Ross McElwee believes in movie magic. He is one of the great ironists of American film. In his 1986 breakthrough Sherman’s March, named one of best movies of that year, and in such subsequent works as Time Indefinite (POV 1994) and Six O’Clock News, McElwee weaves psychological, familial, and social realities into wry meditations infused with Southern charm on the power and futility of life itself. But — dogged, disarmingly sincere, and with a sure instinct for revealing the oddities of the American experience — McElwee’s latest film is perhaps his most richly layered look at family, folklore and the art of filmmaking itself.
In Bright Leaves, having its national broadcast premiere on public television’s POV, McElwee returns with another gothic tale — one that popped up from deep in his own family’s past, involving “bright leaf” tobacco, a forgotten Hollywood potboiler starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, a man named Duke whom everyone remembers, and another man named McElwee whom almost no one remembers. Along the way, “Bright Leaves” passes through the beautiful, rich farmlands of North Carolina, sewn green with the tobacco that may be the world’s best, and worked by proud people wrestling with society’s changed attitudes toward smoking.
North Carolina produces more tobacco than any other state. The planting of a particularly tasty strand called “bright leaf” was the state’s salvation after the Civil War, and two men — both penniless war veterans — were the visionaries who brought it about. One was James B. Duke, whose name and fortune remains one of the most storied and prominent in the nation, and whose ancestors still dominate the foothills of North Carolina. The other was John Harvey McElwee, who lost out to the brass-knuckled business practices of Duke, and whose ancestors — including ultimately the filmmaker — took an inexorable slide from mansion to middle-class gentility.
Filmmaker McElwee who, oddly enough, grew up in a suburban bungalow not much more than a block from the fabulous mansion of the Dukes (now a museum), had heard family stories about John Harvey’s tobacco fortunes. But with a grandfather, father, and older brother who were doctors, the family’s tobacco past seemed remote. That changes when McElwee, needing one of his periodic “Southern fixes,” visits John, a cousin he’s never met. The visit kicks off Bright Leaves, as McElwee discovers that John is an avid and accomplished collector of movies and movie memorabilia. Naturally he’s anxious to show his cousin something he believes will interest him, and McElwee, ever-skeptical, nevertheless goes along for the ride.
Doubt vanishes when John screens the only surviving print of a movie long forgotten, despite its solid Hollywood pedigree. Bright Leaf, starring Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, and Lauren Bacall, tells a melodramatic Citizen Kane-style story about a self-made tobacco baron who is ruined by a richer and more ruthless rival and who, in the end, can do no more than bring his own estate down in flames. Based on a novel about the North Carolina tobacco country, the film’s parallel to John Harvey McElwee’s unfortunate fate is striking, at least as far as the two cousins — his great grandsons — understand it.
Discovery of a Hollywood tale based on his own family sends the filmmaker across North Carolina on a many-faceted journey. He wants to find out the truth of old John Harvey’s downfall, but also the provenance of the Gary Cooper movie and just how closely it might have been drawn from the family history. Along the way, he muses about the “might-have-beens” of tobacco history, about his family’s complicity in launching a habit that has come to be seen as so pernicious, and about of the fates of winners and losers in capitalist America. He passes through the tobacco-cultivated Carolina countryside in wonder that such fertile land could nourish such a troubling harvest.
McElwee visits aunt Elizabeth King — John Harvey’s sole surviving grandchild — who relates the family version of history: John Harvey’s secret bright leaf blend, successfully marketed as “Durham Bull” tobacco, was stolen by a McElwee employee and sold to James Duke. Duke, in turn, marketed the blend under the Bull Durham brand, using his financial and political clout to muscle John Harvey McElwee into bankruptcy. A local historian in Statesville, where McElwee finds the old family mansion turned into a parking lot, confirms much of the tale — John Harvey won in court again and again, only to have victory overturned on appeal, presumably due to Duke’s backdoor influence. The filmmaker, cousin John, Aunt Elizabeth and even the local historian feel a rising conviction that the movie “Bright Leaf” did tell John Harvey’s story.
In his inimitable way, McElwee follows the clues — and his own reflections — in every direction. He talks with people such as grower Howard McPherson and auctioneer James McDougal, who proudly raise and sell tobacco, but who admit to “mixed feelings” about the trade, often from their own families’ experiences with cancer. He talks to teenage beauty queens riding in “Tobacco Day Parades” soon to be rechristened “Farmers’ Day Parades.” He takes a ride with his friend, novelist Allan Gurganis (Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All), who tells of his own roots in tobacco farming. He visits the former Duke mansion with his friend Charleen, who recalls her adventures as an eight-year old, surreptitiously riding her bike on the mansion grounds. He discovers a tiny, barren park named after John Harvey, contrasting it with the huge Duke Homestead State Park and other monuments to the Duke name. He even takes his son, Adrian, along as a soundman for a hospital interview with a cancer-stricken smoker.
That’s the other thread running through “Bright Leaves” — McElwee’s ongoing ruminations about the role of home movies and photos in his family’s life and history, about the filmic legacy he’s leaving his own son, and, of course, about his own obsession with capturing life on film. His thoughts take him to film professor Vlada Petric, a visit that turns into a madcap Brechtian cum Marx Brothers lecture on film fundamentals. McElwee even manages to talk to the last surviving star of “Bright Leaf,” Patricia Neal, who is more informative about her love affair with Cooper than about the old film’s sources.
Ultimately, McElwee locates the 80-year-old widow of the man who wrote the book on which the movie, Bright Leaf, was based. What she tells him adds an unexpected twist to McElwee’s investigation of the family history — and to his own meditations on filmmaking.
Bright Leaves is an impressionistic journey across the social, economic, and psychological terrain of North Carolina’s tobacco country by a native Carolinian, whose roots in the land and its famous bright leaf tobacco go deeper than he knew. “Bright Leaves” is also another chapter in McElwee’s ongoing investigation of films as ever-more-critical carriers of personal, family and social legacies.
“Bright Leaves is a subjective, autobiographical take on cigarettes and their troubling legacy,” says McElwee. “As with each of my films, members of my family and close friends appear. Some of them have been showing up in my films for over 25 years now. This adds a dimension to my work, a record of how much — or how little — my family and I have changed over time.”