INTERVIEW: Ross McElwee on Photographic Memory

Noted documentarian Ross McElwee will be hosting a screening of his new film, Photographic Memory, at the University of Pennsylvania on Thursday, November 8 (details here).  Funded by a French commission, the latest chapter in McElwee’s cinematic life begins as a portrait of his relationship with his now college-aged, technology-minded son, which gives way towards an exploration of what McElwee himself was like at that age, focusing specifically upon a summer spent in France as an assistant wedding photographer.

McElwee is one of my favorite documentary filmmakers and it was a real pleasure to recently speak with him regarding his new film, his documentary teaching methods at Harvard U., and his thoughts on the impact that he’s inadvertently had on modern documentary filmmaking…

CINEDELPHIA: So you just arrived home from the theatrical release of Photographic Memory in New York.

ROSS MCELWEE: That is correct.  I think it went well, it’s always tough to judge when you’re the epicenter of what’s happening, it’s chaotic.  You’ve got friends, family members, people who helped work on the film, and New York being New York.  So logistically it’s very complex.  They’re holding it for another week which I guess is a good sign and the reviews have been pretty good.

C: Were you anticipating this project’s positive reception at festivals and theatrical release?

RM: No, you always hope that will be the case, but there’s no way to be sure, which makes getting funding for films like mine very difficult.  I’ve made films before that were impossible to write about in advance as far as proposing what would happen and yet they were successful films so they were willing to take a chance on this one.

C: Was the commission based on your past successes or did it come from admirers of your work?

RM: I think it was both.  My work has been broadcast over television in France before and I’ve shown in festivals there.  Bright Leaves premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.  It would have been much more difficult to make this film if I hadn’t had this portfolio of films I’d finished in this same style.

C: In the film, your relationship with your son Adrian, who has appeared in your past films, serves as a jumping off point for your journey to France.  Would you say that your son is deeply engrained in his tech-heavy generation?

RM: Yes, completely, that’s what the film explores in the beginning, the degree to which he’s multitasking with his various handheld devices.  And to his father’s despair, he barely has the time to answer a question, there’s some humor in that observation.  Then I express a fear that my son’s overwhelmed by the availability of so many portals.  That, in a way, is a point of departure for the film.  I see in the film that my son has all of these skills and talents, he’s writing a novel, shooting a fiction film, doing graphic design for the internet, making a documentary.  None of these are getting done at this period in his life just because he’s overwhelmed by all of the possibilities that technology provides him.  That, in turn, makes me wonder what I was doing at his age, I was living in an analog world, obviously, rather than this digital world.  I recall that my father was a little distressed by my lack of vocational drive.  Here I was trying to write a novel, playing around with a film, still photography, and also playing the violin.  None of those seemed to embody the possibility of a strong vocational tract to say the least.  I dropped out of college to travel around and pursue these things, I went back later to finish, but he was very concerned.  In his generation you chose a career path and you stuck to it, they came out of the Depression.  And he was frustrated with me, I’m a little frustrated with my son, and it’s a springboard for me to take a trip back to France to the village where I worked for a summer as a wedding photographer’s assistant and trying to remember what it was like at that time.

C: Would you say that this parental frustration is just part of parenting?  Is it to be expected?

RM: Well, I’m not concerned with my feelings, but I’m sometimes concerned with his risky behavior.  He’s a stunt skier on top of everything else he’s doing, he shoots ski videos, so sometimes he’s shooting these videos while he’s skiing backwards.  I want him to decide on something that he’ll be able to find fulfillment in, to find something that will support himself and provide happiness.  I don’t belabor this in the film because it’s what all parents feel about their kids, it’s not a profound observation, it’s just that within the context of my situation I feel that it warrants further exploration.

C: Does it give way to a greater exploration of the internet generation?

RM: Well, one hopes that by looking very clearly at one particular relationship, my and my son’s relationship, that people could imply things about the culture in large, but it’s not really meant to be an emblem to anything, nothing in my films ever is.  People draw conclusions and that’s fine with me, but it’s certainly not my intention.  I don’t interview experts, I don’t look at other families’ situations, I’m just looking at my own.

C: When you were his age, would you consider yourself to have been engrained in the greater culture like your son is or did you stand apart?

