Photographic Memory

Filmmaker Ross McElwee (on camera) charts the life of his son Adrian (seen here at age 10) in “Photographic Memory.”

Ross McElwee, one of my favorite documentary filmmakers (next to Stuyvesant  Town’s own Doug Block, of course), has returned to the screen with “Photographic Memory,” a personal documentary about the passage of time, how we capture it, the reliability of how we remember it and what it all may mean.

The passage of time has long been a theme of McElwee’s documentaries especially in such films as “Time Indefinite” (1993) and “Bright Leaves” (2003).  The latter is my favorite of McElwee’s work.  “Time Indefinite” (which I also like) deals with McElwee’s relationship with his father, a prominent surgeon. 

In “Photographic Memory” McElwee takes the theme of father son relationships full circle by examining his relationship with his own son, Adrian, a sullen and, if you ask me, over indulged 21-year-old.   McElwee’s resentment over his own father’s lack of support for his filmmaking career has led McElwee to take a kinder, gentler approach with Adrian’s issues, which include drugs, alcohol, needing more space and skipping school.

As McElwee sees Adrian’s life taken over by computers, and all things digital, McElwee muses on the simplicity of his own, analogue, life when he was Adrian’s age.  I should digress to explain the difference between analogue and digital.  A photograph shot on film (the way in which we all used to take pictures before digital cameras) is analogue.  A picture shot with a digital camera (which almost everyone now has) is digital.  The same extends to movies shot on film (analogue) as opposed to those shot digitally (digital).

McElwee recalls a stint living in France at around age 21.  He returns to the same small French town where he once lived.  McElwee tries to see what he can still find from that time 38 years ago, using older photographs as a guide and the fading of memory as an unreliable narrator to what actually occurred, or did not occur, there long ago.

What I enjoy so much about McElwee’s work is the way it focuses on the details of what is important as well the distractions, which, may be just as important.  Leaving the IFC Center, where I saw “Photographic Memory,” the ordinary routine of life on Sixth Avenue suddenly took on a significance that I otherwise would not have noticed. My perception and awareness of what was going on around me had sharpened due to the perspective I had absorbed from the film.  If I had taken out my video camera, which I have with me always, could I have shot some footage while providing a little narration and made a film in the McElwee tradition?  Maybe, but, most important, I felt as if I could.  The difference is that I did not take out my camera, whereas McElwee has, capturing moments in his life and his surroundings and telling of their significance with his ever present narration.

This leads me to another aspect of “Photographic Memory” that I enjoyed, which is how McElwee creates images. McElwee tells us that he now, for the first time, shoots to memory cards, as opposed to videotape or film.  He is not sure if he can trust the memory of hi-tech memory cards, which, he points out, cannot be held, at least not the way that film can.  Cards are much less tactile than film.

“Photographic Memory” is an introspective mix of relationships past and present, the malleability of memory and the changing meaning of photographs.

“Photographic Memory” is playing at IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue.

Photographic Memory, Director Ross McElwee, 2012,

First Run Features, 87 minutes


About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on October 24, 2012, in Documentary, New and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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