Ross McElwee has found the perfect subject for a filmmaker specializing in personal documentaries. Bright Leaves not only addresses an ongoing controversy--the grim legacy of the cigarette industry--but also illustrates it with a droll family saga. More serendipitous still, Hollywood appropriated the story for a 1950 production starring Gary Cooper, a happy coincidence for a self-reflexive artist obsessed with notions of time, memory and narrative.
To be sure, McElwee's previous films employed similar conceits--in particular Sherman's March (1986), during which he retraced the Civil War general's campaign through the South while recording his own skirmishes with the opposite sex. His latest effort, however, has the advantage of comparing factual and fictional accounts of his tobacco-growing great-grandfather. John Harvey McElwee might have become one of the richest men in the world if, according to some accounts, James Buchanan Duke hadn't stolen his formula for Bull Durham and ruined his business in a protracted legal fight. Duke went on to amass a fortune built on machine-rolled cigarettes. McElwee died bankrupt, his grave marked by a headstone barely accommodating his name.
The rivalry between the two men seemed to have inspired the now-forgotten film Bright Leaf, a period melodrama featuring Cooper as Brant Royale, the character presumably modeled on the director's ancestor. "If this was true," says McElwee, who narrates the documentary, "then I've found a sort of cinematic heirloom, a surreal home movie reenacted by Hollywood stars."
McElwee milks the premise for its obvious humor, rueing the unendowed McElwee University and revisiting his modest boyhood home in the shadow of the Duke estate--"Buck Duke's outhouse," to quote Charleen Swansea, the filmmaker's high-school teacher, who appears regularly in his movies. But he confesses, as well, to harboring guilt about his family's contribution to the South's "pathological trust fund," interviewing cancer victims, farmers and smokers about their ambiguous attitudes toward the addictive cash crop.
For instance, two Carolinian friends, Brian Baucom and Emily Madison, vow on camera to quit cigarettes before they marry, but McElwee captures them puffing away at the wedding ceremony, pledging to kick the habit after their honeymoon. McElwee himself, a social smoker for a brief time, acknowledges the sensual appeal of cigarettes, the "trance state" smoking induces, the intimacy of shared second-hand smoke.
"North Carolina still seems, in an understated way, the most beautiful place in the world to me," says McElwee, who now lives in Boston. "And woven into this landscape that I'm so fond of is tobacco."
Bright Leaves is more about cinematic theory than public health and agricultural economics, however. For McElwee, the process of filmmaking is more fascinating than the subject of the film--the way the story is told more interesting than the story itself. He is forever musing about his late father, a surgeon, and his son, slicing in footage of one or the other as he struggles to understand how the past influences the present, and how the present becomes the past. Here's his father reading the newspaper at the kitchen table or kibitzing with a patient; here's his son hopping a curb on a skateboard or playing in the sand at the beach. What do these celluloid images have to do with memory, he asks, or with Hollywood's interpretation of his great-grandfather's role in the rise of Big Tobacco?
McElwee complicates his metaphysics by training the camera on himself, the filmmaker at work. At one point, he records an absurd encounter between himself and film theorist Vlada Petric, who happened to be visiting North Carolina for a movie festival. During the interview, Petric insists on pushing McElwee about in a wheelchair--a film-school version of a tracking shot--to impart "kinesis" to their conversation. What am I doing here, McElwee wonders aloud as he's wheeled about town, trying his best to have a serious conversation about the possibilities of art imitating life? That McElwee turns such earnest endeavors into comedic bits is his charm, and that he manages to retain his dignity and seriousness of purpose, such as it is, is his singular talent.
Late in the documentary, McElwee visits Miriam Fitz-Simmons, widow of the author of the novel Bright Leaf, to question her about her husband's source material. She firmly disabuses McElwee about the notion that his great-grandfather was the model for Brant Royale.
"I suddenly find myself adrift," says McElwee, filming himself strolling through a country graveyard, a stack of bright pumpkins artfully arranged in the foreground, "dogged by doubts of my family's cinematic legacy, dogged, in fact, by a dog" A mutt abruptly scampers into the frame, snapping at McElwee's heels. "This small hound that came out of nowhere has ruined the shot."
McElwee is having more fun at his own expense, but he's also winking at the audience, encouraging us to question whether he ever believed his family is depicted in Bright Leaf. As if to underscore the impression, he fills in missing plot elements that confirm Fitz-Simmons' opinion that the characters in the book and film were composites wholly imagined by the author and filmmakers.
"I have to say that in terms of my family heritage, this is a little disturbing to me," says McElwee, always ready with a joke, "that the genteel John Harvey McElwee would be forever trapped inside a role with the dreary, ruthless James B. Duke, their fictional DNA blended in a kind of Frankensteinian creation, a sort of McDuke."
Viewers familiar with this documentarian's work will find Bright Leaves derivative--in some ways, McElwee keeps making the same movie over and over--but few will fault him for indulging himself. His moviemaking skills and beguiling personality more than make up for his egocentric explorations.