The just-concluded 19th Annual James River Film Festival screened two films by documentarian Ross McElwee: his most recent, the elegiac Photographic Memory, and his all-history-is-personal Bright Leaves. I first experienced McElwee’s work in 1986 with Sherman’s March at the Biograph Theatre, but I didn’t know much about his later efforts.
Screening on Sunday, Photographic Memory takes up two threads that meet in the middle: McElwee's recalcitrant son, Adrian, a bursting-with-talent, extreme-sports-loving 20-something who has grown up from the cute kid who showed up in his earlier movies, and McElwee’s own past from more than 30 years ago, when he went to France. There, he apprenticed with an eccentric wedding photographer named Maurice, who for mysterious reasons fired him. McElwee also enjoyed a romantic dalliance with a dark-haired gamin named Maud who brought produce to the farmers market.
The past and present exist side-by-side through photographs, film clips and McElwee’s journals from his youth. He revisits the shoreside town of St. Quay-Portrieux that is more touristy than he recalls. He also remembers careening through the streets of French villages, Maurice driving a tiny car as he regaled McElwee on subjects like the philosophy of phenomenologist Maurce Merleau-Ponty.
In the Q & A following the screening, when explaining the source of his son’s disgruntlement, McElwee revealed that during the film’s making, he and his wife separated. “As a documentarian I should’ve confronted this issue head on,” he said. “But I guess I’m a coward.” As an audience-member said, though, that would’ve been a different movie and perhaps not as good of one.
Bright Leaves, which screened on Monday, begins with a perspective on vivid green, veined elephant-ear-sized tobacco leaves that through projected film looked 3D.
Typical of McElwee’s films, certain happy accidents occur that ultimately give the movie its central metaphor: A cousin he’s never before met in Wilkesboro, N.C., an avid collector of film memorabilia and films, shows McElwee an obscure Hollywood melodrama featuring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. Then later, Neal even shows up in McElwee's film, her great husky voice telling of her love affair with Cooper while saying (I think disingenuously) that she doesn’t associate her films with times in her life.
There’s also a hilarious incident with a dog nipping at McElwee's heels, mimicking his own doubts, as well as a crazy scene of film critic Vlada Petric pushing around in a wheelchair while lecturing him on the merits of “kinesthesia.” The complicated business and health-related issues of tobacco are touched upon, all brought home by McElwee's physician father, who treated patients with cancer.
After the screening, we adjourned to Ipanmea, where I happened to sit at McElwee’s table. At one point, in over-exuberant fashion, I regaled him with the story of Lincoln’s visit to Richmond.
“That’s an incredible story,” McElwee said.
I think he needs a follow-up film, maybe Lincoln’s Walk.