"William Eggleston in the Real World" is a look at an artist by an artist, and that is the heart of its success. Narrated, photographed and directed by Michael Almereyda, it is an elegantly discursive examination of one of the great modern photographers, a surprisingly intimate portrait of an elusive, laconic man.
Eggleston, a lifelong resident of Memphis, Tenn., in 1976 was given the first solo color photography show at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Critics (what do they know?) were scornful, the exhibition was called "the most hated show of the year," but the passage of time has revealed Eggleston to be a master craftsman with an unmistakably precise and rigorous way of seeing the world.
Almereyda, a veteran independent director ("Nadja," "Hamlet" with Ethan Hawke), met Eggleston through mutual friends. Accepting that "photography tends to show, to describe, much more than it can explain," he decided on an approach to the man he characterizes with a question: "Why not be silent, patient and watchful, like a photographer?"
The resulting film, playing for one week at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, well rewards his efforts.
"William Eggleston in the Real World" starts with him very much in the real world, looking quite like a lawyer or an accountant as he takes photographs of Mayfield, Ky., on a commission from director Gus Van Sant, who was born there.
Bundled up against the chill with a scarf and a tan parka and looking through his ever-present tortoise-shell glasses, Eggleston has a formidable focus and intensity when he's working. Seeing him peering into reality and watching it peer back is a surprisingly involving process, a window into the mysteries of creativity that can never quite be solved, and examining the photographs that result underlines Eggleston's gift for focusing on details that are never the obvious ones.
The film also puts a generous selection of his photographs on view and Almereyda's perceptive voice-over persuasively explores what makes them significant.
Eggleston's process of shooting "unspectacular, random, ephemeral stuff, signs and toys and trash," Almereyda explains, things that are "simultaneously familiar and strange, recognizable and unknowable," is a way of "elevating commonplace objects and ordinary people" to iconic status, of showing us that everything is worth looking at if looked at the right way.
Almereyda also spends a considerable amount of time just hanging out with Eggleston, his family and his friends, and the photographer's willingness to be himself, shambling around in his underwear and at least sounding as if he's intoxicated, is also revelatory in its own way.
What we see, paradoxically, is a man who doesn't want to be known, someone who would rather photograph, draw with pastels or play the piano than have to resort to words. Watching him at his ease, or what passes for ease, is to recognize a formidably eccentric, dislocated individual ("I gave up," his mother says, "I have to accept him as he is") and to reach the conclusion that who he is has both nothing and everything to do with the power of his art.
"William Eggleston in the Real World" ends with Almereyda pressing the artist, posing the kinds of straightforward questions he's previously avoided. Eggleston's answers underline what the rest of the film says in images.
"Whatever it is with photography," he genteelly insists, relaxing in a Memphis barbecue joint, "it's impossible to follow up with words. They have nothing to do with each other." As with those remarkable photographs, what he sees is what we get, and we're happy to have it.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times