Like many aspects of his films, the title of Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves is rife with subtle resonances. The latest droll autobiographical odyssey by North Carolina’s (unofficial) cinematic poet laureate, the film begins as McElwee, returning once again to the Old North State, encounters a vintage Gary Cooper movie titled Bright Leaf, which, he muses, may contain a fictionalized portrait of his great-grandfather, a would-be tobacco baron who was bested in business by James B. Duke. This weird conjunction of family history and Hollywood fancy gives McElwee all the pretext he needs for another seriocomic exploration of North Carolina, his family, mortality, filmmaking and his own psyche. Obviously, the film’s title plays off that of its predecessor: Bright Leaves is Bright Leaf made plural by what might be called the refraction of McElwee’s dual consciousness, his awareness standing at a critical distance from the relatively uncomplicated pleasures of the 1950 original. And of course, the title refers to tobacco, a “bright” agricultural product only for those who resist the irony of its decidedly dark health implications.
Yet there’s also the sense that “bright leaves” comprises a discrete metaphor for cinema itself, an art form we experience as a series of luminescent pages or chapters from a peculiarly lifelike poem or book.
In the case of McElwee’s work, especially the films centered on North Carolina, the literary analogy is inescapable. He came of age in the era of cinema verite, when new lightweight cameras, sound recorders and high-speed film stocks allowed a documentarian to hoist cinema’s entire apparatus on his shoulders and go out to film the world as he found it, unencumbered by script conferences, meddling producers or any of the constraints or expectations that go with Hollywood-style moviemaking. Other filmmakers used this newfound freedom, and the increased candor and expressive suppleness it entailed, to film political campaigns and such with a heady intimacy. McElwee took the same opportunity for truthfulness and turned the camera on himself, commencing a series of 16mm first-person chronicles that now span nearly 30 years.
Eliminating the advance scripting necessary to fictional filmmaking (and some forms of documentary) did not, however, remove McElwee’s work from the realm of writing. On the contrary, however much his films have delighted in accident and chance and those moments in life when “nothing is happening,” he is always busy spinning tales and distilling ruminations from the quotidian’s recalcitrant raw material. Thus his films end up feeling distinctly like a celluloid branch of literature, specifically Southern literature, with a closer kinship to writers like Faulkner or Walker Percy than to any Hollywood-type auteur you care to name.
Nor should this suggest that “fiction” is a stranger to his enterprise. If you substitute “imaginary” for “fictional” (both suggesting non-literal approaches to truth), what’s interesting is how geographically determined his artistic realm is. Which is to say: He is, first, a documentary filmmaker; and, second, one who injects himself and his praxis into whatever he films. Yet the films the world identifies as “McElwee-esque” are those in which any discussion of “myself” quickly transmutes into a consideration of “my family,” and “my family” means not just a human constellation but a particular locus: the South, usually North Carolina.
This is a bit curious on the face of it. McElwee has lived in the Northeast for the better part of three decades, yet the minutes of his autobiographical oeuvre devoted to his life in the Boston area are strikingly scant. It’s as if his compulsion/determination to “film my life” always involves a challenge, a quest, an expedition into the unknown or, better yet, the imaginary (the far country where past and future both lie hidden), and this precinct must be at once elsewhere, actual and personal: his own private Yoknapatawpha.
So when in Bright Leaves McElwee says that North Carolina seems “like the most beautiful place on earth to me,” you know that, like James Taylor, he is speaking of the Carolina in his mind. But of course, what’s personal to him is personal to us as well, and a familiarity with North Carolina–or with McElwee’s work about it–will inevitably amplify any viewer’s appreciation of his autobiographical saga’s latest chapter.
Naturally, some things have changed since the preceding chapters, changes charted, as always, according the realignments of family. When McElwee’s autobiographical opus started, he was in his 20s and had returned to Charlotte from school up north (the geographic beginning of that characteristic double consciousness). Here, he self-consciously and sometimes uncomfortably inhabited the role of son, and his dual parental orientation is reflected in two extraordinary shorts: In Backyard, he chafes at the constraints of his conservative father’s home even as he lyrically records its comforts and peculiarities; in Charleen, he ponders the costs involved in the crusade for freedom and self-expression pursued by his flamboyant mentor and spiritual mom, Charleen Swansea (who essays the same role in McElwee’s subsequent autobiographical films).
