America’s preeminent film diarist, Ross McElwee is some kind of national treasure, a sympathetic, cogent, witty cinematic voice that would make for seductive reading, satisfying a contemplative intercourse we’ve long since learned not to associate with movies. This library must-have features McElwee’s entire massive quarter-century-plus autobiographical epic—second only to (and vastly more accessible than) Jonas Mekas’s corpus, it’s our largest and deepest movie portrait of a life lived from behind a camera. McElwee’s coup is his ordinariness—nothing cataclysmic ever happens to him.
Sherman’s March (1986) is still surely the most satisfying two-and-a-half-hour documentary ever made about romantic inertia. But here you also get the shorts that led up to it: Charleen (1978), which introduced the world to the titular family friend and all-around irresistible belle vivant, and Backyard (1984), where we first tasted the sugary-tart oddness of the McElwee clan in repose. Time Indefinite (1993) and Six O’Clock News (1997) record the decade of his eventual married-with-children domestic bliss—and they’re no less wry and fascinating. Bright Leaves (2003) takes a pre-menopausal detour into the pasts of both his family (a tobacco empire found and lost) and Hollywood (which may have co-opted the McElwee tale in a forgotten Gary Cooper film). McElwee’s life project is far from over; you get the sense that American nonfiction film won’t “get” old age and death until McElwee gets there himself, filled with fear and forgiveness. Extras include McElwee interviews, outtakes with commentary, notes, stills, music, where-are-they-now? bio sketches, etc.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 15, 2005