Film-Forward Review: [BRIGHT LEAVES]

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Ross McElwee
Photo: Adrian McElwee

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Directed, Produced & Written by: Ross McElwee.
Director of Photography: Ross McElwee.
Edited by: Ross McElwee & Mark Meatto.
Released by: First Run Features.
Country of Origin: USA. 107 min. Not Rated.
With: Ross McElwee, Gary Cooper & Patricia Neal.

Documentarian Ross McElwee returns home to the North Carolina hill country in this rambling, but always engagingly surreal home movie. On camera he meets for the first time his second cousin who, according to McElwee, is “the movie buff of all time.” He owns thousands of film prints, including the 1950 melodrama Bright Leaf, about the rise and sharp fall of a 19th century tobacco planter. The cousin is convinced the film parallels the McElwee’s family history. McElwee’s great-grandfather created the Bull Durham blend, but rival James D. Duke took control of the trademark and amassed a staggering fortune. During the making of Bright Leaf, stars Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal were a romantic item off-screen. McElwee scrutinizes their film to see if “my family was a movie,” but also for any telling signs of the affair spilling over unto the film. This line of inquiry leads to an interview with the gracious Neal (reason enough to see the film) and to a ludicrously pompous film theorist. Though McElwee’s family has lost a tobacco fortune, it has ironically gained a “pathological trust fund.” His family is largely made up of doctors, including McElwee’s father (who is seen in a family movie incongruously and inexplicably wearing a yarmulke at Christmas). As McElwee glibly moves from one tangent to the next, his narration only wears thin when he compares filmmaking to the addictive quality of nicotine.

One of McElwee’s talents is his ability to disarm his interview subjects. They run the gamut from friends and family, to local residents who are economically dependent, if not addicted to cigarettes. Their responses are candid and conversational. Besides the many humorous and sometimes shocking testimonials of smokers are many moving moments, such as the elderly black couple who, out of gratitude, would call Dr. McElwee every Christmas and serenade him with “Silent Night.” McElwee is also the rare documentarian who allows for surprises—look for a giant rat in the background (you can’t miss the scene-stealing dog). With flaws intact and hopping from point to point, there’s a refreshing sense of spontaneity throughout. Kent Turner
August 25, 2004



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