Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Documentarian Ross McElwee returns -- and he's got a PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORY

It's been nine years since Ross McElwee's last documentary, Bright Leaves (his last that I saw, at least. Most of us, I suspect, mis-sed his In Paraguay from 2008), which explored, among other subjects, North Carolina's tobacco history. His newest off-the-cuff foray into himself and his life opens this week, and I think it might be my favorite of all of his work that I've seen (which includes Sherman's March and Time Indefinite). It is near-perfectly titled PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORY, and it deals with his life as a photographer (not as a filmmaker), with memory, and with (as usual) himself and especially his son Adrian, who has morphed from a dear and charming child into -- oh, god, all us parents will identify with this -- a surly, angry teenager.

But wait. Adrian (below) has a point or two to make along the way, and McElwee (shown at right) allows him this, especially in one wonderful semi-rant about why his dad has taken it upon himself to search Adrian's room. The son's thought processes and questions to his dad are exemplary, I think. (All teens should see this movie and have Adrian's words at the ready -- as long as they're also making some attempt to understand their responsibility to themselves and to their parents.) In a movie crammed to the brim with three generations of father-son tsuris, the filmmaker never loses his easy-going charm and his singular ability to serve up major life themes as though they were simply part of today's menu, thank you very much.

In the midst of all this, Mr. McElwee decides to hit the road (or cross the ocean) back to France, where he spent his, we might call them, formative years, learning the photography trade and getting involved with a beautiful young French woman, Maud (below -- shades of Rohmer!), and being hired to help shoot weddings and communions by an interesting fellow named Maurice.

In this process, the filmmaker begins to question most everything: his behavior vis-à-vis Maud and Maurice, their behavior (and intentions) toward him, photography, memory, even our current move from film to digital technology -- and of course his relationship with his son, who has lately taken to engaging in extreme (and maybe dangerous) sports.

McElwee make his movie into a kind of mystery, which lends the experience some welcome suspense and tension. Will he rediscover these people who were so important to him for a time? Will he learn what really happened and why? To give away more would be to spoil your fun and the filmmaker's journey, but I will say that to hear this American southerner speaking French is one of the unexpected amusements of the movie (well, for us; maybe not so much for the French).

And his relationship with his son? Well, those of you who live in the New York City area can actually meet that little boy (shown at the beach, two photos up) and brushing his teeth as dad shoots him, just above, when the grown-up Adrian and his father make a personal appearance at the IFC Center in New York, where this lovely, quiet and resonant movie makes its theatrical debut this coming Friday, October 12. On that date, the film -- from First Run Features and running 87 minutes -- will also debut in Hartford, Connecticut, at Real Art Ways and in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center. You can see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters, by clicking here.

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