I saw this film for the first time with my wife. Our reactions were mixed. I loved it. I was fascinated by the characters, and the by the not-so-subtle way in which the intellectual pursuits of a scholar are subordinated to his personal life and hang-ups. As an academic who is often painfully aware of the overlap between my life and my work it was refreshing to see this overlap admitted so openly -- even embraced to the point where it becomes the subject matter of the entire investigation.
My wife, on the other hand, was bothered by what she saw as Mr. McElwee's pretentiousness, and his "exploitation" of the women in the film. It is true that all of them were more or less willing participants -- and a commmon feature of each of them was that they were in some way entertainers who were interested in being seen -- still, she thought, the very fact that they revealed themselves and he could step back and observe and judge set up what she saw as an unequal situation. Having said that, she did admit that the film held an undeniable fascination for her.
As it turned out, we talked about the film on and off for the next few days, even comparing people we know and ourselves to the characters revealed there. That is, I think, one of the signs that the film was effective. In a time when most films, and certainly to my mind all of reality TV, are forgettable, this film is not. I think Mr. McElwee sets himself up to be vulnerable to the criticisms my wife suggests -- and does not shy away from them. As a character, and as narrator of his own story, he is neither hero nor villian but is a real person, and that is what makes his stories interesting.
I can't wait to see the other films he has made -- like Time Indefinite and, most recently, Bright Leaves that is currently in (selected) theatres.