Daily Archives: October 7, 2018

Smoke and Mirrors

From the Chicago Reader (December 3, 2004). — J.R.

Bright Leaves

*** (A must-see)

Directed and Written by Ross McElwee

As a filmmaker who’s always philosophizing about his family, his southern heritage, and the meaning of life, Ross McElwee can get a little high-flown at times. The funniest shot in the latest installment of his autobiographical saga, Bright Leaves, brings him down to earth a bit — and shows that McElwee actually may have learned something from the deflation. The shot occurs toward the end of the film and there are several reasons it’s so funny.

(1) A noisy dog is following McElwee as he threads his way through a kitschy sculpture garden, whose relevance to the story remains obscure. Is it cemetery statuary? Whatever it is, it’s a visual and narrative non sequitur that only adds to the screwball ambience.

(2) The growling dog, seen near the lower edge of the frame, recalls a smudgy, minimalist black-and-white comic strip drawn by David Lynch between 1983 and ’92, The Angriest Dog in the World. (The graphics of the four panels in each strip were almost identical — the same dog angrily pulling at the same chain in a fenced-in backyard — but the introductory words and the balloons of dialogue coming from someone unseen inside the house were always different.)

(3) McElwee complains offscreen that the appearance of the dog “ruined the shot,” then does a second take showing him calmly traversing the same space without it.… Read more »

Flirting With Disasters [SIX O'CLOCK NEWS]

From the Chicago Reader (April 24, 1998). I’m not sure why, but this is one of my long reviews for the Reader that appears to have disappeared from their web site. — J.R.

I’ve seen Ross McElwee’s documentary Six o’Clock News (1996) twice, on video about eight months apart, and each time there was a moment roughly halfway through when I felt that he was finally about to turn a corner as a filmmaker. This Boston-based North Carolinian is known as an independent autobiographer, yet what I’ve come to appreciate most in his work are those moments when autobiography leads him away from himself to other people.

His old friend and former teacher Charleen, for instance, is a far more vibrant presence and far wiser commentator than he is in Charleen (1978), Sherman’s March (1986), and Time Indefinite (1993). Of course, McElwee’s personality and style of filmmaking are what makes a Charleen possible, filmically if not existentially, so extracting her from his works would be as difficult as removing Falstaff from Shakespeare or Humphrey Bogart from the cozy miniature environments of To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Yet the points at which McElwee’s appreciation of Charleen fuses with mine, turning him into a vehicle rather than a destination, are the moments when he functions as a journalist.… Read more »