''I am at war with the obvious," William Eggleston once said of his photographs. ''Uneasy peace" might be a better description than ''war." Eggleston, 66, has spent nearly four decades imbuing the everyday with a sense of cool, uninflected mystery. Seen through his eyes, the title object of what may be his most famous photograph, ''Tricycle," has the majesty -- and inexplicability -- of an archangel's throne.
Eggleston places the mundane on stilts. Of course, something placed on stilts is visible from new angles and approaches. All photographs are about seeing. Eggleston's are about seeing afresh.
Michael Almereyda's documentary ''William Eggleston in the Real World" offers an admiring and affectionate, if also unillusioned, view of its subject at work, play, and not much of anything (a suitably Egglestonian activity).
Eggleston shoots pictures in a Kentucky downtown. He bumps around in Memphis. He gives a talk at the Getty Museum, in Los Angeles. He looks at family photos. He smokes enough to seem to be auditioning for the sequel to ''Good Night, and Good Luck."
Almereyda, who directed the modern-day ''Hamlet" starring Ethan Hawke in 2001, is a friend of Eggleston's and knows the work intimately. Narrating the film, he offers real insights instead of the sort of mindlessness that seems mandatory on, say, PBS's ''American Masters." Eggleston is an American master, and Almereyda needs no more than four words to encapsulate that mastery when he speaks of his subject's images as ''miracles of casual seeing."
The documentary is elliptical, with a slow, drifty rhythm. It presents an up-close but impersonal view of Eggleston. The impersonality feels right, though. Even when we see Eggleston (apparently) drunk, there's a sense of distance, even formality. It's a distance he clearly maintains -- and the filmmaker clearly respects. The soundtrack underscores this sense of detachment, with the frequent sound of wind and passing traffic: a ground bass of the banal.
Eggleston comes across as owlish and taciturn. With his tidy manner and undemonstrative face, he could be a banker -- or a spy. Shave his head, and he'd look like Alec Guinness as George Smiley -- a camera-bearing Smiley who reveals secrets rather than conceals them. Eggleston's ''not your standard tortured artist type," Almereyda says, just ''an anonymous man prowling the streets of a nameless city."
The Eggleston we see is simply a man going about his business -- but what a business, and one done so exceedingly well. As the proprietor of a Mexican restaurant in that Kentucky town says when he sees Eggleston has a camera, ''Praise the Lord for the people who take the pictures!"
One final word: Wait through the credits before leaving, especially all you Roy Orbison fans.