Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Don’t Hate Me Because I’m A Hyperpower

Fareed Zakaria has an interesting (and brief) article in the current issue of Foreign Policy. I used to subscribe to this magazine back in the late 90's when Zakaria was the managing editor and when it tended to lean a bit too far to the right for my tastes. I did, however, usually enjoy Zakaria’s editorials which seemed more ideologically nuanced. In this article, he asks us to consider, in this time of rampant anti-Americanism, what the world might look like if the U.S. wasn’t leading the way on issues such as trade and nuclear proliferation.

It’s a provocative question, especially for those of us feeling upset and shamed by the way our country is currently viewed throughout the world. (Is this shame I feel due to some unexplored undercurrent of nationalism I harbor, even if, in my better days, I want to claim I'm a universalist? But then, I can't create too much change in the far flung parts of the world- I do, however, have a small chance to change things here, damnit!) Certainly, my own feeling is that this countries trade policies in, for example, the area of agriculture (heavy subsidizing for U.S. agricultural interests, high tariffs on incoming goods, the charade of "free" trade when we dump our surplus on other countries), can and often do have ruinous consequences on struggling third world farmers. Or, certainly, when it comes to nuclear proliferation, the current administration has all but neglected the sensibility of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction programs and virtually turned their back on the the numerous Russian nuclear facilities that remain under funded and in need of security upgrades, which is to say nothing about the potential nuclear threats of N. Korea and Pakistan. Zakara’s article begs the question, just how effective has the U.S’s leadership been in these crucial areas and who, if anybody, is better suited to take the leading role?

Nobody, I presume- at least not unilaterally. The best bet is a collective effort- a multilateral response to these challenges. This current administration, as Zakaria points out, by crudely asserting U.S. power and disregarding international institutions and alliances... has pulled the curtain on decades of diplomacy and revealed that the United States’ constraints are self-imposed: America can, in fact, go it alone.

At what price?

Monday, August 30, 2004

Little Norman Rockwell Towns Infused With Dread

We left Chicago on Friday afternoon- the city swampy with heat and humidity. A month previously Cathy had proposed a weekend away- a B & B maybe, somewhere not too far away, a town with hints of Norman Rockwell without being too phony. “Galena,” her parents suggested.

The drive there, with its fits of rush hour stopping and starting- the angry weave of commuters restless for openings and clearings to use to their advantage and escape the lethargic mass off all that metal, plastic and glass- was interesting in the way the passing landscape offers hidden meanings waiting to be plucked and understood.

Landscape denotes the interaction of people and place: a social group and its spaces, particularly the spaces to which the group belongs and from which its members derive some part of their shared identity and meaning.
-Paul Groth

About 40 or so miles West of the city, driving west on I-90, you reach Prairie Stone. This could also be called the outer limits of urban sprawl. It's here that the newest of the new office parks and the most abundant of affordable new housing bump up against cornfields and grain silos.

Low-density residential developments put several unique strains on our transportation infrastructure.

First, they often lack sufficient density to support any kind of efficient public transit service.

Second, they are often designed in ways- such as separating residential development from retail development- that leave residents dependents on the automobile for even the most basic errands.

And last, since new housing developments are often built just beyond the last new housing developments, low-density land use patterns put new homeowners further and further away from the region’s major job centers.

-from The Metropolis Housing Index: Housing As Opportunity

There’s a last gasp of sprawl in the form of an outlet mall, so new and sparkling as to seem antiseptic- free of germs or the taint of grubby hands.

Soon, however, we found ourselves on a two-lane highway, making our way past old red bars- gently worn old red barns, mind you, oozing a kind of folksy, mythological charm. Quaint. But this is shattered, these cozy rural/pastoral romanticisms, by a barn with a large sign draped on its side that read: “Kerry = taxes and TERRORISM.” A polemical shock- a reminder that beyond the myth there dwells the deep roots of farm raised animosities carefully cultivated in right wing Petri dishes. Kerry = TERRORISM- so simple, this unequivocally brutal statement pulsing through the heartland, or at least from the side of this particular barn, and offering a daunting challenge for those of us inclined to think otherwise.

The two-lane highway became a gravel road which in turn became a dirt road that led us to The Inn at Irish Hollow, the B & B we stayed at this weekend. We rented one of the Inn’s 3 cottages, the libidinously titled French Maid’s Cottage. There were chocolates waiting us in the kitchen, cookies on the bed and something contemporary, burnished and classical playing on the stereo. I went, dog that I am, immediately to the stock of accompanying CD’s, dutifully contemptuous of the Kenny G, the Yanni and the Kitaro and holding each briefly in my hand while I contemplated just what target demographic the French Maid’s Cottage was geared up for.

