Ross McElwee’s Photographic Memory adds another warm verse to the director’s ongoing cinematic canon about human relationships -- the oeuvre that he began nearly 35 years ago, with the short documentary Charleen, and that found national footing with 1986’s Sherman’s March. In this outing, we initially find Ross concerned with the well-being of his son Adrian, now a teenager prone to outrageous, death-defying skiing stunts shot in first-person with a go-pro; equally troubling are Adrian’s preoccupying interest in smoking pot, his immersion in online social networking, and a general lack of direction in his life -- at one point, he shakes Ross up by espousing a kind of hip-hop philosophy. “You might as well make life a complete video game -- an acid trip, if you can make it that way,” Adrian declares. “You know, if I could have a helicopter, and a penthouse on the top floor of a skyscraper, and live ridiculously every day, I would.” McElwee then decides to gain some perspective via geographic distance from the young man: he travels back to Southern France, where he himself spent an exploratory period of life in the early-mid 1970s -- a time when he worked for a wedding photographer, took a French paramour named Maud, and shot black-and-white stills as he roamed around the countryside. His present-day journey nominally revolves around re-locating and reconnecting with the photographer who fired him and the lover he abandoned, after decades sans communication with either individual.
It wouldn't be difficult, here, to take a quick, ephemeral glance at Photographic Memory and characterize the demarche as vaguely desultory -- an accusation some critics have hurled at McElwee’s prior films. But that summation feels too pejorative. It doesn't begin to hint at the infectious charm to be found in the observer's relentless wayfaring, and his delight in offbeat life-details that artists with less-acute observation frequently gloss over. More importantly, any impressions that the film meanders are entirely sophistic: subtextually, this picture has a clearer narrative arc than most self-reflexive documentaries. McElwee is building a concrete network of thematic connections here, and the broadest -- per the film’s title -- involves his own therapeutic attempt to bridge the present with the past. At the core of the movie is a highly specific dialectic -- McElwee’s need to comprehend and empathize with his son by revisiting his own complicated history -- the years that helped form the adult artist. We embark on this mental and emotional journey along with the director.
In the process, a fascinating theme emerges: that of mnemonic fluidity. Louis Malle once observed that “Memory is not frozen. It’s very much alive, it changes over time.” Recalling this assumption, middle-aged McElwee’s discoveries of the truths belying the relationships with the photographer and Maud are more disarming and far more complicated than one could ever expect. They suggest that over the past forty years, his memory has smoothed out the details, and repackaged them into a digestible narrative. What McElwee is implying, here, is remarkably profound: that as a young man, he himself was every bit as lost and disconnected from his father, and as uncertain about the future, as Adrian has been, but time and maturity have obscured this fact in Ross’s mind.
The director’s observations that play on the soundtrack may appear to be on-the-nose, but it’s a Socratic dialogue, not an autocratic one. In other words, we’re never told about Ross’s gradual attainment of empathy with his son courtesy of his own process of self-discovery -- instead, it plays out before our eyes. This is a film of negative spaces: the central arc is Ross’s own, and it happens between the lines. We’re required, mentally, to fill in the gaps for ourselves, to connect the dots. That is the documentary’s most profound achievement, and an enormous compliment to the intelligence and sophistication of the audience.
McElwee also made a savvy choice via the setting of the film -- on two levels. One is purely evocative: especially when combined with vivid recollections of prior experiences, his trekking around Southern Gaul in search of Maud conjures up the wistful exuberance of youth with a degree of romantic intensity that few recent films (documentary or otherwise) have mustered. It re-evokes the sense of unlimited possibility that so many adolescents possess but adults often seem to lose with time and age. The second benefit of the French setting is one of tonal preservation. During the first twenty minutes of this documentary, we can sense the father-son tension rising in the Cambridge, MA, household, but it dissipates, of course, when Adrian isn’t onscreen, which means the bulk of the movie. One can ostensibly imagine a director in Ross’s position limiting the action to the homefront to lasso more domestic conflict or depth, but McElwee is too self-aware to make this sort of a miscalculation. He knows instinctively that he isn’t an Allan King sort of filmmaker, gifted with fly-on-the-wall cinema direct documentaries where familial emotional violence explodes onscreen. McElwee’s perspective is milder, gentler -- no less revelatory, but much more wry and subtle, slightly ironic. His voice is actually closer to Nanni Moretti, but without the fatuous self-aggrandizement that made watching Moretti’s Caro Diario such a chore. It’s an inimitable outlook, and one that many admirers of Sherman’s March, Time Indefinite, and Bright Leaves will recognize instantly and welcome back into their minds and hearts.
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- Released: 2012
- Rating: NR
- Review: Ross McElwee’s Photographic Memory adds another warm verse to the director’s ongoing cinematic canon about human relationships -- the oeuvre that he began nearly 35 years ago, with the short documentary Charleen, and that found national footing with 1986’s… (more)