Ross McElwee's followup to his tongue-in-cheek 1986 documentary SHERMAN'S MARCH delves into darker territory, but remains stubbornly humorous as well as poignant. At age 39, McElwee decides to film his family's annual reunion, organized by his father in North Carolina, choosing the occasion to also announce his engagement to filmmaking partner Marilyn...read more
Ross McElwee's followup to his tongue-in-cheek 1986 documentary SHERMAN'S MARCH delves into darker territory, but remains stubbornly humorous as well as poignant.
At age 39, McElwee decides to film his family's annual reunion, organized by his father in North Carolina, choosing the occasion to also announce his engagement to filmmaking partner Marilyn Levine. The family, who had given up hope that Ross would ever marry, is overjoyed--even down to his
invalid grandmother, who nevertheless still wants him to shave off his scraggly beard. McElwee continues to film everything leading up to the nuptials, though he is beset by nagging doubts. Marilyn's gynecological exam ends with her doctor's happy proclamation that Marilyn is ready for "baby
city." Ross isn't so sure that he is.
McElwee returns to his home city of Boston, where dinner with his teacher/mentor and a bachelor party with fellow filmmakers don't help. The teacher, at 67, has just split with his girlfriend of 27. Meanwhile, talk at the bachelor party revolves mainly around divorces and broken love affairs.
Nevertheless, the wedding proceeds as scheduled, and soon Marilyn is happily pregnant. With shocking suddenness, however, Ross's grandmother and father die, and Marilyn has a life-threatening miscarriage. After recuperating, Marilyn goes away on a film shoot, leaving Ross to wander back to his
family and try to make sense of this sudden tragedy. Death, he observes, seems to visit his family every 10 years--his mother had died 10 years earlier and his brother 10 years before that--but that doesn't make it any more understandable. His father's death was a particularly hard blow, since he
had been perfectly healthy before a heart attack took his life.
Searching for clues to the riddle of mortality, Ross obsessively films everybody, from friends and family to a passing Jehovah's Witness, whose Biblical quote provides the film's title. It also provides Ross with something of an explanation for filming and documenting his family, which, he says,
preserves them in "time indefinite." He never really finds answers to his big questions, however, which only leaves him more depressed. Something as simple as an exterminator ridding his house of a bees' nest prompts in McElwee a fit of morbid musings. He finally finds some kind of renewal in
filming the 50th wedding anniversary of his family's maid, and in Marilyn's second, successful, pregnancy.
TIME INDEFINITE shares with SHERMAN'S MARCH McElwee's wry, gentle sense of humor, as well as its sadness. In the earlier film, McElwee avoided the grisly subject matter that he had in fact been commmissioned to film--Sherman's bloody march to the sea at the end of the Civil War. Instead, while
following Sherman's route, he focused on his own relationships with women he met along the way, as well as his hilarious attempts to obtain an interview with Burt Reynolds. Despite the humor, the film was shot through with an underlying sadness at the seeming impossibility of love, and the
correlative possibility that all human beings are fated to live in loneliness and isolation.
In TIME INDEFINITE, McElwee is obviously unable to avoid the subject of mortality. Yet, when the film confronts death directly, it gets strangely banal. The maid's anniversary and McElwee's new baby provide only routine uplift and artificial closure. It is, rather, McElwee's humor--which has an
odd way of forcing its way through even in the film's darkest moments--that make TIME pass with a constant feeling of surprise. With no small amount of amazement, McElwee documents one of his brother's patients, who had denied the existence of a festering tumor on her breast for years before
having it treated, which leads him to his film's real conclusion--that life is really only possible through an irrational denial of death.
TIME INDEFINITE is almost the inverse of McElwee's earlier film. SHERMAN'S MARCH counterpointed its essentially humorous subject with an underlying sadness; in TIME, an overall sadness is colored by a restless sense of humor. In both cases, the tragedy of life is transformed through our
observation of it, and in both films, Ross McElwee emerges as a unique and compelling filmmaker. (Adult situations.)