It was the perfect setup for an op-ed article: the release, between the Democratic and Republican conventions, of Alien vs. Predator, bearing the tag line, “Whoever wins…we lose.” I could imagine what cleverness the columnists would expend, pairing each candidate with his sci-fi monster. Maybe 20th Century-Fox had actually planned for that reaction. Maybe the company had hit upon a critic-proof way to sell its movie, while thickening the wise-guy atmosphere in which the larger Fox organization thrives.
Terrifying–especially the realization that if I can think like that, I must now be as cynical as a Murdoch marketing exec.
So, in contrition, I’ve decided to give the partisan struggle a brief rest, at least in my movie life. While the Republicans swarm into town, I’m heading to Film Forum, which is counterprogramming the convention with a work of thoughtfulness, warmth and unbitter irony: Ross McElwee’s new documentary, Bright Leaves.
Of course, you do encounter a form of politics in Bright Leaves, since nothing human (and very little that is animal or vegetable) is foreign to McElwee. He devotes a large part of the film to the physical and emotional costs of “the ultimate consumer product,” cigarettes, as seen within the heartland of the industry, his home state of North Carolina. You meet a series of ailing, older smokers, including a hospital patient who was introduced to cigarettes by his grandmother at age 4. You hang out with giggly teenage smokers–students at a hair-cutting academy, which now operates out of a historic tobacco warehouse–who cheerfully promise to quit as soon as they get cancer. You visit with a twentyish couple, friends of McElwee, whose target date for giving up cigarettes somehow keeps receding into the future. You accompany a mourner to the grave of her sister, killed in her prime by consumer products.
McElwee gives due weight to this evidence of grim corporate reaping–and yet he begins his film lovingly, with a dream.
The screen shows a paradise of tall, broad leaves, so alive that they seem to breathe and whisper in the sun. On the soundtrack, McElwee relates his dream: He was standing in a field of plants, whose warmth made him happy. His wife, he says, gave him the interpretation. The plants were tobacco, for which he yearned because he had stayed in Boston too long. He needed to go back to North Carolina for a while, for his “periodic transfusion of Southernness.”
With that as prelude, McElwee transports us directly back home, into the house of one of his cousins, and so (as it happens) into a different layer of dream. The middle-aged fellow you meet, who at first seems blandly Rotarian, turns out to have walls that are entirely covered with framed movie posters, file cabinets that are full of publicity stills, a walk-in closet lined with neat, built-in racks of film reels. We are into an obsession so complete that it takes itself for granted. For McElwee, it’s also a communicable obsession–because this cousin claims that the life of their great-grandfather, John Harvey McElwee, was the source of the 1950 Warner Bros. movie Bright Leaf, directed by Michael Curtiz, with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal.
Yes, John Harvey McElwee’s bitter, losing contest with the Duke family over the rights to the Bull Durham brand is the subject of a lesser Curtiz melodrama. Bright Leaf is a home movie of sorts, and Gary Cooper is their great-grandfather!