Dir: Ross McElwee. US. 2003. 107mins
Bright Leaves may start out exploring the deadly allure of tobacco but it soon mushrooms into an engaging mixture of family album, social history and human eccentricity. Best known as the award-winning director of Sherman's March (1986), Ross McElwee now has an enviable track record of transforming personal obsession into priceless documentary essays. Bright Leaves is one of his most entertaining and accessible films and should find a warm welcome on the Festival circuit and in ancillary markets. The growing theatrical appetite for documentaries should encourage enterprising distributors to take a chance on a potential sleeper success. The film screened in Directors Fortnight at Cannes this year.
McElwee may take a traditional approach to the documentary form by mixing interviews, archive footage, home movies and personal observations but there is such charm and dry humour in the way he shapes the material that the film become irresistible. In Bright Leaves, he heads home to North Carolina, an area that produces more tobacco than any other state in America. There are family connections to the tobacco industry as his great-grandfather created the Durham Bulls tobacco brand. Alas, deadly rivals the Dukes allegedly destroyed the family business with ruthless tactics and bruising legal battles. 'If things had gone differently, this would be all mine,' declares McElwee as he observes the Dukes multi-billion dollar tobacco empire.
McElwee visits his second cousin John, a movie buff whose rooms are covered with posters and filled with memorabilia. John thinks there may be a cinematic heirloom in the 1950 Michael Curtiz movie Bright Leaf, a torrid tale of rival tobacco farmers in which Gary Cooper's character might just be based on a McElwee. Tracking down the film and its makers becomes a running theme as McElwee eventually interviews co-star Patricia Neal and the widow of Bright Leaf novelist Foster FitzSimons who dashes his hopes by claiming it was all a work of fiction.
The film is peppered with hard facts and wry opinions on the toxic pleasures of smoking. Another running joke follows a young couple and their numerous doomed attempts to quit the demon weed. A little rambling at times, McElwee seems happy to follow where any interesting detour may lead. His skill is in finding the kind of characters who could only exist in real life and allowing them just to be themselves in front of a camera. Many of the exchanges are hilarious but tinged with affection. 'Did he have a sense of humour',' McElwee demands, seeking a better understanding of a long gone relative. 'I don't know about that. I know he lost his teeth, 'comes the surreal reply. He crosses swords with peripatetic film historian Vlada Petric and even attends a 50th anniversary, last ever Tobacco Festival where one young woman will have the dubious honour of being Miss Tobacco.
Somehow, the real life that McElwee uncovers is always infinitely more quirky and comical than the fictional worlds that most screenwriters create. Idiosyncratic, funny and genuine, Bright Leaves is a little gem.
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