Find your voice. It’s the advice given to all young artists. Filmmaker Ross McElwee took it literally, and has made voiceover narration the central feature of his films, including the acclaimed 1986 documentary Sherman’s March.
McElwee’s latest film explores his conflicted relationship with his 21-year-old son, Adrian—who still lives at home, dabbling with stunt-skiing, filmmaking, and graphic design. In order to better understand Adrian, McElwee decides to return to France, where he lived and worked as a photographer for a year in his early 20s, and reconnect with his younger self.
The title of the documentary is, as fans of McElwee might expect, ironic. Photographic Memory deals with the photographic and videographic record of McElwee’s life from youth up to the present, as well as his son’s, explicated, like most scenes in the film, by the filmmaker’s trademark voiceover. But it’s hardly a comprehensive, authoritative recollection. (A number of the photographs McElwee took in France appear in the film, and are collected in a slideshow, which, along with a one-screen bio of the filmmaker, make up the DVD extras.)
McElwee can’t remember the last name of Maurice, his boss and mentor in St. Quay-Portrieux, the town in Brittany where he live and worked. His memories of Maud, the women with whom he lived for a time back then, are just as murky and unreliable. He claims they were lovers, but Maude herself, when he manages to track her down, remembers their liaison very differently, as characterized by companionship, not sex.
I admire McElwee for running off to France as a 20-something to find himself, and learning enough French to get by. And I know that many Americans achieve near fluency in foreign languages without coming close to approximating an accent. It’s our way: the linguistic equivalent of ordering a Coke in a café, or wearing sneakers to the Louvre. But there’s more to McElwee’s accentless French. It captures the unalterability of his voice and of the view of the world he presents through his films. The lack of nuance or inflection suggests an inertia, an inability to evolve or to progress. In the filmic world of Ross McElwee, all roads lead back to the filmmaker himself.
I don’t doubt that McElwee is touched and changed by the world, or that he’s a good father, but his filmmaking style favors the constant projection of a neurotic, solipsistic worldview. Sure, Woody Allen does the same thing. So did Spalding Gray. But their films exhibit generosity, expansiveness, and a humility utterly absent from Photographic Memory.
To his credit, McElwee lets it all show. His inability to remember much of anything about his time in France is embarrassing, and we cringe for him. Yet it seems to cost him nothing, psychologically speaking. He seems completely unaffected by the discoveries (or lack of discoveries) that he makes over the course of Photographic Memory. A smug, self-assuredness looms over the entire project. Finally, there is only ego.
What could be the film’s climax comes when Adrian Skypes his father in France. The encounter brings together all the themes of the film: metaphoric and literal distance, the clash of analog and digital technology, the attempt of a father to understand his son. Half a world apart, communicating by means of technology undreamt of in McElwee’s youth: maybe with this distance and perspective, the two will connect.
Will the relentless McElwee voice fall silent long enough for us to witness this encounter, to hear the two address their differences? Of course not. McElwee simply cannot shut up long enough for us to see what happened. Instead, while we strain to hear what Adrian is saying, he drowns his son out with another post-production fugue of voiceover, musing to himself about what Adrian has been doing in his absence.
I wouldn’t call McElwee the voice of his generation—the Baby Boomer cohort is far too large and varied to pigeonhole in that way. He does, however, represent a particularly enduring strain of autobiographical artistic expression from a generation known for thinking well of itself. Narcissistic, unable to see the world from anyone else’s perspective, he exists in an eternal present, forever young, forever poised for something important, obsessed with documenting and sharing every step of his life journey, full of himself and—often—full of it.
A DVD collection of six of McElwee’s films has just been released. I imagine someone shooting the box set into space, to begin a long journey through the universe, where—with luck—it will introduce alien cultures to humanity’s achievements, like the Golden Record carried by the two Voyager spacecraft NASA sent off in the ’70s as ambassadors of Earth to the cosmos.
Eons after the sun has burned out, turning the earth to cinders in the process, McElwee’s voice will drone on through interstellar space, undiminished by the passage of time and bombardment by asteroids and radiation:
I have no idea where most of these were taken. It’s like looking at the yearbook of a high school you didn’t attend… It’s admittedly painful to try to penetrate the purple haze of my prose… I’m not even sure the phrase ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) was used back then, but I probably had it… But I guess I’m also going back to try to remember what it was like to be in my twenties and have most of my life ahead of me… In my journal, one of the first entries is about looking at the horizon through a half-filled wine glass and how the glass becomes a kind of lens containing and inverting for a moment the entire sky and sea.. Maurice lived somewhere in St. Quay, but I can’t remember where. Unfortunately I never wrote down his last name in my journal… When I see them now, they seem unexceptional, but the experience of having been able to take them myself and then print them from negatives thrilled me at the time… This might be the café where I first met Maud, sitting about here, in a parallelogram of sunlight, as I poetically noted in my journal… Though I remember this moment with absolute clarity, I have no recollection of what happened next… I simply can’t remember anything about the circumstances of taking this photo… There’ve been times over the ensuing years when I’ve wondered whether or not this incident actually happened… I remember sometimes feeling oppressed by the shadow of my father… Hélène seemed so funny, so smart and vivacious, it’s strange how little I remembered about her; she always seemed overshadowed by her husband… Seriously, how did I get to be this old?…