Judge Joe Armenio finds he likes the unnecessary things (mostly) in documentarian Ross McElwee's latest journey down South.
"I like unnecessary things."
Ross McElwee's 1986 breakthrough film, Sherman's March, began as a documentary about the destructive Civil War jaunt of the film's title, and became instead a personal, rambling cinematic essay on nuclear war, McElwee's love life, Southern womanhood, and Southernness in general. He has followed Sherman's March with a series of similar essay-films, of which the most notable is Time Indefinite (1993), an astonishingly open and unsparing look at McElwee's marriage and the birth of his son, as well as the death of his father. McElwee's cinematic personality is quirky, digressive, low-key, and non-judgmental, but penetrating, valuing serendipity and quirkiness over scoring polemical points or constructing much of a linear narrative.
2003's Bright Leaves continues this trend, as McElwee examines the legacy of his great-grandfather, a late 19th-century North Carolina cigarette magnate who made a fortune but lost it to those all-powerful tobacco titans, the Duke family. Early on, McElwee visits his cousin John, a man who owns an awesome amount of movie memorabilia, and is one of those strange, gentle obsessives for whom McElwee seems to have an irresistable magnetism. Cousin John informs McElwee that his great-grandfather's story formed the basis for a 1952 Michael Curtiz melodrama called Bright Leaf, featuring Gary Cooper and his then-mistress, Patricia Neal. McElwee's film then becomes a meditation on his own family history, his relationship to both his father and his son, the nature of Cooper and Neal's love affair, and what tobacco has meant to the South for good and ill.
That summary makes the film sound like something of a hash, but McElwee's films have always been about the ways in which seemingly unrelated ideas and sequences comment on each other, often through coincidence. For example, cousin John at one point mentions the Edgar Ulmer film, The Black Cat, and shortly thereafter, on a visit to the Duke mansion, McElwee's friend Charleen Swansea (a familiar figure for fans of the earlier films) interrupts the conversation to announce, "There's a black cat in the grass!" It's the sort of thing almost any other filmmaker would have edited out, but McElwee loves the weird connection between the scenes, the way these unplanned, serendipitous references come together to form a theme of bad luck, of cursedness.
In another scene, McElwee interviews film theorist Vlada Petric about Bright Leaf. Petric insists that McElwee sit in a wheelchair and let Petric wheel him around so that the interview consists of a series of low-angled tracking shots; when McElwee sweetly inquires why Petric would want to do something so silly, he says, "I like unnecessary things." McElwee indulges him, and makes a comic show of being gently put out at the ridiculous spectacle, but the scene itself is the sort of "unnecessary thing" that McElwee values a lot, too.
Unfortunately, this sort of genuine, lovable quirkiness (as opposed to the calculated quirkiness which blights so much of American "independent" film) is not enough to make a successful movie; what made Sherman's March and Time Indefinite so powerful was their personal resonance, the ways in which the director crafted his disparate materials into powerfully coherent statements on both the state of the world and the state of Ross McElwee. Bright Leaves, for me at least, has no such resonance; he could never quite convince me that the legacy of tobacco, or an old Gary Cooper movie, were as important to him as were the intimate subjects of his previous films. When McElwee is trying to convince us of the degree to which he was affected by the story he's telling, his narration gets purple and effusive in ways that seem forced, desperate to give the film some deeper significance. Late in the film, he finds out that his great-grandfather wasn't really the inspiration for Gary Cooper's Bright Leaf character. He narrates, "How could this be? I suddenly find myself adrift," and I wonder, do you really, Ross? Is it really that big a deal? An attempt to reconstruct Cooper and Neal's relationship from some shots of them together in the film seems a bit silly and overdramatic, too; I find it hard to believe that McElwee cares so much about the relationship between a couple of Hollywood stars 50 years ago.
So Bright Leaves lacks the startling, personal openness of McElwee's best work, and what's left is interesting but too fragmentary to hold the film together. There are some affecting portraits of people whose health has been ruined by smoking, as well as those hard-working and honest folks who make their living by it. There are no villains here, no easy answers; this is an admirable position, but, not surprisingly, McElwee provides a sketch of the problem rather than a full examination of it. Like the director's other films, it's also a meditation on what it means to be Southern. McElwee has lived for years in New England, but still feels the lure of the South and thinks of it as home; he provides plenty of loving shots of a rich, verdant, Edenic southern landscape. There's a sense in which tobacco serves as a metaphor for the South: alluring but ultimately decadent and unhealthy.
First Run Features presents the film in 1.66:1, non-anamorphic, and letterboxed. The transfer is far from pristine, with more than its share of grain and artifacts. The 2.0 sound conveys the narration and dialogue acceptably. The extras are mostly text-based, which seems a bit pointless; why not just include a booklet? There's an insightful and substantive essay by critic Godfrey Cheshire on McElwee's work, which is excellent if you're willing to read it off your TV screen. Also included are a (text) statement by the director on the film, and an unusually detailed (text) biography of him. You can also listen to a few songs by Paula Larke, a singer who is interviewed and performs in the film.
The recent increase in the popularity of documentaries in the United States has resulted in a depressingly small number of first-rate films; too many of them are rote, heavy-handed, lacking in cinematic personality. So it's good to hear McElwee's innovative, intelligent voice again, to see his nicely crafted images. Bright Leaves isn't the most interesting story he's told us, however; those unfamiliar with his work should start with Sherman's March and Time Indefinite and work their way back to this one. In the end, Bright Leaves is warm, humane, and funny, but never quite as deep or moving as its director hopes it is.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Director's Statement
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