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Stranded in Canton

Surfacing after 30 years, celebrated photog William Eggleston's pioneering experiments with black-and-white video teem with drunken denizens of Southern nightlife. Fitting an early-model Sony Porta-Pak with a prime lens and an infra-red tube, Eggleston approached his lurching subjects with the same close-up intensity that informs his famous still photographs.

Surfacing after 30 years, celebrated photog William Eggleston’s pioneering experiments with black-and-white video teem with drunken denizens of Southern nightlife. Fitting an early-model Sony Porta-Pak with a prime lens and an infra-red tube, Eggleston approached his lurching subjects with the same close-up intensity that informs his famous still photographs. Certain sequences of lost weekends seem to surge out from a murky oblivion, although co-director Robert Gordon’s 77-minute curatorial re-edit softens the edges somewhat. Pic, currently making the rounds of fests, museums and galleries, often paired with Michael Almereyda’s docu on Eggleston, is due out shortly on DVD.

In alcoholic blackouts, the mind may simply stop recording — but not so Eggleston’s camera. Insistent faces obsessively act out their defiant dysfunction: a transvestite who is a “travesty of a transvestite,” a future murderer and his soon-to-be-victim, an argument between husband and wife stripped down to louder and louder shouts of negation, a drunk who offers up his ass to his beer bottle to memorably make a point.

Eggleston and his friends redefine the parameters of “normal” behavior as thoroughly as the superstars of a Warhol Factory opus.

Certainly, Eggleston’s point-and-shoot methodology seems tailor-made for hand-held video. Shot between 1973 and 1974 (the unedited footage runs some 30 hours), Eggleston’s video portraitures of the bar-hopping bohemians of his Memphis milieu reveal his prowess as an instinctive visual composer in every scene.

Yet motion grants less power to his intransigent compositions than does the torn-out-of-time stasis of his photographs. Instead, his video work often appears deliberately and complicitously confrontational.

Co-director Gordon generally allows Eggleston’s scenes to fully play out in all their excruciating and discomforting real-time length. More conventionally edited sequences (like an impromptu musical number in a hotel room where Furry Lewis’s music allows editor John Olivio to create the illusion of coverage by multiple cameras) strike a jarringly inappropriate “professional” note, though the imagery of fragmentary faces and feet still registers as somewhat odd.

Far more immediate-seeming is the effect of a bar scene that pans between tight close-ups of Jim Dickerson on piano and Jerry McGill on guitar belting out “Wild Bill Jones.”

Strangely, Eggleston’s rough-hewn work sometimes reads as positively prophetic, given today’s proliferation of gothic home-movies such as “Tarnation” or “Capturing the Friedmans.”

Stranded in Canton

  • Production: An Eggleston Artistic Trust production. Produced by Caldecot Chubb, Robert Gordon. Directed by William Eggleston (original footage), Robert Gordon.
  • Crew: Camera (B&W, video), Eggleston; editor, John Olivio. Reviewed at Walter Reade Theater, New York, Feb. 15, 2006. (In Toronto Film Festival.) Running time: 77 MIN.
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