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?
McElwee: 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.
Cineaste: 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.
McElwee: 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.