“You ready?” Before you see an image in Photographic Memory, you hear sounds. Two children are laughing and scuffling. “Ready? Set, start,” says Ross McElwee’s son Adrian as he appears on screen. He and his sister Mariah are boxing in the living room, wearing boxing gloves and pillows inside their shirts. Pitching in and out of frame, they tumble and giggle—and McElwee films. “Generally, Adrian and Mariah have always liked being filmed,” McElwee observes over footage of the kids on sleds in a snowy backyard. “As they got older, they sometimes asked me to film things for them.” At which point the camera cuts to Adrian, older. The camera looks at skis and boots he’s loading into a car, then turns and looks up to find his face, impatient. “You’re sitting around with the camera,” the teenaged Adrian says, “When I have to be at an event in two minutes.”
Tensions between father and son expand and contract, shift and bump, through the film—opening 12 October at New York’s IFC Center. As McElwee determines to sort out why, he takes a trip back in time, as well as to Brittany, where he had a job with a wedding photographer named Maurice. “Maurice used to talk about the mysterious way in which time wears on a photograph, erodes it until all of its context is gone, burnished away,” McElwee recalls. “Maurice that sometimes this process of ‘decontextualization,’ as he called it, would take only a few days and other times, decades.” This process occurs relentlessly, as Maurice suggested and as McElwee has remembered. It affects memory, collective and individual, it determines and undoes history, it creates cultures.
See PopMatters’ review.