Before Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect and Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, there was Ross McElwee. The father of the first-person documentary has been making films since the late ’70s, his most famous work being the 1986 feature Sherman’s March. His latest movie, Bright Leaves, is a gorgeous return to his native South.
“I had an idea for a long time that, since I’m from North Carolina, I should make a film that deals with tobacco,” says McElwee. “But I also knew that I didn’t want to do a standard condemnation of the tobacco industry. It’s been done. I wanted something different. A cousin reminded me that a great grandfather [of ours] was involved in the tobacco industry. Then a second cousin told me that yet another cousin, John McElwee, had some kinds of pictures that had something to do with my great grandfather.” It turned out that Ross’ cousin John didn’t just have pictures, he had a whole movie—a Hollywood melodrama called Bright Leaf that starred Gary Cooper and seemed based on the life of their great grandfather. “I thought, ‘This is too much. This is the door I’ve been looking for. This is how I’m going to make my movie about tobacco.’”
Despite easy access to preparation material, McElwee sought a truth beyond the facts. “I think it’s somehow imperative not to do any kind of research because I think you lose some kind of spontaneity. What I’m after is not data or facts or exposition. It’s really more nuance and spontaneity. Part of what I was trained to do was to expect the unexpected and to be willing to change course completely as you make your film. That always excited me. I very much favored the school where chance is everything and you see what life will hand you.”
McElwee uses the story of his great grandfather as a springboard to explore and reflect on a host of ideas: fame, religion, family, history. McElwee’s great grandfather invented the Bull Durham tobacco brand, which was then stolen by the Duke tobacco company. The court battle raged for years, with the Dukes emerging victorious and becoming one of the richest families in the South, while the McElwees turned to other endeavors. Ross captures this dichotomy by visiting the huge, immaculately groomed Duke historical mansion and then the small, barren park named after his great grandfather.
If the Dukes got all the money, the McElwees at least got a movie starring Gary Cooper. Or so it seems. One of the running themes in Bright Leaves is McElwee trying to track down the origin of Bright Leaf. He interviews Patricia Neal, one of Cooper’s co-stars, but that goes nowhere. He skillfully compares clips of the movie to known facts about his great grandfather’s life, but they’re inconclusive. He even interviews film theorist Vlada Petric, which is both one of the strangest and best scenes in the film. Petric conducts the conversation with McElwee sitting in a chair that’s wheeled around by Petric, who pretends he’s a grip on a movie set. The fact that the interview takes place on a fake movie set (with a fake movie marquee in the background) only adds to the scene’s layers. What’s real? What’s fiction? How does a film approximate reality? How does a home movie accomplish this? Where does a personal documentary fit in? Or a movie like Bright Leaf? As Petric puts it, a film is “life caught unawares … but what do you do with it?”
These meta-issues reach their apex in McElwee’s home movies. Beautifully evocative shots of his son Adrian at the age of four, then eight, then twelve contrast older film of Ross’s father. At one point, Ross comments that all the footage makes his father seem like a fictional character. “As you look at the footage over and over again, and also as a person’s identity changes in your memory over time and as people become more iconic and emblematic of something in your life—the small ‘f’ father becomes the capital ‘F’ Father—then his life takes on a fictional quality. Your father may be heroic or dastardly, but it becomes part of a story that has a fictional sheen to it because we can’t hold on to all the immediacies. … In the same way, the four-year-old Adrian is dead, he doesn’t exist anymore. The twelve-year-old Adrian is the one who exists now, but even that age is gone. Filmmaking is this futile attempt to lock down and fix that kind of evolution.”