John Pierson was a fixture on the independent film festival, lecture and teaching circuit throughout most of the eighties and nineties. This was due largely to his early involvement in the careers of Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater and Michael Moore. His book Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, chronicling the rise of independent film in the late eighties and early nineties, became an instant classic. Split Screen, the TV show John and wife Janet created and John hosted for the Independent Film Channel brought his passionate New Yorker personality (and hundreds of independent filmmakers from across the country) onto the TV sets of American homes for four seasons.
These are the headlines. This list of accomplishments will appear in every article written about the Piersons and the new documentary, Reel Paradise, which chronicles the last month of the family's year-long stay on Taveuni, one of the Fiji Islands. Here is another phrase that will most likely make its way into most articles written about the film: The Mosquito Coast meets Cinema Paradiso. I wouldn't repeat it here, except that this is one instance where describing the experience of one film by citing a combination of others is just BEYOND appropriate.
The Pierson family lives and breathes film. John and his wife Janet met while working at Film Forum, New York's famed West Village independent film/movie revival house. They showed a Buster Keaton film at their wedding. The family's dinnertime arguments about film make up some of the funniest moments of Reel Paradise. Wyatt, the Pierson's 13-year-old son argues against the programming of anything independent, betting his father, who has devoted his life to the advancement of independent filmmaking, that audiences won't show up for them, or if they do, it's because their expectations have been shaped by the previous night's screening of The Matrix. A screening of Jackass sparks a heated argument between Wyatt and Janet over the power of the moving image and its consequent responsibilities.
Indeed, the Fijian audience reaction is loud and joyous. The ridiculous pratfalls of broad Hollywood comedies delight; super-charged special effects products thrill. There has never been a better demonstration for me that the Hollywood formula that I abhor (favoring the small independent fare John Pierson has spent a life championing) actually WORKS.
John Pierson has turned himself into a bona fide character whose love for film has taken him to the "most remote cinema on earth" to carry out his one-man worldwide film crusade. Or is it a "one-family" crusade? Trading their home in New York for a year showing free films at the 180 Meridian Cinema on the dusty main road of a Fijian village, the entire family is challenged -- and they create challenges of their own for the local population. Georgia, the Pierson's 16-year-old daughter inspires local gossip with her freewheeling Western ways. The Piersons are shocked to discover that their dedication to showing movies for free has raised the ire of the local Catholic church.
Oh, and someone will say this too: The Piersons are like an independent film version of the Osbornes -- passionate, argumentative and a little whacky. But there is no doubting the real pleasure that (at least John and Janet) derive from all things film. Halfway through Reel Paradise, Janet wonders how true the family's village experience has been. To which John replies, "The cinema is my village."
Reel Paradise opens September 2.
Get theaters and show times (at sfgate.com).