On the telephone from his office in Boston, Ross McElwee sounds excited about being able to attend next week's Full Frame. "What keeps coming back to me is the really good films I've seen for the first time, films that I would subsequently see again because they were offered at Full Frame."
In acknowledgement of his highly personal and distinctive contribution to American documentary filmmaking, this year the festival will be awarding McElwee the 2007 Career Award, with documentary superstar Michael Moore and acclaimed author Allen Gurganus delivering tributes.
McElwee is perhaps best known for Sherman's March (1986), the delightfully hilarious film that chronicles the unhinged film school grad's romp through the South following a difficult break-up. Ostensibly a documentary about the historical general's destructive Civil War exploits, it becomes apparent, after Richard Leacock's grandiose reading of the film's introductory oratory is replaced by McElwee's own softly musing voice, that the budding filmmaker isn't interested in pursing "conventional" documentaries. The film's alternative title, A Mediation to the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation, turns out to be a more accurate description of what the viewer is to discover.
McElwee says his father "was puzzled for many, many years about why I was making these kinds of films, especially Backyard, which is a short film about things going on around my house in Charlotte. When he saw Sherman's March he was very taken by it. He saw it with a large audience at one of its premieres, and he turned to me at one point—he was laughing so hard—and said, 'I never knew you were so funny.'"
Sherman's March, along with the preceding Backyard, established a reflective autobiographical process that McElwee would continue to develop in films such as Time Indefinite (1993) and Six O'Clock News (1996). His most recent theatrical offering, Bright Leaves (2003), is arguably his finest work. A structurally sophisticated film that poignantly uses the North Carolina tobacco industry as a springboard to explore the filmmaker's philosophical ruminations, Bright Leaves retains McElwee's characteristically understated humor. Reflecting on the three years it took to edit Bright Leaves' relatively tight narrative, McElwee says he was driven, in part, by "a desire to see how many themes I could intertwine, and how economical I could make the intertwining of those themes, and how I could keep the film moving along."
McElwee is occasionally compared to Thomas Wolfe, another North Carolinian of contemplative temperament who also left the South and made autobiography the source of his art. Although the author of Look Homeward, Angel is frequently associated with a certain enigmatic aphorism, Wolfe the metaphysicist was getting at something both literal and profound when he wrote "you can't go home again": most importantly, that you cannot reclaim the past, innocence or time itself—a notion that weaves its way through all of McElwee's film-poems.
That McElwee hasn't experienced the hometown denunciation that Wolfe allegedly suffered probably has to do in part with McElwee's capacity for empathy, a facility that longtime friend and subject Charleen Swansea calls an "almost supernatural gift." Swansea, who now resides in Chapel Hill, was the subject of McElwee's first feature-length documentary. Called Charleen (1980), the film is an engaging real-time biography of Swansea, who McElwee says was his informal poetry teacher. Swansea explains how the film developed: "When Ross finished at M.I.T., he wanted to do a movie about communal living or the companionship that would free you to be the best of yourself, and about how I created an environment in which kids could do that. It got sidetracked for a really interesting reason: because I was going through a right serious midlife crisis ... and, as you can see in the movie, it wrecked my family."
Since Charleen, Swansea has functioned as a sort of emotional and intellectual ballast to McElwee's frequently existential meditations, and has appeared in most of his films. Her presence is substantial in Charleen, Sherman's March, Time Indefinite and Bright Leaves, all of which will be shown at the festival this weekend. A firecracker, provocateur and genuinely irrepressible personality, Swansea is intensely protective of McElwee, saying, "A filmmaker is sort of like a charwoman to me—it's a dirty job! It's hard! And then after you've made it, you have to go all around the world and try to sell it. And people talk bad about you and there's always someone lurking to knock you down!"
Swansea also almost made it into another filmmaker's Full Frame offering, Moving Midway, Indy writer Godfrey Cheshire's exploration of the Southern plantation in American history and culture. Cheshire says that while researching the project, he was "astonished to find that Charleen is the great-granddaughter of Thomas Dixon Jr., author of The Clansman, the novel on which D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation was based." Unfortunately, due to editing constraints, Swansea's contributions were ultimately cut from the version of the film that Cheshire will be presenting at the festival.
Aside from the hassles of documentary filmmaking, McElwee chronicles commonplace tribulations that will be familiar to many viewers: the loss of parents, the miscarriage of a child and concern for an offspring's future world. Often returning to seek and give comfort, McElwee's camera seems to find its way back to Swansea in the aftermath of the upheaval.
Swansea says that the seminal tragic event in McElwee's family was the early death of his brother in a boating accident—an event that hasn't been substantially explored in any of his films. McElwee says the event has had a significant effect upon his life, a fact that is supported by his recollection of reading Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel and being moved to tears by the writer's fictional recreation of his own brother's untimely demise.
While McElwee agrees that most people's personalities tend to be shaped at least in part by misfortunes suffered, and heartbreak might be a sort of ambient background that directs human consciousness, he says he hasn't deliberately avoided the topic of his sibling's death. "It was something that happened quite a long time ago," McElwee explains. "My films, whatever they are, for better or worse, are firmly rooted in a kind of 'filming present.' I think it's just the way I make films. I stay in the present and keep moving forward."
Ross McElwee will be honored with Full Frame's 2007 Career Award Saturday, April 14, at 5:30 p.m., in the Carolina Theatre's Cinema One. After tributes from Michael Moore and Allen Gurganus, he will show excerpts of his newest works.