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Ross McElwee: A Climate of Addiction and Existential Dread

Highlights from Issue 19: The Rebels+Outlaws Issue

Bright Leaves director Ross McElwee on location in a North Carolina tobacco field

Photo by Adrian McElwee

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Wednesday, August 25, 2004

By Nicolas Rapold

A CLIMATE OF ADDICTION AND EXISTENTIAL DREAD

Filmmaker Ross McElwee lights up the documentary world

By Nicolas Rapold

One of America?s premiere nonfiction filmmakers, expat Southerner Ross McElwee, has perfected his own version of the autobiographical film in a series of thoughtful journeys, by turns comic and tragic, personal and universal. First-time viewers of his engaging 1986 classic, Sherman?s March, usually wonder how they went so long before experiencing his careful blend of heartfelt sincerity, sensitive intelligence, and eye for the comic and idiosyncratic. After the wrenching, soul-baring Time Indefinite (1993) and the concerned father?s musings on media in Six O?Clock News (1986), McElwee looks homeward again with Bright Leaves (2003), to reflect upon cigarette smoking and whether Gary Cooper really played his great-grandfather, tobacco magnate John Harvey McElwee, in a Warner Bros. melodrama.

Stop Smiling: Bright Leaves is more playful than your last two movies. How do you get comic moments with a verit? approach?

Ross McElwee: Well, there?s no formula. These films are fairly organic. They come out of material that I find as I am on the road filming, and I don?t set these things up in advance. But once I begin filming, if I see the comic potential in a moment or a situation or a person, I definitely follow it. But I knew the film couldn?t be purely comic, because ? though there are a lot of funny things you could say about cigarettes and tobacco perhaps ? they still destroy a lot of people?s lives. So there needed to be some sine wave between dealing with the seriousness of the subject and also acknowledging the surreal, existential humor of it all.

SS: The tobacco parade is one surreal moment, with the whole folk culture behind it.

RM: My own feeling is very affectionate about the tobacco parade and the whole culture that comes out of it. That?s the culture I grew up in. And yet I can see there are just surreal things about it, and I?m very upfront about acknowledging that in my narration. The surrealness has become part of what I love about that small-town world.

SS: Your second cousin is fascinating, in his ranch house full of film reels. He must have a variant of whatever film gene you have.

RM: Precisely. He?s the other side of the gene. He?s the projection gene and I?m the filmmaking gene. Somehow we were connected and never knew it. We grew up less than an hour apart from each other, and here was this person with this marvelous collection and this passion for films, for everything connected to films, the lobby cards, and the popcorn boxes. Everything ? stuff that I filmed but ultimately could not keep, because you could make a whole separate film about John.

SS: He?s a great foil for Vlada Petric?s academic antics.

RM: Vlada, of course, takes it to the uber-university level and imprisons me, berates me, with his knowledge of film history and theory in a way that finally I can?t tolerate anymore, and I break the bonds of my wheelchair and flee. Although we really didn?t rehearse any of that, it just kind of unfolded. All his idea.

SS: One running item in your films is that your career choice was unconventional, especially coming from a family of doctors. Now you?re a leading documentary filmmaker. How does that feel?

RM: The main pleasure is that it has enabled me to keep making films and pretty much on my own terms. That?s a real luxury, and I?m just very happy about that. But when I announced my intentions of becoming not just a film director but a director of documentary films, my father for one was quite puzzled, because what does that mean? That has to mean you?re either making nature films or science films for television. And I knew there was this other tradition. It was Fred Wiseman, D. A. Pennebaker, the Maysles. Don?t Look Back was perhaps the widest-seen of those films. It simply was a very obscure thing to want to do.

Now not only is there some satisfaction of personal recognition, but it?s also being part of this recent groundswell of interest in nonfiction that has now lasted for three or four years. Who would have predicted this? This has really been quite exciting. At one point last summer, there were nine feature-length documentaries, different titles, playing in theaters in Boston on one day. So it?s no longer an obscure thing that you have to explain to people.

SS: Your particular take, the detoured journey, is also better represented.

RM: Yeah, I would say that?s probably true. That?s okay; there?s plenty of room for everybody. It?s tricky, this whole notion of taking a journey and not knowing where. But I think films with those dynamic abilities to change are much more interesting.

SS: In your last movie, you described the six o?clock news as the unwilling and unwitting home movie for the victims of its various horrible tragedies. In Bright Leaves, the Gary Cooper melodrama becomes your family?s home movie.

RM: It?s this notion of home movies being the simplest and the most primitive way in which we interact with the reality of the world ? in this particular case, the reality of our own lives and the lives of our family. Which seemed like an interesting starting point and return point in my films, to explore what it means to make these images, as a documentary and even as a fiction filmmaker. What I?m trying is to allow , the original Warner Bros. film, to seep into my movie, and then for the two films to have a kind of dialogue. The title Bright Leaves is meant to imply more than one version of .

SS: It?s filmmaking as a way of reflecting on life, the personal essay approach, doing it yourself, as opposed to ending up on the news.

RM: ?Essay? is exactly the word I use to describe these films, but often I try not to. I have a friend named Ralph Arlyck who used to describe his films that way, and then somebody once said, ?Oh, you mean like Thoreau?? Meaning, that academic stuff we had in high school. That?s not what?s meant by these. These are much more flowing and unpredictable and I hope engaging than the drier meaning of essay as we understand it.

SS: Do you have any particular favorite essayists?

RM: Well, actually, Thoreau is one of my favorites. But also people like Joan Didion, John McPhee, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe. They were more important to me when I was in college and wasn?t even thinking of being a filmmaker. Those people ? Elizabeth Hardwick was another ? provided interesting perspectives on how to shape a world and create a voice that actually is very firmly planted in real events, things that were really happening, not fiction, and that stayed with me. Although a few key documentaries were much more influential in shifting me in that direction.

SS: You?ve screened Bright Leaves now internationally, recently in Australia and most notably at Cannes. How do non-American audiences respond?

RM: The response was terrific. There?s no place on earth where people don?t light up. So that?s something that?s a universal experience. My sense was that people could connect because it?s not so much the medical fact of addiction, more the philosophical or psychological notion ? why we flirt with things that perhaps we shouldn?t, leading you to questions about your own mortality. And cigarette smoking in a very compact and elegant way makes you face all of those questions.

Where I really noticed a response to the film was in France at Cannes two years ago. It got an incredible standing ovation. It got picked up for distribution in France. And the French probably smoke more than any people on the planet. They could really relate. Because I bring all of the thought behind what smoking allows, the existential thought of it. Sartre wrote that without smoking life wouldn?t be worth living. So the French were appreciative that the film acknowledged not only the problem of an industry based on tobacco (particularly American industry), but also the essential humanness of smoking and how we are a species that is a little inclined toward self-destruction and addiction, and that?s part of what we are.

Despite Paris, France is largely a rural nation. It?s a nation that?s always prided itself on its farming. They could relate to a rural culture and coming from a rural culture.

SS: Sherman?s March had a great subtitle. I was wondering how you might subtitle Bright Leaves.

RM: Interesting question. Nobody?s ever asked me that before. Something like, A Consideration of the Pleasures and Dangers of Nicotine in an Era of Media Image Proliferation. Or, A Consideration of What It Means to Make Films in a Climate of Addiction and Existential Dread.


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