By turns thought-provoking and self-indulgent, Ross McElwee's "Six O'Clock News" is another autobiographical documentary from the filmmaker who gave us "Sherman's March" and "Time Indefinite." Pic aired on the PBS "Frontline" series during its premiere showcase at the Sundance Film Festival. Even so, it may find a receptive audience at colleges, film festivals and other nonprofit venues. As he explains in the opening minutes, McElwee was inspired to begin his latest effort when, shortly after the birth of his first child, he started paying closer attention to the natural and man-made disasters covered in TV newscasts. Disturbed by the randomness of the terrible events, McElwee found himself wondering just what sort of world he had brought his child into.
Pic begins in earnest when McElwee sees a report of hurricane damage in a South Carolina coastal community. Curious about what may have happened to an old friend who lives in the area, McElwee impulsively visits her. Once he ascertains that she has survived — and, more important, she remains confident enough to rebuild her damaged home — McElwee moves on to investigate “the story behind the story” of other televised disasters.
His journeys take him to Arkansas, where he interviews a Korean immigrant businessman whose wife was killed during a robbery, and to Arizona, where he photographs a couple while they are photographed by news crews as they inspect their tornado-damaged trailer home. Later, during a business trip to the West Coast, McElwee catches up with Salvador Pena, an immigrant worker who generated much media coverage when rescuers spent eight hours digging him out from the rubble of an L.A. earthquake.
During each of these three segments, McElwee respectfully — but also a bit skeptically — notes how people often find strength to survive tragedies through their deeply held religious beliefs. At docu’s end he finds another inspiring example of human resilience when he pays a return visit to his friend in South Carolina.
“Six O’Clock News” starts out promisingly enough, as McElwee announces his intention to meet people who become unwilling TV stars — or, as he puts it, “characters” in a drama — because of devastating tragedies. As long as McElwee sticks to that game plan, his pic is intriguing and, at times, quite funny. At one point, he gets a crash course in how to remove spoiled food from a refrigerator several days after a hurricane-triggered power outage. At another point, he shares the amusement of the Arizona couple as they see the varying ways different TV crews edit their interviews.
Too often, however, McElwee turns inward, devoting unconscionably long stretches to long-winded philosophizing and tedious navel-gazing. A sequence that has him filming himself being interviewed by a TV news crew in his Boston apartment is funny but largely irrelevant. And when he takes a meeting in Hollywood to discuss the possibility of directing a “real movie” — that is, a comedy loosely based on his first-person documentaries — the joke wears thin very quickly.
To be sure, this sort of self-referential stuff is the documaker’s stock in trade. But McElwee simply isn’t as interesting as the other people whose stories he supposedly wants to tell. “Six O’Clock News” takes far too many discursive detours, and feels padded by a good 20 minutes. A sharper focus and more disciplined editing would have helped a lot.