“Everyone knows Michael Moore. Nobody knows me.”
Documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee is correct to acknowledge that he is far from a household name, but devotees of his work could very well argue that although Moore has numbers, McElwee has intimacy. Obsessive in his devotion to filming his life as he lives it, McElwee constructs his films from handheld footage and narration, often allowing his triggering premise – retracing General Sherman’s trek through the South in Sherman’s March, for instance – to become organically infected and cross-pollinated by his personal life and vice-versa. He’s invited audiences along on awkward dates, taken us backstage on his wedding day, and shared the experiences of his wife’s miscarriage, the death of his father, and the birth of his first child.
His latest project, Photographic Memory, sees that child all grown up – twenty-one years old, moody, and trying to define himself. Adrian McElwee is puzzled over by his father, who struggles with his son’s attachment to digital devices and seeks to connect through Adrian’s ambitions, which include filmmaking. Ostensibly to remember “what it was like to be Adrian’s age,” McElwee takes a trip to France to revisit the town of St. Quay, where he spent time as a 24-year-old working as a wedding photographer and having a love affair.
Photographic Memory struggles a bit more than his prior films in making organic connections between his subjects, and at times the narrative feels much more constructed than his earlier, freer work. I felt very little surprise in the film, although the surprises of life seem to be at the core of its intention. In one scene, McElwee asks a 7-year-old Adrian why he likes fishing. The boy answers, “the deep surprise of the ocean,” which, in addition to warming your heart with its adorable wisdom, becomes a metaphor for life, for the filmmaker’s process, and for retrieving the past.
I wonder what the experience of this film would have felt like if I hadn’t seen any of his prior work, such as the supremely affecting Time Indefinite, which is my favorite of his films. As a fan of his work, I carried into this film both an expectation of intimacy and a context of his character. Without those, I may have not felt, as I did, that McElwee was keeping me a bit at arm’s length, that he had lost some of the self-deprecating humor that I loved about him. This is an older Ross McElwee, one who doesn’t seem to have cast as wide a net with this film. Yet his voice is still strong, his honeyed southern vowels welcome in my ears, and while I wouldn’t urge everyone to see this film I might like to watch it again with my own father, who I bet would identify with some of McElwee’s desires and observations.
Part of what I felt held the film back from more revelatory parallelisms as McElwee explores his own history is the investigative diversion of the France trip. While it provides the opportunity for the excavation of memory in a setting that is preserved, time capsule-like, for the filmmaker, the journey feels somewhat arbitrary in its connection to the father-son relationship at the heart of Photographic Memory. While McElwee gets lost in the details of certain figures of his past, mis-remembered events and the consequences of aging, his transitions back to Adrian sometimes feel contrived. In general, the spoken laments of the generational gap – between Ross and his son and by extension between analog and digital, old school and new school – feel oddly nonspecific or perhaps a bit trite in a social culture saturated with reflections on how the digital age has changed us.
Nevertheless, there are some beautiful and engaging moments in McElwee’s newest feature that challenge me to consider that I might see this film differently as I grow older. “Photographic memory” connotes perfection and accuracy, and so the title becomes an ironic reflection on the way photographs, like memories, lose context over time and rather than recording history can sometimes bend it to their will. Adrian’s generation – my generation – may not experience the same loss with the degree of our lives lived online and in public. The changing times are embedded even within the means of production of this movie: it’s McElwee’s first to be shot digitally. As he waxes nostalgic about processing film and meeting strangers in cafes, the cliche sentiments are carried on the back of his likability and sincerity, and despite feeling like some of the filmmaker’s conclusions are forced, it’s still pleasurable spending time with him. Fans of his work shouldn’t miss it, if for the mere fact of catching up with an old friend, while newcomers might benefit from checking out some of his prior work first.
Bottom Line: The newest effort by documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee is not as intimate and surprising as his earlier films, but still delights with its reflections on age, memory, and fatherhood.