Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany
Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Now on Netflix Instant: Photographic Memory/ Stories We Tell

For some reason, I’ve always had a soft spot for the documentary Sherman’s March (1985). It’s not actually about Sherman or the Civil War, but instead is a resolute avoidance of its declared topic. Ross McElwee somehow procured funding for a documentary on the lingering effects of Sherman’s merciless campaign 1864 campaign through the South, and then spent it making, well, I'm not sure how to characterize what he ended up with.

Anything I know about Sherman and the Civil War, I most assuredly did not pick up from McElwee’s fly-away, free-associative film, which devolves into a series of monologues on procrastination broken up by flirtations with a series of Southern, well, I wouldn’t exactly call them belles. The most entertaining among them (with some possible competition from a hippie-linguist completing her thesis on a deserted island in the Carolinas)  is Patricia “Pat” Rendleman, a beautiful nutcase, I mean aspiring actress, who allows McElwee to film her rollerblading, doing freeform Jane Fonda era calisthenics, swimming, and roller-blading some more in a series of provocative early eighties outfits.
Patricia "Pat" Rendleman

Unfortunately, Rendleman takes off for Atlanta in pursuit of the elusive Burt Reynolds, whom she somewhat mysteriously considers the key to her personal and professional future. She’s deaf to McElwee’s claims (borne out by a quick look at IMDB) that his film could in fact be her big breakthrough.
His picaresque adventures through the South and its women continue,  completely independent of the Civil war, apart from some vague gesturing on McElwee’s part. The whole thing is less Ken Burns and more proto-reality show -- sort of Annie Hall meets The Real Housewives of Atlanta.
Given my excessive attachment to Sherman’s March, I was pleased to discover a newer effort, Photographic Memory (2011) available for viewing on Netflix.

Photographic Memory finds McElwee having abandoned all historiographical aspirations, but carrying a good deal of baggage. The 25 year interval following Sherman’s March finds McElwee a family man; indeed, the film is dedicated to his son, Adrian, who is its major subject. Photographic Memory alternates footage of him as a beloved toddler and young children with that of the intractable adolescent McElwee believes he has become. Their previously idyllic relationship has become fraught, as Adrian ceases to gaze adoringly at his father and begins to pursue his own interest in making extreme sports videos, filming himself skiing backwards while stoned and similar stunts. “How many teenagers have been saved by our visions of the beautiful children they used to be, “ intones McElwee in his familiar Southern twang, his voice gone sour.

Not that McElwee has lost his taste for the broader gesture--running through his commentary about his son is the suggestion that his son’s problems--specifically his scattered attention and his servitude to electronic devices--are those of an entire generation. From his newfound position of gravitas McElwee diagnoses his son, and his entire cohort, with ADD.
Adrian McElwee in extreme sports mode
For someone who watches the two films in tandem, the ironies come thick and fast.The flippertigibbet of Sherman’s March has become the elder statesman of Photographic Memory. The crazy part is that  essentially Sherman’s March is a paean to ADD and to flitting around at whim.
And it’s not like the middle-aged McElwee has outgrown these tendencies; though the film is, at its core, about his relationship with his son, he suddenly decides to take off to Brittany and revisit his own past as a photographer. Suddenly we are in a whole different story, concerning a swinging Frenchman’s fall from grace, replete with interviews with his widow and some of his lovers. While mildly engaging, it must be said: a lot of this plays like so much stoned backwards-skiing.
It’s easy to see where Adrian got these tendencies; one of the more perverse satisfactions of Photographic Memory is seeing into the areas of McElwee’s psyche where he appears most blind. On the other hand, his own blindness is part of the film. In the end the film, while fitfullly illuminating, has a lost, melancholic tone: this is the unmistakably creaky sound of aging in action.
If Ross McElwee’s insights as a filmmaking can feel wispy and incidental, with Sarah Polley’s own family documentary, Stories We Tell, we are in the hands of a commanding artist.

But Polley seemed to arrive that way. It made sense, at the beginning to see her as an “actors’ director” since she came from an acting background. (Her most famous film was The Sweet Hereafter, afterwards it seemed like maybe this had been some sort of apprenticeship with its intense, idionsyncratic writer/director, Atom Egoyan.)
Away From Her  drew an astonishing, Academy award nominated performance from Julie Christie. The concept itself of an aged women beginning to suffer from dementia also being chic and sexual itself seemed incredibly startling and provocative. (I can’t help but this that it was an influence on the current Julianne Moore release Still Alice.) 
Julie Christie in Away From Her

Polley adapted Away From Her from an Alice Munro story;by her next film, Take this Waltz, she was writing the whole thing. This almost willfully slight film also is quite innovative in its treatment of women’s sexuality and marriage. These themes make a good deal of sense when we learn about the dramatic story of Polley’s mother in her next film, Stories We Tell.
I don’t want to reduce the impact by giving away too much of Stories We Tell, since the pacing is highly dramatic. I will say there are major revelations throughout, including in the very last frame. That Polley chose to go from a successful career making feature films to making a documentary itself seems to upend convention; usually you’d expect a director to swim fiercely toward the mainstream.
But Polley has always seemed to enjoy defying Hollywood's social Darwinism. For my part, I don’t see why she isn’t a bigger deal; but, in a way, she doesn’t seem to crave Angelina Jolie levels of attention. Maybe that’s part of the documentary thing, besides having a fascinating story to tell; she is able to operate, still, somewhat under the radar of the culture machine.
Maybe it’s because she’s Canadian. In any case, I consider her a treasure, national or not.
[Sherman’s March, Photographic Memory, Take this Waltz, and Stories We Tell are all currently available on Netflix Instant.]

--Grace Lovelace


  1. Great selection of movies! I loved Sherman's March when it came out and would love to watch it again -- and see what's happened to McElwee in the intervening years... And Stories We Tell was one of my favorites whene it came out -- didn't understand why it didn't get an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary.. So glad your blog is back, Grace!

  2. Reminded me to find the Sarah Polly Adrian Brody sci-fi horror movie Splice, which I loved when it came out. Great job, Dwight Mcdonald!