Documentarian Ross McElwee literally has one of the most distinctive voices in cinema. Where other first-person filmmakers tend toward the loud and chummy, McElwee speaks in a halting, drawling whisper, and adopts a detached tone that's not so much neutral as ecumenical. His films are informed by cinéma vérité, the avant-garde, and the personal touch of regional filmmaking, but they're mainly noteworthy for being cine-essays that don't take firm positions. McElwee likes to hear what people have to say for themselves, and he listens respectfully, with real curiosity.
There's a misperception that McElwee's movies are exclusively about McElwee himself, but the six films in The Ross McElwee DVD Collection are more about documentaries' inability to capture the full complexity of life, especially in the modern American South. In Backyardshot in 1976 and completed in 1984McElwee films his surgeon father, but when the camera keeps jamming, he leaves the hospital and explores his Charlotte neighborhood, and ends up making an unforced study of contemporary race relations. McElwee's narration focuses on his relationship with his family, but his camera lingers on shots of an elderly black gardener weeping at the wedding of his white boss' daughter, and a kindly old white woman singing children's songs about "little pickaninnies."
The 1980 film Charleen is also tangentially about race, at least insofar as race affects Charleen Swansea, McElwee's high-school poetry teacher, who slugs away in the Charlotte school district teaching African-American kids the power of language. Charleen is a dynamic character who has reappeared in nearly every subsequent McElwee film, but an hour of her is a little hard to take, especially since this is McElwee's most puritanically vérité project, with no laconic narration to frame the action. McElwee found his voice for good on his 1986 breakthrough Sherman's March, which processes his troubles with women, his compulsive home-movie habit, his anxiety over nuclear proliferation, and the history of the American Civil War into one long, low-pitched moan.
After Sherman's March established McElwee as a wry artisan, he let some fans down with 1994's Time Indefinite, which seemed at first to merely rehash Sherman's March's themes of fractured relationships and the ineffectuality of art. But though Time Indefinite is often fumbling, it's in many ways McElwee's centerpiece work, as he deals with a new marriage and changes in his family by trying to preserve them on film, to process later. The all-but-ignored 1996 film Six O'Clock News extends the conceit, as McElwee develops a fascination with TV news coverage of natural disasters, and becomes a "storm chaser," following tornadoes and hurricanes across the country and interviewing people who've survived the storms as well as the press. Like Sherman's March and Time Indefinite, Six O'Clock News questions whether anything that happens in life matters if it isn't being filmed.
McElwee found a poignant answer in 2003's arthouse hit Bright Leavesa moving, knowing film about Southern legacies, and how people take from the past what makes them feel better about the future. It's his loosest work since Backyard, only casually touching on the topic of North Carolina's tobacco-based economy, while returning again to the idea of how McElwee can lock his experiences into a motion-picture frame. Through the magic of editing, he can have a "nice colored couple" sing to his now-dead father, and cut to his dad's reaction. And he can watch his own son grow up in less than a minute of screen time. For decades, McElwee has wondered how to simultaneously live life and record it, but in Bright Leaves, he seems to quietly conclude that films make a fine substitute for memory.