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Scorched Earth & Bright Leaves: Ross McElwee’s Meditations on the Possibility of Documentary Filmmaking

Scorched Earth & Bright Leaves: Ross McElwee’s Meditations on the Possibility of Documentary Filmmaking

Credits

Feature by: Beth Gilligan, Leo Goldsmith, and Rumsey Taylor

Posted on: 02 February 2006

With a camera on his shoulder and a microphone attached to his hip, a young filmmaker named Ross McElwee set out to chronicle the life of one of the towering figures of American history, Union Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman’s story is one of astonishing success and breathtaking failure, of victory and loss, of one man’s strength becoming his ultimate weakness. It is an epic tale, full of the sorts of contradictions and convolutions historians and filmmakers love. Seizing on these themes, the director journeyed to his native South and commenced filming Sherman’s March, a sprawling examination of… the sorry state of McElwee’s own love life.

If this sounds rather incongruous, McElwee is the first to acknowledge that an autobiographical documentary is not what he originally intended. As luck would have it, his girlfriend dumped him prior to the start of filming, and he found himself so distraught and distracted by this situation that he could focus on little else. The resulting film chronicles McElwee’s travels through the South and his interactions with a wide range of women, most of whom he is attracted to and/or romantically involved with on some level.

These kinds of digressions are hallmarks of McElwee’s filmmaking style. If most documentaries, according to scholar Bill Nichols, are organized around a single, convincing argument in which we can locate a coherent logic, then McElwee’s films represent something of a generic hybrid. Although he has often been lumped with the practitioners of direct cinema, his movies operate more in the vein of those by cinematic essayists such as Chris Marker and Agnès Varda. In an assessment of the director’s work in the July/August 2004 issue of Film Comment, Godfrey Cheshire writes, “During the last quarter century, McElwee has fashioned a still-evolving autobiographical cycle that comprises what is arguably American cinema’s most remarkable and sustained meditation on time, place, identity, and their filmic representations.”

McElwee was born and raised in North Carolina, but is a longtime resident of the Boston area, where he studied under pioneering documentary filmmakers Richard Leacock and Ed Pincus, and where he now teaches at Harvard. Still, he often returns to the South to film family members and friends. Highly self-reflexive and full of probing interactions with his subjects, his documentaries have heralded the shift toward the more self-conscious, personal works that have come to crowd the cinematic landscape over the past two decades. His influence can be seen everywhere from Roger & Me to Capturing the Friedmans to My Architect to Tarnation, and the 2004 release of his latest film, Bright Leaves, demonstrates that McElwee’s searching, lyrical voice remains a force to be reckoned with.

Introduction by Beth Gilligan


Charleen 31 January
Backyard 31 January
Sherman’s March 02 February
Time Indefinite 02 February
Six O’Clock News 31 January
Bright Leaves 31 January

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