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William Eggleston in the Real World
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by Lybarger

"An acquired taste, but often worth acquiring"
4 stars

One of the most striking things about watching “Tom Dowd and the Language of Music” is discovering that the documentary’s title character is as good with his communication skills as he was at engineering music recording. After listening to Dowd talk about his craft in vivid detail, a viewer could probably get some recording equipment and replicate some of Dowd’s magic. The same cannot be said for William Eggleston.

William Eggleston is an art photographer whose work has been featured on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art and whose anthologies, particularly the Los Alamos collection from the early 70s, are studied with reverence.

He often shoots mundane looking images like rundown cafes that have been closed for years or a tricycle silhouetted against a suburban lawn. What’s striking is that Eggleston gets these pictures printed using a dye transfer process, which is normally used for advertising. As a result, his colors leap out at the viewer, making seemingly ordinary images look ghostly or even otherworldly.

Watch David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” after looking at Eggleston’s photos, and you see where the director either got his ideas or should have found them.

While Eggleston can make a shot of a woman covered by a translucent barrier in a restaurant booth stick in your mind almost as long as it stays on paper, you won’t learn much about how he achieves this effect for listening to him talk about it.

It’s this trait that makes watching Michael Almereyda’s new documentary “William Eggleston in the Real World” frustrating but intriguing. Almereyda follows Eggleston through a shoot in Mayfield, Kentucky that film director Gus Van Sant (“To Die For”) commissioned.

Eggleston simply wanders around with his son looking for stuff to shoot. He says little and simply stares into windows or briefly comments on objects in rooms. His face is impassive, so it’s hard to tell what he thinks as he examines the location.

He’s not an emotionless man, though. His words, what little we hear of them, reveal that he has a deep affection for stuff he shoots, but you have to strain to hear them. Because Eggleston’s voice is quiet and heavily accented (he lives in Memphis, Tennessee), Almereyda often has to resort to subtitles to make Eggleston’s remarks intelligible. And even when we can understand his words, his meanings are sometimes elusive.

At one point, he looks over some of his photographs and states flatly that he doesn’t make mistakes. It’s hard to tell if he’s joking or believes he’s infallible behind a camera.

Almereyda roams behind him with a video camera, simply observing. The microphone on the camera catches every gust of wind, which makes the whole experience seem amateurish and likely to exhaust a lot of viewers’ patience.

Fortunately, there is a point, and the rewards eventually come. When Almereyda catches the Egglestons shooting an abandoned house, he intercuts the action with the photos Eggleston actually got. The lifeless building that Almereyda shoots takes on a creepy energy in Eggleston’s still shots. It’s almost as if Almereyda’s crude techniques have been used to emphasize the more refined look of Eggleston’s work.

Often Eggleston interacts with the people around him in a passing manner. When a friend of his goes on a long discourse on what she might do if she had terminal cancer, the photographer intently scratches colored pencils on a notepad. He briefly suggests she should simply shoot herself if she wants a quick death and goes back to his artwork. When he’s done, we find out that what he’s actually made is the colored pencil equivalent of a Jackson Pollack painting.

What’s really fascinating is listening to an attempted discussion between the off-camera Almereyda and Eggleston. When Almereyda suggests that the photographs make an instant become almost permanent, Eggleston politely suggests he doesn’t put that sort of thought into his craft because he considers images and pictures separate. Without arguing, Eggleston ends the conversation and goes back to what he’s doing.

In some ways we get a better understanding of Eggleston when Almereyda shoots him playing a keyboard or listening to music. The photographer has some real chops on the piano, and it’s charming to see him swoon to Roy Orbison, whose song provides the film’s title.

We wind up learning more about Eggleston’s life and the meaning of his work from Almereyda’s voiceover than we do from any of the footage the director has shot. As a result, “William Eggleston in the Real World” doesn’t play like a Discovery Channel documentary.

On the down side, for those who are just getting introduced to the photographer’s work, there are dozens of questions that don’t get answered. For example, we briefly meet Eggleston’s wife of more than 40 years (the loquacious and cheery woman seems a marked contrast from her laconic husband) and basic biographic data gets ignored. Some of this might have made for more compelling and informative viewing than simply watching Eggleston wandering around for an exposure.

To his credit, Almereyda leaves the viewer to determine if any meaning can be derived from the photos and how Eggleston’s life is reflected in him. Because Eggleston says so little about his art and trusts audiences to reach their own conclusions, it’s completely in the spirit of Eggleston’s images to let the mysteries remain.

Eggleston also has some personal issues that another filmmaker might have sensationalized. For example, Almereyda’s voiceover reveals that Eggleston went to rehab after he completed shooting the documentary. By letting his voice fleetingly reveal the unpleasant aspects of the photographer’s life, Almereyda manages to let us understand some of his subject’s problems in a manner that isn’t overbearing.

The most engaging moment in the documentary happens right before the credits roll. When honored with a lifetime achievement ward, Eggleston delivers a speech that is as endearing, quirky, sincere and grateful as it is brief. If only the speeches Oscar-winners deliver could replicate this feat.

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originally posted: 04/16/06 10:29:13
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Atlanta Film Festival For more in the 2005 Atlanta Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Michael Almereyda

Written by

  William J. Eggleston

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