Ross McElwee dismisses the notion of personal documentary, a descriptor that too neatly identifies his style. Though the term “personal” might appeal to his ontological beliefs, his films are never “purely” or systematically autobiographical: each looks to other people for its content. Like all vérité filmmakers, he relies heavily on serendipitous events – what Dziga Vertov called “life caught unawares” (1). His method can be more aptly described as deflective than reflexive. He enters the frame as a person primarily to neuter his presence as a filmmaker. While his films might include a large amount of autobiographical content, McElwee can never be said to be the subject of his own films. Having begun his creative life as a writer, studying under John Hawkes, he accepts William Faulkner’s maxim that “[i]t is himself that every southerner writes about.” However, McElwee’s vision, like his ironic posture, is always double. He finds in his own story the key to unmasking deeper social truths about racial inequity, Southern heritage and white masculinity.
Backyard (1984), McElwee’s first film in the autobiographical mode, was shot four years before he returned to his footage in the editing room. In the time between, he had already completed several more-or-less-traditional vérité shorts. All were shot while he was a student at the MIT Film/Video Section, using the generous school resources allowed students at the time, and under the combined and sometimes contradictory influences of Ed Pincus and Richard Leacock. Two later films pointed toward his future preoccupations. Charleen or How Long Has This Been Going On (1980) appears a relatively reserved profile of his former teacher and long-time muse, Charleen Swansea. Swansea would be a major figure in his subsequent autobiographical work, but in this early film she takes centre-stage. Another, Space Coast (1979), resembles Vernon, FL (1982) in its commentary-free and highly ambiguous portrayal of Floridian oddballs. Though each of these films skirt themes that would become central to his future projects, neither contains the autobiographical elements that would make Ross McElwee one of the most famous documentary filmmakers of the 1980s.
After completing the program at MIT, McElwee revisited some footage he had taken while visiting his North Carolina home in the summer of 1978. The footage was intended to comprise two films, both portraits in the manner of Charleen. One focused on a local African American beekeeper named Clyde Cathey, another on McElwee’s younger brother, who was on his way to medical school, following the career path of both his father and his grandfather. As he shot the footage, he felt “this interwovenness between the lives of Clyde and the other black people who worked around our house and my father and my brother; and it seemed artificial to try to pry the two stories apart” (2). In the editing room, McElwee devised a strategy to combine the footage into a single film about the South.
In contrast to his brother, Ross McElwee was in his early thirties, jobless, and pursuing a career as a filmmaker. A transplanted Southerner, McElwee had felt disconnected from his birthplace, and these feelings were exacerbated by the early death of his mother, his father’s remarriage and McElwee’s glaring failure to maintain his family’s ideal of Southern manhood. These anxieties permeate the footage as McElwee turns his camera on Clyde the beekeeper, the African American caretakers employed to maintain his family home, his surgeon father at work and at home, and his younger brother Tom as he prepares to leave for school. Explaining how all this footage came about through voice-over in the completed film, McElwee says, “I wanted to make a film about the South, which for me meant making a film about my family.” In retrospect, his family extends beyond blood relations to the people he knew and loved as a young man growing up in the South.
McElwee matches the problem of his Southern identity with the problem of subjective representation. As Edward L. Ayers has pointed out, “The very story of the South is a story of unresolved identity, unsettled and restless, unsure and defensive.” (3) Likewise, the story of documentary is one of the instability of the subject as pictured by a questionably objective observer. While reviewing the footage that became Backyard, McElwee noted how these seemingly separate problems could be resolved by combining the formal transparency of Chronique d’un été (Parius 1960) (Chronicle of a Summer, Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch, 1961) and the subjective interactivity of Ed Pincus’ Diaries (1982):
When you start taking on part of the burden of the narrative and the interactions yourself, you can lose one level or dimension of this kind of complexity. The interaction begins to be simpler, more perpendicular to the camera. The complexities and interactions that once existed between people in front of you now exist between the person in front of you and yourself. Often, you’re giving up the observed detail that reflects the depth and multi-leveled complexities of the world, both visually and sociologically. What you’re getting instead is a self-reflective complexity, one that turns back on itself. (4)
McElwee discovered that he could simultaneously untangle his misgivings about both the South and autobiographical film by acknowledging those problems indirectly. His “self-reflective complexity”, one that registers several layers of autobiographical and social meaning in every image and interaction, is confronted with humorous irony, a benign duplicity that gives way to the revelatory power of vérité while bypassing the posture of objectivity.
