Reviewed: Photographic Memory
(dir. Ross McElwee, 2011)
A talented and ambitious, but troubled and directionless, twenty-something obsessed with media and storytelling—that describes Ross McElwee’s son Adrian, from whom the filmmaker dad has become alienated. But it also describes McElwee himself, some four decades ago when the North Carolina native went to Brittany in search of himself.
Ross McElwee’s newest verité venture, Photographic Memory, is a two-stranded tale. In one, the contemporary father and son stare each other down with tense love and irritation. In the other, dad regards his own younger self with pity and puzzlement. If McElwee the Elder can reconnect with his young meandering self, he reasons, maybe he can reconnect with his son, too.
Adrian has played a part in his father’s works since 1993’s Time Indefinite. Now twenty-one, Adrian is dodging college in deference to vague dreams of a little media empire—some amorphous combination of web, film, writing, acting, and stunt skiing, it would appear from our glimpses of the brooding young man. Sire Ross wonders, in his standard voiceover, where is the sweet boy who, in an old family film, dug at the beach for sand fleas in a nonsensical and childishly industrious effort to make sand-flea sandwiches? Where is the young fellow regarding himself in the bathroom mirrors looking for his infinite reflections? How did that smiley, chatty little guy become this surly dude drinking beer, sipping ventis, smoking pot, skiing backward, and videotaping everything?
Get serious about your education, Ross counsels him. In response, Adrian tears his eyes away from his multiple screens just long enough to shoot some get-a-life daggers at dad. It’s memories of our kids as loveable little ones, McElwee père sardonically confides, that keep us from throttling them when adolescence inflicts its monstrous mayhem.
In the droll, earnest manner we’ve come to expect from McElwee from previous works—including Sherman’s March and Bright Leaves—he seeks to empathize with Adrian Present through this vigorous compare-and-contrast exercise with Ross Past. Sure, Adrian seems directionless to his dad, the award-winning documentary maker. So did Ross to his dad, the successful North Carolina surgeon. And yes, Adrian’s work seems weird and impulsive. But the young Ross’s work likely seemed just as much so when, in 1974—with donut-factory quality controller the high point of his resume—he set off for France and ended up in a coastal town, St. Quay, assisting a philosophy-spouting, jazz-obsessed wedding photographer named Maurice. True, Adrian’s on-again, off-again relationship with his girlfriend seems a bit unstable. But what exactly was Ross’s fling with the young Frenchwoman, Maud, who worked at St. Quay’s produce market and let him bum off her packs of Marlboros?
McElwee stews over his time in France, as mysterious now as the aged prints and negatives from his photography there, or the cryptic writings and drawings in his weathered journals. Once back in St. Quay, stumbling around town with his gregarious, fluid, but unmistakably American-accented French, McElwee enlists the aid of a town architect and Maurice’s ex-wife in attempting to understand why Maurice abruptly fired him one day. And in a casually fraught meeting with Maud, McElwee tries to recall why they went their separate ways when they’d had such a vibrant, sensual time together. McElwee’s youthful French adventures clearly inflicted doubts and damage alongside insights and raptures. Just as clearly, they helped propel him into his iconoclastic career as a seeker and artist.
Through his memory work, it becomes clear to the viewer, as it does to Ross, how much Adrian is Ross’s younger self. Adrian is sort of a digital-age version of Ross, who is struggling grudgingly to transition, for the first time, from analog film. That transition becomes symbolic, as much mental and emotional as it is technical. In Ross’s recent footage from France, we overhear a wedding attendee complain that a camera’s memory is full, echoing Ross’s skepticism as to whether a little chip can process what a human brain struggles to retain.
And, let’s face it, no brain or chip is capable of understanding the actions of young adulthood. It’s a time of exploring, whether in a beat-up VW in bell-bottom Brittany or via laptop browser in the new millennium. And exploring, by definition, resists logic and explanation. Add to that rationalization, denial, impulse, and good old-fashioned youthful cluelessness, and you have a flawed, smudged, hazy picture of one’s twenties.
If Ross had no mentor for an offbeat, confessional filmmaking career, maybe it’s because there can be no mentor for that sort of thing. And even if media is, in a sense, the McElwee family business, maybe, like psychoanalysis, it’s not one that can be apprenticed generation to generation.
Ultimately, Ross comes to suspect in this absorbing, bittersweet film, that the best gift he can give his son, whatever Adrian ends up doing, might be to just get out of his way. And letting go, the film suggests, is a difficult journey in itself.
Special thanks to First Run Features.