Self Portrait: Ross McElwee, Through Many Lenses

By Lisa Mills


Landscapes of the Self: The Cinema of Ross McElwee
Editors: Efren Cuevas and Alberto N. Garcia
Ediciones Internacionales Universitarias; 1st edition (February 15, 2008)
337 pages
$34.00

Sitting on the back porch of my home in a Southern metropolitan city, I begin to write this review of a new, edited book about documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee. I am taking a break from editing my first personal documentary. Two days ago I experienced a "Ross McElwee moment" when a local news crew interviewed me while I was behind my camera, shooting a scene for my own film. McElwee's narration has been creeping in and out of my head since I began the project a year and a half ago. He is to many Southern documentary filmmakers what Faulkner may be to many Southern novelists sitting at their keyboards on a late summer day: a mentor and messenger; a master of words, imagery, poetry and meditation; a God. It is about time somebody published a book about him.

So, with the uncomfortable echo of my own voice ringing in the back of my mind after a less-than-successful morning at my Mac, it is with a mixture of trepidation and joy that I attempt to subjectively evaluate a book about Mr. McElwee. An objective review would be impossible. When I received the book about a month ago, I hungrily devoured each page, searching for clues on making a meaningful film without making a fool of myself.

I found a lot of literary insight, plenty of academic overwhelm and, yes, even a few clues in Landscapes of the Self: The Cinema of Ross McElwee. It was edited by Efren Cuevas and Alberto N. Garcia, two faculty members at the University of Navarra in Spain. While McElwee has been written about or interviewed in countless books about documentary filmmaking, this is the first full book ever published on McElwee alone. It is also the first book I've ever read (or seen, for that matter) in which the English translation of the text is on left side of the page and the original Spanish text is on the right. I found this layout confusing at first, reading to the bottom of an English page and then suddenly reading Spanish at the top of the next page. I caught on quickly, however, and by the end of the book I admired its bilingual efficiency. I also liked the way the book was organized into four metaphoric sections-"Establishing Shot" (profile of the filmmaker); "Wide Angle" (essays on the cinema of McElwee); "Close-up" (essays on each film); and "Mirror Shot" (reprints of an article McElwee wrote for a Paris magazine and interviews he has done with a number of other periodicals). The book begins with a concise introduction and concludes with a thorough filmography, bibliography and information about the contributing authors. The structure of the book was pleasing to me. I could skip back and forth between the heavy academic essays and the intriguing interview transcripts, depending on what kinds of clues I was looking for on a particular day.

Using Stephen Rodrick's article as an "Establishing Shot" at the beginning was a good idea. His piece out of Boston Magazine (September 1994) focuses heavily on McElwee's schooling at MIT, providing important context for the filmmaker's later explanation of why he ultimately found the cinema vérité style of his instructors there unsatisfying.

The first essay in the "Wide Angle" section transitions well out of Rodrick. It discusses McElwee as the central character in his films, taking autobiographical journeys between the past, present and future. McElwee's thematic use of time appears often in the essays that follow, and my only complaint with this section is that it becomes a bit redundant and academically dense. Be sure you brush up on your readings of Michel Montaigne before you tackle Garcia's essay on McElwee as essayist.

I enjoyed the articles in the "Close-up" section the most, naturally, because they held the most clues for what works so well in McElwee's films. James Watkins reminds us that in making Sherman's March, McElwee made the important discovery that autobiographical documentary can stake a unique claim to truth, and he courageously trusted that his audience would sense this. Atencia's analysis of Time Indefinite shows us how McElwee's narration and structure matured in the sequel to his first successful film. The author uses a diagram to demonstrate how the narrative structure developed into a cyclical one. De Pedro's essay on Six O'Clock News includes an interesting discussion about the tensions between fictional and documentary cinema (I couldn't resist taking notes to keep in hand the next time this tension arises in a film department meeting at my university). My favorite essay in this section of the book was by Duke University's Gary Hawkins. His down-to-earth analysis of Bright Leaves felt intimate as he described the influence McElwee's films have had on his own work. It is evident that Hawkins feels the same connection with McElwee that I do, bestowing upon him the title of Southerners' "one true poet." He wonders how McElwee repeatedly takes on such difficult and personal filmmaking and always manages to make it look easy.

Indeed, McElwee talks about his personal struggle to make films, in the next section of the book. "Mirror Shot" features an article he wrote for Trafic (Summer 1995) and portions of interviews he has done over the years with film journals and magazines. Anyone interested in McElwee's work now has one convenient place to find much of what he himself has written about it. McElwee understands the films he makes and has the ability to express what about them works for him as an artist. He also has convincing insight into what makes his films entertaining and intriguing for his audience. It was moving to read about the turmoil he felt while filming his father and the discomfort he still experiences while listening to playback of his own narration.

Landscapes of the Self: The Cinema of Ross McElwee contains a good blend of academic analysis and personal portraiture. You can read what the scholars and the practitioners say about McElwee's films, then you can read what he wants you to know. It seemed to be the right book at the right time for me. I'm sure that's happened to you before, too. We are all on a hunt for clues that can help bring meaning to our work on multiple levels. The editors of this book did a good job of finding works that unpack the complexity of McElwee's films. They remind us that the genre of documentary he pioneered is rooted in what all good documentaries seek: a unique blend of truth and story construction carefully crafted to reveal something new about the human condition.

Lisa Mills, PhD, is an assistant professor of film at the School of Film and Digital Media at University of Central Florida.