Photographic Memory, by Ross McElwee

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The filmmaker finds himself in frequent conflict with his son, who is no longer the delightful child the father loved, but an argumentative young adult who inhabits virtual worlds available through the internet. To the father, the son seems to be addicted to and permanently distracted by those worlds. The filmmaker undertakes a journey to St. Quay-Portrieux in Brittany where he worked for a spring as a wedding photographer’s assistant at age 24 –slightly older than his son is now. He has not been back to St. Quay since that visit, and hopes to gain some perspective on what his own life was like when he was his son’s age. He also hopes to track down his former employer, a fascinating Frenchman named Maurice, and Maud, a woman with whom he was romantically involved during that spring 38 years ago. Photographic Memory is a meditation on the passing of time, the praxis of photography and film, digital versus analog, and the fractured love of a father for his son.

Director’s Statement:

Raising a teenage son is far more difficult than making a documentary film, but to attempt to do both simultaneously is madness. In Photographic Memory, I try doing both. At first, I imagined my film, shot in a French village where I had found work as a wedding photographer 38 years ago, might be a kind of Proustian meditation on lost love, the accuracy and fallacy of memory, and what it means to take a photograph. My son would have none of this. “That’s so boring, Dad!“ So I placed scenes of him throughout the film, and now it is not so boring. In fact some moments in the film are fairly outrageous. But if I may say so, it’s still stubbornly Proustian.




St. Quay Films – Boston

St. Quay Films, based in Boston, USA, is an independent documentary production company created in 2009 by Marie Emmanuelle Hartness and Ross McElwee. Photographic Memory is its first film.

French Connection Films – Paris

French Connection Films produces reports, documentaries, corporate videos, film shorts and music videos.Their work has broadcast on the Arte, France 3, France 5, TVE (Spain), YLE (Finland), AVRO (Netherlands), RTP (Portugal), Canal Plus (Africa, Poland), SBS (Australia), RAI (Italy), TV5 Monde, Voyage, Odyssee, Seasons, MCM Africa, and KTO Television.

La Lucarne – Paris

An open window for documentary creativity, La Lucarne (the skylight) is that rare place on television that welcomes idiosyncratic non-fiction works. Disseminated by Arte / France, its shows are made available to viewers in France, Germany, Belgium, and Austria. La Lucarne de ARTE recently celebrated its first decade, during which it showcased work by established filmmakers (Chris Marker, Alain Cavalier, Naomi Kawase, Alexandre Sokourov, Lech Kowalski) as well as programs by emerging documentarians.


What the Critics are Saying

Tomatometer Critics 94% | Audience 64%

Praise for Ross McElwee’s PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORY

“Beguiling…What [McElwee] finds in “Photographic Memory” is utterly delightful.”
- Lou Lumenick, New York Post

“McElwee is a homespun philosopher who finds exceptional moments in everyday life and records it all through his camera lens.” - Leonard Maltin, Indiewire

“The most Proustian of Mr. McElwee’s documentaries.” - Stephen Holden, The New York Times

“Some might characterize what filmmaker Ross McElwee does as navel-gazing. But in the hands of this veteran documentarian, that which might be self-indulgent egomania from a lesser artist is often the stuff of quiet revelation…simple, genuinely moving.”
- Ian Buckwalter, NPR

“With droll wit and fearless instinct for turning an unblinking lens on his life’s minutiae, Ross McElwee continues his Socratic mandate of living a fully examined life with the assured and insightful “Photographic Memory,” in which the inevitable sojourn into his past once again helps him understand the present and brace for the future. The pic’s pleasures are subtle yet resonant.” -Eddie Cockrell, Variety

“One of Six Full Frame Documentaries You Must See!  Twenty-five years after Sherman’s March, the godfather of the home-video documentary clashes with the YouTube age via his son.” -Robert Silva, Indiewire

“A sad, funny, homespun, often quite moving meditation on the passing of time and the evanescence of recorded memories.” Screen Daily

“A bracing and sometimes uncomfortable peek into private fears and regrets about mortality and missed opportunities.” - Nick Schager, Village Voice