We made our way to downtown Galena, just a few miles of hills and valley’s away, parking on the town’s main street to prowl for some dinner. It’s a charming little town, untainted by the franchises proven systems of operation and riddled with independent stores hawking antique nick-knacks and grandchild wear- all seemingly pungent with aromas both lavander and waxy. We didn’t enter a single one, but the buildings themselves- the architecture- was old and graceful- detailed and attentive enough that we paused, pointed and appreciated.

There was a Lynch-like moment, too, when we first got out of our car. A nearby passing freight train, on the tracks just over the Galena River, was making an ominous, metallic squelch. It wasn’t sharp enough to be painful, rounded off as it was with a sighing hiss that infused our quaint surroundings with a curious and contradictory shade of industrial dread.

I won’t attempt to write about the incredible cuisine served at the Inn. Breakfast and a picnic lunch/dinner were included in the deal and most everything, we both agreed, was outrageously delicious foodstuff.

It rained for most of the afternoon on Saturday- a soft murmur of ambient pitter- patter that made sitting on the cottage porch with good books cozy and sublime. The late summer grass, the leaves on the trees and the occasional blooms of yellow, red or white seemed almost incandescent. Earlier we had put on our raincoats, hoods up over our heads, and taken a walk on the land owned by the Inn’s operators. We were deep in a valley, no cell-phone coverage, and we took a gentle sloop upwards for a few hundred yards- stopping to turn around and admire the view of the rolling hills- all static waves of numerous shades of green and dotted with farms. Our pastoral affinities were given a workout. We took some time to be still under a canopy of trees, the rain nicely muffled and drowsy, large drops plopping from the leaves and onto our palms to wash away the grit and realizing that our pants, our shoes and our socks had reached a point of unfortunate sogginess.

Later, the sun came out. It was there on Sunday, too. We had a great weekend.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Take a Load Off

Pauline Kael, writing for the New Yorker in 1977, on The Last Waltz:

No American movie this year has been as full of the “joy of making cinema” as Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, his film of The Band’s Thanksgiving, 1976, concert in San Francisco. He shot it while he was still involved in New York, New York- which was full of the “agony of making cinema.” In The Last Waltz, Scorsese seems in complete control of his talent and of the material, and you can feel everything going just right, just was in New York, New York, you could feel everything going wrong. It’s an even-tempered, intensely satisfying movie. Visually, it’s dark-toned and rich and classically simple. The sound (if one has the good luck to catch it in a theatre equipped with a Dolby system) is so clear that the instruments have the distinctness that one hears on the most craftsmanlike recordings, and the casual interviews have a musical, rhythmic ease.

Martin Scorsese possesses gifts- of movement and timing and color and texture. His is a redoubtable body of work. He also knows when not to intrude, to let his scenes take deep breaths and languorously exhale before moving on.

The casual interviews Kael refers to (where each member of The Band comes across as supremely cool- relaxed and wise with anecdotes from their nearly 20 years on the road together) act as perfect interludes to the concert footage and the many guests who joined them on stage for their farewell concert. A lumpy, avuncular looking Van Morrison does a rousing version of Caravan, high kicking across the stage and repeatedly calling out to the horns “Give it to me one more time!” as walls of brass cascade at his command. It’s pretty awesome, spine-tingling stuff and as Morrison histrionically drops his mic and exits the stage Robertson bows into his own and, with a trace of necessary awe, justly utters, “Van the Man!” Just as good is experiencing Joni Mitchell’s rendition of her beautiful song, Coyote, and the joy that comes with watching her effortlessly weave those splendidly strange lyrics all around her vocal idiosyncrasies. Or how about the studio version (three songs were filmed over the course of 5 nights on a sound stages- wonderfully designed, as were the live sets, by Boris Levan) of The Weight, with Mavis and Pops Staples taking turns on verses? As the song ends, the camera lingers on Mavis who we hear just barely whispering, “Beautiful.”

