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.
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
As time goes by, my father is beginning to seem less and less real to me in these images. Almost a fictional character. I want so much to reverse this shift, the way in which the reality of him is slipping away. Having this footage doesn't help very much - or, at least, not as much as I thought it would.
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A truly original work of brilliance from the master of the personal documentary.
Bright Leaves is Ross McElwee at his best, part discovery, part diary, filled with humor, and overflowing with humanity. The basic premise, that he is searching for a possible connection between the Michael Curtiz/Gary Cooper/Patricia Neal/Lauren Bacall film 'Bright Leaf' and his own family history is fascinating but merely a starting point for a film that discovers its layers as it goes. Set in North Carolina, the home of bright leaf tobacco, he traces the story passed down through generations of the battle for tobacco supremacy between McElwees and the Dukes. The latter become the multi millionaires of tobacco, while the MacElwees were hypothetically shut out of a possible tobacco fortune, taking on lives as doctors, filmmakers, and in the case of his 2nd cousin a curator of rare film prints and posters. The film is a colorful portrait of family, friends, and plain folks, filled with serendipitous plot moments, permeated with the wonder of living and being human.
While his initial 'search' seeks parallels between his ancestry and the story in film Bright Leaf , McElwee widens into the larger paradox of tobacco farming as a way of life vs. the deleterious effects of smoking.
Yet the heart of the film is in the smaller details and his supporting characters. McElwee has a remarkable genius for weaving what seems to be a discursive collection of real people into a film tapestry that meditates on work, love, hope, charity, the passage of time, growing up, family, mortality and more. His deadpan narration is at once humorous and ruminative. The writing leaps about pulling the ends together, considering ideas, speculating. His choices for subjects move from cousins, friends, past acquaintances to home movies and remarkably poignant moments with his son (who closes the film in a wonderful final sequence). There is a hilarious scene with film historian (former Harvard colleague) Vlada Petric who does an outrageous monologue riffing on both the McElwee and Curtiz films. Bright Leaves then becomes about film-making and memory itself.
Like the great documentary classics of Cinema Verite we discover so much in the small moments and passing images that the film stays with you long after you leave the theater. It should be seen on the big screen, as it is all shot on film and not video and the images resonate like film. Get to it before you can only see it on video. The bigheartedness of his vision deserves to be seen large.
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