When I first saw Sherman’s March I had just sabotaged a twelve-year relationship and somehow fell into a rebound relationship with someone who … well, let’s just say that it takes a certain kind of person to get involved with someone who is just days out of a twelve-year relationship. Watching Ross meander around the South and interviewing his ex-es seemed self-indulgent, to put it kindly. It was, in fact, too close to home and I was completely blind to the film’s bigger picture.
You can read a mini-interview I conducted with Ross McElwee on FilmmakerMagazine.com.
In McElwee’s new film, Photographic Memory (opening in select theaters Friday, October 12), we find Ross and his twenty-something son, Adrian, at each other’s throats. Like many twenty-somethings throughout recorded time, Adrian is pissing off his father by trying to figure out what to do with his life. He’s all over the place, with many interests and many friends. Like many twenty-somethings in this millennium, he is tethered to the Internet. Ross tries to understand how Adrian went from the poetic little boy to the surly boy-man by traveling back to St. Quay-Portrieux in Brittany, a place instrumental in his own journey into adulthood. Like other journeys into the past, he searches for the people, in this case a photographer who was a mentor and a boss, and a mysterious woman he was involved with.
Again, I don’t have a defiant young son, my journey into adulthood took place in suburban New Jersey, and there was no exotic French woman.
But I was a young adult once, and like many young adults, I had a difficult relationship with a parent. And if you were a young adult once, I think you’ll find several moments in Photographic Memory that will rip your heart out, in the best way. If you are a parent of a child of any age, I imagine you’ll double relate.
What is universal here are two people united and separated by blood. Ross and his son Adrian don’t want to hurt each other, but neither can help behaving in ways that make the other crazy. If Adrian is the typical twenty-something engaging in some risky behavior (freestyle skiing while under the influence), Ross is the typical middle-aged father of such a child, engaging in over-protective behavior that is sure to enrage his son (snooping around in his room). Ross can’t help but look at the adult Adrian and see (and show us) that little boy on the beach, and Adrian can’t help but assert his independence. Add to this the generational divide, symbolized by Adrian’s embrace of our hyperspeed technology and Ross’s wariness of it, and you have a portrait of many father-son relationships throughout the world, throughout history.
Anyone over 45 will recognize the impulse to visit an important place in one’s development, and those who undertook the venture will recognize the results. His trip back in time is disorienting, melancholy, enlightening, nerve-wracking, and sometimes exciting. Ghosts inhabit rooms that seem familiar and unfamiliar, long-lost loves are encountered and the meetings are comfortable and awkward, secrets are revealed and memories sneak up and explode. At the end of a long day he turns the camera on himself, stares into the lens, and in his smooth voice over says, “Seriously, how did I get to be this old?”
Sounds a little like your high school reunion, doesn’t it?
There is no spoiler alert here, because to say that Photographic Memory concludes isn’t quite accurate. McElwee’s documentaries fade out gently, invite conversation, and linger in our consciousness, whether we’re ready to let them in fully or not. If we are in that place where we are receptive to one of his films, we welcome that chapter and all the disappointments and triumphs, the cruelty and kindness, that he will share with us in his inimitably humorous and melancholy way.