photographic memory

ross-mcelwee-charleen

Every month, the online movie streaming service SundanceNow features a program of documentaries curated by Thom Powers (doc programmer for TIFF and other film fests). Typically the program is based around a theme (i.e. food docs, art docs, docs with nudity, etc.), but throughout August this “Doc Club” is spotlighting filmmaker Ross McElwee, a pioneer of first-person nonfiction cinema best known for the classic Sherman’s March. That film is among the selections, along with five other features, including his latest, Photographic Memory, and two shorter early works. It’s a perfect introduction to one of my favorite filmmakers, and it’s also a special treat for those who are already McElwee fans as some of these docs haven’t been too easily seen. And both the subscription and single month deals are pretty great. McElwee is the main character of most his own films, which take viewers through autobiographical tales involving romance, death, fatherhood, Civil War history, the tobacco industry, the Berlin Wall, tragedy and the nightly news and, most famously, the South. But his movies are never entirely about himself, and much of the time he’s hidden behind the lens of the camera anyway. Many other figures in the filmmaker’s life come and go through his work, mainly family members. And then there’s Charleen Swansea, who I consider to be the true star of McElwee’s films, even if she only makes a short appearance. If there was any reason to be disappointed by last year’s Photographic Memory, it was because Swansea isn’t […]

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Alzheimer’s is one of the most tragic diseases for a creative person. While physically painless, the dementia and memory loss are dreadful impairments that no mind should have to bear, and that seems to be especially the case for celebrated artistic minds like that of Edwin Honig. The late poet and critic is the subject of a new documentary by Alan Berliner, the renowned maker of deeply personal experimental nonfiction films. Previous works of his include An Intimate Stranger, which focuses on his maternal grandfather, and Nobody’s Business, which is about his father. His relationship to Honig is directly spelled out in the new doc’s title, First Cousin Once Removed. In addition to that familial bond, though, Berliner considers his mother’s cousin to be his mentor and friend; Honig’s estranged adopted kids meanwhile imply that the filmmaker was treated more like a son than they each were. Making the subject matter even more subjectively relevant is the fact that Berliner’s father and paternal grandfather both suffered from dementia. So, surely this film is as much to do with the director facing his own fear that he too will one day lose cognition. It’s also his second go at the subject, as First Cousin Once Removed is an expansion of his 2010 short, Translating Edwin Honig: A Poet’s Alzheimer’s.

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One of the most difficult Oscar categories for pundits (let alone regular folk) to predict is the one for feature documentary. And this year more than ever it’s going to be hard to pick the five nominees, because changes to the rules of qualification and voting have given the race an extra element of complication: there is no precedent for how things turn out with this particular selection process in place. In a way, it’s a wide-open field with no certainty that higher-grossing films or more issue-oriented titles or discernibly cinematic works have the greater chance at a nod. Some expected the number of contenders to be cut in half as a result of the new rules; instead it grew, much to the chagrin of branch leader Michael Moore. And until the annual shortlist narrows them down to 15, we have 130 eligible films to choose from. But most of those docs aren’t plausible nominees. Many of the kind that Moore gets upset about for paying for a screen rental to qualify aren’t likely to go all the way. So they qualified. Now they have to be good and popular enough for people to notice.

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published: 12.23.2014
B+
published: 12.22.2014
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published: 12.19.2014
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