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Ross McElwee Bridges a Generation Gap In Photographic Memory

Ross McElwee bridges a new generation gap on camera

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Ross McElwee shoulders a much bigger camera than the one he uses in Photographic Memory

Photographic Memory

Directed by Ross McElwee

At Hodson Hall on Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood Campus Nov. 18 at 7 p.m. with filmmaker Ross Mcelwee

Filmmaker Ross McElwee has created a body of work that literally no one else could have. Plenty of young Baby Boomers took up 16mm cameras and joined the wave of post-’60s documentarians; plenty of them used this intimate setup to create intensely personal films. But none of them have mined their own lives, have steered their work toward personal revelation and self-examination like McElwee has. Since 1984’s “Backyard,” which examined race in the South through the lens of McElwee’s own family household, and his 1986 breakout Sherman’s March, a would-be historical doc turned wry real-life romantic comedy starring the shy, genteel filmmaker himself, he has created each successive film from, or through the lens of, his own life and experiences. He’s bringing his new film, Photographic Memory, to Johns Hopkins University at the behest of the Department of Film and Media Studies for a special advance preview this week, and absurd as it may sound, it is possibly his most personal film to date, in a number of ways.

McElwee has a co-star here. The initial section of the film focuses on Adrian, McElwee’s post-teen son, and their somewhat contentious relationship. As the footage illustrates, Adrian is bright and restlessly creative. He is also somewhat directionless, which seems to exacerbate the usual tensions between young adult son and father. Of course, most fathers don’t record father/son talks and spats on digital video. And perhaps no other father in the history of paternity has used such tensions as inspiration to travel to France to try to remember what it was like to be 20 years old and record the whole trip on digital video.

What at first might seem an indulgent side trip becomes the core of the film as McElwee returns alone to the small town in coastal Brittany where he lingered for a while during a youthful trip to Europe. It was there that he first worked professionally with a camera, photographing weddings and confirmations for a man he knew only as Maurice, until he was fired suddenly and traumatically. It was there that he had a brief but intense relationship with a young woman he knew only as Maud. Or at least that’s how McElwee remembers it all. Trying to reconstruct the time, the place, and his younger self with only his old photographs, some scant journal entries, and his spotty memory to guide him, he finds connections to his past elusive or surprising or both.

McElwee has been conducting these sorts of open-ended personal inquiries and transforming them into films for decades, and he has the outward process down. The camera work and editing are polished, and although he may never know for sure what his story’s going to be when he sets out, he shapes it into a final narrative with considerable skill. In the end, however, the Ross McElwee of the early 1970s seems to be as much a mystery to the Ross McElwee of the 21st century as his own son is. And that points to where most of the modest emotional power and significant interest of Photographic Memory lies: not in McElwee’s delving into his own past but in appreciating fully that he made the film in an attempt to understand and connect with his son. He famously flirted through his camera in Sherman’s March; here he appears to attempt a father/son rapprochement through it. In one transfixing moment, Ross’ near-constant voice-over even veers away from dryly funny narration and addresses Adrian directly, professing loving bafflement.

Photographic Memory’s observations about the different ways that Ross and Adrian McElwee use media resonate, e.g., thanks to texting and social media, Adrian never loses touch with anyone, unlike his father, wandering provincial France armed only with old darkroom prints, searching for people to whom he hasn’t talked in decades and whose last names he doesn’t know. At the same time, the film makes clear that they both use media to make sense of their worlds and their lives. Dad’s been doing it longer, of course, and never more transparently than here.

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