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 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.
No subtitles or captions of any kind have been 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.