Backyard opens over a slideshow of images. The first picture shows McElwee and his father, standing at a distance but next to each other in a long shot. In voice-over, McElwee says, “Before this film begins, I have to tell a story about my father and me.” McElwee tells how, after he left the South for college in the Northeast, he and his father “disagreed about nearly everything”. The camera flips to another snapshot, obviously taken at the same spot, but this time with McElwee and his father contemplating each other in medium close-up. McElwee says that, after he graduated from college, his father asked him about what he planned to do with his life. McElwee, providing answers to his “conservative Republican” father that can be defined as both hostile and flippant, lists a few impractical things he might pursue, including “working with black voter registration in the South or getting involved with the peace movement or entering a Tibetan Buddhist monastery”. The screen moves to the next image, with McElwee and his father again facing the camera, still in medium close-up, as indifferent as strangers. McElwee says his father answered, “Son, I think your idea of career planning leaves something to be desired, but I’ve decided I’m not going to worry about you anymore. I’ve resigned myself to your fate.” McElwee thinks this over. “Well, Dad, I guess there’s nothing left to do but accept your resignation.” Fade to black.
This preliminary scene goes a long way toward establishing McElwee’s newly adopted persona and instructing his viewers on how to interpret his film. Of course, when he claims that he must first tell the audience a story before he starts the film, he’s being mildly disingenuous. The film has clearly begun, the slideshow merely a signal to the audience that this is a different kind of film, one that mimics the experience of flipping through a family photo album. The nature of the snapshot – mute, a spur to reflection, distantly familiar – provides McElwee an entry into this new style of autobiographical film, as if to say, “The picture you are about to see represents the truth as remembered by the filmmaker and events as they are understood from a distance.”
McElwee’s anecdote scans like a joke, but one that is distinctly revealing and serious. His impudent choices in prospective careers act as an indictment of his father’s traditional Southern worldview. Black voter registration had historically been the province of white Northern liberals. The peace movement of the mid-to-late-1970s positioned itself in stark opposition to conservativism. Protestantism was the preferred religion of Southern white males. McElwee’s provocative responses, his declaration of independence from the ideal of Southern manhood that his father represents, garner a dismissive repartee from his father, and McElwee in turn extends that half-serious dismissal with deadpan finality. When he returns years later as a filmmaker, his goal as a documentarian of inserting himself into the lives of his subjects joins hands with his personal goal to regain his lost sense of family and therefore his sense of his Southern identity.
After a title card, McElwee appears onscreen, inexpertly playing Beethoven’s Fur Elise on the family’s grand piano. He proceeds in fits and starts, flubbing chords again and again before admitting in voice-over, “I guess about the only thing my father and I did agree about was my decision not to try to make a living with my musical abilities.” His quip contrasts ironically with the sombre composition and forecasts his career-long approach to set-up shots in which the filmmaker addresses the camera directly. Here, probably due to the limitations of his bulky sound equipment, he uses his piano practice as a cutaway to illustrate his voice-over. In future films, he again flubs such shots, narrating from a lavaliere, but embracing what amount to pratfalls in the shooting. In Sherman’s March (1986), he drunkenly addresses the camera, still dressed in Confederate regalia from an earlier costume party, whispering so as to avoid wakening his father, who “already has enough questions about the validity of [his] film project”. Later, McElwee contemplates one of the pivotal locations of Sherman’s campaign briefly before taking a wrong step on the levee and sliding down into the water. In Bright Leaves (2003), while he is “dogged” by new information that has rendered his entire project dubious, the shot is repeatedly interrupted by an errant puppy, which appears “as if from nowhere”. Such instances undercut his presence as a filmmaker while bringing to the forefront his flawed humanity.
