Photographic Memory (First Run Features, NR)

photographic 75The film is similar to Thomas Balmès’ documentary Babies, which some people found fascinating and others found incredibly tedious.


Ross McElwee has made his reputation on autobiographical documentaries that also touch on broader issues, Sherman’s March, Time Indefinite, and Bright Leaves being among his best known films. In Photographic Memory, the 65-year-old McElwee continues this approach, beginning with a focus his relationship with his son Adrian, now in his 20s. From there, McElwee moves on to consider what his own life was like at Adrian’s age, and this leads to a meditation on the elusiveness and unreliability of memories.

The film starts slowly and threatens to become a self-indulgent exercise bemoaning the unremarkable fact that the relationship between a father and his son is unlikely to be conflict-free, particularly after the son becomes a teenager. Also not remarkable is McElwee’s “discovery” that some of those conflicts center around cultural differences between the generations: The filmmaker at one point asks his son if he got his values “from rap videos,” and wonders why the kid spends so much time interacting with people through technology rather than face to face. And the drugs, and the risky ski tricks. Whatever happened to the sweet little boy who used to be his father’s pal, and why won’t young adult Adrian buckle down and take life seriously?

Then McElwee remembers that, when he was the age Adrian is today, his surgeon father was equally exasperated with his irresponsible behavior and lack of direction. At this point, McElwee realizes something teenagers understand, but some old people forget, which is that extended adolescence is a privilege that people of a certain economic class enjoy in our society. If you have access to that privilege, why not take advantage of it? And why act surprised when someone else takes it, particularly when you are a facilitator of that very privilege?

The film gets more interesting after McElwee sets off on a quest to retrace his experiences in a St. Quay-Portrieux, Brittany, where he spent a formative summer in his 20s. Traveling around Europe in an ancient VW bus, McElwee was spotted with his camera by “Maurice,” a photographer who offered him a job and a place to live. He also had an affair with a woman named Maud, and intends to track both of them down on this trip. Intercut with the present-day footage are clips of Adrian at younger ages, and still photographs from the earlier trip.

Photographic Memory has an almost continuous voiceover narration by McElwee, a technique which allows him to juxtapose images of present-day Brittany with his memories of his life there as a young man, and clips of young Adrian with his interpretations of their relationship at the time. You need a high level of tolerance for navel-gazing to get through the film’s many unremarkable and self-referential moments, but I suspect it will be particularly interesting to people who have raised their own kids through the teenage years.

This aspect of Photographic Memory makes it similar to Thomas Balmès’ documentary Babies, which some people found fascinating (particularly if they had young children or grandchildren, and/or thought all babies were infinitely fascinating) and others found incredibly tedious (because babies the world over are remarkably alike in their needs and behaviors). Personally, I would have been happier if Photographic Memory spent more time reflecting on the relationship between photography and memory, both far more complex processes than the average layman assumes, and less time presenting us with unremarkable insights about childhood, parenthood, and the whole circle of life thing—but the film is what it is.

Extras on the DVD include a photo gallery and a text biography of McElwee. | Sarah Boslaugh

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