Friday, October 08, 2004


BRIGHT LEAVES (2004, USA, Ross McElwee)
The preacher, what does he say about the present tobacco situation?
Just about like the rest of us, he actually don’t know what to say. He’s got mixed feelings about it.

This soft-spoken Ross McElwee documentary takes as its point of departure the possibility that a minor Gary Cooper feature may have been a fictionalized biography of the film-maker’s great-grandfather, who made and lost a fortune in the North Carolina tobacco business. His highly personal films are like the smart, sardonic personal essays you’d find in Harper's magazine or on NPR's "This American Life." If Woody Allen were a laid-back Southerner instead of a wired-up New Yorker, and if he made rambling autobiographical documentaries instead of tightly-constructed autobiography-disguised-as-fiction commercial features, he’d be Ross McElwee.

Exploring the connection between his great-grandfather's story and that of his father, a physician, McElwee interviews his dad’s patients who suffered from tobacco-related illness. One woman remembers Dr McElwee's visit to her own father’s bedside the night before major surgery, when the two men prayed together. McElwee seems surprised: "My father did? I never heard that story." To which the woman replies, "Oh well, sometimes daddies don't talk about things like that." We cut to the woman's aged parents harmonizing "Silent Night," then to a faded home movie of his father listening to that same couple singing that same song over the telephone decades earlier, an annual Christmas tradition. It's not apparent at first, but when the senior McElwee turns his head we see that, inexplicably, he is wearing a yarmulke. "Right after I filmed this I kept meaning to ask my father why he, a staunch Presbyterian, was wearing a yarmulke here. Was it just a somewhat odd Christmas present from a grateful Jewish patient? I kept forgetting to ask him, and now it's just one of those things I'll never know." McElwee gravitates to mystery.

McElwee's south is, as Flannery O'Connor described it, "Christ-haunted." BRIGHT LEAVES brings us people of faith, cancer victims and tobacco farmers alike whose faith in Jesus helps them with – or perhaps diverts them from? – the difficult questions posed by life in general, or by this inquisitive film-maker in particular. Whether it's a heartfelt "Silent Night" offered as a Christmas appreciation, or gospel quartet numbers like "Gospel Ship" or "Ship Of Zion" sung by a tobacco grower who wonders how his religion and his work fit together, the film frequently uses music to introduce a spiritual context for its subjects. And if McElwee questions the consistency of a Christian who earns his living from the bright leaves that bring death to so many, he does it with a light and respectful touch: his affection for these good and faith-filled people is obvious, and he never condescends or passes judgement.

Perhaps McElwee's films are nothing more than mildly diverting video journals, their insights and inter-connections insubstantial and insignificant. On the other hand, it may be that these films are marvels of loving observation and understatement that work on us slowly and subliminally, teasing awake a slumbering curiosity about the ordinary details of our own lives. If there are profundities, they are offered in a self-effacing and amusing way that grows more precious as the avalanche of non-fiction media grows ever more shrill, opinionated and superficial.

Available at Videomatica

Complete review at Christianity Today Movies