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A Personal Tobacco Road Trip

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2004; Page WE45

IN "BRIGHT LEAVES," filmmaker Ross McElwee takes a mental ramble through a seeming maze of topics, including the tobacco leaves of North Carolina, a Gary Cooper movie from the 1950s, the actress Patricia Neal and McElwee's ever-evolving relationship with his son. But his apparent digressions magically converge into a single footpath of emotional significance.

As with his other superb personal documentaries, "Sherman's March," made in 1986, and the 1994 "Time Indefinite," we are hooked into a low-tech but compelling dynamic -- between relatively static images and McElwee's sensitive, connective narrative.


Ross McElwee examines his family's roots in tobacco, his relationship with his son and a Gary Cooper movie in "Bright Leaves." (Adrian Mcelwee -- First Run Features)

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His films are in the same wide spectrum as Michael Moore's; all of them are, in a sense, about the love between a man and his voice-over. But where Moore's work is polemically provocative, McElwee's is contemplative, fatalistic and, somehow, existentially satisfying. He makes deceptively profound commentary about everything that passes in front of his camera. That camera, incidentally, is like an extension of his sensibility, the eye to his soft-spoken wonderment. Without it -- or so it would seem -- McElwee is voiceless, unable to express himself.

We find ourselves in North Carolina, for one, because it's where McElwee grew up. For another, this is where McElwee's great-grandfather, John Harvey McElwee, lost a tobacco-growing fortune to James Buchanan Duke, who seems to have filched his formula for Durham Bull Smoking Tobacco. John's unsuccessful attempts for legal satisfaction left him penniless. Duke became a cigarette magnate, helped establish Duke University and became a capitalistic icon of the region.

"Bright Leaves" doesn't pander in petty bitterness. McElwee simply notes the rippling of ironies that have resulted ever since. Duke University, he says with mock-wistfulness, could have been McElwee University. And the McElwees turned out a steady stream of doctors who, as the director wryly notes, treated the cancer victims of Duke's tobacco products. Which is where the Gary Cooper movie comes in.

When McElwee's film-buff cousin tells the filmmaker he believes the 1950 melodrama "Bright Leaf," starring Cooper as a tobacco pioneer cheated out of a fortune, might be based on the experiences of John McElwee, a mission begins.

In "Sherman's March," McElwee was ostensibly retracing Sherman's brutal military route but was really following the filmmaker's history of romantic disasters in the region. Similarly, in "Bright Leaves," McElwee chases down this "Bright Leaf" possibility but ends up making other fascinating discoveries along the way.

Those discoveries include a meeting with Neal, a co-star in "Bright Leaf," who had an affair with Cooper during the filming; a reunion with Charleen Swansea, a regular friend and "character" in McElwee's films; and a bizarre encounter with film theorist Vlada Petric, who insists on wheeling McElwee around in a wheelchair so he'll have a more "kinesthetic" image.

McElwee also reexamines his personal relationships over time and beyond the grave. His connection with his late father, now only available to him in home movie footage, seems to be changing, for instance. It's as if his father is turning fictional. And then there's McElwee's legacy: How will his son Adrian turn out? Will he appreciate these captured moments in a lifelong career? McElwee loves to revel in intergenerational mystique, the stories between fathers and sons and grandfathers and great-grandsons, and so on. And he freely acknowledges that, like the many Carolinians who have lived, thrived or died because of smoking, he, too, has an addiction: that camera and his constant search for new meaning in his life.

BRIGHT LEAVES (Unrated, 107 minutes) -- Contains nothing objectionable except thematic material about lung cancer. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.


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