McElwee doesn’t only use such mishaps as formal devices, but continually employs them thematically. Patricia Hampl notes that McElwee’s use of such footage, while unacceptable in generic documentary filmmaking, serves a narrative purpose in McElwee’s more reflexive cinema. “McElwee assumes that he is telling a story, not showing it; the failure of the camera can be used effectively as part of this story – but only if the voice says so.” (5) In Backyard, McElwee extends the symbolism of the camera and his status as a filmmaker, further disconnecting his way of life from that of his father.
McElwee contrasts the technical glitches that plague him as he struggles to capture footage around the house with the way the distance allowed by the camera eased his discomfort at watching his father ply the family trade. After noting that the camera relieves his nausea at the sight of blood in his father’s operating room, McElwee admits failure when he seeks to record a more intimate moment: “It seemed that, all too often when I tried to film my father, my camera malfunctioned.” Twice more during the course of the film, McElwee experiences technical difficulties while filming his father that reinforce his notion of separateness. (6) After one occurrence, his father says, “I’ll be glad when that big eye is gone.” McElwee, the autobiographical filmmaker, can only hope that his father’s sentiment isn’t personal.
Because his camera separates him from the traditions of white Southern masculinity to which he was born, McElwee’s liminal status gives him a unique perspective on issues of race. As James C. Cobb notes,
When whites insisted that the blacks who sweated in their fields for starvation wages and bore the crushing burden of Jim Crow were satisfied and happy, many observers simply embraced the counter-fallacy that all southern blacks were hopelessly, totally, and eternally alienated from the place where they had seen so much injustice and hardship. (7)
Though he’s established himself as a Southern transplant with white liberal leanings – someone whose own brother has taken to calling him “the Yankee” – McElwee is not so far gone as to misapprehend the complexities of race relations in the South.
Left home alone with the African American retainers who tend to his father’s house and yard, McElwee turns the camera on Lucille and Melvin Stafford, two people who played large roles in his southern upbringing. Over footage of them both having lunch in the family kitchen, he says, “As I grew up in the South, I never questioned the fact that black men were taking care of the yard, while their wives were taking care of me.” Ruminating on his relationship to these people who lived out their lives in such close proximity to his family, but like him were somehow held separate, he cuts to footage of his grandmother, idly singing songs she thought might be useful to him. (8) He claims to have been “especially struck by the lyrics to one of her songs”, which details the story of a “piccaninny” who is emotionally hurt when he is out playing and is rebuffed by a group white children. In the final lines, the child’s “mammy” urges him, “Go out and play as much as you please, but stay in your own backyard.” The episode having illustrated the persistent irony that his place of leisure is their workplace, he locates the intersection of race in the South in the family home – right in his own backyard.
Even though McElwee presents a version of the backyard that acts as an intersection of racial interaction, his white neighbours guard the boundaries of their private space jealously. An early scene pictures Melvin Stafford in the McElwee’s backyard, attempting to start a lawnmower. In the background, two dogs bark viciously at Melvin from behind a neighbour’s fence. Annoyed, McElwee asks Melvin from behind the camera if they are always like this, having to repeat himself to be heard over the din. Melvin replies, “Yeah, well we’re getting close to the fence … I get used to it sometimes.” Melvin, who respects the fence, backs away, while McElwee closes in to get a shot of the dogs through the overgrown brush. While McElwee can commiserate with Melvin’s outsider status, he is unready to accept the conditions of his separateness. Later, McElwee “encountered a neighbour on a mysterious mission”. Stationed on the McElwee’s side of the fence, the man is staking out his property after hearing of some neighbourhood break-ins. A woman up the street had walked in a couple teenagers who were stealing electronics equipment. The man posits that it might be exciting if the intruders returned while the camera is running, but McElwee is more interested in capturing possession than imposition.
