Bright Leaves

on August 25, 2004 by Kim Williamson
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In one way, "Bright Leaves" is a sort of Funniest Bloopers moment done longform cinema-style: Southern-born documentarian Ross McElwee ("Sherman's March") makes a movie about whether the 1950 Gary Cooper-starrer "Bright Leaf," the tale of an old-style tobacco magnate who is undone by a new-style tobacco magnate, is based on his own family history, in which his old-style great-grandfather, the power behind the brand Bull Durham, is undone by the new-style Duke growers. What McElwee needs to make it all worthwhile, really, is an answer of yes. About a hundred minutes in, the answer comes back: No. More unsettling, though, is that, after taking a slow and somehow elegiac path via interviewing locals and others toward discovering the truth, the filmmaker takes as gospel the word of the widow of the "Bright Leaf" novelist, who says her husband made up the tale out of thin air--as though, in his love of the low key, McElwee actually wanted the answer to be negative.

Aside from that, and a certain nasal intonation to his voiceovers that some might find dweeby and hard to bear yet others might find refreshingly honest, "Bright Leaves" is at times an engaging look at the older South and its tobacco nation through the eyes of its current residents. Soft and unhurried as the life in a small Carolina town, the film is likely to find some admirers because of that, if only among the most dedicated art-house set. Directed, written and produced by Ross McElwee. A First Run release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 107 min

Tags: Ross McElwee, documentary, tobacco, business, family
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