There’s another moment, maybe my favorite in the film, when Scorsese, sitting with Rick Danko in his studio, asks him what he’s going to do now that The Band were calling it quits. “Make music,” Danko says matter of factly, nervously fiddling with his hat and leaning into his mixing board as he slowly raises the levels of the song he’s currently working on. Scorsese, one of the most musical of American directors and one who has never shied away from expressing his own enthusiasm for rock and roll (the use of Van Morrison’s T.B. Sheets in Bringing Out the Dead, for example, is awesome), is genuinely moved and simply sighs an empathetic, “Yeah…oh, yeah,” as the camera moves in to linger, just a few seconds, on Danko. This moment is made even more poignant when one considers that Danko died in his sleep up in Woodstock, New York in the late 90’s.

Did I mention how incredible it all sounds?
My Shuffle Play Likes Love And Rockets

I love the iTunes Shuffle Play option. Love it. Here's a nice little article about 'dat.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

I Don't Want Nothing Baby/But I Want A Sunday Kind of Love

Today’s special musical guest has been Dinah Washington and her album, What A Difference A Day Makes! I love the exclamation mark there, so very pick-yourself-up- and-brush-it-off hopeful. It’s quite an album too, full of Technicolor strings, PG-13 sexiness and Washington’s pebble graveled vocals. Her vocals are the finest, lightest grade of sandpaper. Sometimes they resemble Jimmy Scott’s, whose Sycamore Trees from the Fire Walk With Me soundtrack has always pleasantly freaked me out.

What I’m liking most about listening to Washington right now is how perfectly the mood of her album compliments my own. It’s perfectly complimentary to the winding down of the weekend, as 11:00 roles around.

from blossom to blossom

All the pictures I took yesterday never were actually taken. Little Lucy van Pelt has pulled the football away and I’ve landed flat on my back, visions of the lovely picture I took of Cathy and Julie looking absolutely fabulous in aprons, now lost to the ethers. Argh!

Cathy and I, along with our co-hosts, The Huston Family Singers, threw a little ho-down for the likes of Emily and Jason and the impending Green Bean. We had about 35 to 40 or so people over, 5 of which were 4 years of age and under, the youngest two being the irreparable Taylor, hovering at a little less then a year and Sadie, weighing in at just three months alive and kicking.

There was punch with floating strawberries served (of course!) out of a punch bowl that also morphed, with just a flip ‘o the lid, into a splendid cake holder. There was the painting of Onesies (photo’s forthcoming) outdoors and under the fully cooperative (and cloudless) participation of the mellowest of late-August suns, Baby Bingo played with great fervor in the sauna-like hothouse of shower gift unwrapping (Onesies are the Nerf Football of Baby Showers), and frequent and oftentimes rather feverish munching at the edges of numerous snack food stations.

I had a couple conversations, however lopsided, with both the aforementioned Taylor and Sadie. With Taylor, she was sitting on the floor wondering just how she should react to the fact that Dad was walking a few feet away to grab something or other. She let out a little squeak of dissatisfaction, and her right arm rose up in contemptuous exclamation. I quickly cooed some greetings her way, making eye contact while I joined her on the floor. She was wary at first, thinking, “Whoa, what do we have here? This guy is nuts! Look at him crawling towards me and making those dopey faces,” at which point she made a decision and thought, “well, he’s positively, hilariously loony-tunes genius!” and broke out into a big old grin accompanied, most endearingly, by several unabashed wiggles of delight.

Sadie was reclining on her pop’s chest, her legs lazily dangling over his arms. People were leaving so I leaned into her gaze and made sure she was aware of just how pleased Cathy and I were to have had the pleasure of her company on this fine August afternoon. Her response was to simply stare, eyes glistening with hypnotic intensity and her mouth forming an O that seemed to signal to me she had reached the very cusp of wonder and was about to spill over into making sense of it all. First, of course, there’d be drooling and that would be fine.

It’s all a part of the ever growing baby parade we increasingly seem to be in the good and thick of. It’s good to spend this kind of quality time with the under 4 set.
The Stories We Tell

For as long as I can remember I’ve always had various creative endeavors underway. Throughout my teenage years, for example, I channeled my emotional turmoil into overwrought poetry and short stories overwhelmed with dimly ironic pop culture references and phantasmagoric nonsense, vast amounts of which can still be found tucked away in my parents basement. In college, when the allure of writing poetry began to mysteriously fade (I’m unsure what caused this, but I suspect it had something to do with the sharpening of my own critical skills and the glaring disparity between my own work and that of some of the poets I was then studying) I found tremendous creative satisfaction and psychological equilibrium through making music. I’ve made three albums over the last decade and I’m currently in the final stages of a fourth, so clearly I’m getting something good out of it!