McElwee goes on to note the differing reactions to the camera by his African American caretakers and his family members. In one sequence, Lucille prepares breakfast while Tom reads the morning paper. McElwee’s younger brother is visibly disturbed by the presence of the camera, shielding his face by placing his hand over his forehead. He asks of Lucille, “That’s [McElwee’s] camera … Do you like that?” Lucille’s quick response that “It don’t bother [her]” seems to take Tom by surprise. Indeed, Lucille and Melvin are the least reactive subjects of McElwee’s camera, accepting the gaze in stride, accustomed to being present but unaccounted for. The same doesn’t hold true for many of the other African Americans that McElwee films during the period.
Exiting the private space of his backyard for the social space of the country club, McElwee attends the wedding of a girl, Kitty, whom he knew in high school. For McElwee’s family, Kitty represents the kind of good Southern girl Ross himself should have married. Here again, McElwee is viewed as an outsider, and the celebrants tease him by asking if he is filming a “porno flick”, his intrusion into the ceremony striking them as somehow vulgar. Retreating into the recesses of the wedding reception, he films Clyde, the beekeeper who works for McElwee’s family and who has also worked for the bride’s family since she was a little girl. Clyde, visibly touched at the occasion, struggles to congratulate his “sweetheart”, but is somewhat lost in the tumult. As Clyde sees the bride and groom off in their limo, he seems more attached to her than she to him. These people, so central to private lives, continue to live at the margins of social experience.
McElwee remains at the country club following the wedding, at first filming young golfers before turning his camera on the club’s African American employees. As he films what might have been intended to be an establishment shot in front of the club, an African American worker crosses the shot to a flagpole in the centre of the lawn before he notices a problem. He’s arrived too late; the flag has already been taken down for the day. Years later, McElwee relates the serendipitous nature of the shot in an interview with John MacDonald:
It’s fascinating that the black guy who has been sent out to lower the flag walks the entire distance and begins undoing the rope before he looks up and notices the flag isn’t there. For me there’s a lot of meaning in the downward gaze. Somehow he’s learned not to look up very often. That’s very sad. And then he walks back to the side door of the building, crossing paths with the country club member in the white dinner jacket who goes in the front door … pure serendipity. It’s the magic of these kinds of films that now and then, with a little patience, you get a very complicated scene, shot very simply, that unfolds like a flower right in front of you. (9)
Though McElwee’s footage of African Americans close to his family in the private space of his backyard reveals a complex intimacy, his filming of African Americans in the public space confirms notions of social inequity.
As if to follow the African American into the place of his exile, McElwee then follows through the side door and enters the club’s kitchen. In contrast to the family kitchen, where viewers might be surprised to witness Tom’s casual intimacy as he sneaks up on Lucille at lunchtime and plants a kiss on her cheek, the club’s kitchen is a space of narrowed racial distinctions and an almost palpable hostility. The young men employed by the club are clanging the dishes loudly, joking with each other over the noise of work. When one notices McElwee and his camera, he asks, incredulously, “Why you rolling that on us?” However, the camera still seems to defuse McElwee’s presence as any kind of authority figure. Only when another white man – separated from the other workers only by the colour of his skin and his tall white hat – enters the room do they fall quiet while continuing their work under a much more restrained racket. The chef approaches the camera to medium close-up, his raised eyebrow and smirk indicative of an inside joke between himself and the white man behind the camera, and asks, “Filming all the dirt in here?”
