Ross McElwee’s ‘Photographic Memory’ Captures His Life
By JOHN ANDERSON
Published: October 5, 2012
AMID the new and old footage, still photos and wobbly recollections that make up Ross McElwee’s latest film, “Photographic Memory,” is a scene of his son, Adrian, at the age of 7, baiting a hook and being asked why he likes to fish. “The deep surprise of the ocean,” he replies sagely, providing a metaphor not only for life, but also for his father’s brand of filmmaking.
“Photographic Memory,” which opens in New York on Friday, continues Mr. McElwee’s cinema of self, a k a “personal documentary,” by which nonfiction filmmakers use autobiography as a springboard for exploring larger themes, and perhaps even greater truths. He never scouts locations, conducts pre-interviews or does research, and the process has produced acclaimed work like “Sherman’s March,” “Time Indefinite” and “Bright Leaves,” as well as a devoted following both inside and outside Harvard, where he has taught filmmaking since the ’80s.
In 2010, having found himself at loggerheads with Adrian (now 22, an extreme skier and relentless Internet surfer), Mr. McElwee decided to revisit his own early 20s. He went back to France, where he had worked as a wedding photographer, and, armed with a handful of his photographs and his memories, looked up a woman he’d once loved and tried to reconcile his recollections to reality. To say he was surprised would be like calling Moby Dick a fish.
“The attraction of fishing,” Mr. McElwee said by phone, “is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. And the attraction of this kind of filmmaking is you don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s just something about that yearning for spontaneity and having your expectations defied, or shifted, that’s very important to me as a filmmaker. It all goes back to cinéma vérité at M.I.T.”
It was at M.I.T., where Mr. McElwee received a master’s degree in filmmaking in 1977, that a small but influential revolution had started the previous decade. Many of the faculty members at its architecture department had come out of the German Bauhaus, and they initiated programs reflecting a multidisciplinary curriculum, including the Creative Photography Laboratory, the Center for Advanced Visual Studies and the film section, led by Richard Leacock and Ed Pincus. The film section’s graduate program, begun in 1975, would attract Mr. McElwee, his fellow filmmakers-to-be Michel Negroponte and Robb Moss, and Richard Peña (the outgoing programming director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center).
“Ricky Leacock brought to M.I.T. the American cinéma-vérité dogma,” Mr. Negroponte said. “We were not permitted to shoot interviews. Our cameras had to be observational. No music or voice-over was permitted. I think Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 paled in comparison.”
Mr. Pincus, however, was going his own way, with the film “Diaries.”
“The subject was his own life and his marriage,” Mr. Negroponte said. “Ross McElwee, Robb Moss and I, and all the other students in the program at the time, saw ‘Diaries’ as it evolved. Ed was breaking the barrier between subject and filmmaker.”
They could hear Mr. Pincus talking to his subjects and, to their surprise, the dialogue remained in the film. There were references to the making of the film, and they were included too. And because of “modern” 16-millemeter technology Mr. Pincus could work solo: no sound person, no gaffer, no assistants.
“Today it may be hard for people to understand how unconventional and radical these ideas seemed to us in the mid-1970s,” Mr. Negroponte said. “But Ed was breaking every single rule of so-called professional documentary filmmaking, and he inspired us to do the same.”
One of Mr. McElwee’s contributions to the form was the literary sensibility of a Southern writer. (He is from North Carolina.) “He expanded the vocabulary of the personal documentary,” Mr. Pincus said from his home in Vermont. “We tried to stay away from voice-over, and he showed us how it could be a wonderful, creative element.”
Mr. Pincus, who has a background in philosophy, said he traced the attitude of personal documentary back to Hume. “He called personal identity ‘a quandary of perceptions.’ And I wanted to see how much of that we could get through.”
In “Photographic Memory” Mr. McElwee just wants to get through to his son. The little boy with the fishing rod has grown into a seemingly sullen young man, who in the eyes of his father is an enormous risk taker without connections to much beyond his iPhone and virtual communities. Some parents will be sympathetic, some will be exasperated by Mr. McElwee’s lack of exasperation, although he’s often described as a Southern gentleman. The critic Gerald Peary, who was at The Real Paper in Boston, recalled that he didn’t like “Space Coast,” a 1979 film Mr. McElwee and Mr. Negroponte made about the closing of Cape Canaveral. Mr. Negroponte yelled at him and demanded he watch again, Mr. Peary said, but “Ross is very polite and accepted the criticism graciously.”
Mr. Peary said that appreciating the films, with their often languorous pace, and unconventional structures, usually took time — something the filmmaker Steven Ascher, who, with Mr. Pincus, wrote the seminal “Filmmaker’s Handbook” cited as a key to the entire movement: subject matter and stories that can be revealed only over time.
“One thing ‘Diaries’ pioneered was filming mundane, everyday moments, which traditionally would have been considered home movies, but as part of a film they take on a different meaning,” Mr. Ascher said. “Suddenly it’s documentary footage. What’s the difference? When those themes are put up against each other, they start to speak about different things.
“I think it’s interesting in ‘Photographic Memory’ that Ross is going back to a past that he has still photographs and memories of, and he’s confronted with how his world has changed and how the memories propped up by those images need to be revised. He may have gotten it wrong.” And if you get it wrong, he said, “you are risking losing these memories that are an important part of your life.”
One of the subtexts of “Photographic Memory” is that someone like Adrian, a child of the digital age, would never make a similar film.
“Because we have a few images, they are more precious to us,” Mr. McElwee said. “Adrian’s generation has so many that they’re drowning.”