Hunched over shouldering my duffle, just home from college, my dad stops me on the sidewalk. “You look like someone I … could have a deep conversation with,” he stutters, adding “about the universe,” in an attempt to bail water. His eyes dart from my patchy beard to my overgrown curls, both nearing record length. Home for the holidays, I’m forced to confront the adults in my life and their suggestions on how I ought to live, the unpleasant teenage version of myself fresh in everyone’s minds. Thankfully, I’ve got Ross McElwee’s problematic parental persona from his documentary Photographic Memory (2011) echoing in my ears, lending much needed perspective.
Finding it ever more difficult to engage with his pot-smoking, partying teenage son Adrian, McElwee uses Photographic Memory as a means of reconnection. He returns to northern France where he worked as a wedding photographer during a mid-college digression. While there, he tries to track down his former employer and eventually his former lover “in order to understand my son a little better.”
Photographic Memory meditates on McElwee’s parental failures. His unique form of personal documentary engages in constant self-reflection. Even when curmudgeonly chastising Adrian’s perpetual texting, vlogging, and web browsing, McElwee recognizes he’s becoming his own father: “I felt [my father’s] skepticism about much of what I was doing. And now I sometimes find myself doing the same thing to my son.” The editing room McElwee comments on the sync-sound McElwee. Characters on screen critique him; he critiques himself. The incessant back and forth resembles an inner-monologue, a window into a foreign consciousness.
McElwee’s manufactured self unfolds before me, balancing cocksure lust and near-pathological self-doubt. The resulting McElwee is human in his contradictions, as prone to mistakes as any of us. His vulnerability seduces me into thinking I know all sides of the story, nimbly shifting the camera’s accusatory gaze. This willingness to villainize himself destigmatizes self-criticism. I’m invited to self-reflect.
The petty bickering between father and son throughout Photographic Memory summons my own family drama. McElwee indicts me with its universality, all my eye rolls and exaggerated sighs that led to screaming matches with my own dad. Adrian leaves a voicemail for his father. McElwee’s snooping has uncovered contraband of some sort. Adrian begs his dad to reflect. “Close your eyes and say, ‘what is this accomplishing?’” The screen fades to black, the silence implicating McElwee more than any on-the-nose narration ever could.
All McElwee’s films rely on silence like this, prompting me to leap into the frame to respond. In his masterpiece Sherman’s March, he searches for romance while traveling the South. His friend Charleen sets him up on a blind date and quickly grows frustrated with his incessant filming. “This is not art. This is life!” she cries. The viewer makes no distinction. Following in McElwee’s wake, symbols naturally float to the surface, posing the question, why not read our own lives like literature?
As he wanders the French countryside, McElwee’s memory fails him. He tries using his forty year old photos to retrace his steps, but photos fail too, having lost their context after decades. This quickly reveals what’s at stake for McElwee. With half a lifetime between his current self and the lost college kid searching for love in Brittany, adolescence is decontextualized. McElwee must re-enter his 21 year old consciousness. He returns to his journals, showing them to Adrian despite the embarrassment of trying to “penetrate the purple haze” of his melodramatic prose.
And the process works, but not before the month-long, self-indulgent sojourn. Upon his return, McElwee takes Adrian on a fishing trip in North Carolina. He reminisces on past father-son excursions over home video of toddler-Adrian musing on the wonder of fishing: “I love the deep surprise of the ocean. You never know what you’re gonna catch.” Reunited with his father, Adrian taps into that childhood wonder. He pitches a short film idea to his dad and asks him to film it. Although befuddled by the script, McElwee relishes the opportunity to reconnect.
With McElwee’s shortcomings on display, I can’t help but credit my own father for how well he put up with my regrettable teen tendencies. Yes, he chewed me out when his early morning search for my E-ZPass uncovered a dimebag and a vaporizer. McElwee helps me admit my fault there. So long as substance use accompanied intellectual engagement, I received my dad’s full support. We flew cross-country to the world’s foremost conference on psychedelic studies. He absorbed psilocybin-centric neuroscience, and I learned about amateur mycology. The trip ultimately led to my first publication in print. And when I wrote an essay that expressed more than a passing interest in perversity and pornography, he proudly sent it to his parents.
I watch McElwee contextualize Adrian’s listlessness in real time. Video-chatting with his son while abroad, McElwee empathizes with Adrian’s writer’s block back home: “I remember feeling the same way. … I also know that in trying to give you encouragement, I usually end up only adding to the pressure you feel.”
At first, I found Photographic Memory condescending to me as a twenty-something. But maybe I’m just resistant to acknowledge my limitations. McElwee hints at the impossibility of self-knowledge as a young person. It’s his job, with 60 years experience, to forgive Adrian. I still snap at my dad for asking when I’m going to get a haircut. But back in my childhood home, haunted by hormones, squabbles, and past selves, I’m thankful for my dad.
Ethan Weinstein is a junior at Dartmouth College studying English. He’s used the writings of Georges Bataille to analyze Donald Trump for 3AM Magazine and examined climate change anxiety for Wisconsin Public Radio.