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 Bogdanovichs
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
Hows 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 Keatons 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 Fijis Censor Board, as being
too gross and abusive for our multiracial society.
had been the last film shown before the theater temporarily closed its doors
its conceivable that John Piersons 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 Dont Try
This at Home.
Well, there arent 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,
theres 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, its 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.
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
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 Piersons 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 Johns hyperbolic,
if harmless comparisons to such stars as Curly as gods.)
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
Access to satellite-delivered entertainment on the island was sparse,
and, while pirated DVDs were readily available, the same couldnt be said
of dependable sources of electricity. The other nearest theater was hours away
Clearly, Piersons 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, theres
no question that Pierson was in need of some extreme R&R.
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.
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
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 familys experiences there, which Id been following
on their website.
Since the documentary already was fully funded,
and OBrien 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.
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, Johns bout with dengue fever, conflicts with the clergy,
Georgia resisting Janets well-meant advice and curfew, Wyatts dissing
of his parents beloved indie-film movement, an absentee (and presumed drunken)
projectionist, a capricious power generator and missing passports.
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 its like Hoop Dreams and Stevie.
They would argue, but never lose their senses of humor.
that went on, there was an underlying connection between them. In this way, the
film is subtle, but revealing.
Perhaps the films 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 boys
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 werent 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
The Piersons now reside in Austin, where John teaches film at the
university and Janet is on the board of the citys film society. They are
preparing a boxed set of Split Screen episodes for DVD.
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 hed 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 hearts content.
They could think of it as a revolving
time-share, he quipped.
2 , 2005
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