South Carolina-born, Boston-based filmmaker Ross McElwee continues his series of diary films, the best known of which is SHERMAN'S MARCH (1986), with this record of his quest to learn more about people whose shattered lives he sees on television news broadcasts. The conclusion--that
people pick up and carry on with their lives as best they can--isn't too surprising. Unfortunately, neither is much else in this film. McElwee meanders, ready as always to pursue any interesting digressions, but few come his way.
1993. Since his last film, TIME INDEFINITE (1991), McElwee and his new wife Marilyn have had a son, Adrian. Confined to the house, he becomes obsessed with watching the news on TV, which offers a seemingly endless parade of people in the worst moments of their lives. When he sees that Hurricane
Hugo has devastated the Carolina island where his old friend Charleen lives, he goes there with Charleen's son to be with her. Having suffered the death of her husband and the loss of her previous house to fire, Charleen wonders if she can start again, and says that if she knew about the
unpredictability of life when she was younger she would never have had children.
After diversions with a neighbor who obsessively tapes old television shows, and a tabloid TV show that interviews him for a segment, McElwee decides to hit the road and get a closer look at some of the people he has seen on the news. He meets Steve Im, a Korean immigrant whose wife was brutally
murdered; John and Caroline Noeding, residents of an Arizona trailer park that was destroyed by a tornado; and Salvador Pena, who survived the collapse of a parking garage in a Los Angeles earthquake. In between, he entertains an offer to direct a fictional film for Miramax, and (while in Los
Angeles) observes the filming of an episode of "Baywatch." Three years later, as he edits the film we are watching, violence strikes his neighborhood in the form of a shooting at an abortion clinic; soon after, he films Charleen meeting her grandchild for the first time.
Like Woody Allen and Henry Jaglom at their best, Ross McElwee has the rare gift of being able to share his self-absorption in a way that makes it universal. So what SIX O'CLOCK NEWS lacks is something that would be a drawback in most films--there is too little of the filmmaker. Aside from the
usual worries of a first-time parent about the state of the world that the child is entering, McElwee seems to be at a happy point in his life, and it's a sad cliche that happiness is dull, at least in art. McElwee's concern about what he sees on television come across as too much a matter of
form, that the few seconds of people suffering from this or that tragedy in no way paint an adequate picture of their lives; his feelings don't provide a base or inform the film the way his loneliness did in SHERMAN'S MARCH, or his fear of nuclear war did in TIME INDEFINITE.
Still, even if SIX O'CLOCK NEWS is a lesser McElwee film, there is enough dry wit to please his fans, particularly during his encounters with Hollywood and when he is interviewed for a TV show and finds himself jockeying with the show's cameraman for position. (As always, McElwee films
everything.) It's nice to renew our acquaintance with both him and his friend Charleen (though it saddens us to hear of the troubles she has been through). Like the seven Brits whose lives have been charted in the series of 7 UP films, McElwee has become a friend we enjoy catching up with every
few years, even if (because he operates his own camera), we seldom actually see him. (Adult situations.)
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