Michael Almereyda's portrait of world-renowned photographer William Eggleston doesn't make any easily readable links between the artist's work and his life as pic shuttles between intellectual art appreciation and raw home movie immediacy. When Eggleston's one-man show of color photographs opened at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1976, outraged critics dismissed his oeuvre as boring and banal. Despite Almereyda's strong following in arthouse circles, "William Eggleston in the Real World" --which requires patient if not repeat viewing -- will probably not venture far into it.
The revolution Eggleston brought to the art of photography by his use of color -- the kind of aggressive, saturated hues created by dye transfer, a process largely associated with advertising -- seems impossible to imagine now. In 1976, however, his one-man MOMA show, the first devoted to color photography, started a firestorm of controversy -- Ansel Adams himself declared Eggleston's work unfit for museum display.
In the clarity of hindsight, Almereyda's reading of Eggleston's art as channeling a tradition of heightened realism that includes Edward Hopper as well as Walker Evans seems obvious.
Almereyda opens with a study of the artist plying his craft. He follows Eggleston as he trudges through a small Kentucky town, snapping photos almost on the fly, equally captivated by a nearby street sign or by a large plaster rooster on a store roof. Eggleston's seemingly off-the-cuff technique, looking more like the approach of a snap-happy Japanese tourist than that of a celebrated cultural bastion, lies in direct contrast to the photographs themselves which Almereyda intersperses throughout this section.
Eggleston declared himself "at war with the obvious" and the way in which he pulls everyday objects out of familiar realms and gives them iconic importance in intransigent, suspended moments of time seems all the more exotic for his casual point-and-shoot methodology.
It is not until Eggleston stops by an abandoned house (a real fixer-upper) that the viewer gets a glimpse of Eggleston's alchemic process, as nondescript video images of a peeling green tile roof or patches of light in an empty room are transformed into startling quadrangular tableaux.
Up to this point, Almereyda's pic plays like personalized, if not precisely groundbreaking, musing on an admired figure. But when Eggleston returns to Memphis, the film takes a voyeuristic turn, presenting the alcoholic artist outside of any readable biopicbiopic framework.
Perversely, Almereyda begins to concentrate on the photographer's sidelines, focusing on all of his artistic endeavors other than photography: indifferent musical compositions, and pioneering, rather fascinating video work. Drunken, rambling conversations with his girlfriend (shot from a disconcertingly oblique point of view) result in colored pencil scrawlings -- questionable art conjured from an atmosphere of increasingly queasy intimacy.
Eggleston's peculiar surroundings, his moneyed Southern bohemian milieu, start to come alive. But unlike, say, Terry Zwigoff's treatment of an artist's sphere in "Crumb," Almereyda's voice-over narration tends to hamper Eggleston's ability to own his own life. Ultimately, biodoc is less about Eggleston living in the "real world" than about Almereyda filming there.