‘Testing your mortality’

Special to The Times

It seems somehow appropriate that when the title card comes up on “Bright Leaves” the credit reads simply “by Ross McElwee.” Like the first page of a novel, its literalness (there were no hordes of producers) as well as its simplicity is a fitting start for McElwee’s latest documentary film, a multi-stranded exploration of tobacco in the South, the culture of smoking and the construction of his own family’s identity and history.

As family lore tells it, McElwee’s great-grandfather, John Harvey McElwee, created the formula for the famous Bull Durham tobacco but was swindled by James Buchanan Duke, who would go on to become one of the richest men in America. When a cousin informs him of a little-known 1950 movie called “Bright Leaf” starring Gary Cooper, with a story line oddly reminiscent of their family history, McElwee begins to investigate what he calls a “surreal home movie reenacted by Hollywood stars.”

The film that ensues finds him meditating on his father and his son, learning about the economy of tobacco as it exists today and visiting with actress Patricia Neal, as well as an elderly cousin who acts as family historian. Perhaps oddest of all, McElwee finds himself figuratively and literally being pushed around by an overbearing film scholar who insists on a wheelchair-assisted traveling shot for a more “kinesthetic” interview.


On the phone from his office at Harvard University, where he is a visiting lecturer, students with questions or assistants with paperwork occasionally interrupt McElwee, 57, and the soft, muted North Carolina accent of his voice is instantly familiar from the voice-overs of his films.

He is explaining the sense of balance he was hoping to achieve in “Bright Leaves,” and his attempt to capture that which is bold and vivid about life in the South without backing away from the more troubling aspects of its culture and history.

“I very much was determined,” he says, “to not make another condemnation of the tobacco industry or another lecture about how smoking is bad for you. We already know those things. I was interested in something much more complex, the almost erotic allure of lighting up a cigarette, and that whole complex skein of emotions connected to smoking: denial, rebellion, testing your mortality.”

McElwee’s first (and best known) film, 1986’s “Sherman’s March,” is best summed up by its winsome and wordy subtitle, “A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation,” and was included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2000, alongside such films as “Apocalypse Now” and “Goodfellas.” All of McElwee’s films seem to start as one thing and then slowly drift off course, interweaving the filmmaker’s own life with the subject he is ostensibly investigating.

“I love the details of real life. I try to find small moments that acknowledge my concern about those more public issues which are usually the subject of documentary films,” he says. “It’s not as if I’ve forsaken those themes, but it seemed much more effective for me to allow these themes to drift in and out of my own consciousness as the filmmaker-protagonist. And that is more true to real life. None of us thinks about these things 24 hours a day, and yet I think many of us are aware of problematical aspects of living in the modern world.”

Describing how he first came across his distinctive approach to filmmaking, McElwee says, “I realized the classical cinema verite approach was not for me. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with that fly-on-the-wall approach; it seemed for me awkward and artificial to pretend like I wasn’t there.

“What appealed to me about documentary filmmaking was it avoided all of the ego traps you can fall into when you start making fiction films. On the other hand, there was a part of me that loved storytelling, loved what fiction films do, and I wanted to emulate, at least in some modest way, the power that fiction films can have on an audience.”

Alluding to one of the best-known scenes in “Sherman’s March” -- one he admits he was extremely reluctant to include in the film -- McElwee adds, “I can assure you, it took a couple swigs of bourbon for me to get up the courage to set down in front of my camera and talk. It was not something that was natural to me.”

McElwee has been influential within the world of documentary filmmaking in other ways as well, such as the time he gave encouragement to a first-time filmmaker named Michael Moore.

“People frequently ask me for advice or send me rough cuts of their films,” McElwee explains. “So he was just another person sending me something to look at. He did tell me he had been editor of Mother Jones [magazine], and that ‘Sherman’s March’ inspired him to make ‘Roger & Me,’ so I took his inquiry somewhat seriously.

“I dutifully came up with a list of 15 or 18 things I would think about changing and my last bit of advice to him was ‘Don’t get discouraged if nobody ever sees this.’ A few months later I read he’d sold it to Warner Bros. And he didn’t take one single bit of my advice. Not one.”

McElwee is quick to credit the “Fahrenheit 9/11" filmmaker with fanning the flames of documentary filmmaking’s growing popularity over the last few years, but the medium’s recent rise has caught McElwee off guard.

“I was certainly never anticipating this could become a huge field, and I was getting in early. I’m as surprised as anybody. I remember last summer there were nine feature-length documentaries playing in different theaters around Boston. That had never happened before.”

Many young documentary filmmakers coming on the scene now owe a debt to McElwee’s genteelly personal examinations of life in the modern South. McElwee sees it in a different way.

“If anything I guess what this form does is let people know that everyday life can be pretty interesting,” he says. “And that one’s own perspective, even if you’re not an expert on an issue or a professional commentator, can be worth hearing and that if one is so inclined you should try to make a movie.

“That’s something I’m not ashamed of having helped along.”