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 Louisiana Gumbo (and some Lagniappe) 
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Turns out it barely saves me any money at all. :(

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Tue Dec 02, 2014 2:16 am
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Next time I go I'm taking the train.


Wed Dec 03, 2014 11:23 pm
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Documentary Double Feature

I caught these at The Prytania, the local one screen movie theater (the only one in Louisiana). Both are relatively recent releases. The first, Big Charity, is about a local hospital that closed down post-Katrina. The other, The Great Invisible, is about the aftermath of the BP oil spill.

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Big Charity (Alexander Glustrom, 2014)

I have to start by saying that it's hard to discuss this film on its own terms, because my opinion is so wrapped up in the actual viewing experience, seeing it with fellow New Orleanians who were directly affected by the events discussed in the film. Many of the attendees worked at Charity Hospital or sought care there before it closed, and the institution had deeper roots in the city than hospitals typically do. They made valiant efforts in the immediate wake of Katrina, in spite of unspeakable odds, and the closure of the hospital was plagued by questionable political machinations. All of this is covered very well and quite clearly in the film, but it's hard to convey how strongly people feel about it here. People were cheering and making sardonic comments during the screening, and there was an impassioned Q&A afterward with some of the interviewees (including a doctor who resigned when he had ethical issues with the hospital's administration). The theater was packed (every screening sold out, apparently, which is unheard of with documentaries; they actually had to extend the run) and people were vocal. In that sense, this is absolutely vital grassroots filmmaking, but because it's so locally oriented, I doubt the film will see much exposure outside of the city. Which is a shame, because it encapsulates so much of what is wrong in New Orleans and what went wrong with (and after) Katrina. And it's for that reason that I encourage you to read on.

After the film establishes the importance of Charity Hospital to New Orleans and its role in Katrina, it spends most of its time investigating its closure and the attempts to fund a new LSU hospital complex (the LA State University ran the hospital prior to Katrina). It boils down to this: after the flooding subsided, the hospital was cleaned and made fully functional again, but LSU refused to reopen it, because by reopening the hospital they would admit that it was still functional and potentially forfeit millions of dollars in flood relief from FEMA. This means that for years (up till now and counting; the new complex has yet to be finished and Charity is still closed), indigent care was provided via temporary facilities (in many cases mere tents set up in warehouses, even well after Katrina and the flooding had ended), mental patients had no facilities and were left to either the streets or prison, and hundreds of people were evicted from their homes to make way for the new complex. The film goes so far as to suggest that people were hired (presumably by hospital bigwigs) to ransack the hospital after it had been cleaned, to make it look like it had never recovered from the flood, even though it had already been inspected and approved for service. They also passed on a completely state-of-the-art renovation of the existing building, which would have cost considerably less than the proposed complex. These are the sorts of dilemmas inherent in Louisiana's political fabric, and shines some light on why Katrina was such a failure on the part of the local and federal governments.

At the end of the film, they have a series of brief interviews on the street with people proudly declaring that they were born at Charity Hospital (including some local celebrities like Kermit Ruffins). That segment captures something of what I felt, watching this film in that theater, surrounded by people who cared so much about what was going on in their city.

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The Great Invisible (Margaret Brown, 2014)

This documentary makes similar efforts, and mostly succeeds, although it lacked the same punch at Big Charity, possibly because it was made by a non-local who tried to pack too much into one film. The Deep Horizon oil spill is a massive, sprawling subject, and its aftermath is complex and harried; a dozen documentaries could easily be made about the subject. This one tries to be about the political and economic climate in the state, the lives of those working on the rig (which is where it succeeds most admirably) and those affected by it less directly (shrimpers, fishers, coast dwellers in general), the oil and gas industry (there are several scenes depicting a casual conversation between big oil men, and they are surprisingly compelling and make some intelligent points), and the environmental impact of the spill. Striving for so much, you'll inevitably stumble. But it is a solid film, and for anyone interested in the BP oil spill or anything involving the legal and political ramifications of big oil's enterprises, it's great viewing.

Speaking of Margaret Brown, I have to recommend her fantastic 2008 documentary The Order of Myths, which is about the Mardi Gras traditions of Mobile and particularly the persistence of segregated festivities (not legal segregation, obviously, but the tendency for white people to join traditionally white krewes while blacks do likewise). Mardi Gras traditions in Mobile actually pre-date those in New Orleans because Mobile was founded a few years earlier, and the first Mardi Gras krewe here (the Mistick Krewe of Comus) was started by Mobilian transplants; Comus has since disbanded because they refused to desegregate. The film is not about New Orleans or Louisiana, but we have Mardi Gras in common, and their issues parallel some of the issues that we have here.

