Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ross McElwee, Patricia Neal
Written by: Ross McElwee
Directed by: Ross McElwee
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 109
Date: 05/23/2003

Bright Leaves (2004)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Tobacco Road

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the most successful pioneers of the personal essaydocumentary, Ross McElwee returns to the big screen a full 20 years after hisbrilliant Sherman's March with thisterrific examination of film history, family history and smoking. McElweedecides to re-visit his North Carolina home and meets a film buff cousin whointroduces him to a nearly forgotten 1951 Warner Brothers film called BrightLeaf, starring Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacalland Patricia Neal and directed by Michael Curtiz. McElwee becomes convincedthat the film actually tells the story of his great-grandfather, a tobaccofarmer who was run out of business by a ruthlessly successful baron. Hisresearch takes him all around North Carolina, to farms and warehouses, auctionsand hospitals. He ruminates on how his grandfather, father andbrother all became doctors and have treated many smoking-related illnesses.When he reaches a dead end in his narrative, he stops to ponder, throws in somefootage of his son or his parents, makes a new connection and keeps going. Inone scene, he speaks to a film theorist and gets nowhere. He also interviewsPatricia Neal -- who just happens to be in town -- with little payoff. Ajournalist would only document successes, but part of McElwee's appeal is thathe leaves these dead moments in the film; his failures are as much a part ofhim as his victories. Everything makes up a fascinating whole.

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