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Family way

Talking with Chicagoan Steve James about what's reel in "Paradise"

By Ray Pride

There is an instant, an exquisite, tingly fraction of an instant near the beginning of "Reel Paradise"--Steve James' documentary about a month at the end of a year spent running a movie theater at the edge of the world in Taveuni, Fiji by abrasive, larger- and skinnier-than-life onetime film projectionist and prototypical New Yorker, indie film icon John Pierson and his family--that seems to typify what a documentary filmmaker like James does so well. Establishing the family in quick deft strokes, we hear Pierson's wife Janet explaining how she feared losing touch with the world back home from a 5,000-mile distance and for her teenagers, Wyatt, 13, and Georgia, 16, but Janet has her laptop and there are phone lines even cheek-by-jowl with the International Dateline; the camera pans left toward the window, framing the fantastic greenery outside and the bright, bright sky, and we hear the squawk of a modem handshake, of her computer making connection with a larger network, the world outside, the world inside, and James cuts to a panning shot of her daughter in a rushing sluiceway of water, the sound of the two modems and the white gushing flow, first a whisper, now a roar, seamlessly combining, effortlessly and quietly describing a couple of moments, a few glimmerings of insight about distance and globalization and imposing oneself on the hopes and lives of others, a juxtaposition that comes into being only in editing, the artful construction of moments observed, vigilant yet without judgment. Refreshingly, "Reel Paradise" is passionate and heartfelt in its glimpses of movies, people and sheer renegade optimism.

After its Sundance debut, "Reel Paradise" (co-produced by Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier), got any number of reviews that tacitly suggested the critics didn't care for Pierson, ignoring the quiet strengths of this fine, funny film. While Pierson exults at the reaction of the local citizenry to the basest of slapstick--Queen Latifah's pratfalls in "Bringing Down the House," anyone?--the piss is taken with regularity, bringing down his ego, as well as a memorably intoxicated Australian landlord and Wyatt's apt rebuke of "Gangs of New York" as "boring." Put a camera on a family and from "American Family" (1973) onward, you have some kind of reality, and it's sweet to see it not being the trashy satisfaction of rigged "reality television."

Such approaches may have prepared audiences to accept documentary styles yet undiscovered, willing to accept a look and narrative momentum that is close and ragged, instead of polished, distant and cold like narrative, fiction movies. But James thinks it's all distillation. "Editing is the heart of storytelling in documentaries," James says. "You're God. When you're out there filming, you have to be spinning a story in your head because otherwise you don't know what to shoot or not to shoot. So you're conjuring the story as you learn more. That's fun, exciting, to think on your feet. But when you get in the edit room, trying to distill all that into something resembling a real story." James works with modest crews, but prefers sound recording to shooting. "I don't have the skill down of being able to look and look at the same time, you are limited to frame. I think it's better to do sound, you can look around, you take it in a more raw way."

"Increasingly, I'm fascinated with telling the stories of people who are complicated, and to preserve that complexity," he says. "For me, `Stevie' was a real personal breakthrough. `Hoop Dreams' has complexity, I'm not saying it doesn't, but `Stevie' [about a troubled, poor grownup who James met when he was his "Big Brother"] was more of a challenge, because at the heart of it there was a character that people don't want to know about and have very strong negative feelings about [as they're] going in. To do a film that was honest and didn't whitewash the main subject but at the same time, tried to get people to look at him in a different way, to think about what he represents in a different way. Even though he's guilty, we're not going to have the Hollywood ending where he's innocent after all so that we can breathe easy. I realized that`s the kind of film I want to make, ones that take more challenging subject matter, more challenging characters, and find a way to tell that story."

James, who comes from a family of four and has three children of his own, could be marked as a man fixated on family: that of blood and basketball in "Hoop Dreams"; that of abuse and of mentoring gone awry in "Stevie"; the privileged Piersons at war, no more, no less dysfunctional than any other family, serving as an undercurrent to their kino-evangelism at the 180 Meridian. I venture that James' movies are about overcoming interrupted family dynamics, understanding what's broken about a home, whether matters of class, race, geography, damage, or simply being a family out of water. It's too obvious, of course: James says, "Family's always been a fascination and always will be for me."

"Reel Paradise" opens Friday at the Music Box.

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