Friday, October 03, 2014

Time Indefinite (1993)

USA, 114 minutes, documentary
Director/writer/photography/editor: Ross McElwee
With: Ross McElwee, Marilyn Levine, Ross McElwee Jr., Charleen Swansea, Dee Dee Gerarty, Lucille Stafford, Melvin Stafford, Adrian McElwee

As much as anything, Ross McElwee's ruminating and lovely documentary Time Indefinite is about transitions—from nothingness to life, from being single to marrying, from life to death, the classic transitions around which we construct our most profound rituals, updated to the age of media. Sherman's March may be the better known of McElwee's idiosyncratic personal documentaries, wherein he impishly conflates Civil War atrocities with his own inability to stay coupled, but Time Indefinite extends a few years and clicks of maturity the preoccupations with love and life and expectation and disappointment, bringing something more sober often missing in the earlier project (though Sherman's March is definitely worth seeing too and may be the better picture).

In Time Indefinite, which explicitly makes all kinds of connections between home movies and formal film structure, McElwee is notably fond of the moment when the film runs out of the camera, and the casual reality in which we have been immersed suddenly, jarringly, turns into scratches and sprocket holes, black screens of intractable interruption. It's apparent from what we see that McElwee is the kind of guy who shows up to every event with a camera on his shoulder and a viewfinder in his face. His friends and family are variously tolerant and exasperated, often looking directly into the lens and telling him to shut off the camera. There are times I want to tell him the same thing. But then the sudden shifts and amputations inevitably bring their own disappointments. Just when it was getting to the good part....

In the two years or so covered by Time Indefinite, a good deal happens in McElwee's life. In his late 30s and early 40s, he is having one of "those" periods. He marries (finally, and much to the relief of his family). His wife becomes pregnant and then miscarries. His grandmother dies. His father dies, unexpectedly. And, finally, his wife becomes pregnant again and this time they carry it to term. Through it all, McElwee maintains the stoic poise of the cameraman's gaze, though his voiceover tells stories that belie the calm, and indeed there are periods of weeks and months in the middle of all this when he is uninterested in shooting.

McElwee declares himself "obsessed with death," and evinces an affect barely a notch above depression. The shtick veers close to the predictable precincts of Woody Allen and other familiar East Coast neurotics, who live lives of great privilege that afford them these indulgences. (I don't exclude myself from the judgment, though I've never lived in the East.) At one point McElwee even sits down with the camera to have a long talk with himself about death, fear, obsession, etc.

Yet somehow he transcends these problems. For one thing, he actually seems to know he's a little silly and avoids most impulses to dignify it. For another, he is surrounded by interesting people who care for him, and the details of whose own remarkable and unremarkable lives come to flesh out many of his most powerful themes. His friend Charleen Swansea is here again, for example—a regular in many of his pictures, even the subject of one. She takes him by a house where she once lived, or the house that is on the property now, a replica of the house she lived in built by a subsequent owner, and she relates the story of how her estranged husband killed himself in it by burning it to the ground and dying in the fire while she was away on a vacation, after they had separated. She is puzzled why the subsequent owner rebuilt it exactly. She has never set foot in the new house.

McElwee's genius just might be that he knows everyone has some story or complicated knot of stories like this. Our mothers and fathers die. We marry and divorce. Miscarriages and abortions happen, and children are born too. Sometimes children die. We move on. We stay put. One thing and another happens. And when the time comes to tell the stories, they are as vivid and moving as they are pedestrian. Ultimately that is the real beauty of Time Indefinite, the point that haunts me, makes me look at everything differently, and keeps me coming back to look again. Our lives are remarkable and unremarkable—every one—with stories that are at once unbelievable and all too believable.

The title comes from a biblical phrase used by a Jehovah's Witness who comes knocking on the door of McElwee's father's house to proselytize shortly after McElwee's father's death. He didn't know about the death, he's just knocking on doors and carrying the good word. Or maybe that should be the worrisome word, because he's full of the usual warnings of imminent gruesome apocalypse and God's salvation as the only way to survive. It is a lovely scene, with the gentle and humble man bearing his message (harsh though it may be), that we live all life in time indefinite, that nothing can be taken for granted, things change swiftly and often in cruel ways, and yet, even so (following McElwee's parallel train of thought), the beauty around us is manifest and overwhelming. I can't even recall him using the word grace but it is all over this picture.

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