“As in his previous work, McElwee serves as his own subject, cameraman, interviewer and narrator, drawling his way through Brittany past and present; making new friends and sifting through his memories—both photo- and neurochemical—of the old ones he’s lost. It’s a personal journey, but one that speaks to universal ideas about aging, fatherhood and the way that “time wears on a photograph, erodes it, until all of its context is gone.” McElwee’s quietly reassuring voice dominates the film, but that doesn’t mean he can’t craft a magnificently eloquent image when he wants to.” - Matt Singer, Time Out NY

“An absorbing, bittersweet film…in the droll, earnest manner we’ve come to expect from McElwee.” - Alexander C. Kafka, Oxford American Magazine

“3.5 stars. Startlingly genuine. An elliptical, Sherman’s March-style odyssey through the director’s ever-morphing domestic selfhood.” - Joseph Jon Lanthier, Slant Magazine

Photographic Memory is a documentary that is truly something special.” - Joshua Brinsting, Criterion Cast

“Ross McElwee adds another wonderful personal memoir, a film that is both forward-looking and elegiac…“Photographic Memory” is about the permanence and impermanence of what we choose to preserve: on film and in our heads (which is often the same thing). I would like to think that one day Adrian might look at this documentary and see it as a supreme act of paternal love. Grade: A “ - Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor

"The most Proustian of McElwee's documentaries." - The New York Times

"Beguiling and utterly delightful." - New York Post

"**** Magnificently eloquent." - Time Out New York

"The stuff of quiet revelation. Simple, genuinely moving." - NPR

"With droll wit and fearless instinct for turning an unblinking lens on his life's minutiae, Ross McElwee continues his Socratic mandate of living a fully examined life with the assured and insightful Photographic Memory. Its pleasures are subtle yet resonant." - Variety

"Ross McElwee adds another wonderful personal memoir, a film that is both forward-looking and elegiac. Grade: A." - Christian Science Monitor


THE VILLAGE VOICE Review, October 10th, 2012

Photographic Memory

By Nick Schager Wednesday, Oct 10 2012

Ross McElwee attempts to understand his son in the present day by revisiting his own past in Photographic Memory, an autobiographical doc in which the acclaimed filmmaker travels back to the French countryside where he spent part of his youth to reconnect with early years that, in their risky, aimless excitement, mirror his teen offspring Adrian's directionless circumstances. McElwee believes that finding Maurice and Maude—his French wedding-photographer employer/mentor and lover, respectively—is the key to coming to terms with Adrian's life, which is full of drinking, pot-smoking, and distracted artistic ambitions.

That investigative process for lost acquaintances is echoed by his mournful ruminations on the discrepancies between film and digital photography, with the former cherished for the physical connection it created with memories, and yet which has been made archaic by a current techno landscape that, in its hyper-connectivity, seems to have distanced McElwee even further from Adrian.

Alternating between time periods and geographic locations, all of it connected by McElwee's narrated thoughts, the film proves a bracing and sometimes uncomfortable peek into private fears and regrets about mortality and missed opportunities. It's also, in its portrait of wayward Adrian, further proof that there's nothing more difficult, frustrating, messy, and insufferable than teenagerdom.



FILMMAKER MAGAZINE Review, October 10th, 2012


By David Licatain News
on Wednesday, October 10th, 2012



When Ross McElwee heeded the call to become a filmmaker in the mid 1970s, he enrolled in M.I.T.’s film program and studied with pioneering cinéma vérité documentarians Richard Leacock and Ed Pincus. Lighter, smaller cameras and advancements in sync-sound made it possible for one man to do what a film crew did not too many years before. McElwee would synthesize the lessons learned and use the new technology to create a distinctive kind of cinema.

McElwee’s films are often filed in the “personal documentary” category. Like many labels, personal documentary seems inadequate, if not downright misleading. Yes, his family, friends, and ex-lovers appear in his films. He frequently visits places in his past, and yes, he narrates and shows up in his films, but it is always to a larger purpose–nuclear proliferation in Sherman’s March, violence and media in Six O’Clock News, the tobacco industry in Bright Leaves. Home movies are personal; McElwee’s films are universal. His themes, concerns, and anxieties are our themes, concerns, and anxieties.

