Title: Photographic Memory
Director: Ross McElwee
In David Lynch’s trippy, 1997 neo-noir psychological thriller “Lost Highway,” Bill Pullman’s Fred Madison explains his aversion to video cameras thusly: “I like to remember things my own way.” When pressed for a further explanation, he offers, “How I remembered them — not necessarily the way they happened.” For documentary director Ross McElwee — whose films have almost always been reflexively autobiographical, delving into his familial relationships and ancestral connections — it’s almost the opposite. His memories have, for years, been filtered through first his photographs and writings, and then his ever-present camera lens, to the point that he begins to question how real, or accurate, some of his memories actually are.
The vehicle for this reflection is the beguiling, homespun “Photographic Memory,” triggered by some early-onset empty nest syndrome and domestic struggles. Attempting to make peace with the surliness, technological addiction and emotional waywardness of his 20-year-old son, McElwee decides to retrace some of his own footsteps from when he was around the same age, and spent a year abroad in France. The result is a delicate, mesmeric rumination on family, memory, the necessary growing pains of young adulthood, and the sloping banks of generational chasm that will always exist.
We first glimpse Adrian McElwee as a youngster, cavorting about with his younger sister. McElwee frequently filmed his kids growing up, and they used to love it. Now, despite his interest in becoming a filmmaker and/or graphic artist, Adrian is tired of his father’s looming lens; he’d rather hang out with friends, blow off school, smoke a bit of pot and film himself (and others) doing extreme ski tricks. Narrating his frustration, McElwee tries to channel and focus his son’s energies, while also dolefully noting certain behavioral similarities to his own adolescent wanderings.
McElwee deftly intercuts this story — of all the poking, prodding, hoping and cajoling attached to his son — with his own journey back in time, and a set of conflicted emotions that arise. Traveling back to St. Quay-Portrieux in Brittany, France, for the first time in almost four decades, the filmmaker tries to track down his first employer, a photographer named Maurice, as well as Maud, a woman with whom he had a brief but memorable romantic liaison.
On the surface “Photographic Memory” may sound simple, or irretrievably blinkered and personal, but McElwee has a self-awareness, sharp sense of observation and droll wit to boot that easily locates the universality of the material. Recalling Doug Block’s underappreciated “The Kids Grow Up,” McElwee’s film is honest about the sort of parenting mistakes born of trying to protect his son from himself, as well as wry articulations about the deep but tested roots of unconditional love (“Teenagers often don’t realize how protected they are from strangulation by the memories of smaller versions of themselves”).
If all that sounds a little too ethereal, “Photographic Memory” is also just a great little travelogue mystery, with the filmmaker subject’s twangy, Carolina-infused French, in his efforts to find Maurice and Maud, matching the uniquely accented sheer entertainment value of Werner Herzog’s nonfiction self-narration. So does McElwee locate these people from his past? Or are his memories of their time together, and reasons for parting, at all reliable? And what lessons might he learn from all of this travel in dealing with his son? McElwee makes movies to assay the human condition and try to sort things out for himself. This is another good one, full of both answers and questions, feelings and wonder.
NOTE: For more information, visit www.PhotographicMemoryTheMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon