I just love the deep surprise of the ocean. You never know what you’ll catch.
—Adrian McElwee, Photographic Memory
“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. When Mariah, younger by six years and about half her brother’s height, declares, “I want to try,” her brother turns toward her, exposing his body to her and she presses her glove into it, less a punch than a push. “Ahh,” Adrian says, going down.
“These are my kids,” their dad intones. And, you see here, his film subjects, too. As he describes them, they’re moving. If the frame approximates his view of them, they see themselves differently, performing for the camera, for each other, for dad. “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.”
Just a minute into Photographic Memory, and already the memory is uncertain.
McElwee’s newest film, which screened at Silverdocs Film Festival, might be understood as a meditation on such uncertainty. It’s also about the effort to make order out of memories, however imperfect and however shaped, inspired, and reordered by images.
The meditation is spurred doubly, by dad’s own pursuit of his son with his camera, over years (“Being with Adrian as a cute little kid was one thing,” he narrates as you watch the child devour his lunch, “But hanging out with him when he’s a looming adolescent is another thing altogether,” he adds, as the film cuts to Adrian looking down at the camera as it tilts up, so as to underline the “looming”). Recording his son among friends, dad provides nature-doc-style narration: he’s a member of a tribe, McElwee says, “which seemed to have its own impenetrable codes of language and ritual, dress and tools; one of the most important tools was the video camera.”
But if Adrian is, as his father suggests, “in a constant state of technological overload,” texting, at his computer, filming his own skiing backwards in order to “post on the internet for other members of the tribe to view,” he’s also, you see, an extension or next-gen version of his dad.
This becomes clear in McElwee’s self-reflection, his memories of his father the surgeon, not precisely thrilled by Ross’ decision to quit school to become a “writer or perhaps a photographer or an itinerant street musician.” Worried about his increasing distance from Adrian, Ross takes a trip into his own memory, the time when he was around Adrian’s age and travelled to Brittany and took photos for a wedding photographer named Maurice. Even as McElwee imagines finding Maurice, he adds, he never wrote down his employer’s last name in the journal he kept. He does have photos he took at the time, black and whites of people he met, the café where he might have first met Maud, the young woman he lived with after Maurice fired him.
As McElwee sorts through his past, he sorts through images, critiquing some of his immature compositions and marveling at others (“I don’t even remember taking this photo,” he says of one that now serves as evidence of a large crucifix that no longer exists: “Jesus has disappeared, maybe stolen by atheistic vandals”). He finds the building where Maurice had his shop. McElwee slept in the attic, above the dark room, he remembers. Now, he walks his camera up the stairs to show where he stayed during the early 1970s: “I remember how exciting it was to find myself sleeping on the floor of this little room,” he says, “making a living with my camera.” The more he picks through the past, the more he becomes aware of what he’s forgotten, or what’s he’s reshaped in his mind. “I remember trying to explain my excitement to my father,” he says, “But I don’t think he ever fully understood.”
McElwee can’t know what his father understood, of course. His own memory may be faulty, his photos are surely incomplete. When he discovers the provenance of one of his favorite shots, the photo of Maud he carried in his wallet, folded up, for over a year after they broke up, he’s surprised. Looking back, he re-sees. What he thought he saw or remembered or even captured in a photo is transformed, by time, experience, loss and transformation. “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 history, it creates cultures. Memory might be photographic, that is, documented, assembled and manipulated, but it is never done, never finished. This mutability, this perpetual shape-shifting, provides for generational differences, for perspectives, for the very notion of relative and varying subjectivities. What happened may not be what happened. And what you remember helps to make you who you are, now and then, and then again, in someone else’s memory.
Someone else’s memory is the subject of Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, also featured at Silverdocs. Best remembered for advancing the art of “participatory journalism,” Plimpton is here introduced during one of his more flamboyant efforts, to perform on a trapeze. He describes the scene in voiceover, noting that the ladder to the trapeze is “a rope affair, only 25 feet, they said, but it seemed to me to go up forever and ever.” A close up of a snare drum cuts to a close up of Plimpton’s face, “There it was,” he adds, “My nightmare come true.”
Plimpton’s descriptions of his adventures—his stints as a baseball pitcher in 1958, a quarterback for the Detroit Lions in 1963, a golfer, boxer, swimmer, timpanist actor, and goalie for the Bruins—tend to this sort of drama, denoting his simultaneous dread and excitement, his fear and courage. Luke Poling and Tom Bean’s documentary positions its subject as a kind of supreme performer. Even as it posits a few pop-psych reasons for his ambitions (his hard to please father, his expulsion from Exeter, his emulation of Hemingway), it focuses on what his admirers remember, their versions of Plimpton. These interviewees include Gay Talese, Jay McInerney, and Peter Matthiessen, with whom he and Harold Humes cofounded the Paris Review in 1953, as well as two of his children, his first wife Freddy and his second wife Sarah.
Each contributes a piece of a picture of Plimpton, though none asserts full understanding or even much intimacy. “George was not somebody you’d become very close with,” Sarah says, “You wouldn’t tell him your deepest secrets and he wouldn’t tell you his.” The film arranges their memories alongside interviews with Plimpton—for all the writing and editing he did, for all his love of the art of writing, he appeared on screens a lot, his immersions in experiences, for Sports Illustrated and for his popular books, early on recognized by documentary makers as terrific visual product. Says director Mel Stuart, who underscores how remarkable it was that NBC contracted a documentary about Plimpton’s performance with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, “In a strange way, even though he was not everyman, he was everyman in the film. You could identify with his feelings.”
This is the contradiction that shapes Plimpton!, that despite his patrician affect and own doubts, his brilliance and his incessant self-narration, Plimpton remains a bit of a cypher. The film notes his associations with celebrities (he impressed Hugh Hefner with his “lady” skills, he held salons to which he invited Arthur Miller and Terry Southern, Truman Capote and Ralph Ellison, he was with Bobby Kennedy when he was killed), and his distance from his family. His daughter Medora echoes Sarah’s observation when she says, “He’s not the easiest person to really get inside, he’ll tell you tons of stories, he’ll be very friendly and everything, but he just never really let people in.”
The film’s construction of this puzzle is suitably fragmented. On the one hand, it offers Plimpton’s self-descriptions, performances all, sometimes aligned with other performances, photos and film footage of the experiences he describes. On another hand, it extends the enigma, performs the dissolution, as friends and colleagues try to sort out what they can’t know. As Ric Burns puts it, “His fate was, in a sense, to be so identified with his greatest work of art, which is himself, so that his writing, which is just as good, in some way could never quite equal the dazzle of the personality himself.”
It’s a smart, suitably elusive estimation, reading the “personality itself” as a thing apart, a performance that remains separate from Plimpton, who continues to star “as himself,” in the documentary and also, in whatever life you might imagine he had. The photos and the footage tell stories, shape memories, but these can only recede, “decontextualized” even as they’re formed.
Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself