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From a purely narrative perspective, it would have been convenient if the 180 Meridian Cinema, on the Fijian island of Taveuni, had more in common with the Royal Theater, of Archer City, Texas, whose demise was used to represent the closing of several different frontiers, in The Last Picture Show

Like Peter Bogdanovich’s deeply evocative coming-of-age drama, Steve James’ bittersweet documentary, Reel Paradise, could have ended with a lonely farewell to an iconic institution in the middle of nowhere. Instead of Red River, the title on the fading marquee might have been … well, Jackass.

How’s that for a buzz kill?

Actually, the last picture shown at the 180 Meridian Cinema, before its American proprietor scampered back to America with his family, was Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr. But, it could very easily have been Jackass: the Movie, which, when it was shown at the 180 Meridian, caused enough of a storm that it was banned by Fiji’s Censor Board, as being “too gross and abusive for our multiracial society.”

If Jackass had been the last film shown before the theater temporarily closed its doors it’s conceivable that John Pierson’s legacy would have been reduced to introducing the dirt-poor children of Taveuni to shopping-cart-slalom races, jock-strap bungee jumps and the conscription of rental cars for demolition derbies.

Like so many Melanesian cargo-cultists, the youth of Taveuni would worship Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O and Bam Margera from afar, preying for a miracle on the order of a refurbished S.S. Minnow washing up on their shores. Village elders would wait patiently at dockside for the day the Piersons returned to paradise with a fresh print of Jackass: the Movie and DVDs of Don’t Try This at Home.

“Well, there aren’t any shopping carts on Taveuni, and no one wears jock straps,” Pierson said in his defense. “The audience did laugh hysterically throughout much of the film, but there were other things, which made no sense to them. The scene in which the guys took a rental car to a demolition derby elicited hardly a peep.

“For one thing, there’s no way to rent a car on the island. So, when they took out full insurance coverage, entered the car in a demolition derby and said to the stunned sales agent, ‘Why are you hassling me, it’s got a full tank of gas?,’ it had no meaning to them.”

The Censor Board, Pierson conceded, had a better case. Its members apparently were more concerned about the scenes in which the lads’ rowdy antics freaked out Japanese store owners.

“Most of the shops in Fiji are owned by Indians,” he added. “The board was concerned that the native Fijians would act out scenes from the movie in Indian-owned stores.”

Indeed, the Pierson family -- dad John, mom Janet, son Wyatt, daughter Georgia (imagine a sitcom version of The Mosquito Coast) -- was filmed debating whether such copy-cat behavior was an inevitable by-product of any movie, let alone Jackass.

Janet was adamant in her concerns, and advised against screening the film. John was quick to point out that Jackass was simply a contemporary version of the Three Stooges, who, even when mocking island cultures in their short, ‘Some More of Samoa,’ always left audiences in stitches.

The priests and nuns of the local Roman Catholic high school had similar concerns about the Piersons’ cultural mission. Foremost in their list of grievances was Pierson’s free-admission policy, which, they feared, might cause the natives to lose the motivation to work, and choose attendance at the cinema over evening Mass. (They also took literally John’s hyperbolic, if harmless comparisons to such stars as Curly as “gods.”)

While Pierson grudgingly agreed to certain compromises over show times and other turf battles, he was steadfast in the ticket policy. If he started charging for admission, one of two scenarios would play out, 1) the locals would cut into their meager household budgets for the privilege of being entertained, or 2) no one would show up.

Access to satellite-delivered entertainment on the island was sparse, and, while pirated DVDs were readily available, the same couldn’t be said of dependable sources of electricity. The other nearest theater was hours away by boat.

Clearly, Pierson’s mission to Fiji was one of love for the cinema, not a desire to profit from it. His reward came in watching audiences laugh uproariously at all the right moments, and cry together when prompted by the performances they were watching on the screen.

Although his challenge easily could be construed as some sort of intellectual parlor game, there’s no question that Pierson was in need of some extreme R&R.

For most of his adult life, he had championed the cause of independent film in a tough pre-Miramax marketplace. He helped launch the careers of Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, Michael Moore and Richard Linklater, among others, and authored Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes. John and Janet were partners in several ventures, including the IFC show Split Screen.

