the wall ca me down, instantly crushing their film. They quickly returned to Berlin, tracked down the people originally interviewed, and adroitly turned the film into a before-and­ after study of the wall and the people who lived in its shadows. Something to Do with the Wall is now in national theatrical release.

McElwee is currently working on The Six O'Clock News, another autobiographical journey, in which the filmmaker tries to make sense out of his own life and our of the wrecked lives that he sees on the news."

I've recently seen your new film on the Berlin Wall. Could you tell me about that project?

The Berlin film was something I made in company with my wife. We started filming in 1986, long before anyone had any inkling the Wall would ever come down; and in fact before there was any trace of, any evidence of, glasnost and perestroika in East Germany, which was always the hardest of the hard- line Communist states. And, predictably, the attitudes we encountered as we filmed were pretty pessimistic about any kind of change.

What became interesting to us was the community of people near one point on the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, which was a kind of epicenter of the Cold War since 1961, when the wall went up. We restricted our filming to one mile of the Wall, on the west side around Checkpoint Charlie, which is a magnet for tourists from all over the world, and also where many West Germans live. You have this convergence of tourists and sightseers, the West Germans who stubbornly cling to their apartments on either side of the checkpoint, and the American and East German guards on the other side of the checkpoint with their submachine guns sl hung over their shoulders, always staring back at each other. It's just an odd anti-world of reflected images and eavesdropping and spying and, to me anyway, it was a very surreal place.

The checkpoint, and the Wall adjacent to it, seemed like a psychiatrist's couch for people who came there. People would react in the most unpredictable ways. I think we've all heard of the people who come to paint and scratch messages on the Wall, but there were all kinds of odd protests that occurred there, and expressions of anger, expressions of psychotic humor.

For various reasons, it took us awhile to finish editing the film. We finished it on November 6, 1989, mixed the sound, and three days later the Wall came down. So we told the negative cutter to keep his hands off the negative, we'd be back in two months with Part Two. We flew back to Berlin four days after the Wall was down, tracked down most of the people we had filmed four years earlier, and did a kind of update of what life was like after the Wall came down. Predictably, things had changed quite significantly.

At one point in the film, during the 25th Anniversary of the Wall, when the area was swarming with TV crews, you say that you felt you were becoming part of "the voyeuristic machinery propelling the whole event." How were you different or less voyeuristic than the TV cameras?

Well, at that moment we really didn't see ourselves as being any different from anyone else there, because, in fact, everything had been reduced to ideological showmanship. You were on either one side of the line, quite literally, or you were on the other, a nd there was no room for nuance, no room for human color­ ing. And so we became just another camera crew taking images from the circus that was unfolding in front of us.

The only thing that makes us different, if we are different, is that we acknowledge it. I say so in the middle of the fi l m. In a sense that was happening throughout the film, but we could peacefully coexist with it because there would be moments when we could crack through, moments we captured that were less impersonal than the standard television footage from the Wall.

I guess I'm just trying to compare the sort of invisible presence that you take in Berlin with what you do in Sherman's March, where you more directly involve yourself in the film. What would you say about the success of propelling a film through either of those approaches?

Well, I always feel dissatisfied with both methods. I leave one for the other and then discover that I liked it better the other way. For five or six years now I have been fluctuating back and forth between the two. I make a film about my own life and the people that are in my life and then I find that I can't do it again because it's too intense and too demanding of the people I know. So I back off at that point and make a film that isn't centered on my own life, and then I find that it's not satisfying to me, that I feel I don't have the same kind of ability to explore in the filming. So I go back to the other way again. I don't know if l'll ever be satisfied flipping back and forth this way, but for now, that's what I'm doing.

What are the major differences between the two approaches?

With the personally motivated film you have the same kind of artistic license that you have when you write fiction or poetry; sorry thing is coming from inside of you and can be expressed as such. You don't have to try to make it objective. In an observational film, your sensibilities are in play and how you feel about what you're filming is important, but it's not rooted in the film and therefore the film has to be motivated by the events you are filming.

I think it's ultimately easier to propel a film that's centered around yourself as long as there's something about yourself that you're interested in. What kept Sherman's March moving forward was something involved with boy meets girl, boy chases girl and pure libido. It can keep something moving; it has for centu­ries. It kept literature moving. It kept film moving. Sherman's March has that, so it's relatively easy to sit through two­ and-a-half hours. The Berlin film is more difficult to deal with; it's incumbent upon the viewer to feel his or her way through the material.

You seem to be doing films that are portraits. You've lgoneft doing portraits of others to doing what are essentially self portraits. Can you tell me why you make those types of films and why you think you're able to do them well?

Well, even in my autobiographical films, their backbone comes from portraits of other people. I don't know why I do films like this. I'm certainly not the first person to have experienced this, or express it, but it seems ultimately frustrating to try to hide behind the camera and insist upon invisibility. I think Fred Wiseman's films are extraordinary in terms of what they accomplish in his views of institutions and individuals connected to institutions, but it wasn't for me, and it hasn't been for a number of filmmakers.

