Spend August With the Greatest Documentary Character of All Time: Charleen Swansea

By  · Published on August 2nd, 2013

Every month, the online movie streaming service SundanceNow features a program of documentaries curated by Thom Powers (doc programmer for TIFF and other film fests). Typically the program is based around a theme (i.e. food docs, art docs, docs with nudity, etc.), but throughout August this “Doc Club” is spotlighting filmmaker Ross McElwee, a pioneer of first-person nonfiction cinema best known for the classic Sherman’s March. That film is among the selections, along with five other features, including his latest, Photographic Memory, and two shorter early works. It’s a perfect introduction to one of my favorite filmmakers, and it’s also a special treat for those who are already McElwee fans as some of these docs haven’t been too easily seen. And both the subscription and single month deals are pretty great.

McElwee is the main character of most his own films, which take viewers through autobiographical tales involving romance, death, fatherhood, Civil War history, the tobacco industry, the Berlin Wall, tragedy and the nightly news and, most famously, the South. But his movies are never entirely about himself, and much of the time he’s hidden behind the lens of the camera anyway. Many other figures in the filmmaker’s life come and go through his work, mainly family members. And then there’s Charleen Swansea, who I consider to be the true star of McElwee’s films, even if she only makes a short appearance. If there was any reason to be disappointed by last year’s Photographic Memory, it was because Swansea isn’t in the movie at all.

Nonfiction cinema has a lot of favorite characters, such as Little Edie Beale of Grey Gardens, R. Crumb of Crumb, Philippe Petit of Man on Wire, much of whom are either professional performers or natural hams in front of a camera. They also tend to be the primary subject. Aside from being the main focus of McElwee’s 1978 graduate thesis film Charleen or How Long Has This Been Going On?, Swansea is usually a scene-stealing supporting character, one who seems more genuinely herself – rather than an act – each and every time. There is something performative about her, of course, related to the fact that she was a lively poetry teacher. Still, she never feels changed by the presence of a camera, which she often treats as either a nuisance or an unrecognized accessory of McElwee’s, no different from his eyeglasses. In one of her most memorable lines from Sherman’s March, she tells McElwee to stop filming because the situation is too important. She says, “This is not art! It’s life!”

A few people who have watched a McElwee film with me have asked if I love Charleen so much because she reminds me of my mother. I used to think that was a factor, and she’s definitely a maternal character (she was once McElwee’s high school teacher and became sort of an extra mother figure for him), but now I think it might be more than I personally identify with her. Like me, she speaks her mind, though she’s far more vocally articulate and quick-witted than I will ever be. Or perhaps it is that I relate to McElwee (as a first-person filmmaker, he easily comes off as a stand-in for the viewer) and like him look up to Charleen as if she’s my own mentor-turned-friend-turned-muse and I want to be as full of life and wisdom as she is.

Charleen talks and talks and talks whenever she’s on film, and it’s clear she’s just always talking and talking off screen, as well (but she has said McElwee is among her favorite people to ever talk with, and she’s had conversations with “surrogate fathers” such as Albert Einstein, Buckminster Fuller and Ezra Pound). Occasionally she’s reflecting on her personal tragedies, like when her estranged husband dies while burning their house down (in Time Indefinite) and when another house is damaged during Hurricane Hugo (Six O’Clock News). Other times she’s lovingly teasing the filmmaker about his love life (Sherman’s March) or childhood home (Bright Leaves). See the latter here:

Her greatest bits are when she gets kinda bawdy, whether she’s inappropriately admitting that she gets sexually turned on teaching poetry to her teenage students (Six O’Clock News) or noting that a tree is “putting out its sex again” (Time Indefinite) or brilliantly relating an overgrown Civil War ruin to McElwee’s fear of women in the best of her speeches in any film (this being from Sherman’s March):

“It’s like pubic hair. Part, part the bushes. Go into the place. Go with it, Ross. It’s not like a tomb. That’s the trouble with you. You don’t know the difference between sex and death…This is life, this isn’t dead. When it sits on your face, you can’t tell which it is.”

And yet then here’s a funny scene from Charleen where she forbids her daughter to wear a t-shirt with a penis on it (it’s a picture of Michaelangelo’s “David”):

She’s not just a character. She is a character. And while her chattiness doesn’t sound like it’d be very cinematic, her bustling personality sure is, and so is her physical appearance, which seems not to change over the course of three decades of being filmed by McElwee. The doc-maker told me last year that she’s getting old and “slowed down,” but I don’t believe she ever ages. McElwee also assured me that she’ll be back in his next feature, which is supposed to be about Hollywood’s effort to remake Sherman’s March. There are many reasons I can’t imagine what that remake will be like, but my biggest wonder is whether Charleen will be portrayed in the movie and who on earth could possibly play her without misinterpreting her as a campy larger-than-life Southern caricature. She’s not larger than life. She is life. She is passion.

Here’s another great moment from Sherman’s March where she expresses a positive outlook on life and love:

Charleen Swansea can be seen in the following McElwee films, all of which are part of this month’s SundanceNow Doc Club program spotlighting the filmmaker:

Charleen or How Long Has This Been Going On?
Sherman’s March
Time Indefinite
Six O’Clock News
Bright Leaves

The other films in the collection are:
Something To Do With the Wall
Photographic Memory

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.