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Photographic Memory - Movie Review - 2011

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Photographic Memory - Movie Review - 2011

Ross McElwee as a young man, filming in France

Ross McElwee

A Journey Into The Past To Understand the Present

Legendary documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee is best known for making movies that are intensely intimate, subjective, and poetic. Photographic Memory is no exception. In it, McElwee documents his own efforts to understand his teenage son, a deeply personal pursuit that ultimately involves his revisiting his own coming of age and young adulthood.

Using home movies of Adrian from the time he was a very young child, McElwee shows how his relationship with his son deteriorated from a loving one with rich and enjoyable communications to a sort of enmity between an emotionally distant child whose primary pursuits are extreme snowboarding and full time engagement with social media, and a critical, demanding father who is concerned that his beloved progeny might not choose the path to a productive and happy life.

Trying To Reconnect Through Cinema

McElwee's sadness about his alienation from his son prompted this project, which begins at home, with use of archival and current footage to show the filmmaker's chronological encounters with his son, and expands into an excursion to France (and memories of the past). The trip follows the routing of McElwee's own coming of age trip to France, an adventure during which he had become truly committed to working as a photographer and had experienced first love.

As a young man, McElwee had ventured to France in search of life experiences. He was free of encumbrances and he was curious. He was riding aimlessly through the French countryside in a van he'd brought for $400 from a German hippie, when he arrived at Saint Quay-Portrieux, a small town in Brittany. There, McElwee happened to stumble upon a local photographer named Maurice, who offered the young man with a camera a job as his photographic assistant.

McElwee lodged with Maurice, and they toured the countryside, photographing local weddings and anniversaries. There was nothing especially creative about the job, but Maurice became a sort mentor to McElwee, who experienced a new and thrilling lifestyle while he learned and practiced the business of photography.

Much to his surprise, McElwee was one day fired by Maurice. Without much explanation, the photographer told his protegee to pack his belongings and leave.

Seeking Recollections and Resolution

When McElwee returns to Saint Quay-Portrieux after all these years have passed, he finds that the town has changed quite a bit. He begins to retrace his own history, trying to find the bar where he first encountered Maurice, locate the building in which Maurice's shop was housed. He hopes to find Maurice and Maurice's wife, and reconnect with them.

Providing his own voice over narration, McElwee clearly articulates the memories triggered by what he sees in the town and surroundings, and he poses questions that indicate the sort of information and resolutions that he's looking for. In a moving visual montage, he illustrates his quest by mixing contemporary footage of his present journey with archival stills and moving images from his original stay in Quay-Portrieux. It's a powerful package of images.

McElwee also hopes that he will be able to find and reconnect with Maud, an older women with whom he had his first real affair. Maud sold vegetables at the local farmers market. McElwee goes to it armed with old photos to ask current vendors if they know Maud and her whereabouts.

Meaningful Memories

In Photographic Memory, memories and nostalgia are key players. McElwee certainly does capture the drama, romance and trauma of his own coming of age. Does he find his lost mentor and lost love? And, does what he learns on his quest help him to reconnect with his alienated son?

No spoilers here. See the film!

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Film Details

  • Title: Photographic Memory
  • Directors: Ross McElwee
  • U.S. Theatrical Release Date: October 12, 2012 (limited)
  • Running Time: 87 mins.
  • Locations: Various US and Saint-Quay-Portrieux, Brittany, France
  • Language: English and French with English subtitles.
  • Production Companies: St. Quay Films, French Connection Films, Arte
  • Official Website
  • Trailer

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