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
Posted on October 24, 2012, in Documentary, New and tagged Adrian McElwee, Bright Leaves, Doug Block, IFC Center, Photographic Memory, Ross McElwee, Tine indefinite. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.