Foremost in all of this is satisfying some urge, deeply personal, followed closely by the desire to share whatever it is I’ve created with those closest to me. After all, there would be something sadly masturbatory if I was not to share, you know, and quite frankly I want to get everybody off. I need/want/crave affirmation, too- who doesn’t?

On the periphery of these creative pursuits has been the idea of working with video. Back in the later years of high school and early college, my friends and I filmed on roughly a dozen different occasions. Sometimes it was a party, other times we were making silly, nonsensical skits because it was something to do. As it stands, they’re some of the only documents of that time- conveying a level of context and nuance that photographs can rarely establish.

A few years ago my friend Mike edited together a brilliant 20-minute documentary that combined footage from a New Years party in the early 90’s with one in the early 00’s. Fortuitously, many of the same good folks were at both parties, and Mike had a lot of fun slyly comparing and contrasting who we were then with what were now. I found it all incredibly moving- not only because of the nostalgia- but because it took these otherwise rambling videos, made up of various, seemingly random moments and recontextualized them into something that struck deeper, more satisfying chords. It took these disparate lumps of raw video and alchemized them into something lovingly linear, framed by a supremely goofy-ass narrative involving an old trailer to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the impending birth of a friends child. Mike’s mini-documentary has, ever since, served as my impetus to do something similar- especially now that I have no excuse not to. All the tools are in my possession- the digital camera, the basic editing bells and whistles- the only thing I lacked was a story that moved me enough to follow it.

(Pregnant Pause, cue swelling strings) Until now.

I had originally planned on making a documentary about summer in Chicago. When Memorial Day rolled around and I was preparing to launch, however, I realized it all felt way too amorphous and that other topics of interest were vying for attention without any sort of framework for how I might incorporate and sustain them. So I made a decision to put things on hold for a while until I could think more about how I wanted to approach it.

Here’s what I’m currently thinking:

-I’m hoping to make an essay-documentary. I think what this means is that I’ll probably occasionally narrate the proceedings via a script, with the hope being that this narrative device will create the necessary momentum and story arc and sustain the viewer’s for what I imagine will be a hour. I want final results to snap along with lot’s of humor and plenty of opportunities to think and interact with people in a way I wouldn’t maybe have the courage or opportunity to do otherwise.

-This brings up an important point. What this project is really about is giving myself the space and opportunity to use all these way-cool tools I now have at my disposal to interact with cool people, explore things that fascinate me in new and exciting ways and, in the end, hopefully create something that’ll be fun to watch. I might fail, but I’m pretty sure the end result isn’t the most important thing here.

-I still want to make a documentary about summer in Chicago, particularly the vitality of the city during that season and the nostalgia (or saudade) I have for this time of year but summer will be the pay-off. The first half will be about autumn and winter. Each season, it’s important to note, won’t be the primary focus- they’ll act more like chapters or frames for the exploration of other topics of interest. Autumn, for example, will be more ruminative, establishing things, and will probably detail our move away from Chicago to Berkeley and feelings of dislocation, of establishing community and roots, etc…

-It’s the "other topics of interest" that I’m still thinking a lot about. But I’m interested in exploring ideas of displacement, home, community, memories (particularly memories of summer) etc… If there’s a central theme, it’s the idea of home and community.

-Talking heads. I want to come up with, at most, 10 questions to ask a variety of people. For example:

-When you think of the idea of home, what do you think of?
-When do you know it’s summer?
-What’s your favorite place in Chicago?

(I need help with coming up with interesting questions that will engage folks and get them talking. I need to frame the questions with some context.)

-During the talking heads, which will be interspersed throughout, I plan on assembling accompanying visuals that are sympathetic to (or symbolic of) whatever the person is discussing. This will mean doing a lot of the talking head interviews over this coming autumn and winter, transcribing them and then making plans as to how to counter these visually. It might include using the actual person who did the talking, filming them in various contexts- or using old photographs or texts or maps or animated sequences. Really, the opportunities are pretty wide open- the important thing is keeping it manageable. I imagine planning and assembling this footage will be a ton of fun.

-I want at least 10 different scenes filmed from the same vantage point during each season. I have a few ideas so far: one of the boat harbors along the lake front (I imagine boats, no boats and colorful autumn leaves, snow and ice, Spring and some boats returned…oh, you get it…), one of a residential street, maybe single tree….what else?

