Fiction & Family Footage

Bright Leaves (2003) Ross McElwee.
The Godfather (1972) Francis Ford Coppola.

The other night on DVD, The Shine Box watched Bright Leaves (2003, Ross McElwee). In this documentary, the director employs the techniques and ideas of cinema to provocate meaning about family, history, local color and mortality. Using narration and a panoply of footage, Ross McElwee traces his ancestry's forgotten and maligned role in the American tobacco industry.

When the movie ended, The Shine Box flicked through the basic cable channels, and found the last hour of The Godfather on the ingratiatingly cut-rate WLNY Channel 10/55. The movie was severely edited for television: no blood spewed from Moe Green's eyeglasses; Sonny's death scene on the causeway curtailed; Apollonia's bella calzones not shown, etc. No matter the clumsy abridgments, The Godfather is a difficult movie, once on, to turn off. Like in Bright Leaves, Francis Ford Coppola employs the techniques and ideas of cinema to meditate upon family, history, local color and mortality.
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Both movies involve fallen patriarchs. In Bright Leaves, John Harvey McElwee - the director's ancestor - "made a fortune in tobacco, but then somehow lost it all to his rival, James B. Duke." Ross McElwee's great-grandfather is described as "the originator of the Durham Bull brand of smoking tobacco," but "his trusted foreman for many years confessed on his deathbed that he had stolen the McElwee formula and sold it to the Dukes." John Harvey died bankrupt after years of failed litigation, while the Duke family became "sort of the Southern Rockefellers." Ross McElwee makes his movie as a vindication of his great-grandfather's legacy, as a flawed, cheated and beloved progenitor.

In the lore of The Godfather, Don Vito Corleone was the most powerful boss of the five families. Says Don Barzini, "He had all the judges and politicians in his pocket." But Don Vito is shot by rivals; his youngest son is driven into exile, the oldest is slayed, and the Families are out to destroy the Corleones, both from within (the mole Tessio like McElwee's "trusted foreman" who sold the family tobacco formula) and without (the hit on Sonny and car-bomb in Sicily not unlike the sabotage and vandalism by the Duke family depicted against John Harvey McElwee's business). Son Michael Corleone takes over for Don Vito, murders all the family's enemies, and becomes Godfather, to initiate another generation of power and influence.
Sonny CorleoneAs mobsters, the Corleones make their fortune in gambling, prostitution, theft and murder. The McElwee's former fortune was built on tobacco. McElwee narrates that "neither Duke nor McElwee could know, of course that Bright Leaf tobacco would soon kill many times more people than did all the battles of the civil war that they had just survived."

Bright Leaves takes place in the small towns of North Carolina, a certain region of the southern, rural United States. The Corleones trace their roots to Sicily, regions which are southern, pastoral, peasant, pre-modern and traditional. Before Micheal can move the family into the future, he must spend time experiencing the region from where he descended. Ross McElwee, at the beginning of his movie, tells of a recurring dream, standing in a field surrounded by heat-emanating, prehistoric-sized plants, and feeling:

"strangely comforted by these leaves... My wife then said she thought my dream might be about missing the South... that no matter how long I lived in the cold crowded North, I would always be a Southerner, that the South was in my blood, and in fact that lately, I'd been looking a little anemic - maybe in need of a transfusion - my periodic transfusion of Southerness. So I decided to head home for a while, back down South."

Besides the parallels in subject matter, each filmmaker attempts to memorialize both themselves and their subject by using their own family as participants in the melodrama. This device, whether directly or indirectly, is a personological intimation of history and art. The audience is not deliberately made aware that Coppola uses his own daughter, Sofia, as the grandchild of Don Vito. Sofia, a baby, is baptized in the final assassination montage, as two christenings of "godfather" are bestowed Michael Corleone.Francis & Sofia Coppola

Coppola was hired to adapt a popular novel about a novel American subject. Coppola turns The Godfather tale into his own. Carmine Coppola, his father, conducted and arranged the score. Moviegoers are like Pavlov's dogs when The Godfather theme plays, whether on a TV commercial or by a Polish subway accordionist.

McElwee intersperses his movie with home movie clips of his son, as a tot and a teen, correlating the boy with the complex, founding genealogy of the McElwee family:

"When I am on the road, shooting, I sometimes imagine my son, years from now, when I'm no longer around, looking at what I've filmed. I can almost feel him looking back at me from some distant point in the future... through these
images and reflections, through the film I'll leave behind..."

Bright Leaves opens with McElwee discovering a 1950 Hollywood movie called Bright Leaf, where Gary Cooper plays Brant Royle, a Reconstruction-era tobacco farmer who returns to North Carolina to avenge the family business. McElwee finds an uncanny likeness between Brant Royle's struggle against arch-nemesis Major Singleton for claim to the tobacco fortune and the rivalry of his own ancestor and the Dukes. As Ross tells Vlada Petric, a maniacal Eastern European film theorist, Bright Leaf has "become a kind of an example of a fiction film becoming a documentary, a kind of home movie for me." The movie serves as the eponym, typology and parallel fiction of Ross McElwee's movie.
Don Corleone & grandson
The assemblage of footage - archived, staged or impromptu - is combined to manifest new vision. Depicting archival images of his father, McElwee is elegaic: "As time goes by, my father is beginning to seem less and less real to me in these images. Almost a fictional character. I want so much to reverse this shift, the way in which the reality of him is slipping away. Having this footage doesn't help very much - or, at least, not as much as I thought it would."

The Godfather movies are operatic interpretations of the history of immigrants to America in the early twentieth century, and the brute and delicate opportunity and prejudice encountered by these families. Brant Royal, in Bright Leaf, is likewise an unreal amalgamation of an American archetype, refigurized in Bright Leaves by Ross McElwee. The movies are fictions unwoven by film and history into an archival reality.

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