Flickchart Road Trip: Louisiana
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
I hope you don’t blame me that I had my pedal to the metal through much of Louisiana, first south on Route 167, then further south on I-49, before catching I-10 east for the first time since New Mexico. See, Mardi Gras — Fat Tuesday — fell on Tuesday of my week in Louisiana, and I had to arrive in the Big Easy, down in the toe of this boot-shaped state, by mid-afternoon that day. I will say that I saw some really nice countryside as I went.
See, I was meeting a friend from college after he finished work, so we could take in the festivities on Bourbon Street. It was to attend his wedding that I visited New Orleans for my first and only time back in 1999. His wife, also my friend and classmate, is a native, and they live there now after spending the intervening years in New York. He’s of course been to Mardi Gras before (she stayed home with their three girls, and I’d see her later), so he wanted to show me the good time that he knows this festival represents to people around the country, nay, the world. Since he’s 40 and I’ll turn 40 later on this trip, we both also wanted to prove we’re not old yet.
Well, I guess we are old. It was raining that day, and that left us mostly watching the thousands of revelers from under the awning of a Bourbon Street hotel. Sure, a couple people came up to us with strings of beads, and one drunk guy spilled booze down my leg from a green colored novelty cup that was about two feet long, but our willingness to expose ourselves to the elements was limited. After what we deemed to be a respectable amount of people watching, we took ourselves back to his place, where I slept on his pull-out couch.
Rain in New Orleans did provide me a chilling reminder of Hurricane Katrina, now more than seven years in the past. It’s still abundantly clear how that tragedy has changed the local landscape, especially in the Ninth Ward — though I’d be remiss if I didn’t give this city credit for its remarkable comeback. That leads us naturally to our Louisiana movie, the Oscar-nominated documentary Trouble the Water (2008, Carl Deal & Tia Lessen), ranked 25360 globally.
What it’s about
Kim Rivers Roberts is an aspiring hip hop artist who calls herself Kold Medina and lives in the Ninth Ward of low-lying New Orleans. As Hurricane Katrina approaches and it becomes clear she and her husband Scott don’t have the means to evacuate, Kim begins documenting the coming storm on her camcorder, starting before the first rains fall and forging onward until her battery runs out. Much of their greatest struggles are told in flashback, two weeks after the storm, as the couple and some of their friends return to the ravaged neighborhood, recalling when they waded from their homes on foot and in boats, past untold horrors. As the weeks become months, and the displaced New Orleanians must relocate several times while waiting for FEMA to deliver those elusive disaster relief funds, their doubt starts to grow that they will ever call New Orleans home again.
How it uses the state
Trouble the Water witnesses the lower third of the state turned into a disaster area, the very face of its coast transformed into something different than what it was before. Some of the characters seem to blame the state itself, if only as the extension of a government that has failed them. “Louisiana,” a character says more than once, shaking his or her head as if no further elaboration is necessary. However, it’s not giving away too much to say that some of the people in this movie try other states, but return to New Orleans because it symbolizes home — no matter what shape it’s in.
What it’s up against
Louisiana represents a first for me on this trip: a state where one dominant city (New Orleans) serves as the location for the vast majority of the movies set in the state. When these instances arise, I’ll do my best not to let movies set in that city dominant the list of movies the new movie will duel. As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films Trouble the Water will battle:
1) Dead Man Walking (1995, Tim Robbins). My Flickchart: #308/3439. Global: #1406. Tim Robbins earned an Oscar nomination for directing his then-partner Susan Sarandon, who actually won the Oscar, and Sean Penn in this wrenching critique of the death penalty. Penn pulls off the neat trick of seeming like vile trash one minute and a flawed and sympathetic human being the next, playing both the audience and Sarandon’s sister Helen Prejean like a fiddle. Sarandon’s may be the tougher role, though, as she must embody the film’s twin humanistic notions of mercy and forgiveness, even in the face of facts she finds reprehensible. The characters’ interactions occur in the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
2) Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012, Benh Zeitlin). My Flickchart: #502/3439. Global: #1403. Speaking of the Oscars, I couldn’t resist giving a nod to Beasts on this list, what with it up for a surprising four nominations this Sunday. One of those is for little Quvenzhane Wallis, seen here, whose effortless naturalism gives this elemental films its arresting pulse. Unlike Trouble the Water, this film is not explicitly about Hurricane Katrina, but the echoes are there in the tempest that overtakes the so-called “Bathtub,” where little Hushpuppy and her father (Dwight Henry) eke out an existence. Both an imaginative fantasy and a testament to the fortitude of the souls who live in the Louisiana bayou, Beasts is hard to forget.
