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Bio-doc Feedback: William Eggleston's Real World vs. Townes van Zandt's Tinny Tragedy

The Stop Smiling DVD Review

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Friday, March 24, 2006

Townes Van Zandt: Be Here Love Me (2004)
Directed by Margaret Brown

William Eggleston In the Real World (2005)
Directed by Michael Almereyda

(Palm Pictures)

Reviewed by Sam Sweet

William Eggleston, the 66-year-old Memphis photographer, and Townes Van Zandt, the deceased Texan musician and songwriter, have a lot in common. Both came from wealthy Southern American backgrounds. Both spent long careers developing steadfastly individual voices, though their most famous work came from the same period: the early 1970s. Both Eggleston and Van Zandt achieved idol status among devoted cult audiences, though both led lives that were elusive to friends and fans alike. Eggleston and Van Zandt are the kind of figures that documentaries love to tackle. In turn, these are the kind of documentaries that can come to define our view of such figures for years to come.

Between a predictable loop of talking heads and archival Van Zandt performances, Be Here To Love Me gives us a lot of artsy shots of empty highways and sunsets poking through trees (filmed by Richard Linklater's cinematographer, the Austin-based Lee Daniel). But is that worn-out decoration enough to disguise the fact that what we are seeing is, essentially, a VH-1 Behind the Music episode on Van Zandt's life? Be Here To Love Me presents us with the most clichéd rock'n'roll narrative of them all: the sensitive poet who spent a lifetime wrestling with his demons and giving the world flashes of genius before burning out young from substance abuse. The anecdotes proffered by the cast of interviewees make Van Zandt's life sound like little more than a revolving door of depression and abuse, followed by brilliance, followed by depression and abuse, followed by genius, followed by a sad, lonely death. J.T. Van Zandt, Townes's first son, and the film's sole voice of groundedness and lucidity, is the only one to deviate from the formulaic proceedings, and incessant hero-worship: “I guess as a kid, I didn't recognize some of the magic, but a lot of it wasn't magic, it was just smoky smell on everything, and stale chips.”

Be Here To Love Me's most striking moments are excerpts from John Szalapski's Heartworn Highways, a film that Margaret Brown, in a tasteless and inexplicable decision, fails to credit. The words “Nashville, 1974” appear over the clips, leaving the viewer to believe this is stray footage Brown herself excavated from some dusty closet. In actuality, the DVD of Heartworn Highways, a documentary chronicling the burgeoning outaw country movement, was released in 2005, and the scenes in which Van Zandt appears are more revealing of Townes' life -- his humor, pain, charisma, talent — than the entire contents of Be Here To Love Me. It's hard to say which is more disappointing: that those already interested in what makes Townes so unique and extraordinary have been given a portrait that could just have easily been about Kurt Cobain, or Tim Hardin, or Hank Williams, or Elliott Smith, or that this is the movie that will serve as an introduction in the years to come for those who know nothing about Townes.

It's not hard to imagine someone making a film like Be Here To Love Me about William Eggleston — which is what makes In The Real World so refreshing. Shot almost entirely on cheap video, Almereyda's film begins with a long static shot of Eggleston and his assistant son wandering around Kentucky in the winter, snapping pictures. Eggleston is awkwardly bundled in an oversize parka, and his only comments are fragmentary mumbles. You aren't sure, at first, what you are watching, or why. Unlike Be Here To Love Me, which wastes almost no time in setting up a conventional rise-and-fall narrative for its viewers, In The Real World starts us at the bottom. The opening flattens any expectations we might have about Eggleston's story, or how Almereyda will tell it to us. Over the course of the film, Almereyda steadily kneads information into that initial shot of a non-communicative, limping old man with a camera: a clean and eloquent narration that elucidates Eggleston's photography; footage of a drunk Eggleston drawing pictures on the couch of his dying friend late one night; a museum slideshow after which Eggleston does his best to field questions from the audience; a moment alone with Eggleston and his wife of forty years, Rosa. Gradually, our perception of Eggleston as an evasive, difficult person shifts to a deep empathy for Eggleston's inability to communicate verbally, on the terms of the “real world.”

In the film's climax, Almereyda presses Eggleston to acknowledge photography as a means of making the intangible concrete. Eggleston furrows his brow. “I never thought about it that way,” he drifts off, mumbling slowly. “The trouble is…whatever it is about pictures — it's just about impossible to follow up with words. They don't have anything to do with each other.” It's the moment at which we empathize completely with Eggleston, and realize how much our own experience of watching, and getting to know, Eggleston is implicated in the film's conclusion. This is the kind of complex, highly charged and personal revelation documentaries aim for — the kind of moment that Be Here To Love Me, with its stacks of talking head interviews and plagiarized Heartworn clips, simply can't reach.

These films are most enlightening seen together. They reveal much about their subjects, but even more about how we talk about such subjects. With movies like Unforgivable Blackness: The Jack Johnson Story, and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, not to mention the dozens of True Hollywood Stories airing on TV every day, the documentary biopic is now doing more to shape our view of famous figures than ever before. For as long as we're interested in learning, and talking about, our heroes, movies like these will matter. William Eggleston In The Real World is proof of how eloquent, and relevant, such conversation can be, but if Be Here To Love Me is the best of what we want to say about someone like Townes Van Zandt, maybe it's better to not talk at all.

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