Ross McElwee - Time Indefinite (1993)

Autobiograhpical filmmaker Ross McElwee uses his camera to record various events and people in a cinema verite style, often taping conversations he is having at the time he is having them. Much of the film is accompanied by his personal stream-of-consciousness voice-over recorded after the footage is shot. In Time Indefinite McElwee deals with many things in his life, but ends up focusing on death in his family and in his friend Charlene's life. The final scenes deal with he and his wife's newborn son.


The defintion for indefinite includes meanings such as "having no exact limits or no limits at all" and "not precise or clear in meaning." A central content issue that McElwee addresses in Time Indefinite is the concept of death. Death is the inevitable limit in boundless time; yet like time it is vague and abstract. After a somewhat rapid succession of events, McElwee is forced to deal with death's presence throughout his family. Because of his chosen autobiographical format, the viewer receives extremely personal, first person reactions to this universal issue as well as being shown its comparable effects on others. Unlike the detachment felt when filming his blood test, the filmmaker finds that the camera does not dissipate or explain the pain of loss. It does, however, provide the medium for an interesting and ambiguous account of man's reaction to something as serious and indefinite as death.

McElwee begins his emotional and intellectual struggles with death somewhere around the middle of the film. He suffers the death of his grandmother, his wife's miscarriage, and his father's death one soon after the other. This timing intesifies the effects of these catastrophic events to the audience and establishes this subject as a focal point for the rest of the film. When McElwee returns to his father's home, he finds life carries on there as it did in the past; the same man mows the lawn as he has done for years, and the unused piano receives its yearly tuning. These small details place death in the context of a "time indefinite" that endlessly leaves things in the past through its continuation. McElwee and the viewer are now more sensitive to death as the film accentuates the extermination of bees at his father's house and the last moments of a fish on a pier. The filmmaker poses the question of existence and its limits but cannot find an answer. Similarly, he cannot find anyone to articulate the pain of his father's passing; he eventually turns the camera on himself to talk about his family and death. Still, he cannot resolve these issues and ends up using voice-over narration to drown out his ramblings.

Unable to cope in a satisfactory manner with his loss, McElwee visits the advisory figure in his earlier success Sherman's March as well as this film, Charlene. The viewer learns of her husband's tragic death in a fire a few years back, and she has also had problems dealing with this issue; she keeps the ashes of her husband stored away in a plastic bag in a closet. It is a disturbing image when she brings out the bag full of gray particles and talks of this jumbled mass being her late husband. Also quite unsettling is the fireman's talk of identifying the presence of a body during the fire by the smell. Charlene expresses a desire to sprinkle Jim's ashes in the ocean but cannot bring herself to do it, worried that the fish and sharks might get them. McElwee states later in the film about how he wanted to keep death from becoming abstract, and it seems that Charlene feels the same way. She refers to the ashes as Jim, as if they still contained the essence that was her husband. Furthermore, she expresses concern over the well-being of the ashes and prefers to keep them safe in the closet instead of sprinkling them in the water. The film shows that Charlene still struggles with her pain, and her way of dealing with it seems both distorted and sad. McElwee has a sense that dispersing the ashes and "letting go" would be the best thing but realizes that his inability to deal with his own situation does not afford him an guiding role. One feels sorrow for Charlene, usually knowing and confident, now seeming very unsure and confused. McElwee doesn't get the example or answer he undoubtedly had hoped for in coping with this situation, except perhaps that there is no answer.

It is vitally important for the film to show the worth of life, and even more so, the great tragedy of death when these issues are constantly cheapened, glossed over, romanticized and exploited in today's popular fictional cinema. Death has become something to laugh at, an unimportant plot device to further the storyline; it's used to give the story an 'edge' or to easily manipulate the audience's emotions. Perhaps that's why the Charlene segment is so unsettling—because it is real. In a dark comedy, a woman holding on to her husband's ashes for fear that the sharks and fish will eat him would be comical. But this film presents this attitude in a way that its absurdity only adds to the feeling that death is too enigmatic and difficult to handle in a normal way. That McElwee addresses this subject in a serious manner by putting his own personal painful experiences onto film is admirable and makes for an interesting viewing experience.

McElwee sticks basically to the verite style he utilized in Sherman's March. There are more static shots and outside footage in Time Indefinite, however, establishing it as a more pensive and serious work as opposed to the improvisational and whimsical feel of the earlier film. The monotone voice-over narration, while adding to the sarcastic wit of Sherman's March, functions equally well in adding to the overall melancholy of this film. The long shots of clouds outside an airplane window emphasize the filmmakers meditations on more abstract and spiritual concepts. Although McElwee finds no direct answer to his questioning of how to deal with death, he finds solace in the love for his wife and child. On the plane ride back home he comments on his failure to "corner death with his camera" but also on how much he missed his wife. The birth of his son overshadows his fixation suggesting that finding hope in new life is the easiest way to cope with death. Perhaps he also finds some comfort in having his family preserved on film in a "time indefinite."

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More about Ross McElwee here.

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