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Thomas Wartenberg thinks about how real life keeps on breaking through as he watches Bright Leaves.
Ross McElwee’s recent documentary, Bright Leaves, tells a multi-layered, complex story in which he explores both his family’s roots as tobacco growers and manufacturers in North Carolina and how he can pass on this ambiguous legacy to his son, Adrian. Beautifully filmed and humorously narrated with McElwee’s characteristic voice-over, it is certainly a film that is worth seeing again and again, as one attempts to unpack its richly layered reflections on a variety of topics.
One strand in the film particularly interested me. McElwee reveals that his great-grandfather became wealthy as one of the first cigarette manufacturers, only to have his fortune eroded in a bitter struggle with James Biddle (‘Buck’) Duke over the theft of the Bull Durham trademark along with the formula for using bright leaf tobacco.
So McElwee’s trip to the South, that is, in one sense, a personal journey to discover his roots becomes a more general investigation into the role that the tobacco industry has played in America. As in his widely shown Sherman’s March, McElwee combines the personal and the general to stunning effect.
McElwee’s investigation into his family history gets an unexpected boost when a cinephile cousin reveals the existence of a film – Michael Curtiz’s 1950 movie Bright Leaf, starring Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall, and Patricia Neal – that appears to tell the story of the battle between Buck Duke and McElwee’s great grandfather. As often happens in McElwee’s film, accident proves to be prophetic, as he follows up the leads that the film provides.
McElwee is intrigued by this connection and attempts to show that the Hollywood film is, in fact, a fictional rendering of his forebear’s tragic story. In this he is, as it turns out, unsuccessful, but he does discover that Cooper and Neal were having an affair during the time of Bright Leaf’s filming. While watching the film in light of this new information, he makes what he takes to be an interesting discovery. In a scene that he refilms so that we can see it, Cooper and Neal embrace and kiss. But there is a small, tell-tale gesture that McElwee calls to our attention. As Cooper embraces Neal, she makes a movement to embrace him, but stops herself and draws her hand back to her side.
McElwee puzzles over this arrested gesture, calling attention to its oddity. “Why does Neal not fully embrace Cooper?” he wonders. As we listen to his voice-over discussion of this issue, we get sucked in, wondering along with him about why Neal begins to embrace Cooper only to resist that action by pulling back her hand?
McElwee’s answer is that this arrested gesture amounts to the presence of a home movie within the Hollywood film. By this, he means to indicate a rupture in the fictional narrative, a place where the real lives of the two actors make a sudden, disruptive appearance in the film only to be taken back, as the film reseals itself, covering up the breech in its own surface.
Ever since the writings of André Bazin, many film theorists have asserted that film’s basis in photography entails that film has the ability, unique among artistic media, to reproduce reality in an unmediated manner. This claim is often put as the thesis that film is transparent, that unlike other artistic media such as painting, reality is not so much mediated by being photographically reproduced as it is simply captured immediately, that is, without the mediation of the beliefs of human beings.
The question of whether film is actually a transparent medium is one that has received a great deal of attention from philosophers of film in recent years. For my purposes here, all we need to accept is that film’s photographic basis – something rendered obsolete in many ways by recent digital technology – results in films having a dual nature. On the one hand, a fiction film tells a story about characters who do not really exist or, at least, presents made-up events involving characters some or all of whom may have existed. So even a fiction film that portrays real people and events, such as the infamous Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915), includes many characters who were not real people and presents a variety of narrative incidents that are pure fictions. But, on the other hand, any film is also a document of sorts. What any film documents, even a fiction film – and here we do have to be very careful to limit the claim to films that involve photography rather than digital imaging – is its own making. So at the same time that we can watch Birth of a Nation as a film about, among other things, Elsie Cameron, we can also learn things about Lillian Gish, the actress who played her, by watching the fiction film as a document.
With this understanding of the dual ontological nature of fiction films, let’s return to the moment that McElwee isolated in Bright Leaf. One might think that McElwee is simply reiterating the duality of film, reprising Bazin’s insight, by means of his focus on Neal’s reluctant arm. But I think that he is asking us to notice something more than that duality, for he is showing us that reality may intrude into fiction films in ways that Bazin seems not to have emphasized, ecstatic as he is about film’s ontological nature. For the duality of film entails that a finished film may reveal traces of reality against the intentions of its makers. Although fiction films are meant to be watched as fictions, viewers – especially those armed with special knowledge about the actors – can always scan a film hoping to see traces of the actors’ own lives, sitting quietly on a film’s fictional surface.
That is what McElwee himself claims to have found in Bright Leaf: the trace of Neal’s love for Cooper concealed/revealed in an abortive gesture that doesn’t quite fit the context in which it was made.
More evidence for this view is presented in a different sequence of the film. In an interlude, when things are not going as well as he would like, McElwee decides to film his own reflected image in his hotel room. As he is doing so, a rat runs by, unnoticed by him at the time or by us as we first see the sequence. But when he reveals this fact in his everpresent voice-over commentary, we are able to registered this concealed event.
Now the presence of that rat was certainly not something that McElwee intended to show us in this sequence which he tells us has to do with an exploration of the possibility of a film actually presenting special effects without actually involving special effects. Hence, the use of a mirror to create a single image that fuses two distinct spatial configurations into a single image. But including this intrusion of reality into the film symbolizes McElwee’s recognition that all filmmaking – Hollywood as well as documentary – includes an element that cannot be completely subsumed by a narrative, that which he calls in his voice-over for the earlier scene a ‘home movie’. The rat running by is that trace of reality that makes any film a document of its own making at the same time that it is also a narrative, a story being told.
Bright Leaves is much more than a philosophical examination of film’s transparency. In fact, the aspect of the film I have dwelt upon is just one small feature. In its broader sweep, the film is a rumination about our immersion in a world that we did not make but that shapes us and makes us who we are. It is a film that raises deep and important questions about our own role in passing that world, that legacy, on to our heirs, ambivalent as we may be about it. Indeed, it is itself an important element in one man’s attempt to create a critical account of his own legacy, one that he can proudly pass on to his own son. As such, it justifies your attention.
© Thomas E. Wartenberg 2005
Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview) and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.