The “Paradise” of Michael Almereyda’s new film is an earthly one, a collection of fragments from the filmmaker’s own experiences, shot over years and in different countries and with no more explicit explanation than the patterns that emerge as one segment glides into the next. A sales pitch in a Tehran rug store, a eulogy, a boozy party monologue on Napoleon, a roadside stop to photograph bison, a firework display over Los Angeles, a pause on the set of “The New World” — these moments reverberate off each other, teasing a profound sense of wonder out of the small-scale and the mundane. It’s perhaps the most personal and certainly the least traditional film from Almereyda, whose career has encompassed work as varied as a documentary about photographer William Eggleston, a postmodern New York City vampire tale and a contemporary take on “Hamlet,” with Ethan Hawke playing the brooding prince-as-corporate heir. “Paradise” opened this year’s Film Comment Selects series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and I exchanged emails with the filmmaker about YouTube, travel and the nature of “Paradise” as a self-portrait.
I’m sure I’m forcing this, but there seems something very of-the-moment to “Paradise,” perhaps because not necessarily neatly anecdotal slivers of life, documented in videos, photos and text, have become the basic currency of communication online, though there they rarely accumulate into anything larger. Was there any intention to evoke that with the film?
It’s a fair question, not forced at all. I wanted the movie to seem spontaneous, unsettling and of the moment. And I’ve been highly aware of the way it might mirror a kind of twittering cultural conversation — a language, really — flowing into and out of the Internet, where images, clips and quotes can be plucked at random. Beyond that, I’ve always liked André Malraux’s now-ancient idea of the “museum without walls.” Certain books, he wrote, are museums without walls and, by extension, art history in the age of mechanical reproduction is one vast museum without walls. Of course now, 60 years later, the Internet has flung open the doors and blasted the ceiling off of Malraux’s museum. We’re all like characters in the Godard film [“Band of Outsiders”] racing through the Louvre at breakneck speed. But just because we’re racing doesn’t mean we’re not seeing and thinking. There’s clutter and chaos, but also, for me at least, a heightened element of comprehension and play. Nearly everything in the museum can be revisited and reviewed at any moment, and it’s not necessarily a diminishment to find our sense of reality becoming so fluid, so fragmentary, so collage-like and layered.
But there’s a trick, in making this an index for a movie. As restless and uncentered as “Paradise” may seem, the film has been patiently shaped, each episode is part of a larger framework, planted very consciously so that it anchors or echoes surrounding segments, fits into a whole. YouTube may be, excitingly, a vast, ripe and rotting jungle. This film, however wild it seems, is a garden.
How many years does the footage in “Paradise” span?
Roughly ten years. I first got the camera for location scouting on “Hamlet,” in the fall of 1998. It might be worth mentioning that, with a few notable exceptions, the episodes are generally chronological, with the earliest footage at the front of the film.
When did you begin to conceive of knitting selections together into a feature? And how did the format evolve as you worked?
I worked hard, at first, to make the episodes self-contained, and I showed them as shorts. But certain ideas and motifs began to emerge, fairly organically. So the knitting, as you call it, seemed natural. Twin themes of innocence and experience declared themselves straightaway and are, I think, obvious, especially if you see the movie more than once or, as the case may be, if you talk to the director. Look out, too, for the recurrence of hats and head coverings, an ongoing indication, I guess, of the human need for protection and disguise. You might also take note of the fact that the film is divided into four sections, each ending with a dissolve. The first two sections end with images of flight; the third ends with a birth, and the fourth with a child — the former newborn baby, in fact — toddling around in a superhero outfit. These sections are framed, clearly enough, by images of automated walkways, and the coda is meant to gather multiple threads and give you a glimpse of some kind of collective, transcendent moment. Or maybe it’s an intimation of death.