Southern Discomfort

'The Real World' is no place for an artist like William Eggleston

Even Beck knows that blackness is no longer the wellspring of white hipster cred: Fetishism leads quickly to objectification and eroticization; before you know it, you've tobogganed down that slippery slope from Screamin' Jay Hawkins to Bagger Vance schlepping Matt Damon's golf clubs--or maybe the gentle giant from The Green Mile. But today's hipoisie, feeling anomie in the space between last month's "Dos and Don'ts" in Vice magazine and next week's Against Me! concert, needs someone from whom to siphon indie clout. Why not head to Uncool Central--i.e., Jesusland, formerly known as the U. S. of W--to pick up some mystical vibes? Why objectify a Delta bluesman when any old cracker in a John Deere cap will do?

The pinnacle and nadir of Hick Chic may be Michael Almereyda's William Eggleston in the Real World, a bio in the quasi-doc tradition of American Splendor and Crumb. We follow the distinguished and long-honored photographer around Gus Van Sant's hometown of Portland, where Eggleston shoots the ugly piñatas in a convenience store with the shifty walk and cockeyed gaze of Rain Man contemplating a shopping cart full of K-Mart underwear. Well into his 60s, with the handsomely parted hair and neat beige sweaters of a Terry Southern/William S. Burroughs wannabe circa 1966, Old Bill stands outside McDonald's, various fruit stands, and even his own exhibition of photographs, silently snapping pictures, not even muttering to himself. At one point we find him in a rec room listening to a creepy piece of organ music--his own composition--and wagging his hand not at all in time. He tells us that a lady friend listened to his piece and found it depressing: "Tuh-may, izzuh...mo-ass ub-liffin'...nawt duh-press-un thang." (A helpful subtitle supplies translation: "To me, it's the most uplifting, not depressing thing.")

Suddenly, last century: William Eggleston back in the day
Palm Pictures
Suddenly, last century: William Eggleston back in the day

Eggleston hit it big in 1976, when the Museum of Modern Art flew him up from Memphis for a gigantic one-man show. Over many decades of work, Almereyda tells us, Eggleston has shot more than 250,000 pictures. Some of his images have a carnival bleakness that suggests an earlier Almereyda idol, Wim Wenders; many others have a flatiron, family-album averageness. Eggleston covers the same rural terrain--what Almereyda calls the "demimonde" (read: white-trash subculture)--as Larry Clark. But Eggleston is no "simple" eroticist. Nor is his work, Almereyda informs, "monumental" in the manner of detritus-chasers Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand. (Is Almereyda unconsciously implying that Arbus and Winogrand are more "monumental"--and less cool--because they're big-city Jews?) Eggleston is significant, the filmmaker says, because his subject is the "nature of perception" itself; this photographer refreshes the ordinary, finds eccentricity in the banal, reopens our eyes to everyday American life.

Almereyda delivers his Artforum retro-style narration in whispered tones that suggest a '70s FM DJ--or a tortured teaching assistant trying to choose between the blond sophomore in the front row and the tall redhead in the back. Clearly it's not just Eggleston's photos, which vary widely from the striking to the indifferent, that have put the filmmaker in his heavy-mojo, Leonard Cohen mode: Rather, it's the iconography of Eggleston--a Southern Gothic figure right out of Suddenly, Last Summer.

In 15 years of filmmaking, Almereyda, a minor icon of indie iconoclasm thanks to the likes of Nadja and Hamlet, has never deigned to incorporate the things that make most movies watchable--things like sex, politics, tall-tale storytelling, and jokes. I can't recall ever laughing in an Almereyda movie, and Eggleston's story could only play as farce. In his last doc, the slippery and remote This So-Called Disaster, Almereyda tried to turn Sam Shepard into a totem of flinty backwoods macho cool, but the playwright's acting-class direction made it impossible. Here, the filmmaker twists his material into knots to make Eggleston into a cross between James Dickey and Henry Darger--part visionary crackpot and part glamorous train wreck. But Almereyda seems to miss what's right in front of his face: a profoundly private and apparently fucked-up man who in no way asked to become the poster on a dorm-room wall.

Every scene in Real World tries to shoehorn unruly bits of human behavior into a pigeonhole marked Hayseed Cool. When Eggleston and his wife of many decades get drunk and start singing show tunes, Almereyda can't resist turning the scene into a Night of the Damned à la Cassavetes's Faces (though he does decorously cut away when Mrs. Eggleston gets up to dance to Cole Porter). As in his 2002 film Happy Here and Now, unfortunately set in New Orleans, Almereyda squanders the riches of human idiosyncrasy to go thrift-store shopping. So oppressive is his focus on mystique that one soon becomes unable to experience what surprise and insight actually does lie in Eggleston's work.

Photography connoisseurs with a fondness for the Eggleston canon are advised to steer clear not only of Real World, but of Stranded in Canton, an early camcorder experiment shot by Eggleston in the '70s and only now assembled (if you wish to abuse that verb). Screening as a companion piece to Almereyda's film, Canton suggests the Lynyrd Skynyrd tour bus crashing into Andy Warhol's Chelsea Hotel--or maybe Herschell Gordon Lewis's 2000 Maniacs! minus the warmth. In a style that's blatantly imitative of Warhol's junkie masques, Eggleston jams his camera in the faces of jeering drunkards, passing-out hippies, skinny meth-heads, and toothless janitors--a rogue's gallery of Southern grotesques. Eggleston sagely put the camcorder away and returned to his shutterbug roots--a move grieved by Almereyda, who likens the onetime videographer to Lewis and Clark. The less Eggleston's admirers see of Canton, the better for his everlasting reputation; this dreary, derivative sprawl almost makes him seem the hepcat phony that Real World depicts him to be.

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