Best known for 2000’s millennial Hamlet, Michael Almereyda consistently integrates the avant-garde into the narrative: Some of his first features were shot on Fisher-Price Pixelvision camera, automatically threatening them with novelty status. His new work, Paradise, opens this year’s Film Comment Selects. It’s a kind of essay-film composed of video diaries that Almereyda has shot over the years (tourists buying rugs in Iran, Sonic Youth battling sound problems in France), with strategically placed blackouts to divide the movie into four parts. Like 2002’s Happy Here and Now, its seemingly disparate parts create a euphoric whole. (“Glad to be considered an optimist,” he noted in response to a question, “even while squinting into a murky future.”) Checking in from a writer’s retreat at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, Almereyda offered some illumination on his sometimes inscrutable film.
How long have you been filming footage for Paradise?
I got a Sony DV camera for location scouting on Hamlet, fall of ’98, and I’ve been using DV cameras ever since, casually recording people and places. I had a notion I could do something with the footage—every so often, you know when you’ve shot something remarkable, and it makes sense to keep track of it and share it. But I didn’t have a specific plan for Paradise until applying for a Guggenheim grant in 2004. As Jonathan Lethem put it, it’s a found-footage film made from the filmmaker’s home movies.
Your narrative films seem increasingly guided by avant-garde strategies as much as narrative ones. And Paradise seems like a sort of culmination, with you abandoning narrative altogether.
Paradise doesn’t seem like any kind of culmination to me—or a departure, as some other people have said. I think of it as another spoke in a wheel, and I’m hoping that the wheel keeps turning, that I’ll get back to narrative films, soon, so your question catches me in a defensive crouch. Wasn’t Hamlet, for all its “avant-garde strategies,” a clear and concise telling of that familiar story? Also, not so long ago, I happily directed an episode of Deadwood. So I’d like to think I have an arsenal of standard narrative skills.
I don’t feel I’m abandoning narrative in Paradise. It’s like saying I’m abandoning dry land because I’ve decided to go swimming. Spoofy vampire movies, modern-dress Shakespeare adaptations, and unclassifiable, low-budget, New Orleans–based, sci-fi movies would seem to invite—or demand—a certain level of playfulness. By contrast, Paradise is a fairly sober undertaking, even if the stories it tells tend to be fragmentary.
You seem to be New Orleans’ preeminent chronicler these days. [Paradise features the city, and both Happy Here and Now and New Orleans, Mon Amour take place there.] What first drew you to the city?
I first came to New Orleans in 1988 or ’89, with the nominal excuse of hanging out on the set of Miller’s Crossing. I tend to go there at least once a year. But I’ve come to feel that the place is movie-proof. The city is so naturally dramatic, it doesn’t need or want a chronicler; it resists being put into any sort of narrative box. Fiction just waters it down. The one non-documentary film that people in New Orleans actually like is Jarmusch’s Down by Law, most of which takes place in a prison, then a swamp. Almost every other attempt comes off as a hapless caricature. Which is why this may be my best New Orleans film. There are just three episodes shot there, straight observation, undiluted.
Would you care to shed a little light on the film’s four movements?
The best filmmakers, I’ve noticed, tend to avoid this kind of talk, but Paradise is oblique and seemingly casual enough to fool people into thinking it’s incoherent, so why not try to spell things out? The first section: “Innocence.” Second section: “Experience” (which isn’t meant as the opposite of innocence so much as its muddled extension). Third section could be considered “Work,” but I was thinking more in terms of “Art & Commerce”—again, not a conflict, but a duality, twin measures for understanding life as it moves beyond the freedom of childhood. The fourth section is perhaps more prosaic and literal-minded. It carries echoes of the first three passages and could be called: “America in the Early Part of the 21st Century, Sad but Beautiful.” Then there’s the coda.
The trouble with talking about the movie in these terms is that it gives little indication that it might be funny, or urgent, or magical, which I hope, now and then, it is.
Paradise screens 6:30 p.m. February 20 at the Walter Reade Theater and will be followed by a conversation between Almereyda and Lethem