Where There's Smoke, There's a 'Vérité-Enhanced' Legacy

The Texas Documentary Tour: Ross McElwee's 'Bright Leaves'

Where There's Smoke, There's a 'Vérité-Enhanced' Legacy

Beyond enjoying his terrific films, of which Bright Leaves (2003) is the latest and one of the best, filmmaker Ross McElwee wants a little more from viewers like us: He wants us to enjoy the way he makes his films as much as he does. This, of course, has to do with McElwee's unique spin on conventional cinema vérité – call it vérité-enhanced, if you will, or maybe a leisurely cinematic ramble. (London's Financial Times charmingly dubbed Bright Leaves a "docu-doodle.") What McElwee loves about traditional vérité is its "wonderful way of apprehending the world and the real pleasure and joy that happens just from picking up a camera and going out in the world and trying to respond to what you're seeing by yourself." No crew, no preproduction, no pre-interviews. Of course, it's the responding to what you're seeing part – McElwee's signature voiceover narration, which often feels, though it's not, as though he's musing out loud about the world he's shooting – that distinguishes a McElwee film. By taking some real liberties with a few of the more hidebound rules of vérité masters he's long admired – among them, Fred Wiseman and Ricky Leacock – McElwee is able to make the warm, engaging, endlessly digressive, personal-essay film that conventional vérité cannot.

The world that McElwee picked up his camera and set off to explore in Bright Leaves had loosely to do with being from North Carolina and his family's legacy as tobacco growers. McElwee's great-grandfather, John Harvey McElwee, was a post-Civil War tobacco baron who went mano a mano with the James Buchanan Duke family. In the end, Duke wins, and McElwee goes bankrupt. But, his descendants subsequently go into the medical profession, where, with the steady stream of business generated by Duke's wildly successful cigarette empire (what McElwee refers to as the "agricultural-pathological trust fund"), successive generations of Dr. McElwees will have more than enough to keep them busy.

While McElwee had known that he wanted to make a film about tobacco, he also knew that he didn't "want to make the standard film that's been made before where the tobacco industry and the farmers are excoriated for what they do – or a health film about how bad smoking is for us – I think most of us know that already." When he learned from a film-buff cousin that a 1950 film called Bright Leaf, starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, might have been about the North Carolina tobacco rivalry between his great-grandfather and Duke, McElwee packed his camera and took off. He had the starting point – but only just that – he needed to be off and running back home to Carolina for another seat-of-the-pants cinematic exploration.

Bright Leaves begins appropriately in a field of shiny, green Bright Leaf tobacco; writer and North Carolina native Allan Gurganus later recalls his father describing them as such "happy-looking plants," the full sinister implications of that description intended. The tall, dried, brown stalks left standing after these "happy-looking" leaves have been harvested actually have the eerie look of the cancer-ravaged living dead. McElwee and his camera come at his home state's tobacco legacy from a variety of angles, the insights accruing incrementally. From grave-site remembrances of relatives lost to lung cancer (seems like everyone there has at least one, some still maintaining that tobacco had nothing to do with it) to those trying to survive with cancer (one elderly man admitting to having been smoking since his grandmother gave him cigarettes at age 3). Then, there are the girls at the beauty school casually filling their lungs during a break outside the storefront. When McElwee approaches with his man-on-the-street questions, they bust out laughing as one of the group brazenly declares she'll quit when she gets lung cancer. There's the couple who only half-seriously rationalize the uneventful passing of each of their self-imposed quitting deadlines, and there's the proud tobacco grower who's obliged to point out, unsolicited, that "cars kill, too; can't legislate how people live their lives." McElwee, who smoked briefly in the past, muses on the seductiveness of cigarette smoke and the act of smoking and wonders whether his young son, Adrian, will be likely to succumb in the same way he had. (Home movies of Adrian figure heavily in all McElwee films, as they do here.)

Each McElwee film, including his legendary Sherman's March (1986), typically juggles several themes, often only loosely related, if at all. McElwee's narration – written after he's shot the film – attempts to weave them together, or, at a minimum, toss a verbal life-preserver to an off-the-wall scene that a less patient or indulgent filmmaker (or editor) might have been tempted to axe. Take the scene where, following the thread of the Bright Leaf film, McElwee decides to go talk to Russian film historian and theorist Vlada Petric, who happens to be in Winston-Salem to deliver a lecture. Petric, the crazy Russian, insists upon pushing McElwee around the block backward in a wheelchair while he lectures the camera about the need for kineticism in a film. We're talking here about a walk around the block in real time. Classic McElwee quirk.

Austin Chronicle: In the end, how do you end up feeling about your family's tobacco legacy?

Ross McElwee: Well, like I say in the film, I can scarcely imagine what it would be like to have as much money as the Dukes have. But I think things worked out the way they were meant to work out, in that my family ended up going into medicine in their way, and the Duke family ended up also going into medicine in their way, starting a medical school and hospitals. There were a lot of people involved in tobacco back in a time when there was very little else you could grow to feed a family, and I don't think anyone really feels guilty about that legacy. Then, too, at that time, nobody knew the adverse affects of tobacco. It's a legacy that I'm not un-proud of; it's a legacy of people who lived off the land, as my relatives did in that part of North Carolina for generations, and I'm in no way disowning that heritage. But [I'm] also mindful, I guess, that my family, not of its own volition, switched over to medicine.

