On a jaunt back to his ancestral North Carolina, filmmaker Ross McElwee discovers an unlikely hook for his new film diary-cum-essay, Bright Leaves. A family member screens Michael Curtiz's 1950 historical melodrama Bright Leaf, and in its tale of a upstart tobacco farmer squashed by a more ruthless rival, McElwee hears echoes of his own ancestry -- that of his great-grandfather John Harvey McElwee, whose Durham Bull blend of tobacco he claimed was hijacked by the powerful Duke family, who successfully marketed it as Bull Durham.
Initially spurred to unearth his ancestor's 19th-century troubles, McElwee is easily sidetracked as he and his camera idle about the Tarheel State. McElwee undertook a similar reflective personal journey in his 1986 film, Sherman's March, which managed to find affinity with the Union Army general's rout of the South and McElwee's romantic travails. Here, he tries to disentangle his family's relationship to tobacco (several McElwee men became doctors, pursuing what McElwee wryly calls their "agricultural pathological trust fund" -- or a lifetime of treating smoking-related illnesses). Down various byways, he confronts the integral nature of tobacco to the state, ponders the nature of film as a memory repository, and seeks to decode Bright Leaf, which he fancies "a cinematic heirloom, a surreal home movie re-enacted by Hollywood stars."
What propels this film are McElwee's subtle gifts: his easygoing narration spiked with bone-dry humor, his powers of observation (or lack thereof, as in one funny scene unintentionally marked by a passing rat) and his knack for unearthing characters such as film historian Vlada Petric, who rails against Bright Leaf's lack of kinesthetics, and an interviewee who crushes the film's raison d'etre with casual elegance.
McElwee doesn't take the easy path of a screed. Once a casual smoker, he provides equal time of sorts to tobacco's seductive power. He cites the dreamlike, smoky allure, the attendant calm, the sensation of time momentarily pausing, and smoking's convivial nature. I was surprised that McElwee, obsessed as he becomes with Hollywood film and our ongoing dysfunctional relationship with tobacco, didn't once cite the powerful link between iconic screen characters who lit up to be tough, sophisticated, sexy, or -- in today's anti-smoking landscape -- rebellious, and the millions who followed their lead, hoping to glean a wisp of that allure.
McElwee ends the film with charming family footage, but I mostly recalled those bright green fan-like leaves that open the film -- utterly benign while rooted in the ground, yet harboring such economic, political and social powers. As one old farmer in the film is quoted: "Aren't they happy-looking plants?"