If Ross McElwee were a novelist instead of a creative-nonfiction documentarian, he’d have awards by the mantelful, he’d be an Oprah’s Book Club millionaire, he’d be beloved by—at least—the 47 percent of Americans who reportedly read literature of any stripe. His sympathetic, cogent, witty voice would make seductive reading, satisfying a contemplative intercourse we’ve long since learned not to associate with movies. In a less supercool, more thoughtful world, McElwee’s new film would be an event, to be sighed over by reasonable adults, and imitated by ambitious camcorderists. Continuing the autobiographical torrent begun nearly 30 years ago, Bright Leaves is an utterly mundane miracle, a sampling of gentle insight and poetic retrospection quietly at odds with the exploitative culture around it.
McElwee’s romantic stasis was the fertile comedy at the core of Sherman’s March (1986) and Time Indefinite (1993), and his anxiety as a new parent hot-wires Six O’Clock News (1996). His son Adrian now having passed into adolescence, Bright Leaves has a more relaxed flavor, and its ruminations are the classics of comfortable middle age: looking backward, family history, and the fearsome roll of time. Lucky for McElwee, he’s got plenty of footage to consult, from 8mm footage of his grandfather to the library of footage he himself has shot over the decades (Adrian grows up on film, in more ways than one) to a forgotten Hollywood epic, Bright Leaf (1950). McElwee stumbles into this Cooper-Bacall melodrama at the home of a film-obsessed cousin, and quickly recognizes in it the outline of his own great-grandfather’s life—way back when, the McElwee patriarch was a tobacco mogul who was sabotaged and litigiously squeezed out by the Duke family, and the filmmaker gets rich, dry laughs out of bitterly observing how North Carolina iconizes the Dukes and has all but forgotten the McElwees.
Indeed, Bright Leaves inevitably finds its way toward a guilt-ridden harangue against the tobacco industry and the culture of smoking, and it’s a measure of McElwee’s generous sensibility that the outrage, complete with cemetery visits, never seems shrill, even when it should. Along the way, McElwee exercises his talent for finding articulate, self-dramatizing subjects, including his old friend Charleen (again), an army of tobacco farmers and adamant smokers, his dead father’s surviving cancer patients, and even a film theorist, who gaffer-tapes handles to a wheelchair and plops McElwee in it for a “kinesthetic!” traveling-shot interview around a carpenter’s gothic street set used by the UNC film school.
It’s clear that McElwee doesn’t begin and end projects, he just films—making movies is a way of living for him, a process that began as a running gag and has evolved into a mode of exploration that grows more profound as the man ages. Bright Leaves is a movie without motivation, a shared experience of stoic father love and humane curiosity.