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 curiosity and a fascination with the links between things.
A wander down the side roads of family history leads McElwee to consider the destructive legacy of the tobacco trade which was the salvation of his state's economy, but whose death toll exceeds that of all the battles of the notoriously bloody Civil War. (Leave it to a Southerner to put it in those terms!) Still, this director is neither a Michael Moore nor a Michael Mann—it's humanity he's after, not diatribe, and where another director might elicit our repulsion at compromise and hypocrisy, McElwee would prefer to fascinate us with paradox and conundrum.
Like all his films, this is a highly personal journey, reminiscent of a smart, sardonic personal essay you might find in Harper's Magazine or a quirky, savvy radio piece on NPR's "This American Life." There's an intelligent, self-effacing tone here, an understated and somewhat ironic stance that's almost contemplative, allowing the author to explore very intimate personal questions without going anywhere near the shameful public exhibitionism of confessional tabloid television. If Woody Allen were a laid-back Southerner rather than a wired-up New Yorker, and if he made rambling autobiographical documentaries instead of tightly-constructed autobiography-disguised-as-fiction commercial features, you'd have Ross McElwee.
McElwee's first feature documentary was the much-celebrated Sherman's March (1986), part of the Library of Congress National Film Registry. In it, he set out to make a conventional documentary on the legacy of the infamous Civil War campaign, but ended up constantly sidetracked by his own loneliness, turning his camera on a series of women he became attracted to in the course of his project. (Interestingly, Michael Moore—yes, the controversial documentarian—actually appears in a bit acting role in Sherman's March.) McElwee's next film project dealt with his own marriage, and the birth of his son just after his own father's death. As that son grew, McElwee became concerned about the violent and media-saturated world his son would be growing up in, and that preoccupation begat yet another documentary, mixing cultural inquiry with the highly personal reflections of a young father.
Now the 57-year-old filmmaker—a Harvard film prof—has become fascinated with his own heritage, with questions about the generations that preceded him. Tying together the importance of tobacco in his great-grandfather's story and medicine in his father's, McElwee interviews his dad's former patients. We also have the privilege of witnessing moments when this thoughtful man makes discoveries about his own family. One woman remembers Dr. McElwee's visit to her own dad the night before major surgery, when the two men prayed together. McElwee seems surprised: "My father did? ... I never heard that story." To which the woman replies, "Oh well, sometimes daddies don't talk about things like that."
The filmmaker then cuts to the woman's aging parents harmonizing "Silent Night," then cuts again to decades-old family movie footage of his father listening to those same folks singing that same song to him over the telephone, an annual Christmas tradition. It's not apparent at first, but as the senior McElwee speaks to them on the phone, he turns his head and, inexplicably, we see that he is wearing a yarmulke. The filmmaker says, "Right after I filmed this, I kept meaning to ask my father why he, a staunch Presbyterian, was wearing a yarmulke here. Was it just a somewhat odd Christmas present from a grateful Jewish patient? I kept forgetting to ask him, and now it's just one of those things I'll never know."
That's the appeal of a McElwee documentary, right there. He's not setting out to prove anything, to persuade us of answers he already knows. No, he's out to ask questions, and to see what other questions each of those questions will lead us to. McElwee doesn't narrow life down into a political position or a thesis about human nature: he takes the mundane events of ordinary life and widens them, opens them up by asking questions, pointing out the things we can't quite know or never would have realized. He has more to do with art than propaganda, more to do with mystery than explanation.
In every one of his documentaries, McElwee's South is, as Flannery O'Connor said, "Christ-haunted." Bright Leaves in particular brings us people of faith, cancer victims and tobacco farmers alike whose faith in Jesus helps them with—or perhaps diverts them from?—the difficult questions posed to them by life in general, or by this inquisitive filmmaker in particular. Whether it's a heartfelt "Silent Night" offered as a Christmas appreciation, or gospel quartet numbers like "Gospel Ship" or "Ship Of Zion" sung by a tobacco grower who wonders how his religion and his work fit together, the film frequently uses music to introduce a spiritual context for its subjects. And if McElwee might question the consistency of a Christian man earning a living by growing the bright leaves that cause the premature death of so many, he does so with a light and respectful touch: his affection for these good and faith-filled people is obvious, and he never condescends to pass judgment.
Perhaps McElwee's films are nothing more than mildly diverting video journals, charting the modestly interesting preoccupations of a mild but obsessive man as he wanders down whatever side road he comes upon. Perhaps the insights he finds, and the connections he makes between things, are in fact not very substantial or significant after all. On the other hand, these films (especially the later ones) may be marvels of loving observation and understatement that work on us slowly and subliminally, teasing awake our slumbering curiosity about the apparently ordinary details of our own lives. Perhaps they offer genuine, if elusive, profundities, presenting them in a self-effacing and amusing way that grows increasingly precious as the avalanche of non-fiction media grows more shrill and superficial every day.
Bright Leaves is showing in limited theaters, slowly making its rounds in North America. Click here for a list of screenings.
- The director says the Christian tobacco farmer has mixed feelings, knowing his crop's health hazards and yet knowing that God "allows you to be forgiven … over and over again, so maybe he's playing a little bit of a con game with himself and with the Lord." What do you think? Does this farmer rightly understand forgiveness? Why or why not?
- The director says the farmer has to "confront this spiritual contradiction on some level." What do you think? Is "Christian tobacco farmer" an oxymoron, a contradiction? What about your own life? Might others see similar inconsistencies or hypocrisy in you?
- The director wonders how his life might be different if his great-grandfather had not been forced out of business, but instead earning millions to pass down through the generations. How would great wealth and power affect you?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The film's dry humor, genial pace and themes of family legacy will likely not appeal to younger audiences, but there is little here to offend, and certainly the film raises important questions about smoking and health which some families may want to consider together. There is footage of medical procedures which may be troubling for more squeamish viewers.
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