-Some time-elapsed stuff.

-Old family Super-8 footage, which will probably be used to accompany my own family.

-Footage of my parents home in Bay Village, the same home where I grew up and probably the template for what constitutes the idea of home for me.

Obviously many of these ideas are still somewhat hazy, so any insight others may have is welcome. I’m excited about playing in a medium that’s always fascinated me and attempting to utilize it in a way other then just the usual, seemingly random collection of shots and trying to tell an interesting story. We’ll see.

Monday, August 16, 2004

All This Useless Beauty

I need to be better with taking our digital camera along with me when I’m out and about. Last week, with its near record lows (like August infested with October), offered some of the most beautiful play of light, cloud and water that I’ve ever seen. On both Tuesday evening and Wednesday evening, while biking the lake path, I was endorphin stunned by the beauty of it all- the emerald greens and the dusty blues, the mournful grays and the hints of witches purple. Particularly captivating were the white lifeguard chairs and how they took on almost mythological watchtower proportions when framed by the riot of colors smearing the water and sky. The lifeguards, wearing their flaming orange jackets, were also pretty amazing against this backdrop, almost phosphorescent.

This past Saturday I couldn’t quite get started. Do you know what I mean? There were numerous tasks vying for my attention and I haphazardly descended on each without the necessary discipline or curiosity to see any of them through. One of those days. A shot of welcome uplift was provided by watching Vincente Minelli’s Father of the Bride, with the best Spencer Tracy performance I’ve seen yet- suffused with just the right balance of fatherly tenderness and overwhelmed-by-wedding preparation and-where-has-the-time-gone wariness. And the ending is so very pitch perfect, with Tracy and his bride of over 20 years lovingly dancing alone amongst the ruble of their daughter’s reception as the camera gracefully glides back into a fade.

Enjoying Rogue Wave’s Out Of The Shadow, where hints of The Shins (especially on Kicking the Heart Out) and Elliot Smith (especially on Be Kind-Remind) play themselves out over the course of 12 songs that seem terribly familiar for being so brand new to my ears. It’s all very good, seductively crafted pop with off-kilter melodies and clever splashes of squiggly keyboard amongst all the guitar jangle. It’s familiar but certainly not mundane- it seems to be picking up on some of the abandoned trails of late 60’s and early 70’s American pop and going deeper. Definitely plugged into the same amps as The Shins, sharing their mastery of quirky chord changes that startle with their unexpected intensity and beauty.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Tidbits- Now More Bite-Sized Then Ever Before!

My Morning Jacket’s Bermuda is like…like dust-covered peaches or a porch swing lit by nothin’ but candles and moonlight. Exquisitely forlorn.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say it’s downright crass to be secretly rejoicing in the latest economic news- just 32,000 new jobs were added last month. We’re feeling so damn politically pragmatic these days that we wouldn’t mind wallowing in this so-called economic "soft patch" until November- anything to dampen the cannon fodder provided it doesn’t present too much undue hardship.

David Doucet’s Cajun Waltz from his album 1957 is like…the great pumpkin rising in Arcadia or beautiful girls and beautiful boys dancing on red clay and straw.

Sweetness and Light

I Can’t Go For That is like…the blue-eyed soul brother to Billy Jean…like somebody put slippers on the funk. We can now take Hall and Oates in very small doses.

Japanese Story, the commendably striving second film by Australian director Sue Brooks, never quite congeals and teeters perilously close to the downright silly. But, still, there was something there, just beneath the surface, wanting to rise above all the melodrama that bogs down the second half of the film and offer something special. Maybe it was Toni Colette’s performance, which seemed all together superior to the film surrounding her- it’s a performance that sets a standard Brooks never quite matches. The force of Colette’s performance, especially the feisty sensuality she exudes in the film’s first half, creates a disparity between her and everything else.

The film’s second half is one long dirge that aims for grace through a minimum of speaking, the ritual motions of grieving and a heavy lacquer of mournful musical accompaniment. It’s almost something special but it’s always crumbling along the edges, interrupted with blunt melodramatic pieties that destroy the elegiac mood. The pleasures of this film, however, ultimately resides in Toni Colette’s performance.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

The Dream of Chiclets

Yes, indeed, that is a giant, floating Chiclet!
Terror In the Morning…Terror In the Evening…Terror in Their Vitamins!?

