Thursday, October 11, 2012


Photographic Memory marks the welcome return of documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee (Sherman's March, Time Indefinite).  When McElwee first burst on the scene, his work was unique for the way it blurred the line between subject and maker; McElwee has always been front and center in his films, using the base materials of his life as narrative elements that guide his stories towards undetermined places. 

For better or worse, his style has become a common strategy in non-fiction filmmaking, so much so that when I recently tried to explain who McElwee was to a friend, they responded, "so is he the one to blame for Morgan Spurlock, then?"  Which is kind of neither here nor there, as Spurlock has made good work in the past and has even shown some signs of growth in his recent projects.  McElwee, on the other hand, has never exploited his style in a self-aggrandizing way; in fact, most of his films have been deeply introspective, questioning his own flaws and always finding a larger theme to anchor the overall piece.

Such is the case with Photographic Memory.  The film finds McElwee struggling to understand and connect with his teenage son Adrian.  Ross shares the worries that many have about their kids, that they're unfocused, lost, experimenting too heavily with drugs, alcohol, and other risky behaviors.  Adrian has many creative interests.  Like his father, he's constantly filming himself and his friends (mostly while snowboarding backwards).  He's also interested in web design and is trying to become an entrepreneur of sorts.  But, as Ross points out, there are just far too many interests and only so much energy, so much of what the younger McElwee begins ends up poorly done or unfinished.

While questioning his son's behavior, McElwee begins to dive back into his own past to examine what he was up to when he was his son's age.  The investigation sends him back to St. Quay-Portrieux in Brittany where he once worked as a photographer's assistant, before being fired in a mix-up about lost negatives.  McElwee searches for his former employer as well as an old flame, ruminating on his past as he journeys through the familiar and forgotten spaces of the small French town by the sea.

Photographic Memory feels like a warm reunion with an old friend.  If you've loved any of McElwee's prior works, you'll instantly be drawn back into the kind of unguarded, reflective video journals that McElwee is brave enough to share with his audiences.  For those who have never encountered a Ross McElwee film, this is as good enough a place to start as any, as it certainly contains more than enough universally experienced material as it filters through its maker's most recent set of concerns. 


Photographic Memory screens at the IFC Center in NYC on Friday, October 12th.  More info available here.


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