His tenth feature documentary, Photographic Memory (opening in New York City on October 12), continues in the same vein. McElwee’s “personal” story is the growing rift between himself and Adrian, his 20-something son who seems addicted to the Internet. In search of some perspective, he revisits the place where he spent his early twenties, a small coastal town in Brittany. Jumping between past and present, his youthful stint in France and his current home in Massachusetts, footage of Adrian as a child shot on film and footage shot recently digitally, Photographic Memory explores in McElwee’s inimitable way aging, child-parent discord, and the ever-accelerating pace of the modern world.

Filmmaker: You direct, shoot, write, edit, narrate, and do the sound on most of your films. (Though you’re not credited as the editor on Photographic Memory, and I’m curious why you didn’t edit it. Perhaps that’s a follow up of sorts.) Is the process of being so connected to all aspects of the film making process essential to your connection with the content of the film?

McElwee: Certainly in my first half dozen films, I thought it was imperative to execute all aspects of the filmmaking process. It was part of the notion of being a filmmaker in the complete sense of the word — perhaps something my peers and I absorbed in the graduate filmmaking program at MIT back in the late 1970s. And I do enjoy all aspects of filmmaking. But increasingly, it has become more difficult to author every aspect of the making of a film. For me, this has more to do with getting older and having more outside responsibilities — family, teaching, etc. If anything, with digital technology, it has become easier to author all aspects of your film. Still, with Photographic Memory, there was also the problem of deadlines. Photographic Memory was mostly funded by ARTE, the French TV network. There was a contractual deadline to deal with, which of course is how television works. But I had never made a film commissioned by television before. I shot in September 2010 and the film had to be finished in August 2011 — less than a year. So I felt I had no choice but to work with an editor. I had co-edited Bright Leaves with Mark Meatto and In Paraguay with Julie Mallozzi, and really enjoyed the experience. What a novel idea: hiring an editor! In Photographic Memory, I gave the responsibility of editing over to Sabrina Zanella-Foresi — the first time I had ever done this. (Meatto, Mallozzi, Zanella-Foresi – I never noticed it before, but they are all of Italian lineage. Am not sure what the significance of that is, but there must be one.) Anyway, I was more than willing to turn the primary responsibility of editing Photographic Memory over to Sabrina, who became a true collaborator in how the film was nuanced and shaped. But with all three editors, I was in the editing room sitting beside them every day until the film was done.

Another change for me was having a creative producer working with me from the very beginning. Marie-Emmanuelle Hartness, a friend from Cambridge via Paris, helped me conceive of the project from the beginning and was involved in every aspect of its production. She was superb.


Filmmaker: One theme explored in Photographic Memory is analog technology versus digital technology. You use footage you shot years ago on film, and there is an obvious difference in the look, what I think you called “luminosity.” Audiences nowadays assume a new documentary is shot digitally, but was something irretrievably lost when the documentary world abandoned tactile film? Or is it just a question of the look — which might be imitated with some fancy camera rig or postproduction magic?McElwee: Of course from a nostalgic point of view, I miss celluloid. But I think I was using the theme of the analog / digital split in a more metaphorical sense. That is, making observations about the difference between generations. Are we really better off with digital devices and systems running our lives? In some ways, of course. In others, no. But we don’t really have a choice any more. My son shoots digital video, and now, so do I.

Filmmaker: I know a few biographers (writers and filmmakers) who have confessed that they often reach a frustrating point in their projects, a point where they become tired of their subjects, and perhaps even dislike them. I wonder if you experience this with your work? When you’re shooting or editing do you ever have moments of “ugh, her again?” or “ugh, me again?”

McElwee: I am absolutely plagued by this idea. I have always been a little skittish about about inserting myself into my films, but as you suggest it’s much more of an issue now than it used to be. For example, troubled by ephemeral demons, I once took on a crazy physical labor job with this carpet cleaning nyc firm where I had to do a lot of dirty stuff. You know that cleaning carpets is not my cup of tea, but I did it and I doubt that revealing it in a film will contribute anything beyond self embarrassment. Yet I don't reject it out of hand. To be honest, I don’t know how many more autobiographical films I have in me. But of course the challenge is to find something interesting in the world — tobacco cultivation, the Berlin Wall, nuclear weapons proliferation — and make a film about it from a personal perspective.

