For over thirty years Ross McElwee has been making a series of films that can be best described as an ongoing memoir rather than documentary. As a huge fan of the late Harvey Pekar and Spalding Gray, this is obviously a filmmaker who speaks to me. And for my more discerning readers, you as well.
The first work to gain any kind of critical acclaim and popular following was the 1986 “Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation” that showed the then single filmmaker traipsing around his native south on a series of encounters with what might be called “inappropriate” women largely to comic effect. One of them is DeeDee, a Mormon.
As he wends his way through the south, he mediates on General Sherman and the costs of war, with his search for love and worries about the state of the world dovetailing in a reunion with an anti-nuke activist and ex-lover. Since I can hardly be accused of mainstream critic type hyperbole, you will no doubt take note of the inclusion of “Sherman’s March” in my list of the 50 greatest movies ever made.
One of the main characters in “Sherman’s March” is Charleen, his former teacher who works overtime trying to find the right woman for Ross, including DeeDee the Mormon. She threatens to castrate Ross if he doesn’t put down his camera when he’s out on dates. Her advice for the pending date with DeeDee? Tell her: “You’re the only woman I’ve ever seen, I would die for you, I live for you, I breathe for you!” She adds, “It doesn’t matter that you don’t know her! That’s irrelevant!”
Seven years after the release of “Sherman’s March”, McElwee came out with “Time Indefinite”, a film that portrays him in ostensibly happier circumstances since he is now married. But like the character Joe Btfsplk in the Li’l Abner comic strip, McElwee is destined to walk around with a raincloud over his head in perpetuity. His wife has just had a miscarriage and his father has died of cancer. The film gets its title from a Bible verse cited by a Jehovah’s Witness who has paid him one of those infamous visits. It suggests the unpredictable imminence of death.
He reunites with Charleen, who has her own raincloud over her head. Her husband has set fire to their house in an arson/suicide. After Ross and his wife finally procreate, they pay a visit to her with their brand-new son in tow. She wonders how they can bring children into such a hostile and unpredictable world.
I doubt that McElwee would have suspected at the time that Charleen was something of an oracle because the infant son turned into a troubled young adult. The relationship between father and son is detailed in “Photographic Memory” that opens today at the IFC Center in New York. It begins with home movies of his son Adrian growing up, a delight to mother and father. But inexplicably, as is so often the case in what Tolstoy described as “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, Adrian becomes a rebellious underachiever with a chip on his shoulder against his father.
In doing some background research on Adrian McElwee, I discovered that his mother and father have plenty to contend with as reported in police logs in a Boston newspaper (Ross McElwee teaches at Harvard). You really get no sense of how bad things are in “Photographic Memory” but are not surprised to learn:
Adrian McElwee, 20, 16 Coolidge St. in Brookline, was arrested at 4 a.m. on Oct. 3 for allegedly trying to break into the apartment at 1957 Commonwealth Ave. in Brighton. In the process, police said the suspect broken a banister in the lobby of the apartment building and caused damage to the door of the victim in an attempt to enter the apartment. McElwee was charged with destruction of property, breaking and entering in the nighttime and attempted breaking and entering.
Cambridge resident, Adrian McElwee, age 23. Officers responded to an abandoned 911 call, and met a witness who said someone had been shouting things like “get out of my purse” and “you’re on drugs,” before someone left the building. McElwee reportedly took money from his mother’s purse. When officers spoke with him, he denied being at his mother’s apartment. He was arrested at his home before midnight, and charged with larceny from a person.
McElwee is at a loss to explain how his son became such a bundle of woe. Despite the copious attention paid to his relationships with his own father in earlier films, he is not able to come up with much more than the possibility that his son has become a victim of sensory overload through digital devices including the IPhone, video games, social media and the like.
In an attempt to try to understand his son’s psychological problems, he goes to France to visit the town where he worked as an assistant to a wedding photographer when he was just around his son’s age. We are led to believe that the contrast between analog and digital might shed some light on how the two differed, but from the minute he arrives in a picturesque seaside village redolent of Jacques Tati, the relationships that are explored do not include the one between him and his son.
Mostly we accompany McElwee on a Sherman-like march around the French countryside looking for people who might know the whereabouts of his former employer and the woman that McElwee had a brief affair with at the time. There is a wistful quality to these encounters but—frankly—not with the emotional power of similar searches he has conducted in the South.
Ultimately, he returns to the U.S.A. and tries to pick up where things left off with his son. You can’t really say that the films ends up on a happy note with a red ribbon tied around it, but considering the bittersweet experiences that Ross McElwee has had throughout life and how he has made great art out them, this is a film that must be seen.