Don’t hide behind the camera
My dad bought a video camera in 1982, shortly after my older sister was born. It was a bulky Panasonic that shot to a videocassette. He filmed the obvious things: Halloween and Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. The camera was a fun, terrifying device. My sister and I would shriek and cover our faces whenever it appeared on his shoulder, with its tiny, blinking green eye. My dad asked the same questions at the beginning of every shoot: “What’s your name?” “How old are you?” “What day is it today?” “What are we doing?” His movies seemed intended for weird, wide audiences, people who didn’t know that you ate turkey on Thanksgiving or what a latke was. In 1986, the filmmaker Ross McElwee released “Sherman’s March,” an autobiographical documentary about a series of romantic misadventures during a road trip through the American South. His subjects, like my sister and I, seem confused by what one does in front of a camera, unsure whether they should dance or run away.
“Sherman’s March” was a hit, despite its length (nearly three hours). It won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, and until the mid-nineties was ranked as one of the highest-grossing documentary films of all time. In the first minutes, McElwee explains that he has received a prestigious grant to retrace the journey General Sherman took during the Civil War. And, though his road trip mostly adheres to Sherman’s route through Georgia, the true goal of his research is to find a girlfriend. The film has a rebellious spirit—its creation was a slap in the face to grant providers and to the conventions of historical documentaries.
McElwee and the many filmmakers who have been influenced by him tell autobiographical stories without revealing very much about themselves. Their purpose isn’t self-expression but, rather, to question the capacities of their medium. One promising disciple is Alex Karpovsky, most famous as Ray on “Girls.” In his documentary “The Hole Story,” Karpovsky sets off to make a movie about a single spot in a Minnesota lake, which appears to be impervious to freezing. When the hole does, in fact, freeze shut, the film becomes a story about the filmmaker’s relationship to his craft and to failure. Like McElwee, Karpovsky is teasing his viewer, confounding the distinction between filmmaking and experience. It’s not clear what Karpovsky is doing for the story’s sake and what he’s doing for himself, or whether there’s ever a reliable distinction between the two.
When “Sherman’s March” came out, McElwee fielded a lot of mystified questions about his methodology: Why the interest in turning the camera on himself? When, if ever, did he put his camera down? One critic asked him, “Is there a sense in which you use the camera as a weapon?” Twenty-five years later, this exchange seems quaint. And, technically, in “Sherman’s March,” McElwee uses his camera not as a weapon but as a pickup line. McElwee’s persona is Southern and mannered, and filming is his method of flattery. It works—his female subjects are eventually convinced that his lens is an extension of his heart.
This was before CCTV, reality television, and cell phones. In McElwee’s world, cameras have to be accounted for. “I pondered my sister’s suggestion that I try to be more outgoing with my camera, and that I think of it as, perhaps, a way of meeting someone new,” McElwee says near the beginning of “Sherman’s March.” In his later films, like “Time Indefinite” and “Bright Leaves,” the camera remains a central character. In “Time Indefinite,” McElwee, unmarried and thirty-nine, attends a family reunion and takes out his camera because without it he feels rudderless among the Southern doctors whom he counts as relatives. “I guess in some ways I’ve always felt more comfortable filming the family rather than starting one myself,” he says.
McElwee’s newest film, “Photographic Memory,” which came out late last year and was released on DVD today, is not as self-assured as his previous work, in part because the camera’s purpose isn’t clear. McElwee, now in his sixties, travels to France, where he spent a listless year when he was younger. His goal is to track down old acquaintances and lovers and to recall what it was like to be young and purposeless—much like his twenty-year-old son, Adrian. This time, McElwee is experimenting with video. “For the first time, I’m shooting with a camera that uses only memory cards. No film stock, no videocassettes—which makes me a little nervous,” McElwee says. “I mean, what if the camera’s memory fails? It’s bad enough that I don’t quite trust the memory of the cameraman.”
McElwee rarely documents scenes of conflict. Instead, he describes tense moments and relationships in retrospect, in halting, uncertain speech. His voice-over has the effect of being improvised, with “I mean” and “maybe” punctuating nearly every sentence. “Sherman’s March” begins with a short monologue in which McElwee recalls the way his most recent girlfriend broke up with him. In “Time Indefinite,” he alludes to a difficult relationship with his father, but we never watch it play out onscreen. In “Photographic Memory,” his wife is oddly absent, and her opinion of his mission to seek out ex-girlfriends goes unacknowledged. McElwee challenges his viewers to respect his privacy, and in return his films never have a dynamic of unearned disclosure. He seems beholden to Bob Dylan’s belief that “after a while, you learn that privacy is something you can sell, but you can’t buy it back.”
In part, McElwee can be precious about his privacy because he is comfortable. He chats openly about the fact that his father is a doctor; he interviews his parents’ housekeeper. He’s been a professor at Harvard for decades and depends on grants to make his films. He’s insulated from market trends. Few filmmakers today have this luxury. They have to fund their movies on Kickstarter. They sell their ideas—and themselves—on Twitter and Facebook. Branding is part of the job. “If they’re forcing you to do all that nudity, just tell us. Give us a signal,” Tina Fey told Lena Dunham during this year’s Golden Globe awards. “We’ll call child services for you.”
But the ethic and style of self-preservation has not been passed on to the next generation, at least not in McElwee’s family. “Photographic Memory” prominently features McElwee’s goofy, entitled son, Adrian, who is angered by his first impression of adulthood. Adrian glances up from his cell phone only to demand that his father buy him a new car. He later commands that his father fetch him a coffee. McElwee, in turn, chastises his son for drinking too much beer. Their arguments are petty and ordinary and exasperating. McElwee is still an artist of everyday life. It’s just that his everyday life has become decidedly less charming,
Like his father, Adrian often carries a video camera. He wears it while skiing, and while drinking with his buddies. Unlike his father, Adrian aspires to be wealthy. “You might as well make life a complete video game—an acid trip—if you can make it that way,” Adrian says. “You know, if I could have a helicopter, and a penthouse on the top floor of a skyscraper, and live ridiculously every day, I would.” (“Where did you get those values?” his father responds.) Adrian has eschewed his father’s mastery of self-editing, keeping his camera on at all times. He seems to think that recording his every move is somehow scandalous, when, in fact, it’s quite boring to watch. Adrian doesn’t seem to consider his audience; McElwee’s movies succeed because he leaves his viewers wanting to know more. One wishes that more autobiographical filmmakers would follow his lead, and sometimes put down their camera.