RM: Obviously I wasn’t then because I was in another country trying to speak another language.  I was leaving behind my culture and yet I think by the very definition of my interests at the time I was setting myself apart.  When I was back in the U.S. it was very clear that I wasn’t going to become a doctor, I wasn’t going to go into a graduate program that would prepare me for a particular career of any kind, I was more interested in the arts, writing, music, photography.  How I ended up as a filmmaker I have no idea.

C: And your career path was completely dictated by personal interests, not by outside factors such as anything societal-related at the time?

RM: Well, I wasn’t making political documentaries because I was outraged by the way things were.  My approach has always been to be much more oblique about addressing things that are in the culture at large.  In each of my films, in addition to the autobiographical component, I’m looking at the world that immediately surrounds me, family, friends, the town I’m living in, places I’m traveling to.  I’m also reflecting on larger concerns and some of those concerns are political.  In Bright Leaves there’s the topic of tobacco and North Carolina where they grow more tobacco than any other place in the country and I address it as such, but I don’t address it in a vehement political way.  In Sherman’s March there’s a theme about the proliferation of nuclear weapons at the time and how terrifying that is, but it’s not really what the film is about.

C: Your current work definitely brings to mind some of your past films as far as your response to media and culture and how they relate to the fears of raising a child.  Do these fears still exist?

RM: It’s part of what the new film is about.  Concerns in so far as he find a way to harness all of these things so that they benefit him and not be overwhelmed by them.  There’s an infinite amount of stuff to search on the internet, meanwhile what happens to your life?  Those concerns are, I guess, similar to the concerns I’ve voiced in the past.  In Six O’Clock News I’m concerned about local television news programming and the way it sensationalizes life and the misfortunes of people around us and you could say that we’re living with the legacy of that now.

C: As someone who doesn’t conduct interviews with experts or scout locations or things like that, you seem to just dive into a project, it makes me curious about your teaching approach towards documentary filmmaking.

RM: I do not encourage students to do autobiographical films.  They’re undergraduates and I really am weary about having that mandate that I’m giving young people on how to make their films.  I actually prefer that they not have voice-over in their films.  It varies from year to year, sometimes there are two or three people who want to try autobiographical films and I try to help, but most of the time they’re making straightforward cinema verite films about the world around them and that works well at that age.

C: I’ve always liked how each subsequent film of yours seems to sum up a new chapter in your life, do they hold a similar place for you?

RM: They become benchmarks, but they’re not entirely designed that way.  With Photographic Memory I didn’t think that it would be the definitive statement on my relationship with my son, but it worked out that way as I worked on it.  A lot of things go by over the years that don’t become parts of my films, in fact most of my life goes by unrecorded so yes, the films represent a span of my life, but there are huge gaps that we never see because I just can’t film everything.

C: Do you look back on all of them fondly?

RM: Eh, you always think there are things that you could have done better.  If I had a chance to re-edit Sherman’s March, for instance, I’m sure I would make it shorter, it’s very long-winded, but then a lot of its charm is that it goes off on diversions and shots linger, that’s just part of the gestalt of filmmaking 25 years ago.  But I think once it’s finished, it’s finished.

C: Can you at all comment on the modern documentary, which these days seems to be mainly influenced by theatrics, things like reality television and television crime show formats.

RM: I’m not one to make pronouncements about the world of documentary films, which I’m often called upon to do.  I do what I do and I think it does appeal to some people, not to all people.  I’m friends with Errol Morris and sometimes we joke about the fact that each of us contributed a very destructive element to documentary filmmaking.  He created the construction of crime scenes in The Thin Blue Line which indirectly led to innumerable documentary dramas with things reenacted and I contributed voice-over subjective narration which ruined documentary film in a whole different way and made everybody think they could make autobiographical films.  And now you have thousands of autobiographical films out there.

C: It must be good to feel like you’ve had an influence regardless of its destructive nature.

RM: [Laughs] One could argue that.  I guess it’s ok that my films have had an influence on documentary filmmaking.  I’d make these films the way I make them even without large numbers of people viewing them.


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Author: Eric Bresler

Eric is the Founder/Site Editor of whose additional activities are numerous: Director/Curator of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA), founder of Tokyo No Records, the brain behind Video Pirates, and active local film programmer including the Unknown Japan screening series. He’s served as a TLA Video Manager, Philadelphia Film Society Managing Director, and Adjunct Professor in Cinema Studies at Drexel University. He is shy and modest. Email Eric.

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