Smoke and Mirrors

Ross McElwee in a North Carolina tobacco field.Photo: Adrian McElwee

Ross McElwee, the documentarian whose new movie, Bright Leaves, is at Film Forum, has slowly but steadily built up one of the richest bodies of work in contemporary American film. Since the seventies, he has been making movies about his family and friends that are so emotionally complex and innovative that they redefine the parameters of cinematic autobiography, a notoriously self-indulgent genre. In his best-known documentary, Sherman’s March, the woebegone director retraced General Sherman’s Civil War route through the South and offered up indelible sketches of seven spirited women he met on the way. (The film was subtitled, only partly as a put-on, A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.) In Time Indefinite, he married (finally) and became a father himself after the sudden death of his own.

In Bright Leaves, perhaps his best film, McElwee, a native North Carolinian living in Boston, returns to his roots for, as his wife says, his “periodic transfusion of southern-ness.” There he meets a second cousin, a movie buff, who thinks that the middling 1950 Warner Bros. melodrama Bright Leaf, starring Gary Cooper as a nineteenth-century tobacco baron, was actually based on McElwee’s great-grandfather John, who created the Bull Durham brand but ended up bankrupt after wrangling with the rival Duke clan. McElwee would like to believe that Hollywood inadvertently created this “surreal home movie reenacted by Hollywood stars.” (It piques his appreciation for the absurd.) Leisurely yet philosophic, Bright Leaves is itself a species of home movie. Speaking off-camera in his ruminative drawl for most of the film, McElwee lays out his life as an ongoing narrative about mortality, using the Cooper film (which he shows clips from) as a jumping-off point for a meditation on his own family and its legacy, and the legacy of tobacco and its ills. His physician grandfather was a heavy smoker who died of cancer; his father and brother, also doctors, treated many cancer patients, some of whom are interviewed. His friend Charleen, a one-woman gabfest who has a recurring role in McElwee’s movies, talks about her dying, chain-smoking sister.

“McElwee imagines his son looking back at his screen image in the distant future. No child could ask for a more beautiful bequest.”

Tobacco represents for McElwee a confounding family inheritance; he relates a dream in which the large leaves give off “almost a body heat.” A nonsmoker for many years, he describes the erotic possibilities of lighting up, the “deadly, intimate” effect of someone’s else’s smoke in your lungs. McElwee is unimpeachably honest about his own susceptibilities. Harrowing in its depiction of how tobacco can tear lives apart, Bright Leaves is nevertheless anything but a screed. At a time when the most celebrated and popular documentaries are politicized and nuance-free, McElwee refuses to indict anyone. His comprehension of human frailty is what makes him an artist.

McElwee is digressive in the best sense. He takes the time to discover what people are like when they’re being themselves; he wants to know where their lives are taking them, what byways they are going down. The North Carolinians he captures—the teenage beauticians who giggle and smoke outside their shop, the amateur gospel singer who needs no prompting to rejoice in the next world, the aged hospital patients who, in their sickness, are trying to hang on to their dignity—make up an intensely vivid, intensely American portrait gallery. As a filmmaker, McElwee is both a participant in their stories and alienated from them; he is forever the observer. And what he observes most of all is the continuum of human experience—Time Indefinite could stand as the title for all his works. The very process of directing a movie has a trancelike effect on him: “When I’m looking through a viewfinder,” he says, “time seems to stop.” But there is something despairing in this admission, because he knows that, even on film, he can’t hold onto what is dearest to him. Filmmaking becomes a way of preserving as best he can the passage of his family through the generations, especially from father to son. He worries that his late father is becoming almost a fictional character to him as time goes by, and he reruns old home movies, hoping to shore up the reality that is slipping away. His father was puzzled at McElwee’s choice of career, but there’s a deep, unspoken connection between this doctor, whose caring is the hallmark of his patients’ recollections, and his son, whose rapport with his subjects is almost a state of grace.

Just as McElwee might wish to keep his father alive forever as a “real” person on film, he fantasizes that the home movies he takes of his young son, which he incorporates into Bright Leaves, might preserve him as a boy a little longer—as if, he says, “the sheer weight of all these accumulated images could somehow keep him from growing up so fast.” For McElwee, moviemaking is ultimately a kind of mystical correspondence between those who have died and those who live on. While making his new film, he imagines that his boy is looking back at his screen image from some distant point in the future, when McElwee himself is gone. No child of a moviemaker could ask for a more beautiful bequest.

Zhang Yimou’s martial-arts epic Hero, which Miramax inexplicably sat on for two years, is so deliriously chockablock with high-flying, color-coordinated fight scenes that non-aficionados may find it all a bit bewildering—a gorgeous abstraction. It sure is gorgeous, though, and it has a dream cast—Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Zhang Ziyi. Set in ancient China, Hero presents—from three perspectives—the story of an enigmatic sheriff who eliminates three potential assassins targeting the would-be emperor. Zhang and his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, designed the look of each story in a different hue (red, white, or blue), with greened-out flashbacks. The result is a bit like Rashomon gone tutti-frutti.

Bush’s Brain, a documentary by Joseph Mealey and Michael Paradies Shoob based on the book by James Moore and Wayne Slater, skims lightly over the nefarious high/low points in the career of Karl Rove, the president’s chief strategist since Bush ran for governor of Texas. I’m not sure that depicting Rove as a demonic Wizard of Oz does much more than stir righteous indignation among the already indignant. A more pertinent and challenging mission would have been to show just how the public can be gulled by Rove’s dirty tricks in the same ways again and again.

Smoke and Mirrors