- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 7, 2004

“Bright Leaves,” which alludes to tobacco plants and the North Carolina heritage of the autobiographical filmmaker Ross McElwee, ends up wilting on the thematic vine after a promising start — and despite the human-interest potential in numerous camera subjects and several topics.

Among the film’s memorable participants is a cherished kibitzer, friend and former teacher Charleen Swansea, an unforgettable character in the first McElwee cinematic memoir, “Sherman’s March.” Released in 1986, it dealt with his courtship woes, somewhat miraculously resolved in a 1993 sequel, “Time Indefinite,” which depicted a gladdening marriage. The new movie incorporates yet another Carolina homecoming for the filmmaker, who has lived for several years in Cambridge, Mass., where he teaches film at Harvard University, a haven for documentary specialists.

“Leaves” begins with an auspicious introduction to a first cousin, John McElwee, who turns out to be an impressive collector of movie memorabilia. His archive includes a 16 mm copy of the 1950 Warner Bros. release “Bright Leaf,” which co-starred Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. The premise is that catching up belatedly with this Hollywood relic arouses Ross McElwee’s curiosity about his family’s association with the tobacco industry during the 19th century.

The McElwees, in the person of a tobacco-growing great-grandfather, John Harvey McElwee, seem to have lost a prolonged struggle with James Buchanan Duke, the industry giant who later endowed Duke University. Mischievously, the filmmaker visits such landmarks as a Duke mansion, his own modest boyhood home nearby (“like Buck Duke’s outhouse,” according to Miss Swansea) and a former McElwee warehouse, transformed into a beauty parlor where smoking members of the staff must take their habit outdoors.

Physicians have predominated in the generations since John Harvey McElwee. The filmmaker’s late father, also named Ross McElwee, was a doctor who treated a number of cancer patients whose illness was associated with smoking. Some of the survivors testify to his kindness and skill. Although stirring, this paternal angle fails to give the filmmaker a secure perspective on an expansive topic.

You anticipate a savory blend of personal impressions and historical lore about the state’s tobacco culture, a large and fascinating subject. (Not to mention Hollywood’s tobacco culture, conspicuous at the time “Bright Leaf” was made. Mr. Cooper and Miss Neal were among the stars who fronted prominently for cigarette ads, as a matter of fact.) Instead of keeping the big picture about tobacco in focus, however, Mr. McElwee persistently abandons the subject at hand for tangents that diminish trust and concentration. A prolonged sequence with a film academic named Vlad Petric, who insists on a “kinesthetic” interview format, proves a lamentable facetious digression.

“Bright Leaves” needs a satisfying balance of social history and family chronicle. Far from deftly interweaving and knitting up the dangling strands, Mr. McElwee seems content with absent-minded rambling amid a superabundance of thread work.


TITLE: “Bright Leaves”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (adult subject matter, with occasional frank conversation and episodes that depict cancer patients)

CREDITS: Written, directed, produced and photographed by Ross McElwee. Sound by Rick Beck

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes


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