“You go out and find some interesting people. You get to know them and film them, and you make something that says something about who they are; you learn to make movies that have some meaning.”
– Les Blank
London’s Open City Documentary Festival presents 45365, Tchoupitoulas and Western and a masterclass with the Ross Brothers 22-25 June 2016.
In 2007, brothers Bill and Turner Ross quit their Hollywood day jobs, picked up a pair of Panasonic DVX100s and returned to their hometown of Sidney, Ohio to make a movie. Bill had swiped some MiniDV tapes from the company where he’d been editing blockbuster movie trailers (“I’d look at dailies of big movies and editing them was an education,” he said) and Turner left a solid career working in art departments and building film sets. “After a few years in Hollywood, Bill and I had learned a lot, but we’d also grown frustrated putting all our energies into other people’s projects,” said Turner. “It just wasn’t the soulful life that had set us down that path. So we made a pact to take a year and see if we could do it. Make our own film.”
Two years and 500 hours of footage later, they had their movie, 45365 (the zip code of Sidney), which won the top documentary prize at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival and later an Independent Spirit Award. Their intimate and nostalgic portrait of place introduced the world to the brothers’ deeply humanistic filmmaking style that remains one of the most recognisable and influential in American documentary. Many filmmakers (including myself) in this era of cheap cameras and accessible editing systems had dreamt of making the kind of DIY, present-tense portrait of their hometown that the Rosses achieved with such cinematic grace. With their subsequent films Tchoupitoulas (2012), River (2013), Western (2015) and Contemporary Color (2016), the duo has expanded the idea of what it means to make movies about a place and its people.
In 2009, at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina, I walked up and introduced myself to two scruffy Midwest hipster cowboys and I’ve been part of the Ross brothers story ever since. They’ve been drinking buddies, trusty collaborators (we’ve shared multiple edits of each others’ films and I helped shoot Contemporary Color) and fellow travellers ever since we spent one rainy Durham evening ‘nerding out’ about Fred Wiseman. Writing about close pals is always tricky but it’s perhaps appropriate with the Rosses, because for them filmmaking and living life aren’t separated. There isn’t an on/off switch. They live and breathe an adventurous ‘cinema as life’ attitude that can be seen in how they walk, talk and create movie images. So the best way to understand their films might be to get to know them.
“Documentary is all things: life, adventure, music everything. All of your interests: Graphic design, photography… everything,” said Bill. “You’re out and you’re in the world, and you’re interacting with people. You’re having love affairs, and you’re climbing a mountain, and you’re jumping into water. Documentary allows you to do that. And because of the technology, it can just be with my brother. I don’t need 100 people behind me to do this. I can just say here’s the adventure I want to go on, and the camera is my ticket.”
Few filmmakers embody the ‘just make a movie’ ethos that has dominated American documentary filmmaking since the advent of MiniDV quite like the Ross brothers. Their films match their live-for-the-moment attitude; it’s like the adventure would be happening anyway and you’ve just been invited along. “Life first. Curiosity and intrigue first. Sincerity first. Each project encompasses broad swaths of our life and energy,” said Turner. “So if the pursuit of these films isn’t a holistic endeavour, what’s the point? And if the creation of the thing is dead and anaesthetic and stultifying, what can we expect the results to be? If it’s vibrant and passionate and personal, then the transmission is going to espouse those qualities as well.”
It seems likely that the Rosses would be dancing in the streets of New Orleans with kids or drinking beers with bull riders in Texas with or without their cameras. Their films are built on resonate moments captured during the act of hanging out and enjoying yourself. Wide-eyed William looking into an adult dance club in Tchoupitoulas, youngest brother Al proudly and comically earning respect while clinging to a damaged boat in River, fireworks breaking over Chad Foster’s cowboy hat in Western, a rocker couple dancing romantically in purple and pink haze in 45365: these are instants of life, brimming with everyday beauty, being transformed into elegantly luminous snapshots of humanity.
The prolific sound designer Lawrence Everson, a frequent Ross brothers collaborator, has a nifty three-step way of describing their cinema:
The goal, says Everson, is to make a movie that “feels more real to your audiences than even living the experience.” For him, that means creating a sound design with real and fabricated elements that augments and elevates the aural landscape for the audience, and sound is indeed of crucial importance to the Ross brothers’ aesthetic. But this three-step process is also instructive to help understand their overall approach. The first goal is to fully live the experience itself, to revel in its rhythms and exhilarations. The second is to grasp some deeper comprehension of that experience, to reflect on how it might shed some light into what we value and how we imagine ourselves. The third is to select and order the moments captured from that experience to create meaning for a viewer, using cinematic tools to strategically magnify, elide and illuminate.
This, of course, is the very nature of documentary editing – turning the chaos of found moments into a coherent whole – and Bill (who does half the shooting and almost all of the editing) happens to be one of the most gifted, instinctual editors working today. “I remember very early when our family got a camcorder the most exciting thing to me was to go out and get footage so I could come back and edit it together on a VCR,” he said. “Pressing play on the camcorder and record on the VCR. I didn’t know shit about what I was doing but it was magical and exciting. Turner was always down to run around town and shoot whatever, interviewing people around town, bike stunts, fucking with the cops, turning our little brother Al into a monster. It still feels like we’re getting away with something today and I still can’t wait to get the footage and bring it home to play with.”
That youthful sense of the magic of putting images together can be seen in the psychedelic dissolves that turn the penultimate number of Contemporary Color into an abstract blast of visual ecstasy or the bravura opening sequences of 45365, where multiple places and characters are connected through the local radio station and a passing train. The films flow with the logic of free association, where a match cut from fire breathing to the headlight of a trolley (in Tchoupitoulas) transmits both a musical quality in the images and the sense of how an average night can suddenly develop into a fairy tale. Their aesthetic freedom has gotten the boys into a little controversy with a few film critics wondering if Tchoupitoulas, which compresses months of material with three boys lost in New Orleans into a single dreamy evening, can even be considered ‘documentary’. In that way, the Ross brothers are at the vanguard of cinematic nonfiction, freely playing with forms and with little use for journalistic orthodoxy.
The Rosses, of course, aren’t the first filmmakers to live and breathe their cinema and to create an aesthetic out of hanging around and finding everyday magic. They often cite American docu-adventurer Les Blank as a major influence and even named their homegrown film festival Always for Pleasure after one of his films. “Les was certainly an ambassador for the lifestyle approach,” said Turner. “He was never afraid to show his hand, to highlight it even, to celebrate the fact that he was there, celebrating life. If Les could do it, we could do it, too.”
Their deepest contribution comes in how they combine their Blank-like “life as films stuff”, as Bill puts it, with the kind of inventive mix of salient moments and radical narrative structure that makes Tchoupitoulas so emotionally involving. The brothers want to explore and drink up America, from border town to concert hall, and they’re able to translate, like few others, their rollicking adventures into poetic pieces of empathic cinema. “We could take our creative ideas, these filmic and artistic theoretical ideas, and combine them with our love of people, of the road, of the shared experience,” added Turner. “We could throw ourselves at life and create something in the process, thereby keeping the cycle alive – we may take away, but we also give back. The approach hasn’t been incredibly lucrative financially, but if we died tomorrow, we’d die rich. We haven’t wasted our time here.”
The Ross brothers adore this world and the people in it, and they find images and forms to transmit that love. A young girl putting on her cowboy boots, a train cutting across an open landscape, a bar-sing-a-long with cross dressers, an argument between a boy and his mother over who lost the drugs: the Rosses capture bits of life that capture us. If documentary can best be thought of as a way of seeing, then the Ross way is free, open and utterly, inescapably human.