Finding Neither Art Nor Artist

Michael Almereyda’s bio-pic fails to tease out the riddle of William Eggleston

Many artists can’t speak about their work without quoting three French philosophers per sentence. By contrast, photographer William Eggleston tells Michael Almereyda, “Art––you can love it or appreciate it. But you can’t really talk about it. It doesn’t make sense.”

Throughout “William Eggleston in the Real World,” Eggleston is laconic and borderline inarticulate. Even his soft, mumbly voice suggests reticence. While following Eggleston around, Almereyda brings many of his own thoughts and opinions about his work to the film. The result feels like an attempt to salvage a bad interview. Eggleston simply isn’t well suited to being a documentary subject.

“William Eggleston in the Real World” and Paul Provenza’s dirty joke anthology “The Aristocrats” have only one thing in common––both would have better served by being cut into a succinct short or a TV program. That’s a quality shared by many recent documentaries.

“William Eggleston in the Real World” also suffers from some of the worst sound recording I’ve ever heard in a professionally made film. In early scenes, shot outdoors in winter, wind creates a loud background hiss, constantly knocking against the microphone. Eggleston’s voice is often so indistinct or drowned out by music that it’s subtitled. Although Almereyda is an experienced filmmaker, his documentary sounds like the product of a freshman student director.

Eggleston’s photos create an aura of strangeness around images taken from everyday life. There’s something very cinematic about them. One interview subject compares them to work by David Lynch, but I’m reminded of experimental director James Benning’s ‘70s work, mostly comprised of loving portraits of decrepit Midwestern landscapes, although Eggeleston’s work is much glossier. (He uses a dye process, commonly used in advertising, to saturate the colors.) “William Eggleston in the Real World” does nothing to enhance their impact. Photographs may be made to be reproduced, but cheap digital video isn’t the best medium to do so.

There’s one remarkable scene in “William Eggleston in the Real World,” which goes a long way toward justifying the project’s existence. Eggleston makes an offhand statement about the evanescence of dreams and his desire for a device that could record them. Almereyda seizes upon this as a key to Eggleston’s work, opining that photography captures similarly fleeting moments of reality. Eggleston shrugs off the statement, seemingly wanting to avoid a discussion about aesthetics, but Almereyda keeps pushing. However, he never really gets Eggleston to say anything more revealing, although his effort practically burns through the screen.

Throughout the film, Almereyda’s comments are more interesting than Eggleston’s. As art criticism, “William Eggleston in the Real World” isn’t bad. However, it’s telling that the director keeps his discussion of Eggleston’s work separate from his filming of the artist’s life. The two never come together in any meaningful way.

At a lengthy Q & A session, filmed in Los Angeles, Eggleston is happy to talk about the technical processes behind his work but resists delving deeper into it. This tension between the filmmaker and his subject could be a fascinating subject, but “William Eggleston in the Real World” feels scattered. Its attempts to explain Eggleston’s work through his biography, such as tying the origins of his childhood passion for photography to a relative’s death, are painfully shallow.

Eggleston expresses himself so well through images that one can understand why he’s so much less comfortable and adept with words. However, it’s a filmmaker’s responsibility to fill in his subject’s gaps or at least try to make productive use of them. Instead, Almereyda offers aimless scenes of Eggleston photographing supermarkets and playing his synthesizer in the hope that something compelling will emerge. It rarely does.

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