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Six O'Clock News

Six O'Clock News is a documentary film by Ross McElwee about television news in the United States, the randomness of fate, the anxiety of parenting, and the difference between representation and reality.

The film starts off with a shot of McElwee's son, previously seen at the end of McElwee's film Time Indefinite. McElwee wonders if the mirror in his son's crib will drive him towards a compulsion towards self-documentation like the one McElwee thinks he shows in his films. McElwee muses that the world didn't seem so dangerous to him before he had a child, but that he has become obsessed with the news and its tragedies--some of the images haunt him. In voiceover, he wonders which footage is more "real"--that on TV news or that in home movies of birthdays and weddings.

warning: spoilers follow

Watching the news one night, McElwee sees that Hurricane Hugo[?] has struck the island where his friend Charleen Swansea[?] lives. The bridge has been upended; many of the houses on the island have been destroyed. McElwee mentions that Charleen's husband died years before in a "terrible fire" (the same terrible fire he described in Time Indefinite as an arson/suicide).

Charleen's son informs McElwee that Charleen was out of town when the Hurricane hit; McElwee goes to the edge of the destroyed bridge, where he films the destruction, as well filming the news crews gathering their own footage. Ross comments: "It's as if I'd been sitting in my living room watching the news when suddenly my television imploded and sucked me into the world I was watching."

Charleen's house is generally in good shape, though the roof has been ripped from one room. The poetry and other documents that Charleen was worried about are dry, though another room in her house shows water damage as high as Charleen's head. Charleen comments that she used to think things happened for a reason, but that now it all seems random and that she would never have children if she had realized it sooner.

Later, a news crew comes to film McElwee for a human interest story. The crew has learned that McElwee documents his own life in his films; and, in fact, when they arrive at his apartment he is filming as he opens the door. The crew leaves and reenters to film him filming them as he opens the door. Then McElwee is interviewed for an hour; McElwee includes some of this interview, but lowers his original audio and adds a voiceover: "Documentaries, which are more or less films about reality, are actually not considered by most people to be 'real films'; but Hollywood films, which usually have an extremely high fantasy quotient, are considered to be real." When the interview is over, the crew leaves a second time, again to come back and film him filming them as he answers the door.

McElwee wonders what it means that the crew has filmed this event twice and experienced it three times: "So what does it mean to film reality, anyway? Is it any less real that they are filming themselves coming into my apartment a third time? I don't ask people to reenact things when I'm filming, but ultimately what difference does it make? I'll edit this scene for my purposes, just as they'll edit it for theirs. But is one version more real than another?"

McElwee visits Steve Im[?], a man who emigrated from Korea to the United States with $50 in his pocket. He has built his wealth to about $6 million and owns restaurants, clothing stores, and other businesses. His wife worked at a wig shop but was killed one night in a burglary; the robber made off with $44.94. McElwee and Im visit awhile, and generally avoid the subject of Im's misfortune. Eventually McElwee prods Im to talk about it; Im is willing to have the audio recorded but not the video as he talks about it. McElwee shoots the street ahead as Im's chauffeur drives. Im comments that God is out of control and can't control the world--a sentiment that McElwee is coming to believe.

McElwee leaves Im and visits Arizona, which is suffering torrential floods. He arrives at a motel, is unable to leave because of the weather, and watches the flood on TV. Later he meets John and Carolyn Noeding, who live in a trailer park which has been devastated by tornados. They go across the street and start salvaging their neighbors' possessions from the wreckage. A camera crew arrives and starts asking Carolyn to hold the photos up for the camera; McElwee films them filming her, then films the crew leaving. While he is filming, another crew arrives behind him. Eventually McElwee starts filming the news crews instead of Carolyn and John, and notes three versions of what happened: the 9 seconds of Carolyn that showed on the news, the longer version that McElwee filmed that morning, and the later version that McElwee filmed as Carolyn watches herself on the nightly news. McElwee comments that none of the versions probably show the "invisible virus" of fate that apparently controls everything by making everything out of control.

