The trouble with artists making documentaries about other artists is that art tends to get in the way. So it goes with William Eggleston In The Real World, Michael Almereyda's distracted portrait of the reclusive photographer, whose 1976 exhibit at the Museum Of Modern Art was hailed by its curator as "the beginning of modern color photography." Better known as a director of impressionistic independent features like Nadja and his 2000 Hamlet modernization, Almereyda doesn't try to reveal his subject so much as observe his process from a hushed distance. As with Almereyda's recent doc This So-Called Disaster, about similarly reticent playwright Sam Shepard, this approach yields few revelations and many dull stretches of the artist at work. It's hard to say whether any documentary technique could have cracked the Eggleston enigma, but Almereyda mostly fails to make his mysteries seem compelling.
Parroting Eggleston's casual, point-and-shoot methods, Almereyda prowls around him restlessly with a camera in the hopes of catching something extraordinary in the ordinary. For much of the film, he follows Eggleston as the photographer pokes around Southern towns and back roads, shoots near one of his exhibits at the Getty in Los Angeles, and hangs out at his home in Memphis. Almereyda occasionally pauses to show some of Eggleston's photographs, and his voiceover narration offers numerous insights into his work, which resembles Walker Evans' brand of Americana, only with bright, super-saturated colors. Though that 1976 exhibit was roundly dismissed in critical and artistic circles—Ansel Adams sent Eggleston a letter complaining about how much he hated seeing Eggleston's shots on display—there's no question that it opened up a new era for all photographic media. (As the film opens, Eggleston is working on commission for Gus Van Sant.)
For Almereyda to be allowed such intimate access to this eccentric figure counts as an achievement in itself, but that doesn't mean Eggleston comes to the project in a giving mood. He's clearly an intelligent and perceptive artist, but he's not much of a talker; he's given to clipped sentences that are so garbled that they often occasion the use of subtitles. At a low point, Eggleston joins novelist Bruce Wagner for a Q&A to accompany a slideshow presentation, which causes such an awkward scene (even as Q&As go) that the embarrassment of everyone on hand is palpable. Some artists are just better off letting their work speak for itself.