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Sun Dec 28, 2014 7:31 am
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The Big Easy | Jim McBride | 1986

This film is so full of outrageous cliches and absurd accents that its depiction of New Orleans feels closer to parody than portrait. It enters the realm of camp. I found myself laughing in sheer disbelief sometimes.

Yet I really liked the film. The entire cast is a delight, and Quaid makes one of the most charming leads I've ever seen in a thriller. The plot is riddled with convenient contrivance, but its theme of police corruption is treated with complexity and earnest. It has long been a problem in the city, and the issue reached a peak in the years following the film, with New Orleans becoming the murder capital of the US in 1994 and police complicity in crime reaching an all-time high. (There is irony in the fact that one of the corrupt cops in the film is killed by a flare gun when NOPD officers used police flares to incinerate the body of Henry Glover, a man some of them murdered in the chaotic aftermath of Katrina.)

Ebert's claim that "these characters inhabit the most convincing portrait of New Orleans I've ever seen" is ridiculous, but if one wades through the camp, some interesting moments emerge. Grace Zabriskie (Quaid's mother) is from New Orleans and has an oddball intensity that anticipates her work with Lynch. The film's opening at the Piazza d'Italia is striking, because the garish monument clashes with postcard portraits of the city. In general, the film takes great advantage of location shooting.

Having noticed that there are certain local traditions that every filmmaker feels the need to allude to, I'm starting a checklist which will appear with every subsequent review.

Voodoo: [x]
Mardi Gras: [x]
Live music: [x]
Gratuitous reference to local cuisine: [x]
Questionable accents: [x]

Lagniappe

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How about some sight-seeing?

The Piazza d'Italia serves the film well, vividly establishing the film's contemporary setting and its Mafia drug war subplot. It was a new sight at the time, having been finished in 1978. It was designed by post-modernist architect Charles Moore and received widespread acclaim for its bold fusion of classical Italian architectural motifs with the unabashedly modern, like neon lights and nontraditional building materials like steel. It was funded by the city's Italian-American community, who make up a substantial and oft-overlooked portion of the city's fabric and have made countless contributions to the culture. Most notably, we celebrate St. Joseph's Day every spring in full Italian splendor (including a parade through the Quarter, part of which was once called Little Palermo), and in the Muffuletta, a famous local sandwich with Sicilian roots.

The monument fell into decline over the years. Due to its relative obscurity and the lack of other nearby attractions, tourists rarely see it, and one usually finds it empty. As it fell into disrepair, some took to calling the monument the world's first "post-modern ruin", an irony that reflects the ruins it seeks to imitate. However, the city acquired funding to restore the Piazza, and it is currently undergoing renovations.

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(One can almost make out, from this angle, the fact that the fountain takes the shape of Italy's boot.)

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Wed Jan 07, 2015 5:52 pm
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The first parade of Mardi Gras season was today: Krewe du Vieux (short for Vieux Carre, the "old square", ie the French Quarter). I didn't take many pictures but here are two floats.

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Krewe du Vieux is one of the smaller parades, but it's probably the most popular among locals. It happens well before Mardi Gras weekend, and it is by far the raunchiest parade. A lot of the parades have satirical themes, but this one is the most biting. The humor is often surreal, but I thought y'all might appreciate the American Horror Story one (which is criticizing Louisiana for whoring itself to the film industry via tax incentives).

Also posted to get Kayden pumped about the upcoming trip.

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Mon Feb 02, 2015 6:16 am
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I had to cancel. :( :( :( sad face forever.

Couldn't afford it without cutting some costs (like the $3K hotel room for a week), and I wanted it to be my way or nothing. Go big or go home, right.

BUT NEXT YEAR I should hopefully be out of this debt I've got myself into!

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Mon Feb 02, 2015 6:20 am
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Boooooooooooooooo

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Mon Feb 02, 2015 6:26 am
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I wonder how expensive to go for Halloween weekend would be.

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Mon Feb 02, 2015 6:26 am
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Macrology wrote:
Boooooooooooooooo


It was so so heartbreaking. :(

But I think I would have a way better time if I could afford to be stupid with my money than going and being too broke to do anything.

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Mon Feb 02, 2015 6:27 am
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How is Halloween down there anyway? I read somewhere it's pretty big shit.

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Mon Feb 02, 2015 6:37 am
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Halloween is awesome, although sometimes it gets too packed. We've got a Halloween parade (because we have one for everything), Frenchmen Street and the Quarter are flooded with people in insane costumes, there's a ton of Halloween parties, and Halloween weekend coincides with Voodoo Fest, a rock music festival.

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Mon Feb 02, 2015 6:47 am
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Always for Pleasure | Les Blank | 1978

In honor of Mardi Gras, I decided to crack open Criterion's Les Blank boxset with its titular film. And that title couldn't be more appropriate.

Blank totally eschews documentary reportage to offer us a sensual distillation of New Orleans street culture and the jubilation of Mardi Gras. He offers only enough background to establish a rudimentary understanding, so it only scratches the surface of the culture, but that surface is a shimmering, resplendent display of color and vitality. The film itself is a sustained celebration of the fact that we love to celebrate.

It's interesting to see a New Orleans of 1977 on film, mostly because outside of fashion, very little has changed in 35 years. It features the Wild Tchoupitoulas, who we discussed earlier in the thread, and the film's opening takes advantage of the street name motif that is so common in the city's literature (after all, we have a Pleasure Street in New Orleans). However, I'm baffled as to why Luis Bunuel is thanked in the credits. Anyone have insight into that?

(Y'all can expect reviews of Blank's other Louisiana documentaries in the months to come as I make my way through the set.)

Voodoo: [ ]
Mardi Gras: [x]
Live music: [x]
Gratuitous reference to local cuisine: [x]
Questionable accents: [ ]

Lagniappe

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That's a picture I took at Endymion on Saturday, one of the largest parades during the season. My Mardi Gras was a marathon effort, with parties every day for nearly a week, and Mardi Gras day culminating in a walk downtown where my friends and I danced in the streets, took dozens of pictures with strangers (we were dressed as Adventure Time characters and lots of fans waylaid us), drank a great deal, witnessed the slowest and most amusing police chase I've ever seen, called an ambulance for a girl who knocked herself unconscious in the street, and got invited to a glorious house party in a Bywater mansion by two complete strangers.

To hearken even farther back than 1977, I'll share some 8mm Mardi Gras footage taken in 1954 (in color!) that demonstrates that the party was no less extravagant (and the costumes no less impressive) than they are now. It's delightful seeing people cross-dress and sashay and shatter our illusions about the conservative attitudes of the 50s.

Mardi Gras 1954

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Thu Feb 19, 2015 9:39 am
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"He is a moviegoer, though of course he does not go to movies."

The Moviegoer | Walker Percy | 1960 | 242 pages

I found this a tricky read, not because the text is dense or difficult -- it's easily the most summery, unassuming book about existential despair you'll ever read -- but precisely because the novel flits so effortlessly between so many ideas and emotional registers.

For one, Binx Bolling himself is an elusive creature: fickle, variable, at times even contradictory. He's almost impossible to pin down, and his narrating the book, with his bemused detachment mottled with occasional sincerity, makes it all the more difficult. One feels as if he doesn't want to be fully known, even to himself, as if he wants to remain open to the possibility of change and the vagaries of life.

Also, considering this is a very short book set at a leisurely pace, Percy pursues an ambitious assortment of themes - existentialism, wonder vs malaise, the dichotomy between movies and reality, and the banality of making money and modern life, to name a few. These musings are always compelling but some of them feel loosely developed, and some themes contradict or impede others. (I was actually surprised by the role of moviegoing and how it acted more like a compass than anything, a means for navigating the novel's other themes. But I like how it subtly pervades the book, both in Percy's excellent use of casual allusions to various actors to enhance descriptions and the way he uses cinema as a literary and metaphysical point of reference, as we see in Holden's stroll through the Quarter.)

Although, one could argue that it's the very uncertainty over that which gives life meaning that makes Binx's search so amorphous and meandering. He's grasping at straws, and even when he catches hold (along the Gulf, in movies, moments with Kate), one cannot hold on forever. More than anything, The Moviegoer captures the difficulty of enduring life and its perpetual oscillations between banality and beauty, the highs and lows, the battle against "everydayness" and the search for moments with meaning. Binx recognizes these moments and even in recognizing them senses their inevitable end and regression into everydayness: Kate's revelation which will only last, in its fervor, for the night; the idyllic day and cozy yet mysterious night on the trip out to the coast (and the grip of everydayness in the dead of early morning); the way places alter in different circumstances, the weight that place carries, the endurance of time in our absence and how we can feel the residue of that when we return to places; the sheer awe over being and feeling the world around you even if nothing is happening (and both the tragedy and wonder in the fact that things do happen). It calls to mind the Japanese concept of mono no aware, and Percy actually said something that sums it up nicely:

Quote:
I suppose I would prefer to describe it as a certain view of man, an anthropology, if you like; of man as wayfarer, in a rather conscious contrast to prevailing views of man as organism, as encultured creature, as consumer, Marxist, as subject to such and such a scientific or psychological understanding — all of which he is, but not entirely. It is the “not entirely” I’m interested in — like the man Kierkegaard described who read Hegel, understood himself and the universe perfectly by noon, but then had the problem of living out the rest of the day.

(Borrowed from this article, one of the better pieces I've read online about the book.)