These scenes illustrate how black and white social relations play themselves out under the long spectre of a traumatic social history. However, McElwee’s relationship to Melvin and Lucille Stafford is more clearly defined by a shared personal history. One early scene features Lucille putting several boxes of shoes into a garbage bag. The scene seems to capture a mundane task, with Lucille roughly removing the shoes from their boxes and stuffing them into the garbage bag, but McElwee reveals in voice-over that Lucille had been given the last of the clothes belonging to his late mother. Lucille had been hired to keep up the house while his mother was dying of cancer, and McElwee later implies that the traumatic experience so bound Lucille to his family that she stayed on after his mother’s death as a matter of course, even though his father had remarried. Later in the film, when McElwee is pursuing details of his mother’s death, the same intimacy of trauma that ties him to Lucille will strike to the heart of his relationship with his father and brother.
However, these shared tragedies don’t always transcend racial boundaries. When McElwee accompanies Melvin and Lucille to visit Lucille’s brother in the hospital, his camera first registers as intrusive in the presence of an African American; the filmmaker himself first registers as white. Lucille’s brother, mute and immobile, having recently undergone a tracheotomy as well as experienced a series of heart attacks, sits as if on display in front of the group who has come to visit him, which includes Melvin, Lucille, their pastor and McElwee. Lucille senses that her brother is uncomfortable and asks him what he needs as he motions helplessly. She puts forth a number of guesses before they both give up and then the group stands in silence before the seated patient. Eventually, the others shuffle off, but McElwee remains in the room, his camera trained on the dying man, who rubs his forehead in frustration. As McElwee moves closer, the man looks up, motioning with his hand what might pass for either a wave but also a kind of resigned threat. The man is frowning and his eyebrows are raised to the camera. Again, the intention of these motions is slightly ambiguous, but the effect is plain. McElwee has ventured too far into a private space. By intruding, he has tested and confirmed his otherness.
Just as the camera sometimes serves to deemphasize McElwee’s status in matters of race, it continues to have the opposite effect in matters of family. Where the camera reveals the tight bonds of history that unites McElwee to Melvin and Lucille, it likewise serves to highlight the disconnect he feels from his father and brother. Most of the scenes of McElwee’s father that manage to evade camera malfunction feature the relationship between his father and Tom. McElwee films these interactions coolly, always the outsider. His burgeoning autobiographical style has yet to provide him an entry into the lives of what he views as typical southern men. If, as Trent Watts suggests in his introduction to White Southern Masculinity in the Recent South, white Southern manhood is still a matter of “mastery and independence” built on economic stability, McElwee is wilfully failing the ideal of which Tom is in active pursuit. (10)
In one scene, to which McElwee will return again and again in future projects, his father helps the young medical student practice tying sutures on a lamp in the family study, pleased to be passing on the family trade. In another, Tom and their father discuss financial matters pertinent to medical school. Tom insists that his father give him the money directly so that he might write personal checks as if the money were his own. McElwee’s father tacitly accepts Tom’s insubstantial and impractical but urgent rehearsal of “mastery and independence” as McElwee’s camera rolls. Later, in the only truly interactive scene between McElwee and his father, the two struggle to raise a volleyball net in the backyard while Melvin mows in the background, preparing for Tom’s going-away festivities. Frustrated with the tangled net, his father asks, “What I don’t figure … is how you think this is worth wasting your expensive film on?” His father’s unwillingness to extend Ross the same hopeful indulgence regarding finances as he does Tom is central to gulf that lies between them.
