Ross McElwee brings 'Photographic Memory' to the PFA
At wit's end, McElwee digs up old journals and photographs from his early 20s, pre-Backyard, when he took a year off college to bum around France (his father was, naturally, aghast). There, he met a charismatic man who became his photography mentor, and a woman with whom he had a significant affair. "It's admittedly painful to try and penetrate the purple haze of my prose," he says over a scene where he flips through his youthful scrawlings as his son holds the camera. "I feel a little embarrassed at showing Adrian these pages."
Admitting embarrassment is a dying art in these narcissistic times (Ugly photo? Just throw a filter over it! Made a mistake? Blame the haters!) — and it's one reason why McElwee's films resonate so powerfully. He's keenly self-aware in a way that's refreshingly old-fashioned. He knows when to let his images do the talking, and when to let forces beyond his control steer his narrative. There's much to take in when he returns to sea-swept Brittany, a place he's romanticized in his memory. "The whole experience was so ... French," he wryly notes, realizing how vague and clichéd that sounds.
As McElwee immerses himself in the scenery he's dreamed of for decades, he reflects on what kind of person he was back then. Turns out the atmosphere awakens the essence of his younger self far better than his old photos, which are filled with places and faces he doesn't recognize. (If only he'd had a movie camera back then!) If the stealth mission of his trip is to grasp onto something, anything, that will help him relate to his moody son, it goes mostly unfulfilled — witness a Skype conversation between the US and France, as cluttered with technological difficulties as it is attitude problems.
But there are no tidy endings in McElwee films, because that's how life is. In the last scene, it's revealed that Adrian has decided to attend film school, mirroring Tom McElwee's decision to follow in his father's footsteps. Is there another McElwee legacy in the making? Stay tuned for the inevitable next chapter. *
"AFTERIMAGE: ROSS MCELWEE AND THE CAMBRIDGE TURN"
March 30-April 2, $5.50-9.50
Pacific Film Archive
2575 Bancroft, Berk