Sifting through the fake, looking for the real

| August 18, 2004
The truth about tobacco: Ross McElwee filming Bright Leaves.
The truth about tobacco: Ross McElwee filming Bright Leaves.
- The George Eastman House

By interesting chance, two films coming up at the Dryden are dryly humorous but serious attempts to parse fictional films for their documentary content and to question the boundaries of what a documentary film might be.

The first, Bright Leaves, is Ross McElwee's third mainstream release since his entertainingly personal epic Sherman's March. His films have since integrated his navel-gazing tendencies a little less easily, perhaps because in Sherman it was tempered by the exasperated responses by everyone around him. The films tend toalternate between his sometimes ponderous meditations and the more fascinating assembly of characters he has the endless (apparent) luck to stumble across.

His new film takes its name from a little-known Gary Cooper film called Bright Leaf (being screened at the Dryden Saturday, August 21, and described by McElwee as having "wanton, melodramatic power"). The film, about a war between two tobacco barons, is said in McElwee's family to be about his great-grandfather and the undoing of his fortune by a more powerful clan. McElwee sets out to discover the truth of this, and his pursuit dovetails with a look at another family legacy --- tobacco, and the unholy grip it has on the people of North Carolina, the tobacco capital of the world.

These people, eloquent and sometimes eccentric, make Bright Leaves a pleasure (his crazy friend Charlene is back, delightful as ever). And McElwee's musings, bound up with preoccupations beyond himself, are as compelling as the oddity and humanity of life his camera documents. Easily his best since Sherman's March, Bright Leaves will be presented by McElwee himself as part of the Visiting Artist series on Friday, August 20.

Next up on the Visiting Artist chopping block is Thom Andersen, who will be helming an early showing Wednesday, August 25, (7 p.m. instead of the usual Dryden 8 p.m.) of his unique essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself (see sidebar).

I once hunted down an Italian kid's movie that was shot on the outskirts of Atlanta, my hometown. Not only did that film and its sequel purport to take place in different small towns, despite being clearly the same location, but the local Six Flags was edited into the film as being part of the town itself. Turn a right past the hardware store, and you are at the roller coaster.

I loved it, but that's just the sort of thing that would rankle Andersen. He guides us, via wry observations, through a film-clip tour of his city, pointing out accuracies, inaccuracies, and the larger issues --- social and cultural --- that these representations evidence. The film is at its best when probing this latter aspect, such as with a brief history of the dilapidation of the ethnic neighborhood Bunker Hill, documented accidentally by a host of fiction films over decades. (McElwee's film, interestingly, takes a similar look at the Cary Cooper film to search for traces of the real-life adulterous relationship between the two leads.)

But even when a complaint threatens to seem like so much cantankerous nitpicking, he suddenly acknowledges it, and then slams home a reason why it's actually not. The turns in his train of thought also reveal political anger simmering under the same dry tone that gives the film its casual humor.

The clips alone are worth the price of admission, and since it's safe to say this clearance-nightmare of a project won't be hitting the video store shelves anytime soon (probably ever), Rochester has a rare opportunity, along with only Manhattan (so far, no showings even in Los Angeles itself), to catch it. Don't miss it.

Andersen was teaching at the California Institute of the Arts when he decided to break from the experimental and foreign films that were the subject of his film class and show a Hollywood movie, L.A. Confidential. The movie interested him as a treatment of the city he knew and loved.

"Unlike some of the other movies about the history of Los Angeles, it's about a period I actually have some memories of," he says. "Whenever you see a historical movie that is about a time that you remember, you have a stronger relation to it, and you maybe resent more what feels like a wrong depiction."

Los Angeles' treatment on film (he abhors the abbreviation L.A. as a flip denigration) became the basis of a planned lecture. Four years later it had become a near three-hour film instead, with clips from over 200 films.

"One of my main means of research," Andersen says, "was just to tell people I was working on this, and everybody would always have a list of films that I should watch." Editor Yoo Seung-Hyun helped fashion the barrage into a seamless flow. "When I started out, I imagined a kind of clumsier project, actually."

So are there exceptions to the exceptions he takes with filmic liberties? He admits to being amused by the geographic shuffling committed during a cab ride in Jim Jarmusch's Night On Earth. "The shots along the ride are kind of totally miscellaneous. It's as if Winona Ryder is taking Gena Rowlands on the scenic route, so to speak, driving by every... tourist landmark in the city. It's just kind of comical. It raises the possibility [that she] is going to end up with a $200 cab fare."

When I suggest that "L.A." just sounds cooler, he says, "Maybe that's what I don't like about it. I'm an unhip person." I venture the theory that he is sensitive to manhandling of the city's name because his own name is probably usually misspelled.

"I think you're right," he says. "In foreign countries, my name is hardly ever misspelled, but in the US, it's pretty common, and I've been sort of wondering why that is." I reply that the natural instinct for us is to favor more common spellings.

"Yeah," he says, "I think there's a virtue to being able to look at something and see it the way it is, instead of the way you expect."

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