Hearing Ross McElwee's voice at the beginning of a movie is like getting a phone call from an old friend. The Cambridge-based documentarian is a raconteur of elegiac discursiveness, and films such as 1986's "Sherman's March" and 1994's "Time Indefinite" wander from topic to topic with a charming, self-absorbed, and oddly liberating waywardness. "Bright Leaves" is supposedly about the North Carolina tobacco industry and McElwee's ancestral connection to it, but somehow you don't mind that you end up hearing actress Patricia Neal talk about her enduring love for Gary Cooper.
There's a connection there, actually, and it's a strange one. Neal and Cooper starred in "Bright Leaf," a 1950 Hollywood melodrama set in the tobacco fields and mansions of the post-Civil War era and based, McElwee comes to believe, on the bare bones of his great-grandfather's life. John Harvey McElwee was an ambitious planter who developed a tobacco blend he called "Durham Bull," a formula he spent his life and fortune in court trying to prove had been stolen and sold as "Bull Durham" by rival James B. Duke.
"Bright Leaves" is, in many respects, a meditation on missed chances. McElwee tours the 52-room Duke estate in Statesville, N.C. -- a block away from his own modest childhood home -- and muses that "this all could have been mine; Duke University could have been McElwee University." Instead, his great-grandfather's cigarette factory is now a hairdressing school, and of the minimansions John Harvey built for his children, only one is still in the family. There's a tiny McElwee Park, but it's literally small consolation. "What's being preserved here?" the director wonders. "What's being passed down?"
Among other things, guilt over having family ties to a business that kills half a million people a year. "Bright Leaves" burrows into the question of what makes people smoke, but in an anecdotal way that's not much use. McElwee chases down aging patients of his physician father (and notes that his doctor grandfather, John Harvey's son, was a chain smoker who died of lung cancer), and he trails after a young couple who keep trying to quit without any luck. About all you come away with is that cigarettes are addictive and that living in the South engenders fatalism.
As always, McElwee is on more comfortable ground discussing himself, and in particular the ways that film preserves and distorts family memory. He views "Bright Leaf" as a surreal Hollywood version of a home movie -- a public reworking of private mythology -- and he similarly obsesses over filming his son Adrian, whom we see as both a toddler and a teenager in spliced-together footage. "For me," says McElwee the elder, "filming is not unlike smoking a cigarette. A kind of timelessness is achieved."
In both cases, that timelessness is illusory. The pleasure fades and you reach for another smoke; the child grows up despite all attempts to freeze him on film. "Bright Leaves" may strike some as another of Ross McElwee's solipsistic thumb twiddles, but in his roundabout way he gets at stuff few filmmakers do. Where most documentaries offer us facts to hold on to, his are obsessed with the mystery of things we don't know and never will.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.