The ending is lovely and rather sad yet oddly hopeful and returns to the motif that the "everydayness" can only be interrupted by disaster - Lonnie's death, in this case. But I'm opposed to the polarized view some adopt that sees Binx going from bad to better. He's not all that bad to begin with. He's settled for an unremarkable life, but he's plagued by a sense of wonder, and the yearning to feel that clashes with the banality of his life. And one can say he has improved by the end, but he accepts a measure of banality to excoriate his stasis, even if there's some beauty in it. For the first time he's made a decision and recognized the compromise inherent in doing so (a compromise best illustrated by the sinister yet genteel monologue delivered near the end, in which his aunt offers an impassioned defense of her social caste and its racist, classist history). His last scene with Kate, at the close of the book, is terribly beautiful but it's also terribly fragile.

Few works depict New Orleans with such casual accuracy: the sense of place, the dialects and geography, the changing moods of living here. Percy uses some very local vernacular without bothering to explain any of the terminology (more on this in the lagniappe section!). It's also interesting to note how things have changed and how they've stayed the same. He makes a brief reference to the "pawnbrokers on Dryades", referring to a once-Jewish part of town that is now the predominantly black Central City. Mardi Gras feels the same, but back in 1960 the original Mardi Gras Krewe, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, was still parading.

But the book does far more than just use the right street names. It captures the cadence of living here. Time passes with ease in New Orleans, and the book taps into that. A pace and tone of languorous Louisiana unwinding. This pace perfectly suits the novel's twin themes, which represent two sides of the same coin: malaise and wonder. On an uneventful day, either might emerge. Uneventfulness can breed malaise, but you need some time and leisure to appreciate the deepest beauties of life. It's a perpetual struggle between the two.

The book's setting acquires a layered and metafictional turn when you're reading it in New Orleans, because reading the book evokes Bollings' own notion of certification, that a film being made where you live makes it Someplace rather than Anyplace. Reading about the neighborhoods I frequent every day in an acclaimed novel had a similar effect. In fact, this phenomenon is even more pronounced with me, because in many ways, I bear a close resemblance to Binx Bolling. Feliciana Parish, where his family comes from, is fictional but functions as a proxy for East and West Feliciana Parishes, and I grew up in the latter. He even mentions a "Little Bayou Sara", and Bayou Sara was the name of my hometown before it relocated to higher ground. We're roughly the same age (I'll be 29 in a few months), and while we inhabit very different social spheres and have very different attitudes, I sympathize intensely with his frustrations over "everydayness" and his intermittent wonder at the world.

Lagniappe
Walker Percy uses a few local terms that might be confusing to non-native readers, so I'm offering a brief glossary to explain a few of those.

Neutral Ground
You will never hear a local use the word median in this city. We don't have medians. We have the neutral ground. The term dates back to the early 1800s, when the Creole population tended to settle on the downriver end of Canal Street (what is now the French Quarter) while the Anglos settled on the upriver end (the American Sector, now the Central Business District or CBD). The middle of Canal Street was the dividing line between the two, and was often used as a place to meet or transact business. They called it the neutral ground, and as the city developed, the term was applied to every median.

Riverside/Lakeside
This is fairly straightforward, but worth explaining. New Orleans isn't built on a grid, and cardinal directions aren't very useful here. North South East West means nothing to us. We orient ourselves according to the river: upriver, downriver, riverside (toward the Mississippi), lakeside (toward Lake Pontchartrain). Especially useful for locating someone on a crowded parade route.

Parish
Louisiana is the only state that has parishes rather than counties, an anomaly rooted in our European heritage. Louisiana was originally ruled by the French and Spanish, whose laws were firmly founded on their Catholic beliefs, and political borders tended to coincide with religious ones (ie, church parishes). However, nowadays the term parish or the Parishes (as in, I'm going out to the Parishes), refers to anyplace in Louisiana outside of New Orleans. The city is an island of liberal thought and culture in a region with a prevailing southern, conservative mentality, so "the Parishes" is kind of like saying "the provinces". It especially refers to the rural areas immediately outside of New Orleans.

And a relevant fun fact
Most historians agree that the first permanent moviehouse in the United States was in New Orleans, a place called Vitascope Hall located on Canal Street that opened in 1896. One would think that a book called The Moviegoer might be set in L.A., but little details like this lend credence to Percy's decision and remind us of the city's long relationship with cinema.

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Fri Mar 13, 2015 5:58 am
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I guess this is why they call me macrology. In that whole big chunk of text, I didn't even touch upon Percy's humor, the lyricism of his writing, and a host of other subjects. It's a deceptively complicated book, in spite of its airy atmosphere, but it's always good to read stuff like this, that makes you want to talk endlessly and reread the book as soon as you're done with it.