In 2002, Pierson fell in love with the idea of purchasing the “most remote” cinema in the world, and running it as a combination art-, revival- and second-tier theater. Somehow, he convinced Janet and their children -- who were 16 and 13 at the time -- to trade the wilds of New York, for one year, anyway, for tropical idyll in the South Pacific.

The 1977 graduate of the NYU film school enlisted the support -- financial and otherwise -- of several of the now-important filmmakers, whose work he had supported. Along with a Smith-brokered deal with the Weinsteins, their contributions allowed Pierson to show a disparate menu of films in the 180 Meridian, which was built in 1954 and could seat 280 in its raked auditorium.

Although Janet initially was reluctant to be a play a central role in Reel Paradise, she eventually warmed to the idea.

“Besides loving Steve's work, it was important to me how much he appreciates being married and loves his own kids,” she explained. “I believed he's a filmmaker who's sensitive to all his subjects, not at all condescending. It meant a great deal, too, that P.H. O'Brien, our longtime friend and ‘Split Screen collaborator, was going to shoot the film.

“He came over and spent a month before the shoot just hanging out and experiencing Fijian life.”

For James, the job of directing Reel Paradise represented something of a returned favor. Pierson had been an early cheerleader for Hoop Dreams, and they regularly exchanged phone calls, e-mails and Christmas cards.

“My film, Stevie, was at Sundance 2003, and I received an e-mail from John, wishing me good luck,” James recalled. “He also asked if I might consider coming to Fiji and directing a documentary on the family’s experiences there, which I’d been following on their website.”

Since the documentary already was fully funded, and O’Brien was in place, all James would have to do was show up and shoot.

The intention was to film the final month of the Piersons’ sojourn, which was expected to culminate in a 10-day film festival. Nothing to it.

Instead, several other scenarios began playing out in real time. Among them, a dispiriting break-in at the Piersons’ home (their second), confrontations with a belligerent Aussie landlord, John’s bout with dengue fever, conflicts with the clergy, Georgia resisting Janet’s well-meant advice and curfew, Wyatt’s dissing of his parents’ beloved indie-film movement, an absentee (and presumed drunken) projectionist, a capricious power generator and missing passports.

“The Pierson family was the heart of this film, not what it said about the impact of the movies on the natives or any other kind of cultural statement,” James allowed. “In that way it’s like Hoop Dreams and Stevie. They would argue, but never lose their senses of humor.

“For everything that went on, there was an underlying connection between them. In this way, the film is subtle, but revealing.”

Perhaps the film’s most telling moment comes when Wyatt is required to fill in for his sick father and introduce Apocalypse Now Redux at the 180 Meridian.

Despite the boy’s reservations about the exhibition of films neither he nor the audience is likely to enjoy -- free or otherwise -- Wyatt handles the task admirably. Meanwhile, outside, John was captured peeking through a window and beaming with pride.

James put the final budget at $500,000, typical for a bare-bones documentary these days. The biggest problem came in the licensing of material from the movies shown in the theater, while the camera was rolling.

The filmmakers caught a break from the participants in Jackass, Bringing Down the House, Chicago and Johnny English. They weren’t so fortunate with rights holders to the Bollywood pictures shown, alongside studio and indie products from Hollywood, Australia, New Zealand and Asia.

“In years past, we might have shot the images on the screen and not thought twice about putting them in a documentary, because it was under the cover of journalism,” James said. “Today, with documentaries being presented as entertainment, distributors are demanding clearances, for their protection. It can be expensive.”

Although Miramax put up the money for Reel Paradise, the company allowed the producers to shop it around when relations with Disney got choppy. It is being distributed by Wellspring Media.

The Piersons now reside in Austin, where John teaches film at the university and Janet is on the board of the city’s film society. They are preparing a boxed set of Split Screen episodes for DVD.

Wyatt is in high school (basically, back at the same level as before he left), and Georgia is attending the Culinary Academy of Austin. Both have since returned to Fiji on vacation, and remain in contact with friends there.

As for the fate of the 180 Meridan, Pierson said that he’d love for other burned-out cineastes to consider working vacations in Fiji, where they could program his theater-at-the-end-of-rainbow to their heart’s content.

“They could think of it as a revolving time-share,” he quipped.

September 2 , 2005
- Gary Dretzka

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