Bright Leaves

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Admitting little distinction between making movies and living life, the documentarian McElwee remains best known for ‘Sherman’s March’ (1986), in which a retracing of General William T Sherman’s tear through the American South during the Civil War doubled as a rumination on the women who have travelled in the director’s romantic orbit. In his first production since ‘Six O’Clock News’ (1996), the Boston-based director returns to his native North Carolina, and as in ‘Sherman’s March’, he links a calamitous South-specific event – in this case, the advent of the tobacco industry – to a more personal investigation.

Here, McElwee meets his second cousin John, a film buff who believes that the 1950 Gary Cooper vehicle ‘Bright Leaf’, based on a Foster Fitz-Simons novel, was inspired by their great-grandfather, who earned and lost a fortune in tobacco. McElwee laments the riches that might have been his own, as well as the suffering and grief wrought by his ancestor’s cancer-stick technology; he wonders aloud if ‘Bright Leaf’ might be a ‘cinematic heirloom, a kind of surreal home movie re-enacted by Hollywood stars’. McElwee’s theory of Tinseltown melodrama as secret documentary receives little support, however, in interviews with Cooper’s co-star Patricia Neal and Fitz-Simons’s ninetysomething widow; elsewhere McElwee chats with smokers, ex-smokers, and I’ll-quit-as-soon-as-x-happens smokers, while his lens caresses those infernally beautiful fronds of the title. Mordant and melancholy, ‘Bright Leaves’ testifies to the ways that cinema writes our lives, and vice versa.

Release details

Rated: PG
Release date: Friday October 8 2004
Duration: 107 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Ross McElwee
Cast: Ross McElwee
Patricia Neal
Charleen Swansea
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