Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Never Heard of It: Bright Leaves (2003)

LIVE FEED COMMENT (0:00:14): Whitney rented a documentary on tobacco. Should be pretty interesting.

What appeared to be just another documentary on the harmful effects of tobacco turned out to be much more interesting. Here's the gist of Bright Leaves: the filmmaker, a guy named Ross McElwee, decided to make a personal documentary about his family and their involvement in the booming tobacco industry of the late-1800s. Turns out that his great-grandfather competed against James Buchanan Duke (who later founded Duke University) at the turn of the century.

Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) directed a film called Bright Leaf starring Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall, and Patricia Neal. The film tells the story of two competing tobacco farmers which McElwee thinks is based on his grandfather's story. He travels to North Carolina to interview a slew of people about his homestate's history, attempting to piece together the puzzle that is his family history.

LIVE FEED COMMENT (0:05:42): That guy is living my dream.

His cousin, a film collector screens a print of Bright Leaf for him and the adventure begins. The documentary does an effective job of weaving together many interconnecting narrative lines. The viewer learns about the McElwee family line, Southern history, the evolution of early tobacco enterprising, and Hollywood's Golden Age. Not to mention, in one of the film's most enthralling segments, film historian and theorist Vlada Petric pushes the camera-weiling moviemaker around in a makeshift wheelchair dolly while explaining the use of kinetics in film.

LIVE FEED COMMENT (0:48:27): This is one of the most interesting scenes I've ever seen in my entire life. I can hardly understand what he's trying to convey but it doesn't matter. Every documentary should have a low-angle dolly tracking shot. If I made a documentary, every interview scene would be shot in Spike Lee tracking shots.

As the film continues on, it becomes increasingly clear how personal the subject matter is to McElwee. What's impressive is how tight he's able to keep the film. Coming in at about 105 minutes, Bright Leaves is incredibly succinct. I'd imagine that the more you're personally invested in the subject matter the more difficult placing limits on yourself becomes. Somehow, McElwee keeps everything in line and the result is an incredibly interesting film that's definitely worth watching. Out of all the Never Heard of It films so-far, this is the one I would recommend. Hence,


TALKING MOVIEzzz said...

Here's the best news about BRIGHT LEAVES, I loved it, yet it is one of my least favorite McElwee films. If you haven't seen McElwee's other films, and liked this, RENT THEM!!

Start with SHERMAN'S MARCH, his best known and one of his earliest. Then I think there is a DVD of his shorts CHARLENE and BACKYARD. By then, you should be ready for his masterpiece, TIME INDEFINITE, the greatest non-fiction film ever made. Everything that happened in his previous films comes together in a big way.

McElwee is one of the greats.

elgringo said...

Just added his films to my queue in the order you suggested (with one about the news thrown in the middle). Thanks for the great news!

Marilyn said...

Yup, this was a terrific film. I had a bunch of advertising postcards for films I like framed, and Bright Leaves was one of them.

McElwee is an amazing filmmaker

Joe Baker said...

I'm here to echo Moviezzz's praise of McElwee. I don't know if it's available on video, but his "Six O'Clock News" is another fascinating documentary. I think I saw this on Sundance or IFC years ago. Along with Michel Negroponte, McElwee is one of the most fascinating documentarians who seamlessly mixes topical discussions with his own family heritage.

Jonny said...

Scott, didn't we watch Sherman's March in Rutsky's Documentary class? It was supposed to be a documentary about the Civil War but then the filmmaker (who apparently was McElwee) kept getting sidetracked by running into all these women with whom he had long-standing histories with.

I vaguely remember it. Sound familiar?

elgringo said...

Jonny - That sounds like the Netflix description but I don't remember if we watched it in class. To be honest, I was a bit checked out that semester. I'll watch it soon and let you know if I'd seen it before.

Joseph B. - Six O'Clock News is availible on DVD. It's on my queue too. Thanks for the recommend.

whitney said...

Johnny and Scott - We did watch a clip of Sherman's March. Remember how his mom is trying to hook him up with a bunch of nice Southern Girls? So he just brings the camera with him every time he meets up with someone else?

We only watched about 15 minutes, I think.

Scott - Remember how much that guy liked low angle shots? I don't get it, but I love it!

whitney said...

And by the way, one new post to read?? What do you expect me to do all day at work??

Jonny said...

Whitney - great memory. I remember watching Sherman's March thinking I was missing something because none of it made any sense. Especially considering we only watched 15 minutes of it.