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Ross McElwee and son look back

Time machine
By BRETT MICHEL  |  November 16, 2012


The films of Harvard professor Ross McElwee serve as an intimate, ongoing first-person document of his life, so I was somewhat surprised when he preferred answering questions about Photographic Memory, his ninth feature-length documentary, via email. Especially since, as he divides the screen time between himself and his young-adult son, Adrian, he voices frustrations with his offspring's "constant state of technological overload." The following is an abridged transcript of my email exchange with McElwee, who — along with Adrian — will introduce his film at the Harvard Film Archive on Friday, November 16, at 7 pm.

Near the conclusion of your 1993 film, Time Indefinite, we witness the birth of your son, Adrian. Now that he’s on the cusp of becoming a man, what drew you toward sharing the focus with him? Was your idea always to contrast yourself at roughly the same age that your son currently is, now that advances in technology have changed the modes of communicating, driving an ever-widening generational gap? I think it was partially happenstance. I kept wondering how I could place a meaningful frame around a return to a place I cherished from my young adulthood — St. Quay-Portrieux in Brittany. I had all these photographic negatives and memories, and also a curiosity about what had happened to some of the people I had known there. But it still seemed like too faint a notion to base a film on — a nostalgic return to Brittany. But then it occurred to me that I had gone when I was about the same age my son is now — and suddenly, that seemed to add a layer of complexity to the filming. I had felt a little lost in life at that time — had no idea what I was going to be. And I had the sense that Adrian was also a little lost at the time I shot the film – in 2009.

If the ability to text, video-chat, or communicate instantly with anyone who’s “connected” had been available to you in your formative years, how differently do you think your life may have developed? Would this film even exist? I'm quite sure my film would not exist in the form that it does. Perhaps it would be a series of intimate YouTube vignettes shot with a GoPro — one of my son’s favorite cameras. Sherman’s March shot with a GoPro. Now that’s a concept. . . .

With the technology at hand, do you feel that your son will establish the same kind of deep connections with people that you ably demonstrate in this latest film, or even the sense of loss that comes from losing track of people through the decades? Will it even be possible to lose track of old friends or loves ever again? To be honest, I don’t think he’s at all interested in making the kinds of films I make, which, as you say, do indeed attempt to make “deep connections” with people. Nor should he be. He’ll follow his own media path — something that will probably involve the Internet. I think the romantic poignancy of losing track of people is not something his generation is going to have to be worried about — unless Facebook raises the number of friends you’re allowed to 50,000, in which case, his generation will drown in contacts that have not been lost. Which perhaps is just another way of losing contact with people.

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Related: Review: Photographic Memory, Interview: James Carroll, William Friedkin at the Harvard Film Archive, More more >
  Topics: Features , Ross McElwee, Harvard, INTERVIEW,  More more >
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