By Jeffrey M. Anderson
One of the most successful pioneers of the personal essay documentary, Ross McElwee returns to the big screen a full 20 years after his brilliant "Sherman's March" with this terrific examination of film history, family history and smoking. McElwee decides to re-visit his North Carolina home and meets a film buff cousin who introduces him to a nearly forgotten 1951 Warner Brothers picture called "Bright Leaf," starring Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall and Patricia Neal, and directed by Michael Curtiz.
McElwee becomes convinced that the film actually tells the story of his great-grandfather, a tobacco farmer who was run out of business by a ruthlessly successful baron. His research takes him all around North Carolina, to farms and warehouses, auctions and hospitals. He ruminates on how his grandfather, father and brother 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 some footage of his son or his parents, makes a new connection and keeps going.
In one scene, he speaks to a film theorist and gets nowhere. He also interviews Patricia Neal -- who just happens to be in town -- with little payoff. A journalist would only document successes, but part of McElwee's appeal is that he leaves these dead moments in the film; his failures are as much a part of him as his victories. Everything makes up a fascinating whole.
***1/2 out of ****
(109m | NR)