Backyard (1984) – directed by Ross McElwee, starring Ross McElwee and Dr. Ross McElwee

by Margaux Williamson

(I had the south on my brain – I felt like sitting in the south, outside, for a bit. I thought of Ross McElwee, who made the pretty great Sherman’s March. I poked around the library and found another movie of his whose title also refers to a specific location in the south,“Backyard”. )

Ross McElwee, returning from a northern college, is back at the family home in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has brought his moving picture camera with him.

The movie begins with a still picture of the Ross McElwee, who is the director of “Backyard”, and his father, Dr. Ross McElwee. The doctor is wearing a pale southern suit and has graying hair. Ross is wearing running shoes and has a beard. They look good and kind of like the same white man playing two very different parts. Ross is holding his camera in the picture. He’s holding it like some people, in still pictures, hold a fish or a gun or a baby – like an important piece of information. The two men are, ever so slightly, leaning away from each other.

Over the still image, Ross tells us that his father disapproves of his career path – a career path that involves that moving image camera. I think about the doctor sending his son off to college in the north and then the son returns with a camera – a camera that is, for the most part, pointed directly at the doctor’s face. It is hard to match up values sometimes.

After the still photos, we move in real time around the house, the backyard, the country club, the hospital. Ross films himself and other people who work or reside around these places. There are banal activities, racism, celebrations, rides on golf carts and work. There is not much talking or explaining so we mostly get to know people by what they do.

The doctor goes to work a lot. At work, he cuts into people’s bodies and fixes their organs. It is hard to argue against the value of that career. When the doctor comes home, he sees his son sitting in a chair filming his backyard.

There is the African American couple, the Staffords. Lucille Stafford cooks and cleans for the McElwees and Melvin Stafford takes care out their backyard. We see them working more than the doctor works since “the backyard” is where they work. The Staffords seem more comfortable being filmed that the young white people who periodically show up in he frame, whose working lives are not shown but who often request sandwiches. I think they are students.

There is a neighbour seated on a chair in a thicket behind a fence. He is wearing a suit. His self-appointed job is to keep himself hidden and his eyes on a house in the distance. He is anticipating a mid-day break-in. There have been a few break-ins around the affluent neighborhood in the backyard and he thinks he might catch the criminals if he waits. His job is the one that, technically, most resembles Ross’s job.

It is not an easy day in the south, but it is intimate and complicated and quiet and interesting. All of these good things were established right away in the first moving image scene of the movie. In this scene, Ross films himself, alone, playing the family piano. The piano is out of tune and Ross plays it kind of badly. It is not like he has his tongue sticking while he tries to make an ugly face – it is him trying to be good and failing. It’s pleasurable and even strangely soothing to watch him play with sincerity and mistakes and without frustration. It is not an apologetic scene – just one with a lot of information about Ross and maybe of what is to follow. If there is bad behavior or human mistakes caught with his moving picture camera, it will not be too surprising if some of them are his.

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