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In Search of Lost Time: Ross McElwee's 'Photographic Memory' Reconciles Past and Present

By wanda bershen

So often people find themselves looking at their teenage kids, who somehow seem to have morphed from those cute little tykes into adult-sized creatures who have become a mysterious presence in their parents' lives. In his new film, Photographic Memory, Ross McElwee finds himself puzzling over his teenage son Adrian, whom we have seen as a wide-eyed little boy in earlier films. No longer an eager subject for his dad's camera, Adrian has become a technology addict-texting, e-mailing, listening to his iPod, working on his computer and shooting video with his friends. 

Opening with clips of Adrian as a ten-year-old, McElwee tells us that things became quite difficult and contentious in his last year of high school, and the filmmaker and his wife were very disturbed when their son dropped out. Concerned about his use of alcohol and drugs and about all the quarreling, they felt maybe he needed some space of his own and decided he could move into his own apartment. That did not last long, and Adrian moved back home. Early in the film we witness McElwee's efforts to talk to Adrian (now 20), and getting the familiar one-word answers, shrugs and brush-offs. Clearly a bright and talented young man, Adrian writes, does graphic design, makes short films and seems headed for some kind of creative career.


A young boy with dark hair brushes his teeth. In the mirror behind him is the reflection of an older man holding a video camera.
Ross McElwee filming his then pre-teen son Adrian. From Photographic Memory, aFirst Run Features release. Photo: Ross McElwee

A major concern for the filmmaker is his son's penchant for risk-taking behaviors and his addiction to some kind of adrenaline rush. He incorporates a video segment shot by Adrian while skiing backwards and shooting at the same time, which communicates to the audience a visceral sense of parental anxiety. In hopes of gaining some insight as to what he felt at that age, McElwee decides to examine his own youth, which may help in understanding his son. Looking over old photos, he decides to revisit a trip he took to a small town in France at age 20. There he got his first job working with a wedding photographer, Maurice, and had a memorable affair with a young woman named Maud.

McElwee's journey, undertaken through photos, journals, live interviews and his own recollections of that period, becomes the primary theme of the film, juxtaposed throughout with Adrian's story. Together they generate an engrossing story about father and son, and about memory--personal, written, photographic and cinematic.

Arriving in St. Quay, McElwee  sets out to find Maurice and roams the countryside revisiting places they had visited together. After a period of successful collaboration, McElwee was suddenly fired, and he never knew the reason. He accesses his journals from that time, as well as lots of old photos, which he often juxtaposes with color footage of the present day. Re-constructing a story with some fascinating turns, he combines all the visual elements with his voiceover narration, full of droll observations on his youthful self and the changes over the years.

"This led me to remember that at his age, I was wandering around the French countryside, trying to find myself with a different set of tools than my son had--an analog still camera, a fiddle and some notebooks," McElwee recalls. "But I was just as lost. In that village where I had worked as a wedding photographer's assistant, I tried to track down some people I knew, and ruminated a bit on the passing of time and the difference between my son's generation and my own."

McElwee's sleuthing efforts in the film pay off: He gets a lead to the fate of Maurice, meeting his ex wife, Cecile. She is charming and witty, and McElwee discovers that her husband had fired him because he thought McElwee had stolen some pornographic photos he had made in secret. Cecile then shows McElwee another treasure trove of photos, some of which were taken when he was working with Maurice. 

With this success McElwee steps up his search for Maud, his girlfriend with whom he had worked in the weekend produce market. There is a key photo of her as a beautiful young woman that we see several times, which turns out to have been taken by Maurice. McElwee's narration muses on their time together and their inexplicable parting. Finally making contact, he is invited to lunch at her home. Before leaving, McElwee looks at himself in a mirror with some chagrin, thinking how old he looks now. Over a delicious meal he and Maud exchange recollections--which turn out to be very different indeed. In fact, according to Maud, it was he who had left, to continue his road trip alone. The sequences with Cecile and Maud are among the few synch-sound segments of the film, creating another layer of recollection along with their photos and personal memories.


Black and white image of a young woman with dark curly hair, looking up and smiling
Maud, Ross McElwee's girlfriend from his younger days in St. Quay, France. Photo: Ross McElwee

Talking about the role of memory McElwee notes how growing older means there is so much more to look back at. "And doing so, when you are a filmmaker or photographer, means reassessing what footage or photographs shot long ago now mean to you," he explains. "This is a very human experience that almost all of us go through--looking through old family photos or home movies. It's just more intense if you happen to be a filmmaker. Proust's Swann's Way was the obvious touchstone in thinking about all this. I read it again before embarking on my journey to shoot Photographic Memory."

Back home again, McElwee takes his son on a fishing trip, hoping to capture some of their earlier good times and easy camaraderie. Alas, it is nothing like the past; the filmmaker remarks that they spent seven hours in silence, with Adrian texting his friends most of the day. Nevertheless, things do improve. Adrian has an idea for a film they can make together, and he is applying to film school.


A young adult an through a window, looking at a laptop, with a reflection of a camera man
Ross McElwee shooting his 20-year-old son Adrian through a window. Photo: Ross McElwee

At the end of the film McElwee reprises a sequence from the opening of the film, with a droll commentary about his journey. His narration throughout the film is very much the glue that holds the film together, and keeps us eager to hear what will happen next. Writing the  narration after the film editing is completed, he describes it as a long process. "It is trial and error," he says. "It takes me dozens of drafts, followed by many recording sessions, before I get it to be the way it is in my films. On the surface it seems like pretty simple writing, but for me, it takes months to arrive at those nine pages of final narration transcript."

Photographic Memory is McElwee's first outing using digital technology, and he finds it different in a couple of ways, citing his love of certain qualities of film, and how his working  process is somewhat changed. "I refer to the ‘luminosity' of film, and though it is possible to measure brightness in various scientific ways, I am not talking about anything empirical here," he explains.  "It's hard to say exactly what I do mean, but it's some combination of texture, subtlety of color grading, the way film handles blacks, and the swirl of emulsion grain. I will also say that my shift to HD has not really altered how I film--the framing of my shots, or lighting--since I hardly ever use artificial light anyway. The one thing HD has perhaps altered a bit is allowing me to keep the camera running for an extra minute or so when a scene is unfolding, just in case something unforeseen occurs. I was much more constricted when shooting film, given that I was working alone and often filming in the cinema vérité mode. Still, my shooting ratio in HD remains fairly low probably--20: 1 for Photographic Memory."

Photographic Memory opens October 12 at the IFC Center in New York City.

Wanda Bershen is a consultant on fundraising, festivals and distribution. Documentary clients have included Sonia, Power Trip, Afghan Women, Trembling Before G*D, Blacks & Jews. She has organized programs with the Human Rights Film Festival, Brooklyn Museum and Film Society of Lincoln Center and currently teaches arts management at CUNY Baruch. Visit