Filmmaker: Each of your documentaries stands alone as a separate work, but they are all strongly linked to one another as well. When you embark on a new project how aware are you of how it relates to your earlier (or upcoming) work, or are you just thinking about the project at hand?

McElwee: It sort of happens automatically, given that the filmmaker’s life is part of the film.


Filmmaker: There seem to be a lot of call-to-action documentaries being released. Do you think contemporary documentary films are losing their personal perspective?

McElwee: Perhaps, but also, perhaps this is a good thing. Sometimes I think “personal films” have worn out their welcome. But as you point out, I now have a number of them under my belt, and I think the cumulative effect from film to film may continue to be interesting to some people. Also, after 30 years of doing this, I am not sure I know how to make a documentary any other way.



INDIEWIRE review, April 18th, 2012

by Robert Silva
Wed Apr 18  2012

Twenty-five years after "Sherman's March," Ross McElwee continues to delve into his family history. One might wonder if McElwee's brand of ingrown documentaries has become stale, and the answer is no, net yet. In fact, the premise of the film (his first in digital video) undercuts some of McElwee's own propensities as a filmmaker. That is, the godfather of the home-video documentary clashes with the YouTube age via his son Adrian.

Adrian, who bears a passing resemblance to Scooby from “Storytelling,” is as absorbed in social media and technology as Ross was his 16mm camera. In a shot that defines a generation, Adrian is shown typing on a laptop, watching TV, texting on his cell phone, and listening to an iPod. Adrian's overstimulated life baffles his father and McElwee amusingly documents his attempts to connect who's always connected elsewhere.

To get a sense of his own youth (and produce said film), McElwee forgoes his usual Southern backlot to wander France, where he was a photographer's assistant in Brittany during his 20s. With a few photos and memories as a guide, he searches out figures from his past, including a woman with whom he had a passionate relationship -- he thinks.

The unreliability of such memories and McElwee's fumbling detective work gives the picture much of its interest as a meditation on photography and age. The ending may be a bit open-ended, but one supposes McElwee is leaving the door open for the next film in his series.



October 15, 2012
Frank Scheck
Hollywood Reporter Top Critic

Self-reflexive filmmaker Ross McElwee examines his past and his troubled relationship with his son in this typically personal documentary.

Filmmaker Ross McElee continues his obsessive self-reflection in this entertaining meditation on aging and memory.

Veteran documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee (Sherman’s MarchBright Leaves) continues his endless cinematic self-examination with Photographic Memory, a meditation on aging and the vicissitudes of memories, among many other things. Prompted by his troubled relationship with his internet addicted, substance abusing and seemingly directionless twentysomething son, the film will strike a chord with any parent who suddenly realizes that their children are beginning to repeat their own mistakes.

The young Adrian, already seen in a couple of the director’s previous efforts, has a restless, freewheeling imagination that indulges itself in such activities as filming himself snowboarding while stoned. Frustrated at his son’s apparent lack of discipline, his father decides to make a nostalgic, hopefully illuminating journey into his own past, specifically the French town where he spent much of his twenties. There he is reunited with Maurice, the philosophical wedding photographer for whom he served as apprentice, and Maud, the beautiful young woman with whom he had a passionate relationship.

The resulting journey of self-discovery is not exactly profound in its revelations, but as usual with McElwee’s efforts the proceedings are enlivened by his droll, witty narration, delivered in a sonorous tone. Hearing the 65-year-old filmmaker mournfully ask himself, “Seriously, how did I get to be this old?” is a treat all by itself.

Examining his past via such methods as comparing the vintage photographs he once took with the present-day condition of their subjects, the filmmaker delivers a frequently entertaining and insightful self-portrait that resonates emotionally despite its frequent lapses into minutiae.

