John Harvey McElwee, an early 20th Century North Carolina tobacco planter who invented a popular blend called "Bull Durham," made and lost a fortune in the business—but he certainly left a legacy. What kind of legacy is another matter: His son, his grandson and one of his great-grandsons became doctors, treating the diseases that are tobacco's legacy:
"He may not have left my ancestors any money," said one of McElwee's great-grandsons, "but by helping to hook the local population on tobacco, he did leave behind a sort of pathological agricultural trust fund."
Those droll words come not from a physician, but from a filmmaker—Ross McElwee, who is as addicted to making movies as a two-pack-a-day man hooked on cigarettes. In Bright Leaves, McElwee uses a camera lens to examine his life, his history, his world—mostly the South—in much the same way his brother, father or grandfather might use medical instruments to examine a patient, searching out indications of sickness or health, telltale patterns or subtle inter-connections that might provide clues about the patient's condition, its causes or possible cure.
Bright Leaves is billed as "a subjective, autobiographical meditation on the allure of cigarettes and their troubling legacy for the state of North Carolina," but it's much deeper than merely that. McElwee's latest documentary takes as its point of departure the possibility that a mostly-forgotten Gary Cooper film (Bright Leaf, 1950) may have been a fictionalized biography of great-granddad. This conjecture launches McElwee on a meandering journey through the South, through his own memories, networks of friends and relations, and through reel after reel of home movies, impelled by a gentle but insatiable ...1
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