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Fri Mar 13, 2015 6:03 am
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I like your writing more than I liked the book. I remember thinking at the time that the aimless bits are great but all the concessions it makes to plot seem at odds with the rest of it. I also haven't read any Kirkegaard, who, as far as I can remember, was meant to be a major influence. I like Percy for helping bring Confederacy of Dunces to the public eye, regardless.


Thu Mar 26, 2015 10:07 am
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Thanks! And I agree with you in a lot of ways, re: plot. Kierkegaard is a major influence; the epigraph quotes him. (Will eventually reread CoD for this thread.)

Apparently Malick was attached to an adaptation of The Moviegoer at some point and may have written a script, which isn't a connection I would have made on my way, but which makes a lot of sense, and it made me realize that To the Wonder has a lot in common with The Moviegoer, which may have had a substantial influence on that film: the plotlessness, the reveries, the combination of wonder and malaise in a suburban setting.

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Sat Mar 28, 2015 2:03 pm
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Panic in the Streets | Elia Kazan | 1950

Unjustly overshadowed by Kazan's own A Streetcar Named Desire, made a year later, Panic in the Streets is an unconventional noir set in the same city as Streetcar, but for my money it's the better of the two films. A Streetcar Named Desire suffers from its soundstage setting and Method posturing and in retrospect feels considerably less modern and authentic than Panic in the Streets, with its location shooting and technical finesse.

The entire film was shot on location in New Orleans -- a feat unrivaled by any other American film of the era, with the exception of some early independents and Dassin's The Naked City, which is a clear antecedent and the closest comparable film. But Panic in the Streets is less prosaic than the earlier film and its characters are more complex and memorable, in part because Kazan drew extensively on local talent and even cast nonprofessionals in most of the supporting roles. A crew on a ship is played by that ship's crew; Kazan also discovered Emile Meyer in New Orleans, who went on to act in Paths of Glory and The Sweet Smell of Success. The film is populated by a host of fascinating characters embedded in a rich, layered setting, including a mid-century French Quarter (before its rapid revitalization and gentrification in the 60s and 70s) and the city's vanished docks (which star in the climax, where the police chase the villains through operational warehouses receiving coffee and banana imports).

Kazan possesses a surprisingly keen eye for locality, inconspicuously capturing the food, music, culture, and ethnic diversity of New Orleans. A significant segment of the plot deals with a Greek family, an oft-ignored immigrant enclave here (I'll be attending our annual Greek Festival in about a month). Yet these details never impede the thrust of the story. New Orleans is a setting rather than a subject, but it makes for a vivid and distinctive setting and they depict it with earnest.

It may also be Kazan's most masterful film from a purely technical standpoint, with elaborately choreographed long takes (including one with a man staggering past a moving train), taut sound design, and cinematography by Joseph McDonald (My Darling Clementine, Pickup on South Street). It expertly juggles an array of genres and styles, blending film noir with neo-realism, and its procedural plot about a potential plague outbreak presages films like Contagion.

The sheer quality of the film caught me off guard, considering it doesn't have a widespread reputation. It's likely my favorite Kazan film and the best film I've watched for this thread so far: not only the most seamless and unassuming depiction of the city, but the strongest film on every level.

Michael Atkinson on Panic in the Streets
(Atkinson offers an insightful appreciation of the film, and I agree wholeheartedly with everything he has to say.)

Elia Kazan wrote:
We rewrote it every day on location. That was the fun of it. We were shooting in New Orleans, and we had a hell of a time. I hung around the harbor, and I felt the wind on my face, and I thought, 'I've been indoors all my life! I've got to get out of the theater and into film!' It just freed me of all that inside-a-set tension and just directing minuscule little bits of acting. ... I don't think I could have made 'On the Waterfront' like I did if I hadn't done 'Panic in the Streets.' ... 'Panic' might seem conventional to critics, but it was a big change for me, for my attitude toward everything. It was a liberation for me. I also think it's the only perfect film I made, because it's essentially a piece of mechanism, and it doesn't deal in any ambivalences at all, really. It just fits together in the sequence of storytelling rather perfectly. But that's really why I did it, and I got a hell of a lot out of it for future films.

(From "Kazan on Directing" via this local article.)

Lagniappe

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This article astutely notes parallels between the film's story and New Orleans' historic epidemics. (It also observes an interesting motif: associating the villains - who carry the disease - with rats. They're forced to scurry under the docks and Palance, trying to climb a rope onto a ship, is hindered by a rat guard.)

Perhaps more than any other American city, New Orleans struggled continuously with epidemics. Poor sanitation and drainage led to outbreaks of cholera and typhoid. The proximity of swamps in a humid climate meant mosquitoes, which meant malaria and yellow fever; cisterns in people's homes facilitated their spread within the city. Yellow fever (also known as yellow jack or bronze john) hit most frequently and with the most devastating results.

