When an artist looks at something familiar, something in plain view to the rest of us, what does he see that we don’t? In 1973, in Greenville, Miss., there stood a house with a glossy red ceiling, a bare light bulb and a black-light Kama Sutra on the wall. Someone else might have glanced at the poster, or the scene beneath the bulb, before hurrying out.
William Eggleston saw the ceiling. In the Memphis photographer’s “Red Ceiling” (or “Greenville, Mississippi, 1973”), it is a red sky in which wires radiate from the light fixture like lightning bolts, or a spider’s legs. Most importantly—fancy descriptions to the contrary—it is the red ceiling of a house with a bare light bulb and a black-light Kama Sutra on the wall. It is what it is. And no matter how many words or metaphors you throw at it, you cannot reduce, obscure or change the thing that is.
That tension—between the concreteness of Eggleston’s subjects and the elusiveness of his art—turns Michael Almereyda’s documentary William Eggleston in the Real World into a mystery without a solution. When Eggleston became the first color photographer to get a solo show at the MOMA in 1976, his pictures of the prosaic bric-a-brac of American lives were greeted like the Emperor’s New Portfolio. “Perfect,” said the MOMA curator who arranged the exhibit. “Perfectly boring,” retorted a critic, as if the Memphis photographer were some vulgarian at the gates, armed with yard-sale photos of tricycles and ovens.
But there is an offhand, found quality to Eggleston’s images that makes you think, “I could do that.” Watching him at work in Almereyda’s film makes the idea even more irresistible. When Almereyda follows Eggleston through the streets of Mayfield, Ky., where he’s working on a study for hometown boy Gus Van Sant, he looks like anything but the fussy artiste. He cuts sort of a Chaplinesque figure, walking at a tilt in a bulky parka and clutching his camera. When the waitress at a Mexican diner offers to take down a piñata for him, he murmurs, “I like it the way it is,” in a courtly drawl, and clicks one picture.
The mystery is how such ordinary objects and unassuming techniques produce images of such beauty and strangeness. William Eggleston in the Real World attempts to balance the method of Eggleston’s art—what Almereyda calls “miracles of casual seeing”—with the insights of art criticism. In his opening narration, the director says he wanted to present Eggleston without identification: “Why not be silent, watchful and patient, like the photographer?”
But early viewers of his footage wanted context. As a result, the movie alternates long video takes of Eggleston simply existing—visiting his late companion Leigh Haizlip as she lolls in her pajamas; at home in Memphis with his wife Rosa; preparing for a Los Angeles gallery exhibit and lecture—with what amounts to illustrated slide lectures of his career. This could have been boring. Instead, the movie’s hand-held intimacy, coupled with its inability to explain away its remote subject, makes Eggleston’s Southern-gentlemanly reticence as compelling and unknowable as his red ceilings and bare bulbs.
The movie’s climax comes in two near confrontations: a Q&A with author Bruce Wagner before gallery patrons hungry for firsthand explication, and a barbecue-stoked session in which Almereyda pumps him for a statement of purpose. Both times, Eggleston refuses to bite. The director timidly ventures that his photographs are attempts to capture fleeting moments and tricks of the light; the artist will not accede even to this seemingly inarguable point. Pictures and words, he says, with finality, “don’t have anything to do with each other.”
For something closer to a cinematic glimpse of the world through William Eggleston’s eyes, there’s Stranded in Canton, a rarely screened feature consisting of footage Eggleston shot in 1973-4 with the then-new Sony portable video camera. (It will be shown Friday night at the Belcourt after the documentary.) Almereyda mimics the closeness and rough, jostling energy of Stranded’s handheld camerawork, but he doesn’t have Eggleston’s obvious ease with the people on screen, who are more participants than subjects. His cast of Memphis characters and legends aren’t so much found art as people hidden in plain sight, seen by someone who didn’t look away. Someone once described a walk down a city street with Andy Warhol as he pointed out the vibrant art leaping off of neglected billboards and signs: the effect was of an unseen city bursting into view, an explosion of small, overlooked wonders in multitudes. Walk with William Eggleston, these films suggest, and the pictures do the talking.