Reality Bites

Washington City Paper | October 20, 2005
Cynics have suggested that Hollywood loves no subject more than itself. And Reel Paradise proves that you don't need a big studio--or even the pretense of fiction--to make a self-important movie about movies. In Steve James' new documentary, an independent film producer searches for the most remote movie theater in the world, then decides to run it for a year. He moves his wife and two children--about as enthused as their romantic-comedy counterparts might be--from suburban New York to rural Fiji, where he begins to hold free screenings at an abandoned theater. The locals are delighted; a film crew captures it all.

That life-is-beautiful vibe lasts for just about a half-hour. James, director of 1994's Hoop Dreams, showed up for only the final month of John Pierson's 2002 project, and he doesn't shy away from footage proving that, by then, the sheen had worn off the idea of a for-the-people cinematic heaven. Pierson is introduced as a goofy movie buff, the enthusiastic backer of such once-unknown auteurs as Spike Lee, Michael Moore, and Kevin Smith, whose View Askew helped finance the doc, and whose Chasing Amy Pierson helped finance. The producer discovered the 180 Meridian Cinema, a one-house on the island of Taveuni, for an episode of his late-'90s TV show, Split Screen, in which he set out to visit the most far-flung theater he could find.

He's shown shrugging off annoyances such as the constant filthiness of the venue and an unreliable projectionist. ("Domingo's drunk," reports a kid sent off to find the employee.) And he beams when he needs to stop a horde of children from running into the theater when he opens its doors, talking giddily about how profound the moviegoing experience can be--even when the bookings are Hollywood dreck such as Bringing Down the House or stupidity-celebrating crowd favorite Jackass: The Movie.

Pierson doesn't stay goofy for long, however. Reel Paradise soon veers into reality-TV territory, becoming more about the Pierson clan than the producer's experiment. We see Pierson screaming at his landlord when the family's apartment is robbed and bitching about disorganization and apathetic attitudes on the island. His gee-whiz attitude toward his overenthusiastic and restless audience quickly turns into such Hollywood-worthy tirades as "This is the bullshit I can't take. Get in or get out!"

James also devotes a lot of time to the Piersons' bratty kids, showing 16-year-old Georgia ignoring her parents' rules and 13-year-old Wyatt opining that independent films are box-office suicide because they're so boring--though the boy is vindicated when a program of student films results in walk-outs. Both mouth off. Though Pierson and his equally no-nonsense wife, Janet Pierson, do sometimes get frustrated with their children, the parents' commentary about any given situation usually runs along the lines of "We love how strong and stubborn they are!" John's blather about how he believes Wyatt is "going to do great, great, great, great things" is particularly blinkered.

Although James' glimpses of the Piersons confronting Fijian culture can be compelling--clergy at the local Catholic church briefly accuse him of undermining the islanders' spiritual lives--the director gets so wrapped up in the family's self-involvement that all else seems forgotten. It's fun to see the Fijians drown out comedies with their laughter, less fun to see Apocalypse Now get a similar (if more subdued) reaction. It's telling that only Wyatt questions Pierson's showing of the latter; both the producer and his director seem to have little real interest in probing the sociological significance of this vanity project.

Perhaps that's because there's little of consequence that results from Pierson's year in Fiji: He came; he showed movies; he left. The Fijians stayed--and, at least according to Reel Paradise's overlong, voyeuristic 110 minutes, stayed about the same. James tacks on a quick statement from Pierson at the end, about how the communal viewing of a good film can feel like "a cure for all that ails you." But like the documentary itself, Pierson's project doesn't suggest anything too meaningful: It was just something to do.

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