UNDERGROUND USA: INDIE CINEMA OF THE 80s - Early Shorts by Ross McElwee

Charleen or How Long Has This Been Going On?

McElwee’s tender portrait of his high school poetry teacher, Charleen Swansea, is a close encounter with an enigmatic, wild, unruly, and tenacious woman, credentialed as friend, teacher, poet, and student of Ezra Pound, among other things. Impossibly charming, Charleen is constantly pulsing with energy—be it fury or joy—and McElwee attends to this with immense sensitivity, his twin admiration and fascination purely transmitted and infectious; there’s great pleasure taken in observing her—to put it simply, the camera loves Charleen.

Dir Ross McElwee, 1980, 16mm, 54 min.


Initially conceived as two docs, Ross McElwee established his unmatched essayistic style with this project—about a beekeeper, his brother, and as one can always expect from his work, much more. Both Southern and personal mythologies are at play, woven together by the kind of simultaneously minute and expansive gestures for which McElwee is known. Drawn to the racial tensions that he grew up with, still deeply felt, McElwee focuses his camera on the presumed uses and understandings of private and social spaces, filming his family members and the staff he grew up around with the understated precision for which he went on to be celebrated.

Dir Ross McElwee, 1984, 16mm, 40 min.