The documentary as personal odyssey–a form popularized by Michael Moore and taken up, in a less provocative fashion, in films like “Stone Reader” and “My Architect”–appears again in this charmingly deadpan examination by Ross McElwee (“Sherman’s March”) of his own family’s involvement in the North Carolina tobacco business.
McElwee, as it happens, had a cinematic hook on which to hang his quest: the 1950 Hollywood period melodrama called “Bright Leaf” directed by Michael Curtiz, which starred Gary Cooper as an entrepreneurial nineteenth-century tobacco baron who sought revenge against the competitors who’d wronged him. Informed by a second cousin–a fanatical movie collector who, on the basis of the evidence here, could be a good documentary subject himself–that the Cooper character was based on their great-grandfather, the creator of the Bull Durham tobacco brand who was maneuvered out of ownership and sent into bankruptcy by the machinations of the Duke family (from which the university takes its name), McElwee undertakes to investigate the idea.
But if that search were all that “Bright Leaves” were about, it would long outstay its welcome. What makes it consistently engrossing is McElwee’s persistently languid, ruminative approach: he’s always ready to take up what appear to be digressions or tangents that actually relate to his larger project. So he uses his investigation to look into his family’s curiously ambivalent involvement with tobacco, ranging from growers and smokers who die from the habit to physicians who treat the afflicted. He employs it as well to reflect on the very nature of family, not only looking into the connections between his clan and the Dukes but taking his project into very personal terrain by making it a springboard for him to reflect on his relationship to his own son. And in his hands the odyssey also engages the history of North Carolina as a whole, particularly in terms of the dependence of its economy on the product, and even more broadly on the nature of capitalist competition. By the close we’ve been introduced to so many issues and so many engaging people, in such a delightful way, that even the fact that McElwee can’t offer a final “gotcha!” moment (of the sort that Mark Moskowitz, for instance, achieved in “Stone Reader”)–indeed, what he gives us, in the testimony of the widow of the author of the novel on which “Bright Leaf” was based, is the exact opposite of that–doesn’t diminish the pleasure one takes from having gone on the journey with him. Interviews with Patricia Neal, a member of the 1950 film’s cast, and with film theorist Vladimir Petric, who insists that McElwee film him from a wheelchair that Petric will push around the street to make the sequence (as he puts it) “kinesthetic,” as well as those with McElwee’s own cousins and friends or cancer survivors whose lives were saved by his doctor-father, prove equally memorable–as are, in a different sense, the periodic inserts of the director’s son as he grows from child to adolescent. And insofar as his commentary is concerned, McElwee keeps it more buoyant than didactic, even at points when it might have easily veered toward a shrill screed against the effects of smoking.
“Bright Leaves” doesn’t wear its importance on its sleeve the way Michael Moore’s films do, but in its quiet, gentle way it raises issues that are in some ways even more fundamental. And it touches on serious matters with a sly, self-deprecating sense of humor that makes receiving its messages a pleasure rather than a chore.