Opens Oct. 12 (First Run Features)
Production: St. Quay Films, French Connection Films, Arte France
Director/director of photography: Ross McElwee
Screenwriters/producers: Ross McElwee, Marie-Emmanuelle Hartness 
Editor: Sabrina Zaella-Foresi
Not rated, 87 min.


'Photographic Memory': The permanence and impermanence of what we choose to preserve

This complex father-son confessional movie cuts across eras. Harvard film professor Ross McElwee adds another wonderful personal memoir, a film that is both forward-looking and elegiac.

October 12, 2012 | Rating: A
Peter Rainer
Christian Science Monitor Top Critic

Since the 1980s, documentarian and Harvard film professor Ross McElweehas been composing wonderful personal memoirs that are both forward-looking and elegiac. In “Time Indefinite” (1993), he and his wife had a baby boy, Adrian, who popped up in a couple of subsequent films. “Photographic Memory,” McElwee’s marvelous new movie, is all about the grown-up Adrian, with whom his father is attempting to forge a better bond; but, equally, it’s about McElwee himself and his attempts to reconnect with the young man he was when he was Adrian’s age.

This means revisiting St. Quay-Portrieux in Brittany, France, where he was once a semi-vagabond in his 20s, and trying to recapture “what it was like to have most of my life ahead of me.”

McElwee’s voice-over narration, with its North Carolina lilt and its nuanced note of regret, is a species of confessional. He looks at photos of himself at age 24 and says to us about that time, “I could not possibly imagine myself as a father.” Now that he is one, he imagines that getting closer to the person he was then will allow him to more fully understand Adrian and their sometimes prickly, difficult relationship.

To some extent, Adrian’s surliness is typical young-guy rite-of-passage stuff. “These steps are so predictable,” McElwee says. But Adrian, who goes in for extreme skiing and tinkers with filmmaking and has a bunch of friends McElwee describes as “an impenetrable tribe,” is also, as his father says, “in a constant state of technological overload.” This is not something McElwee experienced at that age, and it makes him wonder how he would have handled the onslaught.

One of the ironies of “Photographic Memory” is that, as in almost all of his earlier films, Mc-Elwee is trying to seek out long-lost people who once meant something to him, while Adrian, in the Internet era, “never seems to lose touch with anyone.” In Brittany, McElwee tries to locate a photographer-employer named Maurice, a kind of Gallic hippie philosopher who chided his protégé for not knowing much about American jazz and was fond of playing Bach’s “Magnificat” on the xylophone. Even though Maurice ultimately fired McElwee for apparently losing some negatives, he still reveres him – his spirit.

Another quest is for a young woman, Maud Corbel, with whom he had a seaside fling. He claims that he owes her an apology because he left her, although he doesn’t remember why. McElwee has no intention of reviving an old flame, but, again, he wants to measure himself against his memories.

It’s a difficult and potentially dangerous expedition; when he finally locates Maud, he seriously considers turning back.

Their reunion, complete with a meal of sauteed frogs’ legs, is wistful, and McElwee, otherwise bracingly honest in his voice-over narrations, is rather politic in this section. But he doesn’t need to make explicit what we already can see for ourselves: Time has taken its toll. McElwee is an inveterate nostalgist. He was so even when he was making movies decades earlier (like his classic “Sherman’s March”).

Were he not such a complicated artist, his mooning about the past might come across as shtick. But he understands how movies can both clarify one’s memories and make them seem ineffably strange. When, prior to his return trip, he takes out some old photos of his Brittany sojourn, he is drawn to them, and yet seeing them is like “looking at photographs of a high school you didn’t attend.”

The 38 years since McElwee was last in Brittany have “just whisked by,” and he asks himself, without a trace of self-pity, “How did I get to be this old?” It’s less a lament than a simple statement of fact. He’s hornswoggled, and vastly intrigued, by the machinations of time. And because he is a filmmaker, he is, in a sense, dealing with time all the time. “Photographic Memory” is about the permanence and impermanence of what we choose to preserve: on film and in our heads (which is often the same thing). I would like to think that one day Adrian might look at this documentary and see it as a supreme act of paternal love. Grade: A (Unrated.)