Ashes of Time


It was the perfect setup for an op-ed article: the release, between the Democratic and Republican conventions, of Alien vs. Predator, bearing the tag line, "Whoever wins...we lose." I could imagine what cleverness the columnists would expend, pairing each candidate with his sci-fi monster. Maybe 20th Century Fox had actually planned for that reaction. Maybe the company had hit upon a critic-proof way to sell its movie, while thickening the wise-guy atmosphere in which the larger Fox organization thrives.

Terrifying – especially the realization that if I can think like that, I must now be as cynical as a Murdoch marketing exec.

So, in contrition, I've decided to give the partisan struggle a brief rest, at least in my movie life. While the Republicans swarm into town, I'm heading to Film Forum, which is counterprogramming the convention with a work of thoughtfulness, warmth and unbitter irony: Ross McElwee's new documentary, Bright Leaves.

Of course, you do encounter a form of politics in Bright Leaves, since nothing human (and very little that is animal or vegetable) is foreign to McElwee. He devotes a large part of the film to the physical and emotional costs of "the ultimate consumer product," cigarettes, as seen within the heartland of the industry, his home state of North Carolina. You meet a series of ailing, older smokers, including a hospital patient who was introduced to cigarettes by his grandmother at age 4. You hang out with giggly teenage smokers – students at a hair-cutting academy, which now operates out of a historic tobacco warehouse – who cheerfully promise to quit as soon as they get cancer. You visit with a twentyish couple, friends of McElwee, whose target date for giving up cigarettes somehow keeps receding into the future. You accompany a mourner to the grave of her sister, killed in her prime by consumer products.

McElwee gives due weight to this evidence of grim corporate reaping – and yet he begins his film lovingly, with a dream.

The screen shows a paradise of tall, broad leaves, so alive that they seem to breathe and whisper in the sun. On the soundtrack, McElwee relates his dream: He was standing in a field of plants, whose warmth made him happy. His wife, he says, gave him the interpretation. The plants were tobacco, for which he yearned because he had stayed in Boston too long. He needed to go back to North Carolina for a while, for his "periodic transfusion of Southernness."

With that as prelude, McElwee transports us directly back home, into the house of one of his cousins, and so (as it happens) into a different layer of dream. The middle-aged fellow you meet, who at first seems blandly Rotarian, turns out to have walls that are entirely covered with framed movie posters, file cabinets that are full of publicity stills, a walk-in closet lined with neat, built-in racks of film reels. We are into an obsession so complete that it takes itself for granted. For McElwee, it's also a communicable obsession – because this cousin claims that the life of their great-grandfather, John Harvey McElwee, was the source of the 1950 Warner Bros. movie Bright Leaf, directed by Michael Curtiz, with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal.

Yes, John Harvey McElwee's bitter, losing contest with the Duke family over the rights to the Bull Durham brand is the subject of a lesser Curtiz melodrama. Bright Leaf is a home movie of sorts, and Gary Cooper is their great-grandfather!

Given the sorts of dreams that Southerners have entertained over the years, this isn't exactly lunacy. As McElwee sets off to investigate his family's history and learn more about Bright Leaf – the two endeavors, for a while, seem to be one – he begins to muse over how different his life would have been had John Harvey McElwee triumphed over the Dukes. Visions of lost wealth and honor; bittersweet thoughts of how the family has fallen. Why, North Carolina created a whole state preserve around the Duke family's original land holdings. And what did the McElwee family get? McElwee Park: a strip of lawn with two benches and a single scrawny tree, set next to the loading dock of some industrial building.

Faulkner, for all his genius, would have missed the mildness, the humor, that co-exists with McElwee's disappointment at his fate. But here, to bring in a more sympathetic literary voice, and a more embracing disappointment, is McElwee's friend Allan Gurganus, who chats with relaxed eloquence about the changes he sees in the North Carolina landscape: the disappearance of a beautiful valley of tobacco fields (which killed so many people) and its replacement by densely packed housing for relocated Northerners, who have destroyed the very environment they came here to seek out.

With the fluidity of a dream, the history of a region blends into the history of an industry, the history of an industry into the history of a family, the history of thefamily into a sequence of moving images. McElwee knows about the effects of tobacco because his father and grandfather were medical doctors. He has the legacy of their knowledge, and also a trove of home movies of them (real home movies, without Gary Cooper). McElwee also has a legacy of his own to pass on, to his son Adrian. It won't be a vast fortune, like the Dukes', but will at least amount to his own knowledge of the past, plus many additional miles of celluloid. He's got images of Adrian at every age. There's even footage that Adrian himself helped shoot, when McElwee started to train him in the new family business.

If it's a miracle that all this should hold together – I haven't even mentioned the goats, the gospel choir, the Duke family chapel or the interview conducted from a rolling wheelchair – then the wonder is performed through the agency of Ross McElwee's personality. He is a disarmingly modest companion for the audience, and (in a muted way) perpetually hopeful. He narrates the film softly, with odd little hesitations in his voice, as if he doubted his right to speak aloud such well-crafted sentences. When he ends his brief, frequently static scenes, he can't bring himself to fade to black but goes only so far as indigo. There is always some light in his landscape of funerary monuments and beautiful, deadly vegetation.

I would have savored Bright Leaves whenever I saw it (the film had its local premiere last fall, in the New York Film Festival); but its living sense of history, well-earned humor and clear-eyed enjoyment of human variety seem that much more valuable now, in this frantic season. Whatever happens in the election – and, like you, I'm obsessed with the outcome – it will still matter to me that McElwee, in his obsession, has magically reversed what Michael Curtiz did in Bright Leaf. Rather than wrap a Hollywood fiction around the contingencies of a real family story, he has implanted in his home movie a crazy imagination worthy of Hollywood.

The shots of his son matter to me, too. Kids grow like weeds.

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