Monday, July 19, 2010

Film: William Eggleston in the Real World

JTF (just the facts): Released in 2005 by Palm Pictures (here). 87 minutes. Directed by Michael Almereyda. (DVD cover shot at right, via Amazon.)

Comments/Context: If you like your documentary biographies to be thorough and orderly, covering the span of the subject's life chronologically from beginning to end, with a deeper focus on the important highlights from the person's history, drawing conclusions about his/her larger influence in the world around us, then you will likely find this film highly unsatisfying. For the most part, this biopic is a series of reality vignettes, shot on hand held video: casual conversations, working photography trips, car rides, piano playing, downtime with family and friends, exhibition visits, and quiet walking. It gets into Eggleston's personal space and follows him around, silently tracking him as he works, watching as his eccentricities come forward. In the end, Eggleston remains stubbornly elusive, but the movie does a terrific job of capturing fragments of the fabric of his life.

I enjoyed most the segments of Eggleston actually shooting. There are many scenes where he is wandering, looking at unspectacular shop fronts or store windows, intermittently taking one or two pictures and then moving on. He stares at the giant rooster on top of a restaurant, a sideways pinata resting on a refrigerated case in a convenience store, and a cardboard man in a dinner jacket stuck against a deep green wall. Often, he is just walking and looking, both during the day and at night, with his parka hood over his head, his son Winston following at a distance to aid with a camera or a tripod. On the way back to Memphis, they stop to look at an abandoned house for sale along the roadside. It has a geometric green roof (that happens to be falling in), a spray painted sign, and amazing soft light and shadows in the empty interior rooms. By watching Eggleston move around and select his pictures, you can begin to see how his brain works, how his eye is drawn to certain compositions and color effects.

I also liked the sequence of Eggleston visiting his show at the Getty, riding the tram, taking pictures of the buildings like any other tourist, and wandering among the images on display, apparently without anyone recognizing who he was. The film claims he has made over 250000 photographs to date in his life, and he makes the comment that he liked the selection of pictures the curators had chosen. This seems to be emblematic of his reluctant approach to the art world; he hadn't obsessively controlled the exhibition, but rather he seemed like an outsider, viewing the work as something pleasant, but entirely foreign. In other parts of the film, he makes the shortest possible acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award, and refuses to engage in a discourse that the director wants to have about the underlying theoretical aspects of his work. He dismisses these issues as patently wrong and misguided, and not at all how he approaches his art; he seems to have no interest in putting his aesthetics into words, or thinks trying to do so is an impossible and generally stupid idea.

The film also does an excellent job of showing how varied Eggleston's artistic pursuits really are. He plays a synthesized organ and a regular piano, composing his own symphonies (played loud), and he draws intensely with pastels and colored pencils. Between moments of normal human ordinariness, with a heavy dose of drinking and smoking, he seems to be constantly creating, editing, looking and processing, generally only intermittently aware of the chaos or silence around him.

Overall, I think the film does a solid job of creating an eclectic yet somehow rounded picture of Eggleston as a fascinating, contradictory mix: talented, vulnerable, charming, eccentric, and stubborn. For those who want an unvarnished, unfinished view of the artist rather than a heroic historicized timeline, this documentary will be well worth putting in your Netflix queue.

Transit Hub:

  • Eggleston Trust (here)
  • Movie reviews: SF Chronicle (here), LA Times (here), Boston Globe (here)

1 comment:

rcp said...

I enjoyed the film as well and agree with some of DLK's assessment.

I would note also that there are some particularly enlightening moments when the editing allows us to see what Eggleston shoots right after he shoots it.

On the downside, the sound quality in the whole film is so poor as to make certain parts almost unwatchable.

The short film "William Eggleston Photographer" by Reiner Holzemer, though, sheds some additional and different light. It covers some of the same ground -- William and Winston tooling about Memphis looking for stuff to photograph -- but the formal interview portion is much better. Eggleston is still very deliberate but comes across as much more sympathetic by providing more fulsome responses to the questions. Perhaps the filmmaker was just a better interviewer, who knows.

Also, the sound in Wm Eggleston Photographer is much better so that you can get a real sense of his voice and cadence which are really interesting.