One advantage of Ross McElwee’s film-everything/edit-later methodology is that whenever he wants to reflect on his life and family—which is pretty much what he’s done for the last 30 years—he has the clips to back up any story he wants to tell. That’s what makes McElwee’s latest feature-length documentary, Photographic Memory, so quietly devastating. He was inspired to make the film by his strained relationship with his now-grown son Adrian, whom McElwee worries is too distracted by technology and partying to follow through on his many creative ideas. So to understand his son better, McElwee decides to revisit his own early 20s, when he was a hippie free spirit with a fiddle, a notebook, and a camera, kicking around France having romantic adventures and worrying his father, a successful North Carolina surgeon. As McElwee returns to Brittany to track down the photographer he apprenticed with—and as he struggles to stay in touch with Adrian—he revisits the films and videotapes he has of his son, of his own father, and of a life that keeps slipping by and changing before he can get a handle on what’s happening.
McElwee is smart enough to know his exasperation with Adrian is not unusual. (“It’s all so predictable, these stages,” he says in voiceover at one point, his whispery Southern twang now deepened with age.) So Photographic Memory approaches this generation gap with sensitivity, as McElwee admits to his preferences for the slower pace and precious tactility of his youth, when everything committed to film had permanence, meaning, and expense. Simultaneously, he also realizes that in some ways, his son’s generation is more connected and communal, now that it isn’t so much of a hassle for them to stay in touch. Photographic Memory cuts back and forth between McElwee’s visit to Brittany (where his quest goes in directions he wasn’t expecting) and clips of him trying to coerce his son into a sentimentality and idealism that Adrian doesn’t yet share. McElwee wants to be a mentor to Adrian in his various multimedia ventures, but his son seems more interested in making money from shooting videos than in making art.
Photographic Memory is less wry and more melancholy than McElwee’s earlier documentaries; it’s a lot like his superb 2003 film Bright Leaves, which was also concerned with family history and the shifting meaning of images. The documentary proceeds cautiously through its dual storylines, never pushing any point too hard, but still arriving at a meaningful conclusion. Early in the movie, McElwee looks at an old photo of himself and says that at that age, he couldn’t have imagined himself as a father. And as he tours Brittany, he realizes that the memories and associations he had with the pictures he took in the ’70s are very different from how the subject of those photos experienced those moments. Nothing is fixed: not images, not people. Which means that even as his son flees him, there’s always hope that he’ll make his way back.