PRINT January 2005


Michael Almereyda

Michael Almereyda’s new documentary, William Eggleston in the Real World (at MoMA, January 17 and 19), begins with footage shot five years ago in Mayfield, Kentucky, where Eggleston was carrying out a commission from director Gus Van Sant to photograph the latter’s place of birth. Eggleston’s brilliantly colored, discomforting images have influenced not only photographers but some of the most subversive American filmmakers, including Van Sant, David Lynch, and Almereyda himself. Although best known for his New York–based fiction films—the contemporary, zip code 10021 Hamlet (2000) and the East Village Nadja (1994)—Almereyda hails from Kansas, and his first feature, Twister (1990), is set in an Eggleston-esque heartland. Almereyda is a pseudonym, lifted from another pseudonym, the one adapted by the anarchist father of French director Jean Vigo.

This by way of saying that Almereyda is attuned to place and persona, origins and adaptation, as they figure in his own work and that of other artists. Drawn to easy-to-use, inexpensive technology (first PixelVision, then low-end DV cameras), he has been keeping moving-picture diaries for about ten years. These informal recordings of people, places, and events were the starting point for two feature-length documentaries: This So-Called Disaster (2003), a portrait of Sam Shepard directing an all-star cast in his play The Late Henry Moss, and now Eggleston in the Real World. A remarkably intimate but also discreet portrait, Eggleston (which I saw at the rough-cut stage) follows the photographer at work and in his down time, when he puts aside one instrument by which he allays anxiety—the camera—to pick up another: the bottle. Almereyda doesn’t point up the parallel (he may not even be aware of it), but his uninflected, slow-paced approach encourages viewers to observe on their own such details as the way Eggleston’s practiced and nearly unconscious movement of lifting camera to eye is echoed in his raising of glass to lips. Or the way the hooded beige parka he wears during one extended outdoor photography session gives him the look of a worker inspecting a nuclear contamination site. (Simon Fisher Turner’s synthesized score emphasizes the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of Eggleston’s relation to the physical world he records.) Or that the beige parka has a bright red lining, which Eggleston almost never exposes to the light.

Shot almost entirely during a few days in 2000 and a few more in 2003 and 2004, the film is notably fragmented. Almereyda’s art-historical coup may be the inclusion of bits of a videotape that Eggleston shot in the mid-’70s using a souped-up Sony Portapak and then tossed in a drawer. Eggleston “latched onto a particular demi-monde,” says Almereyda in voice-over, “and the sense of psychic disarray, intimately observed, is both exciting and dismal.” In the voice-over, Almereyda elaborates on the conversation he keeps up with Eggleston—one artist to another—throughout the film. There’s a particularly brilliant moment when he speculates on the origins of Eggleston’s photographic vocation as a form of psychic recovery from the childhood trauma he experienced when the grandfather who had bought him his first Brownie camera died suddenly of a heart attack. But Almereyda is not afraid to play the fool in attempting to tease from his subject some definitive statement about the relationship of his photographs to the real world or his emotional response to music (Eggleston is a mean man at the keyboard). “How would you define what you love about music?” asks Almereyda. “I like to do it,” answers Eggleston, thereby defining the enormous difference between artist and lay person—and, alas, critic. “Art, or what we call that, you can love it and appreciate it, but you can’t really talk about it. Doesn’t make any sense.”

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight and Sound.