Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves (IMDB) focuses on his ambivalent relationship to North Carolina’s tobacco industry and his family’s relationship to that history, but it also frequently reminded me of my own family’s connections to the western North Carolina communities where McElwee filmed. The old warehouse where his great-grandfather stored tobacco now converted into a cosmetology academy. The red brick church rising up out of the tobacco fields. These are the images I remember seeing when I attended family reunions in Maiden, a small town just north of Charlotte. It’s probably no surprise that I’m reflecting on my personal and family histories after seeing a McElwee film. After all, he’s one of the masters of personal documentary. But McElwee’s ambivalent relationship to the south and his fascination with cinema as a kind of memory machine resonated with my own experiences.
The film opens with McElwee meeting a second cousin who is a samll town lawyer and a serious cinephile. The cousin shows us his collection of film stills that fill a wall full of file cabinets, his collection of trailers, and finally a letter he had received from a small-time movie star. Finally, we learn the main reason for the visit. McElwee’s cousin has determined that a 1950 Gary Cooper-Patricia Neal-Lauren Bacall film, Bright Leaf, may have been loosely based on their great-grandfather, a tobacco entrepeneur who was run out of business through some shady dealings by the Duke family. This encounter becomes a cinematic palimpsest for thinking about family and cultural history, as well as on documentary cinema itself, on what it means to film something.
The discovery of this connection to a forgotten Hollywood classic inspires McElwee to research his great-grandfather’s story. He briefly imagines his great-grandfather defeating the Duke family, entertaining the idea of inheriting a great tobacco fortune, but also inheriting the guilt of knowing that he would have made a profit on other people’s health. For the most part, the film avoids appearing didactic about tobacco smoking, or even about the people who make a living growing and selling tobacco. When he asks a small-time tobacco farmer how his church’s pastor feels about the tobacco industry, it’s clear that the farmer shares that sense of guilt. When he talks to friends who are trying to quit smoking, we see the visceral appeal of cigarette smoking. It would have been very easy to make a film that focused only on these questions, and I’m glad that McElwee didn’t make that film.
The moments that I loved, the scenes that captured my interest, were the “home movie” scenes, the moments in which McElwee reflects on the nature of documentary film. At one point, he reflects on a scene in Bright Leaf in which Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal kiss. He reminds us that Cooper and Neal had an affair that lasted several years, and while watching the scene, he notices Neal make a tentative, tender gesture with her left arm, briefly touching Cooper’s shoulder while they kiss, before quickly pulling her had away. McElwee speculates that this is a “documentary moment,” a scene in a fictional film in which real life briefly intervenes. In typical McElweean serendipity, Patricia Neal happens to be appearing at a nearby film conference. When he gets a chance to ask her about the scene, she denies his interpretation, but it’s an interesting theory.
These questions constantly inform the film, as McElwee reflects on the role of film and photography in “remembering” the past. He shows us footage of his son as a young boy struggling to tie his shoes. He notes that he doesn’t remember why he filmed this moment, doesn’t remember what happened immediately before or after. Of course, these questions about memory and “home movies” are close to me right now while I finish my Capturing the Friedmans paper (almost done!), and now I have another film where I can revisit the questions I’ve been considering. And while I’m thinking about memory, photography, nd family, I’ve just realized that this building may be the place where my mother’s family held their annual reunions for many years. I’m not entirely sure I’m right, but it looks about right. If I’m not mistaken, there’s a playground with a basketball court just down the street where I would sneak away to play while my parents and grandparents would talk (I also remember watching Villanova beat UNC on a cheap black-and-white TV, cheering the underdog Villanova while all of my cousins rooted for their beloved Tar Heels).
In short, I really enjoyed Bright Leaves. I haven’t said everything I could have about this film because I don’t want to spoil all of surprises the film offers, but I imagine that I will write more about this film at some point. McElwee talks about filming things becoming a narcotic as powerful as tobacco itself, and I’m beginning to think that the addiction to going to the darkened theater and watching the flickering images on the silver screen is a pretty powerful narcotic itself.