Photographic Memory is another masterpiece of autobiography (I have also seen Sherman’s March and Bright Leaves) by documentarian Ross McElwee. This time, McElwee is having trouble relating to his teenage son, Adrian, who is bright, creative, and rebellious. To help appreciate his son’s view of the world, the filmmaker decides to reconnect with his own 24-year-old self, who spent several months in a Brittany town. He has a box of photographs that he can hardly remember taking, and memories of a couple of people: Maurice, a wedding photographer who employed him as an assistant, and Maud, a woman he met in an open-air food market. Can he find them again? McElwee heads back to France, 38 years later.
Thus the film: scenes with his son (and clips of film taken by his son), interspersed with scenes of his trip to France in search of his own youth. Memories return: When he finds the room that used to be the photographer’s darkroom, McElwee remembers the smell of the processing chemicals and the sound of Maurice’s Herbie Mann records.
As to whether he found Maurice and Maud–I won’t spoil.
The joy in a McElwee film is the narration. His voiceover, spoken gently with the faintest trace of a North Carolina accent, is as artfully crafted as a Spalding Gray monologue. If they gave a screenplay award for documentaries….