A hot topic in literary circles of late has been whether the memoir has successfully superseded forms of fiction as the pre-eminent formal expression of contemporary life. Certainly the sales and critical approval of such American practitioners of the genre as David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs and Mary Karr give credence to this notion. At the same time, while certain directors, most notably those found in experimental cinema (Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas come immediately to mind), have employed the camera lens as a surrogate for the first person pronoun, the transposition of self-inquiry into a cinematic mode remains a more occasional phenomenon in forms of cinema marketed to the mass public. That goes without bearing in mind such exceptions to the rule as the flamboyantly interrogative Tarnation (2003), Jonathan Caouette’s critically hyped and visually hyperactive act of personal analysis.
Ross McElwee has been an active and acclaimed practitioner of this format for 30 years, and his well-received Sherman’s March (1986) remains one of the most financially successful documentary films prior to the unexpected eruption of the genre in the following decade and the emergence of such figures as Michael Moore. McElwee does not employ his camera, however, to score ideological points but rather to scour his private experience, and that of his family and friends, as a transplanted Southerner, media academic and family man. Born to a family otherwise engaged in medical practice over several generations, he trained in filmmaking under the celebrated practitioners Richard Leacock and Ed Pincus at MIT and has himself taught his métier at Harvard University since 1985. McElwee’s work has consistently been overtly domestic and rooted in quotidian experience, yet he routinely manages to evoke perennially perplexing themes of durable substance out of the details of private life. The resonance of the results, and the fluid yet never overemphatic manner with which he manages to pull off this often clumsily executed balancing act, justifiably leads Godfrey Cheshire to dub him the creator of “arguably American cinema’s most remarkable and sustained mediation on time, place, identity and filmic representations” (1).
The manner with which McElwee has played off his Southern roots and retention of regional sensibilities while remaining a long-standing Northerner contributes a thematic, visual and emotional density to his productions. He routinely plays one region against the other and engages his sense of dual citizenship as a tool with which he can critically examine the beliefs and social practices of both domains. At the same time, McElwee conveys the sense that he remains an unregenerate son of the South who must periodically inoculate himself against any loss of identity through a “periodic transfusion of Southerness”, as he exclaims at the start of Bright Leaves. Otherwise, he contracts what he thinks of as a kind of cultural and emotional anaemia. The immediate trigger of the re-engagement recounted in Bright Leaves is tobacco, the bumper crop of his home state, North Carolina. McElwee is drawn to the plant through the life experience of his predecessors, both the cancer surgery engaged in by his grandfather, father and brother as well as, more dramatically, the fact that his great-grandfather was one of the pioneers of the domestication and public marketing of tobacco in the 19th century. Unfortunately and irreparably, that ancestor lost out on his potential windfall from his efforts to the inordinate success of the Duke family, who subsequent to selling their tobacco interests to the R. J. Reynolds Company, employed a portion of their considerable fortune to found Duke University. McElwee ruefully reviews the failures of his family tree and visits the lavish homesteads which, were fate to have intervened, might have belonged to him and his immediate kin. He seeks out some compensation for those travails in what he believes to be the fictionalisation of those exploits in a popular novel and subsequent film, Bright Leaf (Michael Curtiz, 1950), starring Gary Cooper. McElwee jokes at one point that he might be able, if only conceptually, to transform this Hollywood vehicle into a kind of surrogate home movie; perceive in the actions of the venerable star some evolutionary predecessor to his own activities.
Comic and compelling as this portion of Bright Leaves might be, McElwee even more convincingly engages the viewer in the implicit philosophical dimensions of his subject matter. Time and again, he displays a capacity, comparable to that of Montaigne, that can combine the personal and the periodic, the transcendent and the transient. While his overt subject matter may be as familiar as one’s immediate family or the groups of huddled smokers who stand outside innumerable public spaces, the questions to which he elicits answers (often through the interrogation of the same such groups or figures) allow McElwee to ponder the very evanescence of our existence, the fact that memory proves to be as temporary as those very puffs of smoke. Furthermore, he demonstrates the sad but undeniable fact that the very aides we employ to extend and preserve those memories are not any more dependable than the items we momentarily retain in our cerebral cortex. Even when they transport a person past the point of their death, certain details included in a frame of film can annoyingly continue to elude interpretation, as when McElwee realises that the fact that he recorded his late father wearing a yarmulke must remain a conundrum as he never managed to inquire just why he donned the apparel in the first place. A piece of McElwee vehemently believes that the very act of documentation assures some measure of longevity. At the same time, he realises that footage of his young son tying his shoelaces can neither reveal little more about him than the boy’s retention of simple motor skills nor halt his forward march into maturation. McElwee at one point compares his admitted addiction to filmmaking to that of chronic smokers, as they share an “almost narcotic experience” in stretching out the moment through artificial stimulation. Perhaps that’s all we possess that permits us to contend with decay and dissolution, even if the means of our efforts at transformation are life-threatening, in the case of cigarette smoking, or time-consuming, in the case of filmmaking. Throughout every frame of Bright Leaves, Ross McElwee illustrates with undeniable skill and compelling conviction that documentation of one’s own life need not be narcissistic, that the illumination of one person’s private life can remove just a bit more of the congestion that surrounds us and compound the unfathomable circumstances that lead many people to fail to take that longed-for final puff.
Bright Leaves (2003 USA 105 mins)
Prod Co: Channel 4 Television Corporation/Homemade Movies/WGBH Prod, Dir, Phot: Ross McElwee Ed: Ross McElwee, Mark Meatto