All too often, nonfiction filmmakers set out to document what they already believe to be true. Ross McElwee allows himself to be distracted from his goal, taking pleasure in getting sidetracked along the way. Fans of his meandering autobiographical films should be delighted to get a more thorough look at his oeuvre in this collection.
All too often, nonfiction filmmakers set out to document what they already believe to be true — that McDonald’s makes you fat (“Super Size Me”), that presidents make mistakes (“Fahrenheit 9/11”) and so on. Ross McElwee allows himself to be distracted from his goal, taking pleasure in getting sidetracked along the way. Fans of his meandering autobiographical films (a select but hardy group) should be delighted to get a more thorough look at his oeuvre in this collection, featuring “Sherman’s March,” “Bright Leaves” and four new-to-DVD treasures.In “Sherman’s March,” McElwee famously ditched his plan to make a straightforward portrait of the New South by way of Union General Sherman’s warpath. Instead, he submitted a 2½-hour survey of his peculiar encounters with ladies he romanced along the way. More recently, in “Bright Leaves,” a wild goose chase over the McElwee family’s lost tobacco legacy yielded a striking study of how the tobacco industry has shaped the South. Though McElwee’s wry running commentary would come to characterize his later films, the set’s earliest entry, “Charlene,” permits only minimal onscreen narration to intrude upon its feisty portrait of McElwee’s irrepressible friend and mentor. Contrary to the misprint on the DVD case, “Backyard” wasn’t completed until 1984. An upscale home movie into which McElwee’s usual concerns freely creep, “Backyard” features McElwee turning his attention on his family and himself for the first time. Rounding out the set, “Time Indefinite” offers yet another conceptual detour as a film intended to chronicle marital bliss instead finds McElwee coping with family tragedy, while “Six O’Clock News” investigates the real people behind nightly news stories, contrasting the “reality” of McElwee’s patently nonobjective style with soundbite-driven, retake-permissive standards of TV newsgathering. Though supplemented with deleted scenes from “Sherman’s March” and “Bright Leaves,” along with McElwee-themed episodes of “Split Screen” and “Egg,” the films themselves are presented in lackluster transfers that belie their lo-fi origins (the VHS versions can’t look much worse). Ultimately, the material speaks for itself, and McElwee’s maverick spirit continues to inspire.