Later, in watching America's Most Wanted[?], which includes re-enactments of crimes, filmed with a handheld camera, McElwee begins to think he's losing the distinction between what's real and what is not.

McElwee sees coverage of a raging forest fire and goes to the national park affected by it. He is allowed to seek out the fire provided he has a park representative with him; the representative strikes McElwee as unusually metaphysical: he comments that forest fires make personal problems seem irrelevant, allow for new growth off the destroyed forest, and provide for unexpected hope. McElwee wonders how they knew to assign him that particular representative, as these were the kinds of answers he was looking for. The fire, when they finally get to it, is nearly extinguished; the crew of fire fighters are milling about putting out flames that are less than a foot tall. McElwee goes home to take a teaching position to help pay his family's bills.

Later he gets a call from a Hollywood producer wanting him to direct. On the news, McElwee sees that Los Angeles has had an earthquake that was 6.6 on the Richter scale. McElwee notes that the news keeps returning to Salvador Peña[?], a worker trapped under rubble in a parking garage. Eight months later he goes to meet the Hollywood producer and also to meet Peña. Peña's boss tells McElwee that they had set up a trust fund[?] to offset Peña's medical bills, but that it earned only $1100, while the one for John Wayne Bobbitt[?] earned several hundred thousand dollars. After becoming convinced that McElwee is not a lawyer seeking to talk to Peña about filing a lawsuit, Peña's boss allows McElwee to visit Peña. Peña says that he tried to strangle himself while trapped in the rubble, but couldn't, and decided it was the will of God that he live. Peña's friends consider him lucky but McElwee considers it less providential and more complicated than that: "Salvador comes to America, the promised land, and he finds not one but two jobs, works 80 hrs a week, and earns enough money to support not only himself but six family members back in El Salvador. Then he loses it all in the earthquake. The Promised Land takes back its promise. How in the world does he resolve all this in his own mind?"

McElwee goes to meet Michael Pizer[?] and Josh Cornbluth[?], the producer and star interested in having him direct a fiction film. They have lunch and discuss the film. Miramax has put forth a couple hundred thousand dollars for the film, which the producer sees as indicating mild interest.

Salvador spends most of his spare time reading religious books, and sees the accident as a test from God to see how he'd react to adversity. McElwee marvels at his faith and comments that he keeps finding himself at church with a camera: his earliest jobs in cinematography were filming church services. While at a church, McElwee films a woman engrossed with something or someone—presumably the statue she is staring at, murmuring, unaware of Ross's camera about 2 feet away. Salvador is approached by Rescue 911[?], which offers to fly Peña's family to the U.S. if Peña will sign a contract with them and quit cooperating with all other filmings, including McElwee's. McElwee tells Peña to take the offer, as the television show can help Peña much more monetarily than he can.

Ross leaves Peña and goes to visit a camera obscura before returning home. The camera obscura has a rotating mirror in the ceiling, which reflects an image onto the floor. The image on the floor strikes McElwee as oddly distorted, its axes misaligned. McElwee returns home.

The film cuts to three years later. Miramax had hired McElwee but the project had been shelved. McElwee is filming his son Adrian. Adrian asks about the camera and microphone, then tells McElwee that he made a "mysterious picture of God," and says he talks to God and that God answers. Then he says his picture isn't of God, it just reminds him of God. At Adrian's urging, McElwee opens the window so Adrian can show his picture to God.

Then Adrian asks McElwee if he wants to go camping.
McElwee: "Ok. where are we going to go camping?"
Adrian: "Right here."
"Here in the playroom?
"Yeh." [grinning and shifting about] "So ... how do you go camping with a camera on your eye?"

McElwee puts the camera down. In voiceover he notes that God in Adrian's "mysterious picture of God" looks a bit like a movie camera, and that "overall things are going pretty well"--but that every time he starts to "relax into not worrying about life, something bizarre happens."

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