William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton is a portrait of Memphis, Tennessee in 1973, shot in black and white in bars and on street corners. Best known for his colour-saturated still photographs, such as the one of the blood-red motel-room ceiling used on the cover of Big Star’s second album, Radio City, Eggleston used an early Sony Portapak camera for this project, giving the result a blurred, flaring immediacy.
Restored and re-edited by Eggleston in collaboration with the author Robert Gordon, the 77-minute film was screened last night at the Barbican art gallery in London as part of Doug Aitken’s Station to Station, a 30-day festival of happenings and installations featuring a range of artists from Kenneth Anger to Olafur Eliasson. Aitken invited Jason Pierce — J. Spaceman of the band Spiritualized — to provide a live score, which might seem an odd request since Stranded in Canton already has a soundtrack of its own, including performances by the bluesmen Furry Lewis and Johnny Woods and the pianist Jim Dickinson.
Pierce brought along two fellow members of Spiritualized, the guitarists John Coxon and Tony Foster, a/k/a Doggen, and a drummer, Rupert Clervaux, who has played both with Spiritualized and with Coxon’s project Spring Heel Jack. The three guitarists and the drummer formed an inward-facing circle on a low stage in the middle of the gallery, with the film projected on to one main screen and on to the other three white walls. The audience sat on benches and beanbags, or on the floor, or on the edge of the stage.
Using a pedal, Pierce could control the volume of the film while cueing the band to play against certain sequences, usually those in which an indistinct ranting seemed to be going on. He had prepared a set of instrumental pieces that could have been off-cuts from Exile on Main Street: a variety of after-hours drone-boogies using distorted arpeggios (Pierce), scrubbed chords (Coxon) and moaning slide figures (Doggen). Clervaux paced the music with elegant simplicity, using a reduced kit and, occasionally, a glockenspiel.
The spirit of the Rolling Stones at their most dissolute, a kind of quaalude-deadened sluggishness interrupted by random bursts of menacing craziness, hangs over the whole film — there is even a glimpse of Eggleston’s friend Stanley Booth, the author of the best book about the band — so it was appropriate that the live soundtrack should contain things that sounded like half-remembered versions of the backing tracks from “Love in Vain” and “Wild Horses”. And Pierce devised a brilliant nerve-jangling crescendo to counterpoint the look-away finale, which moves from a competition to bite the heads of live chickens to a concluding episode of terrifyingly casual gunplay.
Not quite concluding, actually. The credits feature stills of the participants, with captions describing their subsequent fates, most of them — such as that of the transvestite “Lady Russell” — unhappy. But this is not a happy film. It’s a jagged, intimate, handheld portrait of a disturbing time in which certain forces set free in society created a sizeable amount of collateral damage. As a work of art, Stranded in Canton resembles a sequence of picaresque doodles: Hogarth on Beale Street. At last night’s screening, however, Pierce found a way of adding a dimension that made it feel much more complete. They should do it again.
* You can find extracts from Stranded in Canton here.