Imagine each of us arrives in this life equipped with a kino-eye, and that we’re given the task of producing a mix-tape of our favorite sights and impressions. Michael Almereyda has turned in his first draft of the assignment, Paradise, and it’s a film intoxicated by the exponential possibilities of its form. Bookended by images of moving walkways—the obvious symbol of time propelling us relentlessly forward—it isn’t so much obsessed with detailing the way we live now as with the intricacies of nowness itself. Scene after scene, the filmmaker plunges us in medias res, and we wait for a surprise, a punchline: a boy accidentally falling into a swimming pool; a Sonic Youth concert stopped short by technical difficulty; drops of rainwater fanning out on an airplane windshield. The question, though, becomes: how much curiosity can we muster for people we don’t know, and for everyday events we may feel we know all too well? Repeated viewings of Paradise reveal a transfixing and richly patterned patchwork, but on the first try it feels like alien territory, and it can be difficult to find one’s way in.
It’s helpful to consider Paradise first as a slightly more challenging offshoot of 2005’s William Eggleston in the Real World, a documentary that found Almereyda shedding the tongue-in-cheek cleverness of his first decade of filmmaking (which culminated in his exhilarating, schizophrenic update of Hamlet in 2000), and beginning to adopt the great photographer’s mission to make art out of every ordinary thing. This tension between aesthetic ambition and surface modesty is registered within the first few moments of Paradise, when the opening credits couple the film’s Dantesque title with a humbler admission: “Work in progress.” But the disclaimer isn’t meant to imply that the film hasn’t already been lovingly crafted; instead, it undermines the notion of a totalizing work of art in which every choice bears the mark of perfect inevitability. In the post-Eggleston world, where even the most quotidian sights cry out for artistic representation, the pretense of finality has been rendered quaint.
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