In Michael Almereyda’s beguiling film William Eggleston in the Real World (2005), Eggleston said of his own work: “I am at war with the obvious.” The photographer had been filmed, in 1976, answering a question at the opening of his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Eggleston takes shots at the obvious: a misbegotten window display; cheerless interior decoration; a shuttered house. He pictures forgotten spaces, in sidelong glances at American culture’s apparent failures or throwaways. He shelters so-called ordinary life, the unremarked-upon objects. Eggleston appears to be a romantic figure from the old school: courtly, handsome, alcoholic, not going quietly into that good night. He wanders in front of the camera, there, not there. Almereyda records Eggleston elusively, letting him hide in plain sight. There are few direct questions, while inter-titles mark the date, event and location. Scenes shift slowly, nothing’s rushed, Eggleston rarely says anything. His son, a photographer himself, assists him wordlessly or in code, present when needed, otherwise invisible.
Almereyda’s portrait of an artist assembles through a wily accretion of images, with no dramatic “plot points” or “arcs.” The viewer creates his or her own narrative, senses what the story might be and, as in any compelling narrative, things don’t or can’t add up. Almereyda’s approach to Eggleston’s art and life is subtle, and though Eggleston has declared war on the “obvious,” his work is also. Eggleston’s images quietly dismiss received ideas of beauty and importance. In his eye, ugliness is no sin, beauty no virtue; they are just cultural and social attitudes that shape perception.
In the film, Eggleston’s nights were very different from his days. Alcohol’s effects settled on him and his friends, and rattled any identifying cage I might set him in. The movie’s lack of comment clarifies the trouble with explanations: they can become heavy-handed guides or judgments. Instead, Almereyda allows encounters and moments to multiply or divide, one incident subtracts an assumption or augments another. An unexpected figure enters into the slippery sum: Eggleston’s wife of many years, mother of his children, doesn’t appear until close to the end of the movie. An elliptical interview with Eggleston by Almereyda occurs even closer to the end, reframing the artist’s image again.
Stories about artists and writers, in novels and movies, usually rely on grating stereotypes, characteristics repeatedly exaggerated in representation. My favorite example comes from a movie Hollywood never released, a life of Franz Schubert. In it, friends beseech the composer more than once: “Why don’t you finish ‘The Unfinished’?” Hollywood is also the source for the term “the reveal.” On a certain page in a script, the heart of the story—usually transplanted during multiple rewrites—should manifest itself, enough so that even on the dullest of minds something can register.
I once wrote a joke-poem to myself, and called it “Do the Obvious.” “Do the obvious / you won’t forget it / do the obvious /you won’t regret it.” (Refrain: “Don’t be afraid to be boring.”) Living holds few subtleties. There’s birth and death, obviously. And everything in between. Teachers of writing and art tell their students, whose hopes must not be crushed—at least not completely—“It’s not what it’s about, it’s how you do it.”
It’s about expectations, everyone remarks, and desire. I heard a story about a guy from Texas, a Jimi Hendrix fanatic. He was with a friend looking at an art book. The Hendrix guy saw a picture of an Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup Can work and exclaimed: “God, that’s stupid.” His friend said: “What you expect to see there is just as stupid.”
All attitudes and positions—positive, negative, neutral, informed, uninformed—betray us. “My education,” Franz Kafka wrote, “has damaged me in ways I do not even know.” I agree, and here want to substitute the word “culture.” It, too, damages in ways we don’t know.
The mayor of Tijuana, Carlos Bustamante, tore down La Ocho, the city’s filthy, infamous jail, a holding pen for big and small criminals, including American college boys. They were arrested after a night of drugs, alcohol, or sex with a prostitute; they had to pay $2,000 to get out of jail. Mayor Bustamente defended La Ocho’s destruction: it represented “the darkest side of Tijuana’s history.” Speaking for that dark side, a well-known chef and restaurant owner, Javier Plascencia, countered, “It was ugly, but it was ours.”
Which brings me to the terrible loss of artist Mike Kelley in January. Kelley was from Detroit and witnessed the collapse of America’s Motor City. Early on, he was part of a group called 112 Destroy All Monsters, school of art, rock, performance. Kelley’s treasury included private obsessions, public frenzies, disgust, American bathos and sub-cultural storage units. Poignant, psychologically raw, stunning, his work did damage to what’s “obvious” and in “good” or “bad” taste. Kelley didn’t destroy all monsters, but he recognized many of them.