I think there's something more complex and interesting in exploring not only the world of the person you were filming, the subject of your film, but also your intersection with that person and your effect upon that person's world. This creates what I think of as a perpen­ dicular structure in the film. It's not simply a flat plane, but your presence intersects with the plane of the subject. The geometry is really interesting to me. We're penetrating these people's lives, we're invading their privacy, when we make these films. No matter how good our intentions are we are feeding off their lives to make our documentaries, and my kind of filmmaking is an open acknowledgement of that. The acknowledgement of that is much more interesting than attempting to conceal it. I think Ed Pincus's diary films did that, acknowledged that in the most open and extraor­ dinary way.

I guess the only thing that I've done that's been a bit different is trying to incorporate a kind of persona or presence behind the camera; so that you have access to my thoughts as either delivered on camera, through monologues, or through voice-over. That's something I've been really interested in working with, the subjectivity of the film maker's thoughts and reflections as incorporated directly into the film rather than simply being inferred.

What are you working on now?

The film that I'm currently working on is tentatively titled Six O 'Clock News. I undertake the shooting as a one­ person film crew, as in Sherman's March. I travel across America from town to town until I find a motel to stay in, for whatever reason. Then I start watching local television news in my motel room, recording the news shows with a VCR until something comes up on the news that seems interesting enough for me to go and pursue with a movie camera. I then go do a follow-up essay in 16 mm film. The resulting film will consist of these brief bursts of video news, ten or fifteen seconds long, framing larger film segments, which will be ten- or fifteen­ minute portraits or essays.

What I hope propels the mosaic will again be the autobiographical journey, which begins with my decision to get married, my wedding, and then touches on a couple of tragic events that happened to me, including the very unexpected death of m y father, who died from a heart attack. All of these things come together at one time in my life and force me, the filmmaker protagonist, to suddenly think about larger, metaphysical issues. So the six o'clock news stories that I filmed will connect back to these events in my own life. And the things that I filmed, for the most part, had to do with people's ability to deal with tragedy. This is all sounding a lot more morbid and depressing than I think it will actually be.

How do you involve yourself in the film?

I use a similar approach to Sherman's March in that I appear at certain moments on camera, both in scenes that I'm filming and addressing monologues to the camera. I'm going to risk being more subjective and using more complicated techniques for voice-over narration and my on-camera presence. The film begins with a personal tragedy, the death of the filmmaker's father, that drives the filmmaker to withdraw from life and hole up in morels watching television, but it also motivates him to try and break through that glass, that televi­ sion barrier, and go back out into the world to see what's out there.

To a large extent, the film is about images of reality. What's reality? Is it their version of reality? Is it my version of reality? Can anyone get an accurate version of reality? Is there such a thing as an accurate version of reality? Do all images lie? Do they ever tell the truth? All these questions come into the film and confuse the filmmaker greatly as he bumbles his way across the United States, trying to make sense out of his own life and out of the wrecked lives that he keeps seeing on the six o'clock news. In that sense it will have autobiographical underpinnings that will keep the film moving along and provide continuity as I go from one story to another.

Did you find a pattern to the way these news stories distort or oversimplify the lives of the people they cover?

What all documentary filmmakers have to do is in some ways a distortion of reality, though you might call an interpretation. The news, of course, is guilty of this; it's guilty of or in an extreme way, but I think everybody knows this. I'm fascinated by the way in which the news feeds off such a huge amount of disaster and chaos in human lives. The six o'clock news broadcasts a steady diet of car wrecks, especially wrecks involving school buses, storms of various kinds that cause a lot of destruction, toxic spills, and murders—there are always murders on the news. What I became interested in was not so much the superficial or distorted treatments of these events by the news media, but instead in what was actually going on behind those stories, and the feeling of doom and disappointment I shared with the people I kept seeing on the news who had these various disasters befall them.

I use television as a device through which I can go into the landscape of the six o'clock news and actually make some sort of contact with the people that I see there over and over again; people who really are just manifestations of all of us. Any of us could appear on the six o'clock news. All of us die. All of us come to grief in different ways. So I use the news programs as a device by which I can connect, through pure, random chance to people who have undergone some sort of extraordinary event.

If the film goes as I hope it will, what you will see are two ways of looking at reality with media. There is the six o'clock news form, which is the quick hit—fifteen seconds of the basic facts and images coming out of some sort of catastrophic event. And then there's the more extended documentary way of looking at something where you go and invest weeks, months, whatever it takes to learn more about what has happened to that person: where that person came from, what chat person's life was like beforehand, where that person's life is going after this event. Obviously, making a documentary is a very different process than producing a news story because on the news, every story is quickly replaced by another news story. But I'm not really interested in making a judgement about TV news. It's been done so often that I don't know I'd accomplish anything valuable.

As you made this film, were you aware of filling in some kind of gap between real experience and the televised version?

Yes, I was. I tried to do that. But another thing that I learned is even after spending weeks with some of the people that I'd only seen fifteen seconds of on television, I realized that essentially, I can't ever get to know them, their history, the essential enigma of who they are, better than the camcorder crew that showed up for a twenty-minute news shoot. And I think that gets back to the question of autobiographical filmmaking and the realization that perhaps the only way I can accomplish anything approaching depth, or real complexity, must come out of my own mind. Because there, I can go as deeply as I have the courage to go. That isn't deep enough, but it's usually more than I can accomplish with someone else.

Mark Mori is a long-time political activist. His first film, Building Bombs, on the social and environmental impact of the Savannah River nuclear weapons manufacturing plant, has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.