The story leading both the Post and Times today reveals that the current terror threats on various financial buildings, breathlessly announced by Tom Ridge on Saturday and excitedly exploited by Bush and Cheney in their stump speeches, were actually based on information 3 to 4 years old. Nobody, in fact, is sure that any of the information is current.

Here’s an interesting tidbit from an article in today’s Post:

More than half a dozen government officials interviewed yesterday, who declined to be identified because classified information is involved, said that most, if not all, of the information about the buildings seized by authorities in a raid in Pakistan last week was about three years old, and possibly older.

"There is nothing right now that we're hearing that is new," said one senior law enforcement official who was briefed on the alert. "Why did we go to this level? . . . I still don't know that."

I think that quote probably gets right to the heart of the matter, and given the animosity between so many in the intelligence community and this current administration, probably fairly representative. It’s all about how the Bush administration chooses to “analyze” the intelligence given (or, more precisely, cherry-picked for) them, isn’t it?

Monday, August 02, 2004

Pictures of Home

For those who might be interested, there are now some pictures available of our home here. We’ve made a lot of progress over the last couple months endowing our place with little touches that give it the personal character that we hope to take solace in and magically impart to our visitors. We still have a ways to go but we’re definitely getting there.

I can also vouch for the excellence of Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, the 1986 documentary about his relationships with half a dozen or so Southern women, General Sherman’s devastating march through the south during the Civil War, fears of Nuclear Holocaust (there’s an incredibly poetic moment where McElwee’s remembers being in Hawaii as a small child, standing on a beach in the early morning hour with hundreds of others in hopes of catching a glimpse of a Nuclear Bomb test taking place over 800 miles away), Burt Reynolds, his family and assorted other meanderings that are always interesting. There are numerous moments when folks yell at him to put his camera down (one woman, a former teacher, berates him: “Put that damn thing down…this is life!”) but for the most part they either talk freely to the camera or, perhaps more interestingly, allow for a certain camera-inducing histrionics to inform their delivery.

What surprised me the most were the moments of intimacy McElwee captures. In one scene he and a former girlfriend have a feverish conversation one room removed from a dinner party they’re both attending where she tells him why she can’t be his lover. In other scenes he records himself narrating to the camera late at night from the living room of his home, whispering for fear of waking up his father who is already deeply skeptical of the validity of his son’s chosen career as a first-person documentary maker. Other scenes show women primping in bathrooms, applying make-up or brushing their hair. Sometimes we see McElwee’s image captured in a mirror, camera held to his eye with one hand and while the other thrusts a microphone toward his subject. It seems absurd, but you end amazed by his audacity.

Luckily, too, he has an engaging personality. His voice is naturally melodious- soft and even-keeled with a wickedly dry sense of humor and delivery. His musings are always interesting and well observed and oftentimes genuinely moving.

Sadly, Sherman’s March is the only work of his currently available on DVD. It comes highly recommended.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Ross McElwee

Both the current issues of Cineaste and Film Comment have fascinating interviews/columns with/on “American’s foremost practitioners of the first-person documentary, Ross McElwee.

I’m intersted in a lot of what he has to say, especially as I’m hoping to make my own first-person documentary over the next year, but he's also clearly thought a lot about how video can effect our memories and the stories we tell. Here are some excerpts taken from the Cineaste interview.

McElwee:…So in a way it’s a question that may not come up for most people. But for me, it’s important to experiment with the reuse of footage, because that reflects a very human experience: replaying scenes from your past in your mind and having a very different reaction to them as the years go on. Specific moments, interactions I have with people I’m close to, ripen in different ways as time goes on. They take on different meanings, and I’m interested in how film can explore and convey the process.

Cineaste: Film is kind of magical that way, isn’t it? Don’t we all feel like we might remember things right? And there, twenty years later, is the same strip of film.

McElwee: I think it’s going to be very interesting, by the way, to see what happens with this digital generation of parents who have recorded their kids’ every footstep. People were shooting a fair amount of super-8 film in the Sixties and Seventies. But it was expensive and difficult to load, and editing it was extremely time-consuming. Most people didn’t edit their footage; most footage was not viewed more than once. Digital video, or video in general enables parents to keep a constant record of a family as it grows up. So that very question you raised- “Am I remembering this correctly?”- needn’t be an issue. People can just go back to the data bank and see exactly how little Jimmy spooned his peas into his mouth at age four. There’ll be a record of it. And how strange is that?

