February 25, 2009
Something like an unconstructed take on Peter Mettler's epic essay film, Gambling, Gods and LSD, Michael Almereyda's Paradise similarly assembles a series of fragmentary, cross-cultural, quotidian images taken from the filmmaker's video diaries that reflect on fundamental human questions of life, existential purpose, and transcendence. In an early episode in the film, a man passing through a bleak winter landscape impulsively stops on the side of a road in order to photograph cattle grazing in a pasture, risking injury to capture an ephemeral moment of austere beauty. In another episode, the tables are turned, and nature intrudes on civilization in the shot of pigeons perched on a child who has been feeding the birds at a cobblestone town square. In Los Angeles, a group of revelers wend their way through dark, labyrinthine streets of in search of an optimal spot to view fireworks. In a rural town, rambunctious children strike the embers on a charred tree near a barbecue pit, trying to hasten the roasting of a pig. Converging towards Jacques Rivette and Manoel de Oliveira's recurring theme, Almereyda also examines the nature of the stage and spectacle in a shot of a tented, outdoor concert that becomes the site of a secondary "performance" in the silhouette of dogs playfully responding to the attention of unseen bystanders behind the screen (a shot that loosely evokes the shot of curious onlookers milling around a Roman-era excavation site in José Luis Guerín's En Construcción). Less cohesive and visually arresting than Gambling, Gods and LSD, Paradise repeatedly resorts to familiar tropes of children at play to reflect essential ideas of innocence and paradise lost, paradoxically framing moments of enlightenment as trite, self-conscious observations.