Yellow fever is spread by Aedes aegypti, a mosquito native to Africa (presumably brought to Louisiana and the Caribbean by slavers). The name comes from the jaundice some victims exhibit; gastrointestinal bleeding turns their vomit black, giving the disease its Spanish name: vomito negro. Although New Orleans experienced several brutal yellow fever epidemics, the most severe was in 1853, with a documented 8,000 deaths in two months; historians suspect undocumented deaths in African, Native, and immigrant communities could have well exceeded another 2,000. All told, about a tenth of the city's population.

Early attempts at stopping the disease were based on flawed miasmic principles, so they fired cannons and burned gunpowder to dispel "the humors". Not until the turn of the century did Walter Reed discover the actual cause of the illness and propose enlightened preventative measures. Our last epidemic was in 1905. As the article above notes, it's no coincidence that Widmark's character in the film is named Clinton Reed.

One of my favorite museums here is the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, located in the building that housed the first licensed pharmacy in the United States and currently curated to look like an actual historic apothecary. It's a small but densely packed collection, covering everything from snake oil tonics to blood-letting instruments to voodoo potions. Their daily tour illustrates the horrifying/hilarious inefficiency of these treatments in a world predating anaesthesia. They have problems with people frequently passing out on their tours, overwhelmed by the lurid descriptions (although some argue that it's the oppressive ghostly presence of the syphilitic pharmacist who died in the building).

The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

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Mon Apr 20, 2015 2:19 pm
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Spend It All | Les Blank | 1971

What I love most about Blank's films is their humility. They are
content to capture the daily rhythms of life without indulging in
dramatic conflict or visual adornment and almost always within
the span of an hour. His unassuming formal approach mirrors his
modest subject matter. His films are windows into the distinctive,
undiscovered corners of American life, where he finds endless cause
for the celebration of culture and character through food, music,
and story. Often, between their earnest simplicity and their rhythmic
flow, his films achieve a sort of poetry.

In Spend It All, Blank's approach is even more lackadaisical than
usual. The tone is jocular and free-spirited, and even his editing
indulges in the occasional gag. The drawback is that the film fails
to explore Cajun culture with any complexity or nuance, but that isn't
Blank's intention. More than anything, this film is a glimpse into a
particular moment: a certain people with a certain culture at a certain
time. On those terms, Blank delivers admirably, living up to the vivid
personalities on display and their Cajun joie de vivre.

Lagniappe


Cajun music, now known as zydeco, is a blend of musical influences
ranging from Canadian folk music to blues to the indigenous music of
Louisiana. Although the origin of the term zydeco is disputed, the local
explanation says that it derives from the French word les haricots, or
snap peas, specifically the phrase Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés - the snap
peas aren't salty - an idiomatic expression that means nothing exciting
is happening. The phrase is now the title of a zydeco standard.

This linguistic transition, from the French les haricots to the anglicized
zydeco, is very similar to the origin of the term Cajun. The Cajuns came
to Louisiana by way of French Canada. When the British took over Acadia
(now Nova Scotia), the French-speaking Acadians (or les Acadiens) refused
to comply with British authorities, resulting in a diaspora that brought most
of them to Francophone Louisiana. Cajun is merely a verbal simplification of
Acadian, a trend that reflects the Cajun language as a whole, which is a
highly colloquial dialect of French, a patois of French, English, Spanish, and
other influences.


An old field recording of the same standard.

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Wed Apr 29, 2015 4:37 am
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I started watching True Detective. So far: holy shit yes.

I won't be doing episode by episode updates, but I might post impressions as I go along. I'm three episodes in so far. Here are some totally unorganized notes:

The series is structured around two contrapuntal philosophical motifs - the dual monologues that establish the flashback, and the running dialectic during their drives where these two viewpoints converge in the past.

Very casually in tune with local life. Allusions to "Andrew" (meaning Hurricane Andrew), which did extensive damage in the early 90s. A scene at a roadside Vietnamese restaurant - little known fact that New Orleans and much of southern Louisiana has a substantial Vietnamese population (mostly Catholic refugees from the Vietnam War relocated by the church).
They also manage a pretty solid Cajun accent, which is a tough fish to catch.

"This pipeline is covering up this coast like a jigsaw, this place is gonna be underwater in 30 years." I'll save discussion about the state's wetlands loss for later, but suffice it to say, I appreciate even the most offhanded references to the issue.

Recalls Memories of Murder, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, A Criminal Investigation (a photobook I'll discuss in my other thread at some point): meandering, morally ambiguous police procedurals.

