August 17, 2005

REEL PARADISE

by Kent Turner

Former indie film representative and author John Pierson (Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes) takes his family to the Southwest Pacific island of Taveuni to run a movie theater in one of the most remote corners of the world. With icons Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny painted on its outside wall, the aptly-named 180 Meridian Cinema sits on the International Date Line. Besides charging no admission, Pierson draws the local population into its 288 seats by carefully programming according to their taste: "two Hot Chicks for every Rabbit-Proof Fence, if not three," according to Pierson. One night it's Jackass (hugely popular judging from the peels of laughter); the next, Apocalypse Now Redux. Also going over like gangbusters is Buster Keaton's silent classic comedy Steamboat Bill, Jr., which makes one tempted to jump on the next plane.

The documentary covers the last emotional and action-packed month of the family's stay. The misfortunes that fall upon the house of Pierson are almost staggering: computer equipment worth thousands of dollars is stolen from their home; Pierson is stricken with the potentially deadly dengue fever while his teenage daughter is out late running around with teenage boys (and at one point sports golf-ball-size hickeys). And that's just at home. In the dusty theatre, two projectionists don't show up - they're too drunk to work. But the show must go on: another projectionist arrives the next night - only to project the movie upside down.

Shot on video, Reel Paradise would certainly appeal to the film buff, but its attraction really lies with the engrossing profile of this family living on its own Mosquito Coast. It's all in the casting: the imperious, aggravated paterfamilias; the peacemaker mother; the confrontational daughter; and the observant 13-year-old Wyatt, who takes after his father more than he probably realizes - he already has an astute sense of what will prove successful and why. Although he's not completely right - the pensive Apocalypse Now Redux isn't a complete bomb. Having worked for nearly 30 years in the independent film sector, both parents are camera savvy. Janet Pierson disarmingly confides to the camera, "I'm a parent, but I don't feel like I have the instincts for it." But the same can't be said for her 16-year-old daughter. Janet isn't far off the mark when she accuses the rebellious Georgia of acting for the camera.

Given their status, the community accepts the Americans, except for some grumbling and rumor mongering. Before their departure, they're feted to a heartfelt sendoff (like the Piersons themselves, the film takes its time saying good-bye). But sadly, after providing a slew of films and a social scene, once the Piersons return to the US, the Meridian's doors shut, closed to business.

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