Personal History Lesson 

Ross McElwee, pioneer of first-person documentary, returns with the moving Bright Leaves

Ross McElwee, pioneer of first-person documentary, returns with the moving Bright Leaves

Bright Leaves

Dir.: Ross McElwee

NR, 107 min.

Opening Friday at the Belcourt Theatre

Nearly 20 years after Sherman's March, Ross McElwee is still whispering. The director gets both credit and blame for pioneering the first-person documentary movement, because the likes of Nick Broomfield and Michael Moore emerged in the wake of Sherman's March. Now, thanks to Moore's popular success, seemingly a third of the documentaries that get distributed feature some yammering egoist who steps on his subject by adding cutesy, self-aggrandizing narration. None have the credibility of McElwee, who has a distinctive style and tone exemplified by his voice: a halting, detached, hushed Southern drawl. Listening to McElwee narrate his films is like listening to an unusually forthcoming golf announcer. ("Looks like a 30-foot putt...and by the way, I've been feeling a little depressed lately.")

Sherman's March processed McElwee's troubles with women, his compulsive home movie habit, his anxiety over nuclear proliferation and the history of the American Civil War into one long, low-pitched moan. Since then, the director has made a couple of underrated features: the even more personal Time Indefinite and the why-do-we-want-to-watch-disasters meditation Six O'Clock News. His latest, Bright Leaves, is his best since Sherman's March. The film begins with McElwee getting a call from a second cousin, a movie buff who's discovered a long-forgotten 1950 tobacco melodrama, Bright Leaf. He claims the film is based on their great-grandfather, who was driven out of the business by the man who later founded Duke University. The family visit gets McElwee thinking about his Southern roots and the connection between the tobacco industry and the economic stability of the Carolinas.

Because it's a McElwee film, Bright Leaves doesn't take a firm position on anything—it's no Super Size Me. McElwee talks to friends who smoke, cancer patients and third-generation tobacco farmers, but he neither harangues nor mocks any of them. He likes to hear what people have to say, and he listens respectfully, with real curiosity. Most of all, McElwee understands that the choices people make aren't always easy, and that financial needs and addictions can lead people to live in poisonous circumstances.

Anyway, tobacco isn't really the subject of Bright Leaves so much as the theme. This is a movie about painful legacies and simple regrets. Throughout Bright Leaves, McElwee returns to shots of his 12-year-old son, who has grown up in New England and neither knows nor cares much about his family history. The filmmaker also keeps coming back to his dad, a small-town doctor who died fairly young of heart disease (just as the director's mother died young, of cancer). McElwee worries that his memories of his father are becoming clouded by images from countless home movies, so he talks to some of his father's surviving patients—cancer patients, mainly—who remember the old man warmly, in anecdotes that sum up his generosity. In one of Bright Leaves' most moving moments, McElwee films an elderly couple who used to call his father every Christmas to sing "Silent Night" over the phone, and the footage of the couple singing now fades into footage of his father on the phone then, listening. It's a graceful, heartbreaking transition, illustrating the film's idea that we take from our past whatever makes us feel better about our future.

Even Bright Leaf, the corny old movie that kicks off this magnificent new one, takes on greater resonance as McElwee begins to think of it as a kind of record of his family legacy (even if it turns out that the movie isn't really based on his great-grandfather). McElwee talks to a film theorist whose obsession with integrated images keeps him from seeing anything of value in Bright Leaf, but the director's point is that people can find value anywhere they choose to seek it. That's what makes McElwee's films so moving—his ability to convey his own fascinations with wit, soul and gracious calm.

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