3) Deja Vu (2006, Tony Scott). My Flickchart: #1145/3439. Global: #4084. My first New Orleans movies on this list uses the city as a character in the wildest sense of the word, and also qualifies as one of the better films in the career of late director Tony Scott. The movie features Denzel Washington and other law enforcement cohorts trying to solve the bombing of a boat in the Mississippi River that kills more than 500 people. To do this, they will use a futuristic device that compiles satellite and surveillance data from the city’s every nook and cranny, to give a real-time look at events exactly four days and six hours in the past — exactly one time. It works a lot more cleverly than it sounds like it might.
4) Interview With the Vampire (1994, Neil Jordan). My Flickchart: #1801/3439. Global: #644. The movie everyone greeted with the words “Tom Cruise is going to play a vampire?” may be the first time I was conscious of seeing New Orleans on film, and it gave me a vivid impression of the city’s old-world grandeur. Unfortunately, the sense of place is one of the best things about this fitfully entertaining but otherwise lugubrious adaptation of Anne Rice’s best-selling novel. My most lingering impression is not the ornateness of 19th century NOLA, but Brad Pitt permanently fixed with wet eyes and an expression of melancholic pouting.
5) All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989, Don Bluth). My Flickchart: #3376/3439. Global: #3635. I had two choices for animated films set in New Orleans, but I really needed a worst movie on this list, so the winning Disney film The Princess and the Frog yielded to this dreary travesty. Don Bluth broke from Disney and made at least one classic film (The Secret of N.I.M.H.) and one iconic video game (Dragon’s Lair), but he got the tone all wrong (and the animation all washed out and garish) in this off-putting “kids movie” about mafioso dogs in the Big Easy, trying to make money on a little human girl who can predict horse races. The image above gives you a good idea about this film’s moral compass, and even the obligatory redemption of its disreputable characters doesn’t raise this from the slums of children’s entertainment.
First duel: Trouble the Water vs. Deja Vu. It’s too bad they couldn’t use the machine in Deja Vu to get people out of New Orleans ahead of Katrina. Trouble the Water wins.
Second duel: Trouble the Water vs. Beasts of the Southern Wild. As is often (regrettably) the case for me as a viewer, a great fiction treatment of a subject is going to beat a great documentary treatment of that subject. Beasts of the Southern Wild (narrowly) wins.
Trouble the Water finishes third out of the six movies.
Many documentaries made by outsiders suffer because there’s a lack of authenticity in their perspective, an unbridgeable gap between them and their subjects. Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, the producers of two of Michael Moore‘s films, sidestep this pitfall by having one of their subjects essentially be one of the filmmakers.
The amateur video of Katrina shot by Kim Rivers (you can’t make up that name) is a priceless jumping off point for the story that gives it instant credibility. It immediately establishes the perspective as hers, even when she’s in front of the camera rather than behind it. Although her footage accounts for only a small percentage of what we see, it’s invaluable in showing what it was like to be at ground zero, watching the water engulf familiar objects (only the tippy top of a stop sign is visible) from the diminishing safety of her own attic. Chillingly, she also captures some of the last living moments of a person who would later die in the storm.
It certainly helps that Kim, her husband Scott and several others we meet make for such interesting characters. They’re so engaging, in fact, that the directors’ less frequent attempts at giving us the more conventional big picture — news reports, footage of George W. Bush and FEMA director Mike Brown, rumblings about how race played a role in the government’s response — seem largely unnecessary. We want to follow the characters we’ve met through whatever challenge faces them next, and learn how the events have shaped and changed them. Through the characters’ own assessments of themselves, we learn that they haven’t always been proud of the place they’ve occupied in the world. Yet this tragedy has tapped their inner heroism, their latent ability to work as a community and protect their fellow human beings. They’re also unfailingly modest, as it frequently takes the testimony of secondary characters to learn exactly how far they went to sacrifice and share during these harrowing moments.
Speaking of modesty, it’s only late in the film when we see Kim perform, and learn how talented she really is. Katrina made it temporarily irrelevant that she’s an up-and-coming hip hop artist. It’s only the anonymous goodness of her actions during the storm, and her stoic determination to face its aftermath, that define her character.
Having touched on racism in my Louisiana movie, I’m going to dive in headlong in Mississippi with Alan Parker‘s 1988 best picture nominee Mississippi Burning. Here’s hoping I can find at least one other movie I’ve seen from Mississippi in which the perceived racism of Mississippians isn’t the primary focus…