Smoke Screened

By Eleanor Ringel Gillespie ’72 / July / August 2004
June 15th, 2007

Bright Leaves by Ross McElwee ’70 (First Run Features; opens August 25 in New York City and nationally soon after;

In 1986, Ross McElwee beguiled audiences with his droll and perceptive documentary, Sherman’s March, an inspired comic celebration of the intoxicating peculiarities of the South in general and Southern women in particular. Now he gives us Bright Leaves, a witty and sometimes touching tale of film, family, and lung cancer.

From a film-buff second cousin McElwee learns that the character Gary Cooper played in a listless 1950 film called Bright Leaf may be based on his great-grandfather, John McElwee, who, in the late nineteenth century, went into business with his friend, Washington Duke. Together, they introduced Bull Durham (the tobacco, not Kevin Costner) to a nicotine-craving nation. But there was a falling-out, and after a bitter lawsuit the elder McElwee lost his share of the business. The Dukes went on to become one of the most prominent families in North Carolina, with a university, a hospital, and a winning basketball team to their credit. They lived in a fifty-two-room mansion, just down the street from McElwee’s comfortable but modest house, which was sometimes referred to as “Buck Duke’s outhouse.” Later, we learn, one of the Dukes had the course of a river changed so he could have a fountain in his yard.

Perhaps the best illustration of the different paths the two families took is McElwee’s ruminations on his great-grandfather’s final resting place versus that of Washington Duke and his sons, James and Benjamin. They are buried in the glorious Duke University Chapel, an eye-filling knock-off of a European cathedral with soaring vaults and stained-glass windows. The trio of Duke patriarchs lie there in state, like dead kings.

McElwee’s great-grandfather rests in somewhat, um, reduced circumstances. He’s memorialized by a modest marker in a small cemetery. To add insult to … well … irony, the headstone is slightly askew, thanks to a careless lawn-mower operator. McElwee thinks both the chapel and the gravestone are made from the same Carolina fieldstone. “At least they had this much in common,” he notes, forging an interfamily bond that can’t be broken. “They loved the land of North Carolina.”

Employing an idiosyncratic documentary style best described as free-association filmmaking, McElwee explores his mixed-blessing heritage: no fortune, but no firsthand guilt either. Even so, both his father and brother became surgeons who spent a lot of time in cancer wards.

McElwee visits one such ward. He also stops by an underwhelming patch of grass called McElwee Park. At a beauty school inside a converted tobacco barn, he asks one chain-smoking student if she’ll ever quit. Taking a puff, she shrugs, “I’ll quit when I get lung cancer.” She’s a lot like the Tobacco Queen McElwee meets at the annual Tobacco Festival (soon to be re-christened the Farmer’s Festival). Asked her thoughts on the less celebratory side of smoking, she says in a silky-soft southern drawl, “Everyone’s gonna die of something.”

And let’s not dwell on the young couple who absolutely, positively, this-time-for-good quit smoking in front of McElwee’s camera ... three times.

However, unlike the brilliant but overbearing Michael Moore, McElwee never condescends to the people he films. Like his great-grandfather and the Dukes, he clearly loves North Carolina; though he has taught filmmaking at Harvard since 1986, he admits he needs a regular “transfusion of the South.” He considers his home state “the most beautiful place in the world,” but he’s still keenly aware of the intrinsic contradictions of rich soil that “craves tobacco” and grim cancer statistics. Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, still ahead of the up-and-coming killer, obesity. A half million Americans die every year of lung cancer.

McElwee’s obsession with the early movie Bright Leaf—he likes to think of it as “a surreal home movie reenacted by Hollywood stars”—takes him to a film festival, where he speaks with Cooper’s costar, Patricia Neal. She’s gracious, but not much help. More disappointing still is the widow of the man who wrote the novel on which Bright Leaf is based. She has bad news ...

Sometimes, McElwee tries to cover too many things. The connection he feels with his father and, in turn, with his own young son is appealing. But an analogy between smoking and his longtime addiction to making movies seems strained.

Still, McElwee’s onto something about these verdant leaves. They glisten as seductively as the deadly pods in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers—with one important difference: we choose the tobacco; it doesn’t choose us. In a perverse way, smoking can be seen as the perfect expression of freedom of choice in America. Just listen to the motel cleaning woman McElwee briefly interviews. Asked how much she smokes a day, she replies matter-of-factly, “Depends on the day.”

It really does, doesn’t it?

Film critic Eleanor Ringel Gillespie writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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July / August 2004