North Carolina produces more tobacco than any other state in America. Bright Leaves describes a journey taken across the social, economic, and psychological tobacco terrain of North ... See full summary »
Rare16mm home movies from the 1920s through the 1950s, that weaves into a composite lifetime, passing through the celebrations and struggles from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to experience (In HD)
In 2007 Mobile, Alabama, Mardi Gras is celebrated... and complicated. Following a cast of characters, parades, and parties across an enduring color line, we see that beneath the surface of pageantry lies something else altogether.
North Carolina produces more tobacco than any other state in America. Bright Leaves describes a journey taken across the social, economic, and psychological tobacco terrain of North Carolina by a native Carolinian, Ross McElwee, whose great-grandfather created the famous brand of tobacco known as Bull Durham. The comedic chronicle is a subjective, autobiographical meditation on the allure of cigarettes and their troubling legacy for the state of North Carolina. It's also a film about family history, addiction, denial, and filmmaking--as McElwee, noted director of Sherman's March, grapples with the legacy of an obscure Hollywood melodrama that is purportedly based on this curious man that was his great-grandfather. Written by
Sujit R. Varma
Forbes Magazine and other national periodicals name this state as the great place to move, and I swear the day after the magazine comes out, you can see a difference in traffic patterns. For me, as somebody who grew up connected to a piece of property, albeit one that's now transformed into a trailer park, the idea that you would move to a place because a magazine that you bought for $3.95 *told* you to, is a symptom of such sadness in the culture, I cannot tell you. And it's also gumming up ...
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About Tobacco But Also About Southern Exceptionalism
Documentarian Ross McElwee in "Bright Leaves" offers his second paean to the South as he continues exploring his family lineage and Southern heritage. In "Sherman's March" McElwee wryly counterpoised the South that fell to the Union general's forces to the world of that era's descendants. He sculpted an original and fascinating snapshot of the American South.
"Bright Leaves" is more personal than the earlier film. The title comes from two sources. The first is the shimmeringly green tobacco plant native to North Carolina, America's largest producer of that evil weed. It also is the title, slightly different as "Bright Leaf," of an old, excellent, not often seen film starring Gary Cooper and Patricia O'Neal. It's an undeservedly obscure movie.
McElwee got it in his mind that "Bright Leaf" (based on a novel) was based on the life of the director's forbear, his great-grandfather, a man who supposedly was duped and cheated out of a tobacco fortune by the famous Duke family after many years of protracted litigation. As Ross McElwee originally saw it, but for the nefarious acts of the Dukes, which allegedly included paying off judges, he would today be enjoying the splendor of antebellum mansion living and the accumulation of riches earned by cigarettes.
But as McElwee explores the story behind his great-grandfather's slow rise to inventiveness and steady descent to bankruptcy, he also recognizes the enormous pathology that smoking unleashed not only in the U.S. but in all countries where North Carolina's prized tobacco is avidly and compulsively consumed. No Michael Moore, his social consciousness is sincere but restrained, tempered by his North Carolina childhood.
McElwee uses interviews with family members, childhood acquaintances and many others to depict the centrality of tobacco farming in the state of his birth. A short motel room talk with Patricia O'Neal makes the cineaste wish she didn't have a hurried schedule and could have been questioned at length.
A transplanted Southerner, McElwee has lived in the North for a long time. His wife sets him off on this investigation saying he'd been away too long from the South. He involves his son at different stages of the filming, which took five years, so we see the kid change from a post-toddler to a teen apparently more interested in the technology of film-making than in his dad's heritage.
There are some very funny scenes here. The best is when a white-haired, elderly "rabid film theorist" with a rich European accent, in North Carolina to lecture, straps McElwee into a wheelchair and takes him five times around the block while spouting academic argot about making movies.
McElwee learns a great deal about tobacco raising as well as what probably is the truth about his great-grandpa. No shocking revelations but minor disappointments emerge.
What McElwee has done a second time, perhaps not fully consciously, is to support the theory of Southern Exceptionalism, a favorite of one school of history. The main exposition of that school is that the South's history and heritage is not only unique, it stamps those born there with a special pride and association with love of land not common in other parts of the U.S. Midwesterners who sojourn to great cities may or may not retain fond memories of their childhood but only Southerners remain psychologically and emotionally wedded, almost always, to their native states. It doesn't much matter whether they stay or leave, the early associations remain vivid and also shape character and beliefs in ways that separate Southerners from their fellow Americans (not always, by the way, for the best).
As an anti-smoking film, "Bright Leaves" is more gentle than most. It's obvious that most of the people filmed here know how deadly smoking is but their almost languid acceptance of a likely future neoplastic assault does make one think about free choice and the limits of regulation. An almost blasé attitude towards cancer by some of the interviewees is quietly chilling.
A fine documentary.
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