Ross McElwee’s Photographic Memory is organized into three untidy acts, each of them summed up in a poor man’s kōan via voiceover narration: “I love my son, but sometimes he drives me crazy,” “What happened to film?,” and, finally, “How did I get to be this old?” True to form, however, McElwee’s peripatetic reflections allow for so much drift between these hackneyed guideposts that his occasional collisions with cliché feel startlingly genuine and dolorously inevitable. His intense, now filial-oriented soul-searching is just as likely to turn up a rancid platitude like “Well, I was same when I was my son’s age” as it is to yield a utile epiphany. In this way, more than any other American documentarian, McElwee earns the right to gamble with cheap sentimentality. With an adenoidal drawl that builds head-scratching social observations out of doubtful, long vowels, his overdub persona grinds its way toward a hapless sort of trenchancy.
Like 2008’s In Paraguay, Photographic Memory is a father’s scrapbook intertwining archival footage and reminiscence with more immediately dramatic, present-day concerns. But where the former’s personal impetus (the adoption of McElwee’s daughter from the titular country) became diluted with fish-out-of-water political asides, the latter film is an elliptical, Sherman’s March-style odyssey through the director’s ever-morphing domestic selfhood. After a prologue describing the strained relationship between McElwee and his grown son, Adrian, whose hobbies include video-graphing his own stoned snowboarding, the director takes off for the French villa where he honed his craft as a photographic apprentice in his 20s. McElwee announces his European arrival with a harsh cut to a half-full wine glass whose meniscus both matches and distorts the horizon line, a clumsy but affable visual trick that clarifies the purpose of the pilgrimage. He seeks out his one-time employer and master, Maurice, and a lover he had in the same area named Maud, intending to gauge whether time has ravaged his memories of these relationships to the point of completely self-absorbed confabulation.
From there, the movie settles into a consistently unsettling, time-tripping rhythm. Memories of McElwee’s first sight of Maud, while she smoked and stroked the ears of a rabbit in a café, transmogrify into visions of his son’s most recent girlfriend; while crosscutting to visual evidence of the twentysomething hipster love birds, the director becomes nostalgic for Adrian’s cheerful child self, and then leaps even further backward in his archives. None of these individual moments or artifacts has much piquancy; McElwee’s early photos are tourist-y black and whites, and the contemporary material succumbs to the image-flattening sharpness of pedestrian high-def camerawork, rendering even the deep-colored, French streets with picturesque flimsiness. But McElwee’s essayistic voice and elegant editing link the unrelated scenes into a chain of fitfully logical thought that dares to strain for meaning, rather than inventing it invisibly. As with Sherman’s March, the process of suffering through both the film’s production and concurrent personal catastrophes becomes the film’s content. When footage of McElwee’s own father turns up, wherein he scolds his son’s tendency to bring a camera to the dinner table, we feel we’ve entered the hazardous, lonely outlands of the director’s psyche.
The film swerves hard toward a tone of “time regained” in the final act and reveals the fates of McElwee’s erstwhile employer and lover, thereby closing the bloated narrative circle it set out to draw. I would have preferred that Maurice and Maud remain spectral forces lost in the past forever, like possibly imagined alter egos McElwee donned and doffed on his way to maturity. Even the coincidental consonance of their names suggests lousy fiction. But even in these compensatorily conclusive moments, McElwee’s humanizing fear of incompetence wins out. A final shot of Adrian ambling haughtily down the beach—toward his life, away from the father who may or may not have properly prepared him for independence—is a groin-chilling memento mori, much like the valedictory paragraph of E.B. White’s similarly cosmic “Once More to the Lake.” Unlike the more self-assured White, however, McElwee is less anxious of death itself than of finally comprehending the vast faultiness of the life he’s lived.