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Bright Leaves

3.9 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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(Jun 21, 2005)
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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

MCELWEE 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.

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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


Special Features

  • Director's Statement
  • Flim Notes
  • Additional Music Tracks
  • Biographies

Product Details

  • Actors: Allan Gurganus, Paula Larke, Patricia Neal, Vlada Petric, Charleen Swansea
  • Directors: Ross McElwee
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Closed-captioned, Color, NTSC
  • Language: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono)
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated:
    NR
    Not Rated
  • Studio: First Run Features
  • DVD Release Date: June 21, 2005
  • Run Time: 107 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B0008FXT6Y
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #186,741 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Bright Leaves" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: DVD
This is a wonderful documentary for those that like subjective and exploratory filmmaking. If you are looking for a point, or say a dummy's guide to attacking the tobacco industry or an expose, watch the nightly news. Bright Leaves is in the same vein as Stone Reader, in that both documentaries incorporate their filmmakers. While some may view this as narcissistic or unnecessary, more is revealed about human understanding and the implications of history than a selection of the facts.
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Imagine that your great-grandfather was a tobacco tycoon who was obscured--even bankrupted--by a rival manufacturer. Suppose that said great-grandfather's corporate demise came about through the triumph of a ruthless competitor who won in the courts through the sheer chicanery and doggedness of his lawsuit. Add to this a Hollywood depiction of such rivalry between the two tobacco producers, a movie Bright Leaf starring Gary Grant. Is this "old movie" evidence of an injustice done to your ancestor? Ross McElwee has photographed an odyssey in search of the truth about his family's role in tobacco production. On this path, he interviews family members with special emphasis on smokers and non-smokers, on those who died of lung cancer, those who are resigned to their fate and those who quit. The beauty of the tobacco leaf in its lovely green fields symbolizes the pleasure of leaf and the irony of those who prefer to enjoy it whatever the consequences. The story-within-the-story, the Hollywood film--turns out not to reassure the family of their claims, but the ironies of beauty, death, and family fame are well documented in this film.
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Format: DVD Verified Purchase
I really enjoyed watching this documentary. It seems that some people consider it a documentary condemning tobacco industry, and blame McElwee for having not made a stronger statement. That kind of understanding and expectation misreads this film seriously. This film cannot be narrowed down to a single theme. It is a family history, a quest for identity and meaning of life, a showcase of a place, its people and the way of living, a search for the past, and reflection on all the things above-mentioned. I just love the subtlety and the genuine tone it presented. It is such a humorous, interesting and wise film. I surely will buy it.
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Format: DVD
This documentary is a tribute to both imagination like tobacco smoke and being in a trance of timelessness, love of one’s family and the beautiful South and a film Bright Leaf with Gary Cooper; and reality,the bright leaves of tobacco of North Carolina, the largest producing state in North America, and the carcinogenic effects of thecancerous weed on people,many of whom are interviewed as Ross McElwee tracks down those with tobacco-related illnesses.He starts with the ‘prehistoric-looking leaves’ of the plant that give off ‘their own heat,’ ‘acres of lovely leaves with dangerous powers of seduction.’ He peruses his father’s filmed image which gives him no comfort, who seems to become less real, like a ghost. What does help is his ‘periodic transfusion of Southerness’,which he needs to inoculate him from any loss of identity as he travels back down South from New England, where he now lives. McElwee embarks on a nostalgic journey through North Carolina's tobacco country in an attempt to rationalize a legacy denied. McElwee is fascinated by the possibility that Cooper's character in the film was based on his great grandfather, whose Bull Durham tobacco formula was stolen from the family and handed over to the dastardly Dukes. McElwee intones in his surreal,soft voiceover the seductiveness of the South, tobacco and filmmaking itself. He meets up with friends, immediate or extended family, farmers who grow the tobacco,surgeons who treat those with cancer, young people who still dabble with smoking or are related to it in some way, like the trainee beauticians who work in one of his great grandfather’s converted tobacco warehouses , or one of his friends who is about to get married and finds with his wife their attempts to give up evaporate.Read more ›
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