Ross McElwee’s documentary Bright Leaves reminds us to cherish every mysterious moment in our lives. Turned on to Michael Curtiz’s melodrama Bright Leaf (starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal) by a movie-crazed cousin, McElwee embarks on a nostalgic journey through North Carolina’s tobacco country in an attempt to rationalize a legacy denied. McElwee is fascinated by the possibility that Cooper’s character in the film was based on his great grandfather, whose Bull Durham tobacco formula was stolen from the family and handed over to the dastardly Dukes. (Today, McElwee’s great grandfather is but a long-forgotten victim of a late-19th-century trademark scandal.) Unlike the Dukes’, his family’s legacy isn’t enshrined in universities, churches, and parks across the state, but while his family may have been denied a fortune, McElwee doesn’t have to live with the burden of having contributed to millions of cancer deaths around the world. The filmmaker travels from cancer wards to tobacco fields, visiting old patients of his deceased doctor-father and taking intimate peeks at the home movies he shot over the years of his young son. The overwhelming meta of the film is McElwee’s struggle to define the “documentary moment.” Ostensibly about an epic betrayal, Bright Leaves spirals beautifully into a hundred different directions. The jokey McElwee’s analogies are sometimes strenuous, but the very personal war he evokes between his sense of humanity and sense of privilege and notions of entitlement is a complex one. This touching, often funny documentary is about father-son relationships, the allure and dangers of smoking, the aesthetic of film (McElwee’s encounter with film scholar Vlada Petric is hysterical), and the not-so-timelessness of the recorded image. Jonas Mekas’s avant garde films come to mind while watching Bright Leaves, because both Mekas and McElwee are obsessed with recording the world around them but are haunted by the idea that no matter how much they film, they won’t be able to slow the world down.
Dialogue is easy to make out but not exactly pleasant to listen to-the constant snapping and crackling makes it seem as if McElwee's original sound recording was hot. The image is similarly mixed: No edge enhancement on display but the print boasts a fare share of dirt and scratches. Colors are scarcely vibrant and blacks aren't very deep at all.
A director's statement, film notes by Godfrey Cheshire, information about Michael Curtiz's Bright Life, biographies, three additional tracks by musician Paula Larke, and trailers for other First Run Features films.
An underwhelming DVD package but Bright Leaves remains one of the most rewarding documentary experiences of the last five years.