Along the way, McElwee -- whose camera was ever-present with his often-unwilling interview subjects -- helped revolutionize the entire concept of film as memoir. You probably wouldn't have Roger and Me, Tarnation or even Super Size Me without Sherman's March. McElwee went on to direct such films as 1993's Time Indefinite, which chronicled his efforts to settle down in a new life of marriage and family in the face of persistent death, and 1996's Six O'Clock News, in which he follows up on people he sees while watching the local news programs.
Now he's back exploring the connections between his Southern heritage, his present and his future in Bright Leaves. While it doesn't resonate with the same kind of personal and spiritual mark as his historic debut, McElwee once ties together loose strands of subject, family, region and history. This time, McElwee (once again on a lark) decided to dig back into his family's connection with North Carolina's huge tobacco industry, with its implications of fame and fortune denied, and this potential connection to one of our nation's biggest killers.
This climbing around on the family tree has more than one inspiration, for McElwee isn't just concerned about what might have been with a great-grandfather who appeared destined to rule the tobacco industry. McElwee has also been ruminating about the impact his incessant filmmaking will have on the legacy of his family -- most notably, how it will preserve the memory of his son, Adrian, whose rapid growth is seemingly too quick for McElwee's camera. In all of McElwee's films, time is forever slipping away from him, and we see in Bright Leaves that this quest to freeze time is another family tradition. Ancient home movies show relatives clutching cameras ready to fire away.
This latest home movie begins with McElwee accepting the invitation of a second cousin he has never met. The cousin, an obsessive movie and movie memorabilia collector, has happened upon the last known print of a 1950 Michael Curtiz film, Bright Leaf. The movie tells the story, in Citizen Kane fashion, of a tobacco magnate (Gary Cooper) whose defeat by a rival eventually maddens him to the point of burning down his own mansion. The second cousin theorizes that the story, based on a novel, was inspired by the story of their great-grandfather, John Harvey McElwee, who lost a similar battle to the legendary Duke family -- the one behind the Bull Durham cigarette fortune and later the benefactor of Duke University. John Harvey's losing battle, which included several local court wins that turned into losses on appeal (thanks supposedly to Duke bribes), forces the McElwee family into a more middle-class existence. In fact, McElwee realizes that he literally grew up in a suburban bungalow in the shadow of the Duke mansion.
From this story comes the notion of a legacy lost, yes, but one that helped kick-start America's obsession and addiction to tobacco, so McElwee's investigation to find out what really happened is tempered with feelings of familial guilt. In one of the film's great ironies, McElwee learns that his grandfather -- John Harvey's son -- was the first in the family to become a physician, and this becomes the new family tradition. So McElwee sets off to interview his relatives, contemporary tobacco farmers (who also wrestle with this paradox of success and death) and cancer patients, even bringing along young Adrian as a boom operator at one point. Throughout, he frets about his son already slipping away from him, that he's hitting those teen years where loving parents aren't nearly as interesting as the outside world of friends, girls and anything that doesn't include his loving parents.
McElwee's "investigation" leads him to a series of interviews that are revealing of everything but the crucial question of the old Gary Cooper vehicle serving as family history: an aunt with a deep knowledge of the family's history, the widow of the novel's author, even Bright Leaf co-star Patricia Neal. But the film is at its best when McElwee interviews people who struggle with their relationship to this paradoxically fertile and yet toxic land. At least one tobacco farmer expresses mixed feelings about his work, a soft reverberation of another deadly (and bygone) era when agriculture demanded slavery.
As in Sherman's March, Bright Leaves helps provide McElwee -- now a Harvard University professor -- with his needed "transfusion of his Southernness," in which a people and their land are always cruel victims of time and memory.