Filmmaker Ross McElwee is a one-man crew: soundman, cameraman, narrator. He reached a wide audience with his sweet documentary Sherman's March, which chronicled his journey through the South searching for love. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1987. He's made five documentary features since then.
McElwee's latest film is Photographic Memory — and it presents a different side of the director.
Early in Photographic Memory, we see McElwee in a small town in Brittany, France, in a state of digital disorientation.
"I am staying in an apartment in the center of town," he narrates. "For the first time I'm shooting with a camera that uses only memory cards. No film stock; no videocassettes — which makes me a little nervous. I mean, what if the camera's memory fails? It's bad enough that I don't quite trust the memory of the cameraman."
The reliability of memory is a big topic in this new film. When he was 24, McElwee left his home in Charlotte, N.C., for France, with no clear goal in mind.
"Just casually thinking about that year, it just seemed as if I was basically wandering around not knowing what in the world I wanted to do with my life," he says. "And that I have, over the years, looked back and said to myself: I really wish I had that year in France back."
In part, McElwee, who's now in his 60s, wanted to revisit a time when he was his son's age — trying to remember what it was like to have most of his life ahead of him. So, he turned the camera on Adrian.
Adrian says the common misconception that McElwee is always filming is a bit of hyperbole. "But he is there with the camera, kind of spontaneously, more than the average father."
Adrian's dad turns the camera on himself, too — as he does in all of his films. He narrates in the first person as he talks to people about life and their relationships. His own search for love was the subject of Sherman's March — the movie that brought him to widespread attention at around the same time that Michael Moore came out with Roger and Me and Errol Morris with The Thin Blue Line.
"Ross McElwee is doing something totally different," says author Jim Lane. He says McElwee is less political — less ideological — than some of his peers. Lane writes about McElwee — and his kind of moviemaking — in his book The Autobiographical Documentary in America.
"He is keeping to the small moments, which might, in fact, make Ross' films 'less marketable.' But [they] certainly don't make them less interesting," Lane says.
In Photographic Memory, the "small moments" unfold as McElwee travels back to France to look for his former girlfriend and his old boss, a wedding photographer. The film's title springs from the idea that a person with photographic memory would accurately remember everything that happened that year.
"I don't have photographic memory. Most people don't," McElwee says. "But I think that it's kind of used ironically in the film because as I do go back to this little village, I do discover certain things that, in fact, were true to my memory — the accuracy of my memory — and other things that were completely the opposite of what my memory was telling me really happened."
In doing that, McElwee hoped to understand his son a little better. On film, theirs is not an easy relationship. And early versions of the film included footage of bigger and more abrasive confrontations than the ones we see, says Ross McElwee.
"Yes, the outtakes were definitely worse. And yet, there's a way in which — I think people who have kids know that you get, despite yourself, get brought down to their level of bickering and arguing. And I like to think of myself as not, not indulging in that. Yet, there it was on film. And clearly we were going back and forth numerous times about these trivial things. Some of them not so trivial."
Overall, this film is a lot more melancholy than McElwee's earlier work.
"I would offer, with humor," he says. "Melancholy with humor. Comic melancholy perhaps. Can there be such a thing?"
The film's tone may come as a surprise to many of his fans, who've become accustomed to a kinder, gentler McElwee.
"I fully understand what you're saying," he says. "This Ross is not as lovable as the Ross of other films. And maybe it's also because this Ross is getting older, and he's just not as lovable as he used to be. You've got to ask somebody else about that, though."
Maybe his son.
"Yes, there's a lot of badgering that's gone on in the film. The way he's getting in my face," Adrian says.
Even so, during a panel discussion after a recent screening of the film, Adrian — who's now in his early 20s — told his father, "You're cool in your own way."