Documentarian Ross McElwee Excavates His Past in Hopes of Understanding His Children

Photographic Memory

Nov. 16, Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006,


Ross McElwee's documentaries aren't always easy to watch. There are painful silences, awkward blank stares into the camera, and moments where people are generally trying to avoid the peering eye of McElwee's lens and the prying nature of his questions. It's not like McElwee is some kind of Errol Morris type, digging into national issues and grilling politicians. McElwee, who was born in North Carolina and teaches at Harvard, has made a career out of excavating and examining his own past for the camera. His life is his subject. His new film, Photographic Memory, is, at least at first, about his relationship with his son, Adrian. But, in typical McElwee fashion, the focus morphs and shifts back to McElwee himself, his youth, the filmmaker's fraught relationship with his own father and the nature of art and memory.

In trying to understand his 21-year-old son's seeming aimlessness, and the gulf of communication between father and young-adult child, McElwee decides to return to France, where he spent some time in his wandering youth. It's not as epic as McElwee's 1986 masterpiece Sherman's March, which chronicled the filmmaker's attempts to meet a woman and his family's efforts to set him up with suitable young southern ladies, but Photographic Memory is hard to turn away from in that familiar McElwee fashion. Sherman's March started as a film about Union General William Tecumseh Sherman and the infamous slash-and-burn path that he and his soldiers made through the south leading up to the end of the Civil War. The subject of McElwee's romantic interests hijacks that film. Similarly, Photographic Memory pivots from being about the young Adrian McElwee — his snowboarding, his experimenting with marijuana, his interest in film-making and his obsessive use of digital devices — and shifts to making Ross McElwee, the filmmaker, its subject.

It's not as annoyingly self-centered as it sounds. Ross McElwee is a little like the dad with the camcorder at the ball game or the birthday party. He's also a walking one-man documentary set, with the camera seemingly always hoisted to his eye, and his voice coming from behind the picture-taking machinery. McElwee establishes the familiar fraught father-son relationship he has with Adrian. "We used to be so close. We could talk about anything. But that was when he was younger," says McElwee in one of the many thoughtful voice-overs. (Since McElwee is an obsessive documentarian, he has troves of film footage of his children's childhood, which add a note of sadness about the way time and aging works.).

The father questions the young man's motives, commitments, follow-through and judgment. The son — like his father — is fond of filming himself, a little recklessly. "I know kids drink. I know kids smoke pot. I was doing the same thing at his age," McElwee says. "But generally they're not doing it while skiing backwards while shooting video."

Then, upon reflecting that he was similarly at sea in his early 20s, McElwee goes to France to try and find a photographer that he had apprenticed with in the mid-'70s. It was McElwee's first real job, and unlike a job as a "quality control guy at a donut plant in North Carolina," it was in the field he was interested in pursuing. Earning his keep with a camera was a thrill. "I remember trying to explain my excitement to my father, but I don't think he ever fully understood," he says. While back in France, McElwee also hopes to find a woman he had been involved with at the time.

What happens isn't necessarily suspenseful or surprising, but it is fascinating, and I won't spoil it. It turns out that McElwee isn't just fixated on himself, instead, the film is as much about memory, about the ways our minds play tricks on us, how time steals our youth, how photography and film capture images that haunt us for the rest of our lives. It's about how history — personal, familial, national, even ancient history — looms around us in ways we never quite understand. McElwee makes low-budget films that have the introspective self-confessional quality of diary entries, and like reading someone's private journals, the experience of watching McElwee's films can feel a little intrusive and voyeuristic. But there's plenty self-awareness. Sometimes it seems that McElwee is more brutal with himself than with any of the people he films.

When we entertain ourselves by looking into other people's lives are we simply avoiding examining our own? The filmmaker is implicated in the act of distancing himself from real life, by putting a camera between himself and what's around him, in this case his loved ones. But so too is the viewer. Somewhere in this film lurks these questions: Do we understand ourselves better by examining others? Does everything circle back to the subject of our own lives? Is that pathological self-obsession or is it just the way it is?

As with much of the action in McElwee's films, the answers are off-screen, out of the frame.

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