Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #57 Time Indefinite (1993)
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the career and site-sustaining column that gives YOU, the kindly, Christ-like, unbelievably sexy Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch, and then write about, in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge to the site’s Patreon account. The price goes down to seventy-five dollars for all subsequent choices.
We’re currently having a Father’s Day sale where you can buy a Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 for the father in your life for a mere fifty dollars. This particular article is sponsored by Kevin Whitman and dedicated to his brother. Not coincidentally, the film Kevin chose, Ross McElwee’s Time Indefinite, could not be more plugged into the overwhelming emotions involved in becoming a father for the first time while wrestling with your own father’s mortality.
McElwee’s Time Indefinite is the kind of frank, unflinching exploration of death and aging that I avoid like the plague because when it comes right down to it, I am a fucking coward, a lily-livered, yellow-bellied psychological weakling. I really am. I am terrified of failure, and success, and death, and aging, and endings, and of not being good enough, or strong enough, so I distract myself with stupid bullshit, with nonsense, with escapism of the most juvenile and ridiculous variety.
Look at the last two movies I chose to write about for this column: the 1994 video game adaptation Street Fighter and the 2009 direct-to-video sequel Still Waiting… I purposefully chose them before other, meatier options because they wouldn’t make me feel anything more intense or profound than boredom mixed with disdain. These gaudy cinematic trifles wouldn’t challenge me emotionally or intellectually. They wouldn’t make me confront things I’ve been trying not to think about out of fear that they’ll open a Pandora’s Box of violently repressed emotion that, unless tightly contained and controlled, will overwhelm me.
I knew that unless my memories of Street Fighter are extremely off and Still Waiting… was way better than its reputation suggests, I would not have spent the last twenty minutes of either film weeping openly and wiping tears and snot from my face the way I did during the end of Time Indefinite.
When it comes to over-sharing for the sake of Art, and making the achingly personal screamingly public, McElwee was a pioneer. In his breakthrough film, Sherman’s March, McElwee turned the camera on his personal life, particularly his love life for a raw, autobiographical exploration of romantic angst that helped spawn a wave of voyeuristic autobiographical documentaries as well as the TMI aesthetic of both social media and reality shows.
Time Indefinite takes place in the long shadow of Sherman’s March. McElwee has found the love of his life in Marilyn, a gorgeous fellow filmmaker he is obviously and understandably deeply enamored with. Though neurotic and painfully self-aware about every facet of his life, McElwee gets married to Marilyn and is overjoyed if more than a little overwhelmed when his new wife gets pregnant.
For much of Time Indefinite’s first half hour or so McElwee behaves like an unintentional caricature of a navel-gazing documentarian Artiste asking Life’s Great Questions. It’s crazy to think that there was a time when obsessively wanting, no needing, to chronicle everything that happens in your life, no matter how minor or seemingly inappropriate, like when McElwee films his wife’s appointment with her gynecologist, was considered strange to the point of being pathological, and not one of the primary preoccupations of contemporary life, as it is today.
Time Indefinite isn’t just unusually, distractingly, annoyingly self-aware and self-conscious; at times there are two or three or even four levels of self-awareness, as McElwee points the camera at his family or his wife or himself, and then discusses the process of filming these scenes, sometimes veering into dry technical details or explaining the emotions he was experiencing while something was being filmed or how he felt about it when he looked at it months, or even years later.
It’s like McElwee is living his life, and transforming his life into art via his documentaries and providing audio commentaries for those documentaries all at the same time. At a certain point you want to scream at the screen, “Dude, put away the camera! Live your fucking life. Not everything needs to be chronicled for posterity. Not everything needs to be discussed or analyzed. You can just do things. It doesn’t have to be part of a project.”
Also, when you get married and have your first child getting/being married and procreating seem like the most fascinating subjects in the world. Then you calm the fuck down and realize that while that may be true for you, in the sense that marriage and parenthood transform your life and the way you see the world and people are inherently self-absorbed and narcissistic, and prone to seeing everything through the prism of their own interests and lives, to single people marriage and parenthood are pretty fucking boring. Marriage and parenthood are also pretty fucking boring, to an almost soothing degree, to people who’ve been married for a while and crossed the threshold into parenthood long ago.
Consequently McElwee’s marriage and wedding and his wife’s pregnancy were nowhere near as compelling to me as they clearly are to McElwee. Time Indefinite is consequently a movie about making a movie in the same way that my 2013 book You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me became, by necessity, a book about the nerve-wracking, anxiety-provoking, crazy-making process of trying to transform the messy raw material I had gathered about the fanbases of Insane Clown Posse and Phish and my own fractured psyche into an actual book.
Time Indefinite is consequently about process at its least emotionally direct and satisfying. The struggle becomes part of the narrative. McElwee doesn’t seem to know whether he has a movie or a compelling story or just a bunch of footage that might be riveting in parts but doesn’t quite add up to anything.
Then life happens to McElwee and his sometimes stiff, sometimes overly self-conscious exploration of marriage and parenthood and its creator’s existential despair and mid-life crisis becomes increasingly powerful until it’s absolutely shattering, an unsparing and deeply humane meditation on death and family and renewal that had me in tears.
McElwee’s grandmother dies, which is less surprising than the filmmaker nearly making it to his forties with a living grandmother. Then the filmmakers’ wife has a miscarriage around the time his father dies unexpectedly. McElwee, who had been busily and nervously preparing for life as a first time parent, is suddenly adrift, overcome with multiple forms of grief and mourning.
He’s mourning the child the miscarriage took from him and his wife but also the death of a father who seemed to be in tip-top shape, a Southern doctor whose absence affects his son in ways he struggles to put into words. Around this time the filmmaker visits an old friend whose husband worked ceaselessly on building their dream house, only to burn it all down in a frenzy of total, suicidal self-negation. Out of the ashes of that dramatic gesture, however, sprang a new, better house in a cycle of regeneration and renewal that echoes the way Ross’ sadness and confusion and intense, soul-consuming sense of loss gives ways to the renewal and rebirth of Marilyn getting pregnant again, and carrying the child to term this time.
In its devastatingly powerful third act McElwee gets out of his own way long enough to engage with the lives and the losses of the people around him in a way that’s cathartic and healing and ultimately redemptive. In the film’s first half, McElwee struggles to transform the ache and intellectual despair and confusion at the core of his personal and professional life into transcendent art. In the second half, he succeeds in that lofty goal, creating a look at time and death and the ineffable bond between fathers and sons that’s true and sincere and quietly brave.
Sometimes getting married and having children are no big deal.
And sometimes getting married and having children is the biggest deal imaginable. Sometimes becoming a parent is a change so vast and so overflowing with meaning that you can’t even remember a time before you held your baby in your arms for the first time and experienced a love so powerful, so overwhelming, so utterly transformative that it fills the empty places deep within your soul with meaning and purpose and gives you a reason to get out of bed every day and greet the new day filled with hope despite knowing that death is the only constant in life, a grim reaper that will destroy everything we know and everything that we are.
Time Indefinite made me experience a paradoxical sort of happy sadness. It does not hurt that McElwee is the same age in the film that I was when I became a dad for the first time, or that my own aging father’s profound unhappiness is a source of shame and guilt I don’t think about very often because I worry it will prove overwhelming.
I’m glad I overcame my fear of feeling deep, dark, complicated emotions and watched Time Indefinite but in the spirit of brutal honesty, I’m also glad that it’s the exception rather than the rule when it comes to movies I write about for this column, and this website, because I’m not sure could not handle watching movies this powerful, depressing and intense on a regular basis.
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