Film Review: Photographic Memory

This modest coda to Ross McElwee&#8217;s autobiographical trilogy&#8212;<i>Sherman&#8217;s March, Time Indefinite</i> and <i>Bright Leaves</i>&#8212;will interest fans of this eccentric documentarian but bore those less familiar with his work.

Two-thirds of the way into Photographic Memory, the latest slice of cinéma-vérité from Ross McElwee, the ruminative filmmaker finds himself roaming among the prehistoric megaliths of Brittany, working up the courage to look up a girlfriend from a long-ago idyll in France. Deflated by his lack of resolve, he returns to his rented rooms in the town of St. Quay-Portrieux. “Seriously,” he asks in his familiar voiceover as he stares morosely into the camera, rubbing his tired eyes, “how did I get to be this old?”

At 65, having indulged his obsession with time and memory in a baker’s dozen of introspective documentaries and shorts, McElwee has grown melancholic and a little weary, the word “exhaustion” coming up more than once in Photographic Memory. Ostensibly a film about his efforts to understand his sullen 21-year-old son, Adrian, the film predictably detours into McElwee’s own past: What was it like to be a young man kicking around Europe in the early ’70s, learning the art of photography and discovering the joy of sex? “I won’t even say we were in love,” he muses about his friend, Maud, as he wanders, camera in hand, along the no-longer-so-quaint streets of St. Quay. “But it was so sensual and engaging…the whole experience was just so, I don’t know, just so…French.”

Tired and testy though he may be, McElwee retains the signature self-deprecating humor that leavens his best films: Sherman’s March (1986), his attempt to retrace the Civil War general’s campaign through the South while recording his own skirmishes with the opposite sex; Time Indefinite (1993), a more somber account of his marriage and the death of his father; and Bright Leaves (2003), his tongue-in-cheek investigation into the bitter rivalry between his great-grandfather and tobacco magnate James Buchanan Duke, a tale purportedly appropriated by Hollywood for a melodrama starring Gary Cooper. All these films, as well as Photographic Memory, are more about the praxis of filmmaking, as McElwee’s colleagues at Harvard might put it, than about history and human relationships. For McElwee, how the story is told is more interesting than the story itself, although his documentaries, for all their self-reflexive navel-gazing, are generally entertaining, enlivened by winsome portraits of the director’s family, friends and his native North Carolina.

Thus the curious paradox of McElwee’s films, which appear to be intimate and revelatory, but are in actuality calculated and painstakingly edited…faithful to narrative, not necessarily to life. McElwee makes no pretense otherwise, as he admits in his director’s statement about Photographic Memory: “At first I imagined my film…might be a kind of Proustian meditation on lost love… My son would have none of this. ‘That’s so boring, Dad!’ So I placed scenes of him throughout the film, and now it is not so boring.” Adrian, in fact, is listed in the credits as both actor and production assistant, appropriately so since the elder McElwee meditates at length on the relationship between father and son, mentor and protégé, illustrating the theme with his search to reconnect not only with Maud but also with Maurice, the jazz-loving philosophe-cum-photographe who gave McElwee his taste for la vie d’artiste.

But Photographic Memory, like its title, is too glib in both conceit and presentation to engage us in these epistemological issues. McElwee has always been able to improvise in his documentaries, incorporating the random event (a parade celebrating the village’s patron saint) or unexpected incident (a stray dog spoiling the carefully composed shot) into his storyline, as though these moments were scripted; this time his movie seems anything but spontaneous, he and Adrian conspiring to make a film about a concerned but impatient father who wants his son to follow in his footsteps, a talented but apathetic son who admires his father but doesn’t want to become him. Using this framing device to wrap McElwee’s trip to Brittany, where he searches for his younger self and sensibility, is as forced as it sounds. In any case, the exercise doesn’t yield any real surprises or insights. The film becomes a trip down memory (photographic) lane, tinted with a rosy rue and McElwee’s insouciant charm. Pleasant enough, but of interest mostly to the initiated.