Subtle, effective, immersive use of Louisiana as a setting: the landscape, the culture. Veers into Southern Gothic but with a grace rare to the genre. This is a blighted world populated by people who suffer, and McConaughey's nihilist worldview permeates the atmosphere of the film. Depicts rural poverty with finesse and intensity.

Image
This image.
This encapsulates the Louisiana I know better than any single image I've encountered yet for this thread. The refineries (we call the stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans Cancer Alley), the bayous, the rural churches, the proliferation of abandoned buildings.
But this image captures it the way I've always seen it: plagued by problems but suffused with beauty.

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Tue May 19, 2015 4:52 pm
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The Ghost of Telly Hankton
Artist: Charlie Hoffacker
2014

For a while I've wanted to share some local contemporary art in this thread, but New Orleans is a
small big city and its art scene is usually comprised two types of artists: those who pander tourists'
tastes and those who adhere to global trends. It's rare to find work that possesses power, craftsmanship,
and regional relevance.

Enter Charlie Hoffacker. Hoffacker is a NOPD homicide detective who got involved in art classes while
studying criminal justice at a local community college. His art fuses conceptual conceits with a rather
classical style of painting, channeling his struggles as a detective in one of America's most violent cities
and wedding its social ills to its culture.

Pictured at the top is his magnum opus, a five foot tall portrait of a convicted murderer made
entirely from 14,000 of the NOPD's spent bullet casings (the asking price, incidentally, is
$14,000). Telly Hankton was brought to trial on murder and racketeering charges (22 counts
in total)
, but even behind bars he managed to orchestrate hits on witnesses against him and
at least one revenge murder purely out of spite. Before being arrested, he was arguably the
city's most prolific living killer.

I've seen the painting in person, and it's a daunting piece to behold. Hoffacker explains some
of the logic behind the portrait (in the article I linked to via his name), but I admire it most for
its unflinching formal audacity and its subject's deadpan, confrontational gaze. I chose to
mention Hoffacker and his work now because True Detective brought him to mind. Last
year, Hoffacker was put under investigation for an incident at a crime scene.
After searching for bullet fragments, he spelled the word "Help" on the pavement with the
blood left on his fingers. The desperation of the gesture seemed closely linked to McConaughey's
Rust Cohle and his behavior in the show.

I'll continue posting impressions of the show as I keep watching (I'm two more episodes in
and things are getting really fascinating), but henceforth I'll post more of Hoffacker's work
with each True Detective update as lagniappe.

Image

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Wed May 20, 2015 5:05 pm
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One episode left of True Detective. A few notes on the penultimate and antepenultimate episodes. (How great of a word is antepenultimate? Such exquisite superfluousness.)

The characters have developed so much emotional heft in the midst of the intrigue, and so distracted are we by the intrigue that we hardly notice. I think the tipping point is when you see Cohle's nihilist facade give way to his genuine intentions.

Much of that is accomplished in disparities: between what we see and what we're told, in the deft manipulation of memory, the repercussions of time and its passing, the unspoken differences between the present and the elusive shadow of the past. Characters constantly deceive each other. They treat their personal lives like crimes that need to be concealed. Character development comes to resemble the procedural that frames the show, a matter of clues and assumptions and cat & mouse.

Courir de Mardi Gras, whose trappings they conflate with (or mistake for) the occult. I'll have to talk more about it later, but it's something I know relatively little about: a rural Cajun celebration I've never taken part in, with chicken chasing and homemade costumes and roots in age-old begging rituals. I'm interested to see how much of the modus operandi is explained in the last episode.

It's unsettling to see people you know in a show like this. I recognized two actresses, one in each episode, both of whom I know personally. One (Kerry Cahill) plays a doctor. The other (Carol Sutton) plays the elderly lady who rambles about "Him who eats time." I performed in a show with Carol, and her image (the poster for that show) is on my bedroom wall. But it's great to see local actors get to work with material like this.

Lagniappe
Image

For this series, Hoffacker talked to the homeless panhandling on neutral grounds
throughout the city, offering to buy their signs. He then used each sign as a canvas
to paint an oil portrait of the person he bought the sign from. Some of them he
displayed in elaborate, expensive frames.

Image

One could easily accuse Hoffacker's work of being on the nose, but I'd argue that
they're salvaged by an earnest conviction and their semantic density. Much of his
work is embroiled in contradictory attitudes, which complicate what might otherwise
be reductive social commentary.

Image

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Thu May 21, 2015 5:26 pm
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New Orleans, Exported

Image

Lemonade Joe | Oldřich Lipský | 1964

A musical sequence from this satiric Czech western features a
mock funeral parade for one of the villains over a lithograph of
New Orleans. This gave me the idea to post a screencap every
time I come across mention of New Orleans or Louisiana in
films set elsewhere, in an attempt to haphazardly document our
cultural reach. They'll always be labeled as New Orleans, Exported.

