New England-based filmmaker Ross McElwee has been obsessively documenting his life on 16mm film for decades now. In other hands, such a compulsion might seem like self-absorbed navel gazing, but in his feature films such as Sherman's March and Time Indefinite McElwee has developed a masterful way of transforming his intensely personal stories into allegories for greater American society and history. By examining his own life, he finds the connections that unite us all. In his latest documentary, Bright Leaves, McElwee once again returns to his family's roots in the South, this time to examine their tangled connection with the tobacco industry. In doing so, he must attempt to reconcile his personal feelings as a non-smoking expatriate Southerner with the history of the American South and the tobacco trade.
In the late 19th Century, McElwee's great-grandfather John Harvey McElwee was a prototype tobacco baron and inventor of the Durham Bull brand, the formula for which was allegedly stolen by James B. Duke, co-founder of the company that would evolve into R.J. Reynolds. Cheated out of a vast fortune, the elder McElwee spent years burning through his own finances determined to achieve legal vindication and recompense through the courts, to no avail. In researching this story, the modern McElwee unearths an old Hollywood melodrama titled Bright Leaf starring Gary Cooper and directed by Michael Curtiz that may or may not have been based on his ancestor's life, a possibility that utterly fascinates him.
McElwee's narration is laced with wry and witty observations, yet he is neither a comedian nor a satirist like Michael Moore. He is just a man struggling to come to terms with his past, who happens to have a sly sense of humor about it. As he explains, his family's legacy leaves him in the awkward position of being burdened with guilt over their contribution to Big Tobacco, without ever having reaped the rewards of wealth and luxury that soothed the consciences of the Dukes and their like. He's basically shafted from both ends, stuck with a lot of guilt and nothing to show for it. The fact that the two succeeding generations of McElwees after John Harvey became medical doctors who cared for the cancer patients that multiplied in the wake of tobacco's growing popularity just drives home the irony.
The documentary deals with weighty subjects but McElwee is never heavy-handed about them and makes a point of not hammering in any overbearing "themes" or messages. We watch the events unfold as the filmmaker experiences them, occasionally getting sidetracked as his interests drift to new subjects such as the Bright Leaf movie and a riotously funny interview with a kooky film historian who tells him absolutely nothing about it.
The films of Ross McElwee occupy a unique position in American independent cinema. They are both personal and universal, and by learning more about the man who made them we learn something about ourselves in the process. Bright Leaves is another captivating journey into his life.
As with all of McElwee's movies, Bright Leaves was shot on 16mm film, not digital video as is the trend in most current documentary filmmaking. McElwee has a good eye and knows how to shoot a movie, but this DVD transfer from First Run Features isn't doing him many favors. The disc is presented in 1.66:1 non-anamorphic letterbox, which is sure to frustrate owners of widescreen televisions, for which there is no satisfying manner to display the movie without either losing picture off the top and bottom or framing it in the middle of the screen with bars on all four sides of the picture. It would not have taken much effort to add small black bars to the sides and anamorphically enhance the picture for improved resolution on a large screen, but apparently the studio didn't think it was worth the bother.
As expected, the picture looks pretty lousy on any moderate to large screen. The loss of anamorphic resolution means that visible detail is frequently wanting. The 16mm photography is naturally grainy, and poor digital compression quality leaves the image quite noisy and filled with artifacts. The source elements used for the transfer also frequently exhibit print dirt which shows up on screen.
Yes, the movie is a documentary, and we can cut it some slack because our expectations for picture quality of documentaries are lower than for big Hollywood feature films, but the shoddy presentation here is really just inexcusable given the potential in the source material.
The Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack is also nothing special, but is par for the course with documentaries. The movie is all voiceover narration and interview dialogue, and the voices come through clearly enough. Dialogue lip sync slips in and out, however. I'm not sure whether this is a fault of the production or the DVD master.
No subtitles or captions of any kind have been provided.
Most of the bonus features are text supplements, starting with a Director's Statement from Ross McElwee about his career and his purpose in making this movie. The Film Notes by Godfrey Cheshire feature an excellent essay about McElwee that makes you want to run out and watch all of his previous movies. Some brief notes About Michael Curtiz's Bright Leaf and Bios for Ross McElwee, John Harvey McElwee, Gary Cooper, and Patricia Neal are also provided.
Additional Music by Paula Larke gives us three songs from a woman seen in the movie. The disc wraps up with trailers for unrelated films.
No ROM supplements have been included.
Despite the generally poor presentation afforded it on DVD, Bright Leaves is an excellent film that merits a high recommendation. For those who have never seen one of Ross McElwee's documentaries, the movie is an excellent introduction to his unique brand of filmmaking.