Souther-fried nocturne

Pub date December 10, 2008
WriterErik Morse
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

A drunkard’s lament. A bluesman’s wail. The mischievous grin of children. A carnival geek’s chicken act. Seething with images of the mundane and transmundane, photographer William Eggleston’s lost film Stranded in Canton is an extraordinary exegesis on the ordinary. After 35 years on the museum and midnight movie circuits, Stranded has finally been given a proper DVD release by art publisher Twin Palms. This version, distilled to a reasonable 76 minutes, originates from more than 30 hours of film shot by Eggleston between 1973 and 1974 on a hand-held Sony Porta-pak as he traveled within the Southern golden triangle of Memphis, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Delta.

In his quest to turn the home movie into an art form, Eggleston inventoried the people and places (both beautiful and ugly) that surrounded him. While the placid daylight moments are glorious, it is the sinister images that have guaranteed Stranded its nefarious legend. Armed with a newly developed infrared tube, the videographer was able to submerge into the half-lit netherworlds of juke joints, road houses, and pool halls — which grew like polyps on the plains of Dixie — and record impromptu epic flagellations of the poets and paupers therein.

Watching Stranded in Canton, it becomes apparent there is a common thread binding it to its predecessors: Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s 1966 Chelsea Girls, and Joseph Cornell’s 1936 Rose Hobart. Whether in the speed-addled monologues of a New York "superstar" or the re-splicing of B-movie exotica, each shares with Stranded an emphasis on a vernacular of the ordinary. Under the focus of the "democratic camera," the colloquial — prattle, refuse, apocrypha — is recontextualized and transformed as fantasy. Critic Richard Woodward characterizes Eggleston’s vision as "a belief that by looking patiently at what others ignore or look away from, interesting things can be seen." Far from boring, everydayness in this sense gains the arch importance of situationism. Or as Henri Lefebvre defined it, "It is everyday life which measures and embodies the change which takes place ‘somewhere else,’ in the ‘higher realism.’"

Might we venture to say, then, that Stranded in Canton is the home-movie equivalent of Gone with the Wind? Probably not. But it is remarkable nonetheless.