AC: Okay, on a more practical level, can we flesh out your stated m.o. of starting to shoot a film with only a tentative kernel of an idea? You hear from cousin John, the film buff, about the possibly biographical Bright Leaf film; you go to interview him for the first time, with your camera on your shoulder and from there just follow your instincts?

RM: Yes, John tells me to talk to another cousin, and so I interview her, and that leads me to another and another ... each one leads me to the next. It's just a matter of keeping your antennae tuned to what might be good for the film. And, of course, there are many things that I shoot that [aren't] useful; that happens, as well.

AC: You seem incredibly relaxed while you're shooting each interview and scene, as though you know you're going to find something that you can use or want, or that you're going in the right direction.

RM: I feel somewhat confident but never relaxed totally, because, you know, even when I'm shooting people that I know, or family, there's still a tension: knowing that every 10 minutes of film that I'm shooting is costing me $250 to $300 in purchasing, processing, and digitization, so I can't be too casual or I'll go over budget instantly. I'm required to monitor what I'm doing to be sure that what I'm shooting has a good chance of being in the film – it's not like video; [it] can't just run endlessly. And there's also the tension of having to be aware of all the technical aspects, since I don't use a film crew. I shoot and record the sound.

AC: Isn't it hard to be on top of all of these things yourself?

RM: Well, it's a matter of experience and habit and accepting the fact that sometimes you won't get it right; you're guessing at exposure because you don't have time to perfect exposure; you're hoping the sound is loud enough. But, after years of doing this, I tend to know how to stay in the ballpark in terms of exposure, focus, and sound level. The films have a certain kind of aesthetic due to the fact that I don't have a crew monitoring all of these aspects as I'm directing. I find that directors that are filming tend to be more relaxed, there's a kind of intimacy that's experienced by the viewer that would not be there if there were a large crew. Even though me having a camera on my shoulder clearly affects somewhat the interchange between the subject and myself – it would be foolish to suggest that it did not – that is minimized because it's just me and my super 16mm Aaton camera (which is then blown up to 35mm). That is truly the reason for shooting film – the look.

AC: At what point in the process do you find the story in your film?

RM: The footage will end up dictating what the film is; I'm very much in a dialogue with it – it's the commanding presence in the dialogue. When I try to force material to be something that it can't be, it just doesn't work, so I'm watching and listening very carefully to what I've gathered. And while everyone would have preconceptions of various kinds about how a scene might work out or how a person might appear in film, for me it's always been very important to be willing to set aside those preconceptions and be surprised – and I hope that the surprising quality of a number of the scenes comes through. I also write 95% of the voiceover narration ex post facto, when I'm editing. Occasionally I'll be struck by something as I'm shooting the film and I'll jot down what my feelings were or my observations were at that moment, and that could end up in the narration, but most of it is during the editing.

AC: Given the various themes you weave through a film, it must be difficult to edit these together.

RM: Certainly, the more themes you have, the harder it is to make the film work. It took me forever to figure out how to get something approximating a dynamic balance of the three themes in the film. The first was tobacco, the cultivation and marketing of it, the complexities of the health problems associated with it, and that, of course, connects to ethical questions one could raise about growing and marketing tobacco. But, you know, I think theme one in the film is really about legacy and family and what gets passed down from one generation to the next – I think this is really what the film is about. Theme number two would be the tobacco issues I just mentioned, and the third one would be what it means to make moving images or the impact of motion picture images. What are these things that we're creating with these shots, what kinds of impact do they have on us when they come from our own lives as opposed to when they come from totally fictional representations of stories? In the film, I talk about emotions I've had about footage I have of my father that I've viewed over the years since he's died, about the sharp poignancy I felt when I first saw them after he died that had made it almost impossible for me to look at them, and how subsequently those same images have settled into something almost personally iconic for me; they've stopped being so emotional but they've become something else. I'm grappling with how those images have changed. How the same images can start to have a different effect on us as viewers. People have complex reactions to what the passage of time does to the impact of those images, and I think that's one of the questions that I'm very interested in. And, of course, the imagery that I've taken of my own son over the years, the home movies I've made and how those images seem to me now, that whole range of dealing with the impact of motion picture images is one of the major themes of the movie.

AC: One of my favorite scenes – and obviously one of yours, as well – is when you're trying to shoot a distinctly nonvérité shot of yourself that backfires.

RM: Yes, the scene where I've set up a tripod and am shooting myself walking and talking in front of a statue and a dog comes running out of nowhere and bites me. That's a perfect synthesis of a highly staged, self-consciously staged moment that gets ruined by cinema vérité coming out of screen left. A highly contrived, artificial setup gets undermined by this little cinema vérité moment.

AC: Must be the wrath of the vérité gods, punishing you for messing with one of their rules. end story

Bright Leaves screens as part of the Texas Documentary Tour on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 7pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown. Ross McElwee will participate in a Q&A after the screening. Tickets ($4 for Austin Film Society members and students, and $6 for nonmembers), are available through AFS (www.austinfilm.org) or at the venue one hour prior to screening.

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Texas Documentary Tour, Bright Leaves, Ross McElwee

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