McElwee and Tom spend the last day before Tom leaves for medical school together. That morning, McElwee films his brother shaving. When his reflection in the mirror strays into the frame, McElwee quickly moves away. After second thoughts, he repositions his reflection in the frame. In the foreground, his younger brother, already balding, tanned and shirtless, lathers his face for a shave. In the background, we see McElwee onscreen for only the second time during the film. Bearded, shaggy, and rumpled, his camera propped on his shoulder, older brother stands in stark contrast to his younger sibling. Later that evening, he accompanies Tom to the airport and, as if in response to his initial foray into the frame, belatedly commits to autobiographical interactivity. In voice-over, he tells the story of his mother’s death. McElwee was in his last year of high school, home alone with his father and mother. His mother was convalescing from her most recent surgery to treat her cancer, had returned home and “seemed to be doing fairly well, but one night she collapsed in the hall”. His father found her first and proceeded to give her artificial respiration, “calling for [him] between breaths”. They phoned for an ambulance, which arrived quickly, but his mother had already died in their arms.
Though McElwee knew that her death was at least tangentially related to her treatment, he never found out the exact cause of her death. Sensing that his brother’s medical training and relationship with their father might give him insight into the matter, McElwee questions Tom about her death. He’s shocked to discover that his younger brother is likewise clueless. The perceived intimacy between his father and his younger brother did not extend to matters so central to McElwee’s understanding of his relationship with his family. We are left with the revelation that McElwee’s shared experience with his father in that hallway binds them tighter than degrees of proper southern manhood possibly could. McElwee’s impotent position as spectator to his mother’s death, which has presumably exacerbated his feelings of separation when he returns home as a filmmaker, proves as illusory as the prospect of objectivity in documentary filmmaking. Observation is intimacy, in this case an intimacy denied the brother to whom he has felt so inferior in his father’s eyes, and his failure to accommodate for his own presence in any given moment has damaged his personal relationships and stymied his evolution as a filmmaker.
McElwee ends his film with a cutaway shot through the window of his home into the backyard, where Melvin perpetually mows their lawn. In voice-over, McElwee reasserts the regularity of life at home, “where basically things go along smoothly, just like they always have”. The understatement renders all the more resonant the lasting aspects of the preceding film, not least of which is the birth of McElwee’s autobiographical style. Indeed, as Godfrey Cheshire observes, Backyard “is almost uncanny in how fully it announces the themes, subject matter, style, and even several of the main characters of his future work” (11). McElwee continues his autobiographical project in future films that he calls “chapters”, venturing further and deeper into the American South, each revisiting the intersecting private and public spaces of Backyard, “[t]he themes invoked reach[ing] beyond the filmmaker’s own family history … to indicate a dogged personal itinerary that has now become an encompassing cinematic odyssey.” (12) In all we encounter the persona born here, ever more revelatory and refined – Ross McElwee’s signature –shrewdly unrefined style.
- In Vertov’s most famous experiment to this end, he literally hides the camera from his subjects, a device that is the mirror opposite of modern documentary’s foregrounded subjectivity.
- Scott MacDonald, “Southern exposure: an interview with Ross McElwee”, Film Quarterly, 41.4. Summer 1988, p. 19.
- Quoted in James C. Cobb, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 337.
- MacDonald, p. 21.
- Patricia Hampl, “Memory’s Movies”, in Charles Warren (Ed.), Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), p. 56.
- Again, McElwee will return to this thematic device in future films. For instance, during one of the sections of Sherman’s March, while the actress Pat demonstrates exercises that target the cellulite on the back of her thighs, he “accidentally” turns off his tape recorder. The silent footage that remains gives the moment an uncomfortable, almost comic sensuality and works to exacerbate the confusion that attends his romantic and thematic pursuit of ideal Southern womanhood.
- James C. Cobb, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 262.
- This episode was actually filmed much earlier, an example of McElwee’s willingness to bend chronology to fit his whims. Chronological narrative was central to Pincus’ project, a gesture to cinéma vérité ontology. Pincus originally intended to screen all 27 uncut hours of his footage. Practicality won the day.
- MacDonald, p. 17.
- Trent Watts, “Introduction”, in Trent Watts (Ed.), White Masculinity in the Recent South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008), p. 8.
- Godfrey Cheshire, “Roots”, Film Comment, July-August 2004, Vol. 40, No. 4, p. 14.