The South is in North Carolina native Ross McElwee's blood, and like his best-known film, Sherman's March
, Bright Leaves
benefits from what he calls "a transfusion of Southernness." This is McElwee's most accessible autobio-doc since the groundbreaking March
put him on the map. His films have ruminated wryly and profoundly on matters of love, family, marriage, and parenthood. In Bright Leaves
, an obsession with a 1950 melodrama funds him pondering his family's tobacco-stained history and legacy. The set-up is irresistible: A long-lost second cousin introduces McElwee to Bright Leaf
, a film starring Gary Cooper as a tobacco farmer embroiled in a bitter rivalry with a tobacco baron, who destroys him. Is the film a dramatized account of his own great-grandfather's "rise and subsequent fall to ruin"? Turns out old John McElwee created the Bull Durham tobacco brand, only to have it stolen from him by the powerful Duke family, who are considered royalty in McElwee's home town. Visiting the Duke mansion, McElwee can't help but ponder, "If things had gone differently, this would have all been mine."
But Bright Leaf is merely a starting point. McElwee wrestles with his "guilt over the global tobacco addition" in which his ancestors played a role. He notes the irony that later descendants all became doctors, and treated those ravaged by smoking. McElwee interviews relatives about his great grandfather, as well as modern-day tobacco farmers, current smokers (one engaged couple cannot make good on their pledges to quit), and cancer patients (fans of McElwee's films will be delighted to be reunited with Charleen, McElwee's former teacher). McElwee is the anti-Michael Moore. He is a kinder, gentler interviewer, and not at all confrontational. He has no agenda. As for Bright Leaf, he does manage to interview actress Patricia Neal, who was in the film, and the widow of the film's screenwriter, who gives McElwee a definitive answer. Along the way, there are several "stranger than fiction incidents," such as a visit to a former McElwee tobacco warehouse that now serves as a beauty school, and an interview with film theorist Vlada Petric, who, instead of being filmed seated in a movie theatre, insists that McElwee shoot him while Petric pushes him around in a wheelchair rigged to facilitate a tracking shot. --Donald Liebenson
McElwee family legend has it that the Hollywood melodrama "Bright Leaf" starring Gary Cooper as a 19th century tobacco grower, is based on filmmaker Ross McElwee's great-grandfather, who created the Bull Durham brand. Using this legacy as a jumping off point, McElwee reaches back to his roots in this wry, witty rumination on American history, the tobacco business, and the myth of cinema.