In a more thoughtful world, a new film bearing Ross McElwee’s sympathetic, cogent, witty cinematic voice would be an event. 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. This menopausal rumination uses 8mm footage of his grandfather, the library of footage (no video) he himself has shot over the decades, and a forgotten Hollywood epic, Bright Leaf (1950). McElwee stumbles on this Gary Cooper-Lauren Bacall melodrama at the home of a film-obsessed cousin and recognizes in it the outline of his 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. The filmmaker gets rich, dry laughs out of bitterly observing how North Carolina iconizes the Dukes and has all but forgotten the McElwees. 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 never seems shrill. Extras include music tracks, a McElwee statement of purpose, and notes by critic and fellow Southerner Godfrey Cheshire.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 7, 2005