That’s such an interesting question: what is it that gives certain people the kind of presence that justifies their being in a nonfiction film, in a documentary film? Passion. Charisma. That edge of eccentricity perhaps. Somehow they’re able to convey some depth of sincerity and soulfulness about themselves that I wouldn’t describe as star power.

Speaking of the power that these films have over us, I wonder about people in your movies over whom that power has obviously been exerted to an extreme degree- Barry, the video collector in your new movie, and you yourself. You are constantly talking about being overtaken by the power that filming has.

McElwee: There’s a pathology there that is not just a joking matter. Yes, this notion of constantly wanting to capture reality as much as humanly possible is a kind of neurosis. It’s also one that’s perhaps more pervasive that it ever has been. We have a proliferation of readily available digital, and now computer-based and web-based, technology, where making movies has become much easier than writing a novel or a poem. Now, technically speaking, almost everybody can make a movie. It’s interesting to think about the pathological aspects of this addiction to filming, this desire to interact with reality by filming it. It’s also a theme that I’ve played up or exaggerated slightly with my own filmmaking.

I’ve often said about Sherman’s March (McElwee’s 1986 documentary, which I just got from Netflix, but have yet to watch) that, even if you were able to hire actors and actresses who performed all of the parts perfectly and shot them on location in the same places and directed it as though it seemed exactly like Sherman’s March, it wouldn’t work as a movie. There’s something about the fact that it’s nonfiction that ends up making a difference. There’s something that happens in the back of the viewer’s mind as you watch Sherman’s March or as you watch Bright Leaves, that’s constantly registering the fact that, in some way, this is really happening. and that’s very hard to recast as fiction in a way that’s successful. There are films that have tried, like Spinal Tap. It’s a kind of ‘mockumentary.’ It’s a joke that you accept. You just go with it, and it’s entertainment, but it’s not the same thing. It doesn’t have the crunchy edginess that comes with nonfiction.

Cineaste: You seem to be saying a version of that when you find the super-8 film of your parents’ wedding in Time Indefinite. It’s sui generis and could not be recorded.

McElwee: Right. Technically you could, especially these days with digital effects. You could create grain and light structure that would make it look exactly like that wedding film of long ago. But it wouldn’t be the same. the fact that I say it’s a roll of film that I found has a lot to do with how your react to the scene. A switch has gone on in the mind of the viewer, I think this happens because of what I say about the film, but it still has a lot to do with the quality of the filmed image- its grain, its somewhat awkward framing, its occasional unsteadiness, and the slight edge of self-consciousness readable in the person being filmed. Still, I remember very distinctly the numerous times, during a question and answer session after Sherman’s March, someone would stand up in the audience and say, “I love this film. Who wrote the script? Has Charleen acted in other movies?” There is a part of the viewing public who just take these films as fiction. though a title card explains at the beginning of the film that these are real people, it just doesn’t seem to register sometimes.

Morning Becomes Computer

It’s past midnight, contrary to what the time stamp of this post reads. (All post times still
adhere to Pacific Time.) Its been a long day.

I originally woke up around 2:00 am and wanted very much for the day to begin. It’s rare to awake at such an early morning hour and want to do anything but numbly eye the clock, gage the time and gratefully zonk back into the deepest of slumbers. But last night I felt anxious with unidentifiable expectations, as if in the wide expanse of a summer Saturday I was bound to fulfill things long unrealized. The night felt too long. I managed 3 more hours of sleep before 5:00 am rolled around and scooped me out of bed, handing me a Diet Coke with lemon for my troubles and sending me down to the computer.

But why, I have to wonder- and not without a tinge of guilt- the computer first thing? There was the obligatory scan of Yahoo’s news headlines, the cursory scanning of the Tribune weather page and the momentary suspense of checking my e-mail- all done between groggy sips of cola without any pause to wonder if this was what got me out of bed at 5:00 am feeling so much expectation.

And this expectation, it should be noted, wasn’t the fretful tossing and turning variety- it was more of a gee-whiz Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart meets Norman Rockwell kind of idiot glee- and it had me up and sitting dumbly in front of the computer so that it wasn’t until nearly 7:00 that I finally asked, “Is this all?”

Now, it’s 1:17 am, over 19 hours later and this very same expectation is running on fumes. What was it exactly and did I quench it? I think so. Tonight I intend on letting 5:00 am pass by unrecognized. I’m aiming for 7:00 am mixed with a couple heaping t-spoons of a mid-afternoon nap.