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'Photographic Memory': The permanence and impermanence of what we choose to preserve

This complex father-son confessional movie cuts across eras. Harvard film professor Ross McElwee adds another wonderful personal memoir, a film that is both forward-looking and elegiac.

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A young Adrian McElwee brushes his teeth as his father works in 'Photographic Memory.'

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Since the 1980s, documentarian and Harvard film professor Ross McElwee has been composing wonderful personal memoirs that are both forward-looking and elegiac. In “Time Indefinite” (1993), he and his wife had a baby boy, Adrian, who popped up in a couple of subsequent films. “Photographic Memory,” McElwee’s marvelous new movie, is all about the grown-up Adrian, with whom his father is attempting to forge a better bond; but, equally, it’s about McElwee himself and his attempts to reconnect with the young man he was when he was Adrian’s age.

This means revisiting St. Quay-Portrieux in Brittany, France, where he was once a semi-vagabond in his 20s, and trying to recapture “what it was like to have most of my life ahead of me.”

McElwee’s voice-over narration, with its North Carolina lilt and its nuanced note of regret, is a species of confessional. He looks at photos of himself at age 24 and says to us about that time, “I could not possibly imagine myself as a father.” Now that he is one, he imagines that getting closer to the person he was then will allow him to more fully understand Adrian and their sometimes prickly, difficult relationship.

To some extent, Adrian’s surliness is typical young-guy rite-of-passage stuff. “These steps are so predictable,” McElwee says. But Adrian, who goes in for extreme skiing and tinkers with filmmaking and has a bunch of friends McElwee describes as “an impenetrable tribe,” is also, as his father says, “in a constant state of technological overload.” This is not something McElwee experienced at that age, and it makes him wonder how he would have handled the onslaught.

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