Come Sherman’s March, the hilarious 1986 art-house hit in which he chronicled his pursuit of girlfriends old and new through North and South Carolina and Georgia, McElwee was playing the romantic role of willful prodigal son to the hilt–and seemingly relishing every moment of it, professed anxieties about nuclear annihilation notwithstanding. When actual mortality intruded, though, the filmmaker found his vantage point reversed: In the beautifully heartfelt and probing Time Indefinite (1993), Ross survives bachelorhood and his father’s sudden death and then, with the arrival of his first-born, catapults from son to father.
In a sense, Bright Leaves is a long-in-the-making meditation on the meaning of that shift. Adrian, the kid we saw born to Ross and wife Marilyn Levine in Time Indefinite, is now a strapping, Boston-bred teenager. Ross ventures a tentative bond in having the boy serve as his soundman on a filming jaunt in Boston. But the real effort at establishing an enduring connection–call it an artistic patrimony–comes when McElwee ventures south to make a film that will bequeath to his son a sense of place and the past, a film about North Carolina and family.
This being a McElwee movie, irony and incidental absurdity abound from the first. In Salisbury, Ross discovers a drawling cousin who’s as obsessed with cinema as he is: The guy has scads of movies in 16mm and 35mm prints, including a copy of Bright Leaf, the movie Ross thinks may reflect the ill-fated attempt of his great-grandfather, John Harvey McElwee, to establish a tobacco empire in North Carolina. Can this improbable Tar Heel-Hollywood connection be true? For the moment, all that matters is that McElwee believes it may be, because it launches him on a journey across North Carolina in search of the places where his ancestor and the peculiar career of tobacco coincided, a quest that involves conversations with folks including Charleen and novelist Alan Gurganus, a hymn-singing tobacco farmer and a young Chapel Hill couple who are trying to kick the cigarette habit.
Examining the story of tobacco–the grinning demon who shadows North Carolina’s verdant landscape–leads McElwee back to some familiar territory. Following his great-grandfather’s financial Waterloo, three generations of McElwees were surgeons who carved up the lungs of cancer patients. Thus has tobacco remained attached to his family, a link that inspires McElwee’s return, yet again, to old footage of his father, images that he worries are not reaching toward immortality but already fading to oblivion. If the worries over death that abounded in Sherman’s March seemed a shrewd comic device, the ontological equivalent of Southern self-deprecation, those here radiate a matter-of-fact, quietly personal immediacy, first-person proof of time’s encroachments.
McElwee’s probing of Bright Leaf is also not without its perplexities. At Durham’s Carolina Theatre, the towers of Brightleaf Square close by, he interviews the movie’s co-star, Patricia Neal, who was having an affair with the older, married Gary Cooper when they made the film. McElwee ventures that Hollywood movies are “home movies” much as his own are, but in a different way: Their minor gestures record the real lives and feelings of the people making them. It’s a neat theory, but Neal is reluctant to endorse it, and you can sense why: Her life has been melodramatic enough without any fictional window dressing.
Coop, after all, is long gone, vanished down the road where those images of McElwee’s dad seem headed. Tobacco, too, is not only a villain but, now, history’s victim: it’s being written out of small town parades as surely as it’s being ushered out of the economy. Can cigarettes be far behind?
Given McElwee’s self-reflexive penchant, I was surprised he didn’t explore the close correlation between cigarettes and celluloid, two 20th-century behemoths now lumbering over the historical horizon in tandem. Surely McElwee realizes that there’s no college kid today picking up a 16mm camera thinking he’ll make it his life’s work; the particular artistic career he chose was effectively available to one generation only–his.
All the more reason, though, for us to seek out and prize the celluloid bright leaves given us by this astonishing filmmaker, who is a treasure not only to his native state but to the world. In again writing his imaginary North Carolina with a camera and a wit that celebrates life even as it squints at its opposite, he has left son Adrian a handsome, inspiring legacy.
Ross McElwee will make local appearances this week at Durham’s Carolina Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 20 at 7 p.m., and at matinee screenings on Sunday, Nov. 21 at the Rialto in Raleigh.