Binge-Worthy #8: Stranded In Canton (William Eggleston, 1974/2005)

Binge-Worthy is a series that explores films made by iconic photographers.

“I am at war with the obvious.” – William Eggleston

Stranded in Canton, William Eggleston’s lone foray into filmmaking, somehow manages the neat trick of being both strikingly similar to and completely different from his still photography. Assembled from video footage shot in Memphis, New Orleans, and Greenwood, Mississippi throughout 1974, it’s a non-narrative, quasi-home video that grabs your attention immediately and never lets go. It’s rough, intimate, sublime, disturbing, occasionally profound, determinedly weird, and endlessly fascinating. And, like several of Eggleston’s classic photobooks, it’s an understated, unassuming masterpiece.

Shot on black-and-white reel-to-reel videotape, Stranded is comprised of short vignettes featuring a number of eccentric personalities. Eggleston’s approach could almost be described as ethnographic. However, it’s far more personal. (After all, this was his world as well at the time.) He mainly focuses on a coterie of garrulous and gregarious drunks and eccentrics living on the margins, as they channel their creativity and acquiesce to various transgressive urges. Glimpses of Eggleston’s immediate family and close relatives add some balance to the proceedings.

Eggleston has described his photographs as excerpts from an unfinished novel, and that could sum up the various strands in Stranded as well. An inebriated small-town dentist waxes poetic. A mercurial artist performs a borderline-unspeakable act involving a beer bottle. A tightly coiled country singer brandishes a firearm. Passions erupt and tempers flare. These are cinema verité sketches with a distinctly Southern Gothic flavor.

The film opens with a sustained video portrait of Eggleston’s two children that’s reminiscent of Diane Arbus’s work. There are a number of instances throughout where individuals mug for the camera or otherwise interact with “Egg” (as they call him). Yet, just as often, he is able to record unobtrusively, even when his camera is only inches away from someone. His video camera restlessly winds its way through the various proceedings, searching for the right angle, or perhaps for a different way to capture the scenes that are unfolding around him.

While it’s clear that Eggleston prefers intimate moments over spectacle, it’s also clear that he’s drawn to the performative, whether it be a fantastic blues harmonica riff or an inebriated drag queen’s wobbly attempt at cabaret singing. Late in the movie, there’s a “shockumentary” mondo-style scene that involves a circus geek biting the head off of a live chicken to the drunken jeers of a rowdy audience. How does one seek out a genuine moment in the midst of such a violent and garish performance? I would argue that in the close-up of the geek’s cruelly self-satisfied mouth after completing his act, two gold front teeth gleaming, a stray feather stuck to his chin, Eggleston finds it.

man with sunglasses and hat holding a gun
Country singer Jerry McGill appears in William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton

Similar to Robert Frank, Morris Engel, and other photographers in this series, Eggleston was shooting fast and loose with minimal equipment and working more or less on his own, employing a largely photographic approach to the new medium. He was also taking advantage of new and innovative technology—in this case, the first video camera manufactured for the consumer market, the Sony Portapak. The Portapak was relatively lightweight, unobtrusive, and easy to use. It featured synchronous sound and decent motion reduction that made it conducive to handheld shooting.

Eggleston saw the video camera as a radical invention comparable to the 35mm camera in terms of its potential game-changing significance. He retrofitted his Portapak with a 16mm film camera lens and an infrared picture tube for low light conditions. The lens gave increased clarity, enabled shooting from a closer distance, and resulted in a shallower depth of field. The heat-sensing vacuum tube resolved tricky lighting issues while giving everything an otherworldly sheen.

A major drawback to using reel-to-reel videotape was that there was no easy way to edit it, so the footage languished unseen for decades. However, a 2001 digital restoration enabled the dozens of hours that Eggleston shot to be cleanly edited into a tight 80-minute film. It was released on DVD in 2005, alongside a book comprised of hauntingly ethereal stills pulled from the finished version.

The editing is as fluid as the camerawork. There isn’t anything that one would deem extraneous—it’s taut and fierce, no small accomplishment. Given the sheer amount of footage, Stranded could have easily would up sprawling and unshapen. A great deal of credit goes to film editor Robert Gordon for giving shape and rhythm to the film. It unfolds like a jazz composition, with variations on themes and recurring motifs. And given Eggleston’s musicality, perhaps that should come as no surprise.

woman with eyes closed
A video still from William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton

Like many, I’ve spent a lot of time staring at Eggleston’s photographs, trying to untangle the mysteries in them and struggling to put into words the rationale behind why I think they’re so incredibly good. As curator and art historian Phillip Prodger writes in Portraits, they have a fundamental inscrutability about them: “Their meaning is open-ended, and their emotional impact is uncontrived. In terms of narrative, they offer provocation without resolution.” The same could be said about practically every moment in Stranded. (Heck, the same could be said just about the title itself.) It’s a significant work from a legendary photographer–and one of the greatest chroniclers of the American South–defiantly following his own muse.

Stranded In Canton (directed by William Eggleston). Video (B/W), 77 min., 1974/2005.

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