"You'll want to take your desert-island movie and strangle Pierson with it"
“Reel Paradise” is a perfectly good and interesting idea for a documentary film that is hampered only by the fact that it is built around one of the most resolutely annoying and unlikable people to find themselves as the focus of such a project. Even if you are predisposed to liking such a film, he is just such a pill that he makes watching his exploits for 110 minutes feel like the kind of torture that should be covered by the Geneva Convention.The subject in question is John Pierson, the indie-film guru who became one of the architects of the American independent movement of the Eighties and Nineties through his guiding of the early careers and films of Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith and the guys behind “The Blair Witch Project” (and whose book on his adventures, “Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes,” remains the single essential title on the subject). Inspired by a segment about the world’s most remote movie theater, the 180 Meridian located on an isolated island off of Fiji, that was featured on his cable show “Split-Screen,” Pierson offered to go down to the island with his family–wife Janet, teen daughter Georgia and know-it-all son Wyatt–and run the place for an entire year by bringing the likes of “X2,” “The Hot Chick” and “Chicago” to the natives. Not that he doesn’t try to broaden their horizons with things like “Apocalypse Now Redux” but when he tries to experiment by showing a festival of experimental student films from the States, it goes over about as well as your typical festival of experimental films–a thrill if you are one of the filmmakers but kind of nightmarish if you aren’t. In the last month of the year, Pierson had filmmaker Steve James (best known for co-directing “Hoop Dreams”) come down to chronicle his final weeks on the island at the theater.
This might sound like the inspiration for a cute and heartwarming film about the universal language of cinema but it just doesn’t work. This is mostly because Pierson is such an obnoxious and condescending character throughout. He constantly reminds us of his alleged nobility in bringing such masterworks as “Jackass” to the locals (which seems like the cinematic equivalent of giving infected blankets to the Indians). Later on, he shrilly treats the theft of a laptop computer as the crime of the century. He is so grating that even the most indulgent of people will grow sick and tired of him long before the film comes to a merciful end. There are a couple of nice moments here and there–I loved a bit towards the end where the natives respond to the timeless nature of the work of Buster Keaton without complaining that it is a black-and-white silent film–but Pierson’s abrasive personality gives those bits a bitter aftertaste.Presumably, “Reel Paradise” was meant to highlight the profound nobility of John Pierson but he winds up coming off so badly that you might begin to suspect that Rob Weiss must have taken over the direction at some point.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 SXSW Film Festival. For more in the 2005 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.