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Reel Paradise (2004)
John Pierson's adventure in Reel Paradise is hauntingly similar, though somewhat more successful. As old-school indie film supporter, producer, and star of IFC's Split Screen, Pierson found himself bored after four years of dragging himself to student film festivals and low-budget junkets, and he struck on the idea of visiting the most remote movie theater in the world. He found it -- or one of them, anyway -- on the Fijian island of Taveuni, a 300-some seat movie theater which he promptly purchased.
Call it a midlife crisis, if you will. Pierson uprooted his family to Taveuni for a year to run the 180 Meridian Cinema, for reasons which aren't entirely clear. It's certainly not a business endeavor: Taveuni is dirt poor, and Pierson exhibited many movies for free. Or call it a social experiment, to see what a mass influx of Hollywood product, from The 3 Stooges to X-Men to Jackass might do to natives that still do their laundry by beating it with a stick.
Documentarian Steve James (best known for Hoop Dreams) captured the last month of Pierson's family's life on Taveuni, with curious results. As you might expect, there's good and bad. When we first see the cinema's audience as they scream in genuine terror and laughter during a Stooges flick, we see exactly why Pierson is doing what he's doing. The natives seem to think that an alligator really will bite off Curly's head, so they shriek in horror. When he later falls into a pot, it's laughter unlike anything I've ever heard in a movie theater. Good thing the dialogue is irrelevant -- this is true joy, exhibited without an iota of self-consciousness. We also get an inkling into the human condition, and we begin to understand why unchallenging films like The Hot Chick -- a staple of Pierson's -- work so well with a broad swath of the population.
On the flipside, James captures a ton of footage of Pierson scraping bottom -- which is unfortunately the 22 hours of the day when he's not showing movies at the theater. He gets robbed. He contracts a serious fever. He's resented as a rich outsider. The local Catholic church slanders him when a fight erupts. He squabbles with 16-year-old daughter Georgia -- who's running with a bad crowd and earning a reputation as the island ho. Wife Janet obviously hates island life, but she puts on a brave face. At least younger son Wyatt is the good kid, filling in for dad when he can't get out of bed.
As a story about culture clashes and one man's strange, Quixotic quest to bring movies to a poor, undeveloped country, Reel Paradise is sometimes thought-provoking and, for brief flashes, fascinating. If nothing else, it will convince you that your dream of retiring to an island to sip mai tais is about as far from the truth as it gets.
What Reel Paradise is desperately lacking is any sense of being cinematic. It's a cheap video production that feels like a TV documentary -- and at 110 minutes, a ridiculously long and repetitive one, at that. Hoop Dreams had an epic sense of scope that spanned four years. Reel Paradise gives us a quick few weeks in the life of one of independent cinema's most influential men. Given that Hoop Dreams was three hours long, equal time would have given Pierson's story five or ten minutes at most. Even at a full half hour, Paradise could have been a great short film.