Judge Gordon Sullivan's photographic memory was erased the last time he went through an airport x-ray.
"A meditation on the passing of time."
Many directors have a signature, from Martin Scorsese's use of long, Steadi-cam takes to Michael Bay's penchant for fast cuts and building-destroying action. These are the kinds of signatures that can be mimicked by others, and often these famous directors' innovations become the standard stuff of moviemaking with a decade or two. Ross McElwee, however, has a signature that no one else has quite been able to forge yet. Taking himself as a subject, McElwee probes himself and the world around him with a dry wit and an eye for his own foibles. Though his films are as recognizable as any director's, his style has largely proved difficult to mimic. Consequently, fans eagerly await the latest dispatch from the shores of the land of McElwee. Rarely are they disappointed, and 2011's Photographic Memory will ensure fans continue to be pleased with the self-aware director.
Facts of the Case
Ross McElwee has largely been making the same film over and over again for decades. Though he started with a kind of first-person cinema with early films like Space Coast, McElwee really hit his stride with Sherman's March, the film that supplied the formula for most of this films to this day. The basic idea is that there's some crisis in the present that prompts McElwee to take to a literal and figurative journey into the past to understand it. Once he does, he returns to the present to deal with the crisis. In the case of Photographic Memory, the crisis is McElwee's inability to understand his son, a young man who lives in a technological world far from the one McElwee grew up in. This distance prompts McElwee to examine his own life at that age and so he returns to the French city St. Quay-Portieux, where he worked as a young man. There, he finds both questions and answers about his own journey into adulthood.
When I have a problem, I fret and try to solve it. I might consult friends, family, or colleagues about it. I might search to see if someone else has confronted a similar problem and see what I can learn from them. I suspect that's how most people deal with life. However, when Ross McElwee has a problem, he turns on a camera. Of course, it seems like that's not so different from when he doesn't have a problem, as he seems to keep his camera on quite often. Still, if we look at his films it seems like he solves problems by turning on his camera and either examining the world around him or digging into the past for images that may help.
This kind of introspective image-making (or image-excavating) has the potential to be the worst kind of pretentious bore. However, McElwee arms himself with two potent weapons against this difficulty. The first is his honesty. He doesn't shy away from painful truths, and more importantly, doesn't feel the need to paint himself in the best light. He doesn't understand his son's virtual existence, and he's not ashamed to admit that nor does he claim that his position is unassailable. Instead, he looks back into his own life to understand, and not everything he uncovers is flattering.
His second weapon is his dry wit. It's related to the first because few people could stand to be as honest as McElwee is without a bit of humor to liven things up. Not that Photographic Memory is a laugh riot, but excavating his own childhood and comparing it to his son's there are plenty of opportunities for ironic observations and witty juxtapositions.
The best thing about any Ross McElwee film, and this definitely includes Photographic Memory, is that while his films are 100% personal, the viewer gets something from the journey as well. Though I don't have a son (and have a totally different relationship with my father than the ones portrayed here), I feel as though McElwee brought back a hard-won understanding of fathers and sons that teaches me something as well. By being so intensely personal, McElwee finds something nearly universal in his films.
On DVD, Photographic Memory looks and sounds good. The 1.78:1 transfer does a fine job dealing with the digital image from McElwee's first all-digital outing. It doesn't appear that he's using the most high-end camera, so the image can occasionally seem a little soft and black levels aren't perfect. However, these problems seem endemic to the source rather than a difficulty with this transfer, which appears to represent the source effectively. The 5.1 surround track is a bit of overkill for this dialogue-driven film. However, McElwee's voice comes through clean and clear from the front, as do his other subjects. There isn't much surround activity, but there is solid separation and an effective presentation of the sonic "world" of the film.
Extras include adverts for other McElwee films and a photo gallery.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I get that McElwee is a bit of an auteur, and he seems to want his films to stand alone. However, the lack of extras here is a bit disappointing.
For some, Ross McElwee's films are always going to be the pretentious, privileged musings of a guy who just needs to relax and stop shoving a camera in his family's face. This might also be the first time that McElwee sounds older. Though he's not yet fragile sounding, he does sound huskier, more mortal than he has in the past. That gives some of his pronouncements a bit of a "get off my lawn" quality. His inability to understand his son and his relationships makes him seem out of step in a way that his other films don't (and his odes to the lost qualities of film don't help).
Photographic Memory is another solid film from documentary auteur Ross McElwee. He's once again turned his camera to the past, and what he brings back is funny, wise, and moving. The lack of extras on this DVD is a bit disappointing, but otherwise this is an excellent presentation of the film. It's worth tracking down for fans of McElwee's previous films and those who are looking for a personal documentary that stands out from the pack.
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