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Stranded in Canton is an edited collection of video recordings made in the mid 1970s by William Eggleston when he was 25 and living in Tennessee. He bought a new Sony video recorder with a grant and made nearly 30 hours of recordings of his friends. They are mostly at night, in low light, and are in monochrome. Eggleston held the camera close to people's faces, and just photographed what they did. This collection of his work has two extra commentaries, one by Eggleston and one by three of his friends from that time, and the theatrical version also has voiceover by Eggleston. It is possible to view the videos with no commentary. There is also a series of other scenes not included in the theatrical version, and a Q&A with Eggleston and the other editors after a showing at the Toronto Film Festival.
The people shown are a strange collection: criminals, musicians, a cross-dresser, his girlfriend, and many drunk people. There's lots of singing, shouting, posturing, drugs, and some biting the heads of chickens. It makes compulsive watching because it is so strange. The commentaries reveal that several of the people shown ended in violent deaths.
Yet this work is all quite inscrutable and disconcerting. It is certainly original, and its subjects are very distinctive -- one of the commentators mentions Tennessee Williams, which makes perfect sense. Eggleston himself is very slow in his speech now and often quite dogmatic, so it is hard to know what he is getting at. Even though he was one of the first photographers to be recognized as comparable to modern painters in his work, he has largely stayed away from the modern art scene. He has a strong sense of the quality of his own work, but it is hard to know how it fits in with the modern world of photography. This video work is certainly worth seeing for fans of Eggleston, and it brings to mind some of the work of Nan Goldin, in its portrayal of close friends in very frank ways. However, Eggleston's friends are performing form the camera and he is taking advantage of that, so these are not primarily intimate images. Indeed, sometimes they seem to have more in common with a homemade porn video, and would be voyeuristic if Eggleston hadn't been part of the crowd and hadn't been drinking along with the rest of them.
Even after many viewings of this DVD, it retains its power. While it is interesting to get the information in the commentaries, it is best with them turned off, so we get the original footage, maybe with some music added. The atmosphere of revelry shown in tight close up is claustrophobic and the stories people tell are fantastic, almost hallucinogenic after you have heard them a few times. Along with the recent documentaries about Eggleston, In the Real World and By the Ways: A Journey with William Eggleston, this rounds out our understanding of the artist. Much of his work was pioneering in its spontaneous approach, its American themes, and its use of color, and he continues to be a major figure in photography. Whether Stranded in Canton is more than a curious oddity is hard to say, but the DVD comes in a book of stills taken from the videos, and these really draw attention to the visual strength of the video recording. When watching the video, one's attention is drawn to the people we see, but the stills make clear how visually interesting it is.
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.