3RFF: Bright Leaves

One of my favorite unreleased movies from last year was Ross McElwee’s essay film Bright Leaves, and just as the film ends its one-week run in Los Angeles this week, Russell Lucas has sent in his glowing review from the Three Rivers Film Festival in Pittsburgh. Here’s hoping for imminent video distribution, at least. –Doug

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By Russell Lucas

A dozen or more times in my life I’ve been in the midst of an experience so overwhelmingly beautiful and satisfying that I began to regret on the spot that the experience couldn’t last, that the clock was ticking and that after the moment passed, the ecstasy would be consigned to my imperfect memory. I would try to reconstruct it later– how could I not?–but it wouldn’t be the same. It’s that desire to fix an instant in order to
overcome the limitations of memory that causes many people to take photographs. Advances in consumer electronics added new dimensions to these memory crutches, and thus where two or three related families are gathered together, there also a whirring, blinking video camera is with them. But camcorders haven’t really solved the problem of
preserving memories. Most of us employ a “more is more” approach to filming, and events have a way of appearing more banal on videotape than they were in real life. Perhaps the real problem is that we don’t all have Ross McElwee to edit our home movies into significance.

Ross McElwee is a southerner transplanted to Boston, where he teaches at Harvard. After dreaming one night about the wide and bright leaves of tobacco plants, his wife encourages him to take a trip to his childhood home in North Carolina. He agrees, and his first visit is to the house of a second cousin who is a passionate collector of all things related to obscure Hollywood cinema. Among the cousin’s finds is a little-known studio film called Bright Leaf (Michael Curtiz, 1950), based on a book by the same name. Bright Leaf tells the story of two competing tobacco barons vying for dominance during the industrial revolution and the resulting financial collapse of one of
the rivals, who is played by Gary Cooper.

The film immediately resonates with McElwee because his great-grandfather was a prominent tobacco grower and merchant who developed the Bull Durham blend of tobacco and waged a protracted losing battle–involving competition, intimidation and
litigation–with the patriarch of the Duke tobacco fortune. McElwee is ambivalent and uncomfortable concerning his ancestor’s role in the rise of the tobacco culture, but he’s also disgruntled with his family’s relative anonymity in Raleigh-Durham while the Duke history is well-told and widely-preserved. Bright Leaf represents an opportunity for McElwee to validate his great-grandfather’s historical significance and to interpret
the past, and he devotes himself to investigating the film’s origins.

If Bright Leaves was only that–an attempt to find some meaning and perspective
in McElwee’s family history–it would be an impressive achievement. Happily, it’s so much more. As he questions primary and secondary sources for information about Curtiz’s film, McElwee’s film looks at how his parents viewed his ancestors and, in turn, how he views his own parents. He turns the lens on himself and thinks about how he appears to his son, and whether he’s been successful in teaching his son about his work and the things he values.

In one stunning sequence, we see just how impossible it is to hold on to the present. McElwee’s son, aged seven or eight, is shown in vacation footage playing idly in some puddles on the beach and posing for a picture with his cousins at a beach house, and McElwee speaks hopefully about his son’s enjoyment of life and the things he hopes to
teach him. He holds the shot, and we share his optimism while watching the boy enjoy his carefree moments. In the instant it takes to cut from this shot to another, his son becomes a teenager. He finds joy in different things. He’s more self-aware. He’s less malleable. We’re led to think the son McElwee is trying to understand is just a boy, only to find that the boy he’s reaching out for has already come out the other side of youth. It’s an amazing moment.

McElwee is careful to avoid descending into paralyzing nostalgia, though, and his concerns are less about the missed opportunities of youth than about the way in which visual images, rooted in memory or videotape, animate our consciousness. He likens the compulsive behavior of smokers to his own addiction to the filmed image, as both are
pleasures which stop time for a moment.

Along the way, McElwee observes segments of the tobacco culture, but he understands that the larger issues of corporate responsibility versus individual freedom and the intertwining of economic health with an unhealthy product are too unwieldy for this context, and he treads lightly and deftly. The images speak for themselves. An annual tobacco harvest parade with its young and pretty princesses just doesn’t seem appropriate anymore, and its organizers have discontinued it starting next year. A young newly-married couple, friends of McElwee’s, have vowed to quit smoking before their wedding, and they ask him to record their declarations on film. When they break their pledges, though, they keep inviting him back to record their revised plans, as if by putting their words on film they can make them truer than if they were merely spoken.

And so McElwee, too, tries his best to discover whether the filmed images in an obscure Gary Cooper film can outweigh or correct the incomplete oral histories of his ancestral hometown. It’s not surprising that he learns that the past is sufficiently complex and
inscrutable that it can’t be understood by merely identifying oneself with Gary Cooper. What is surprising, though, is that his subtle and unassuming voice convinced me of two seemingly contradictory things: both that images are not enough, and that they are singularly powerful creations.

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