The film is an absolute blast, incidentally.

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Tue Jun 23, 2015 2:14 am
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Finally updating my thoughts on the last episode of True Detective. I watched it some time ago, but my computer broke down before I could post anything.

First off, I've got to pay tribute to the masterful title sequence, which might be the best I've ever seen. The film's landscapes and characters and themes mingle with a perfect, fluid logic. And the theme song is killer.

Although the soundtrack as a whole strikes me as odd, insofar as it takes few if any cues from Louisiana's music culture, neither the jazz and brass rhythms of New Orleans nor the zydeco of Cajun country. I suppose the sensible explanation is that those upbeat tunes don't fit the mood. Instead, the films opts for country Gothic and Delta blues -- still resolutely southern and well curated, but only partly rooted in Louisiana's swampy soil.

I spotted another familiar face in the final episode as well, my friend Veronica (who has a brief speaking role as a schoolteacher). She's involved with a local experimental theatre group. I saw her in a one woman show about parthenogenesis recently.

The conclusion plumbs strange depths with Carcosa, and I was curiously pleased by the fact that they don't explain the modus operandi, the killers' intentions, or the elaborate occult rituals that adorn the show. They remain a vague and fetishistic mish-mash of voodoo, courir de mardi gras, satanism, paganism, and allusions to horror literature and nihilist philosophers. The killer they find is a deranged and abused bastard abandoned in the backwoods, a figure both terrifying and banal, an instrument of more sophisticated and terrible minds. There remains the lingering knowledge that not all have been brought to justice.

The final scene is astounding, maybe the only moment of absolute sincerity we see out of Rust (excepting perhaps his anger with Maggie after they sleep together). I was surprised by how well things turned out for the central characters; I was expecting much worse. In spite of the unresolved mysteries, the hesitant optimism of the end acts as wonderful balm to the misery and decay that pervade the series.

Some supplemental material:
This article investigates the symbolic density of the series. The piece is uneven and goes off the deep end now and then, but it's painstakingly researched and shone some light on a few things I didn't know.
And this Vice piece explores an actual incident that probably inspired the show. It happened in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, where most of my father's side of the family lives, and I'm surprised I never heard about it, considering it wasn't so long ago. But I was in school at the time and not too attentive to the news.

Lagniappe
Image

Some more work by Charlie Hoffacker. This time, his series
of automatic rifles depicted with paraphernalia emblematic of
New Orleans: Mardi Gras beads, encroaching vines, a crawfish
boil spread.

Image

Violence and local culture and urban decay are inseparable,
almost synonymous. It's hard to convey how naturalistic the
images seem to me. Seeing Mardi Gras beads hanging from
tree branches and power lines is so common -- why shouldn't
we drape our guns with them?

Image

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Wed Jul 15, 2015 12:50 pm
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Dry Wood | Les Blank | 1973

This film is a great antidote to the fetishistic use of Courir de Mardi Gras
in True Detective. Here we see the tradition as it's actually practiced:
while its arcane trappings hearken back to the old world, the festivity itself
is a prolonged bout of light-hearted tomfoolery, with the revelers' colorful
costumes striking bright against the wintry Mardi Gras sky.

Blank's films tend to meander, but this one has even less focus than most
because it has no particular subject or theme or person to hone in on. It's
just an unassuming document of a community's daily rhythms: holidays,
family gatherings, making house, cooking food. Yet somehow it coheres, in
part because it's attuned to the setting as much as the people: the landscape
and weather, the music and food, the accoutrements of their lives. Again we
witness Blank's poetic editing, his sly sense of humor, his lack of commentary,
his habit of casually admiring beautiful women (like the leggy girl on the porch).

Lagniappe
Image

Courir de Mardi Gras is a rural tradition in the Cajun communities of southern
Louisiana that dates back to ancient begging rituals, much like Halloween. The
participants (known individually and collectively as Mardi Gras) go door to door
begging for food, which is used to make a communal gumbo at the end of the
celebration. This typically involves a bunch of drunk Cajuns chasing a chicken
around at some point.

Costuming is an important part of Courir de Mardi Gras, and most costumes
suggest satirical role reversals. The rich and poor switch places, men dress
as women, tall hats poke fun at the clergy. Other traditions involve whipping,
feasting, dancing, folk songs, and lots of drinking. These mostly derive from
French predecessors (like the Fête des fous Hugo describes in The Hunchback
of Notre-Dame
). I've never taken part in Courir de Mardi Gras, not having
grown up in the towns that celebrate it, but I'm curious to check it out someday.

Image

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Wed Jul 29, 2015 11:36 am
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Hot Pepper | Les Blank | 1973

Originally conceived as a single film about rural black Creole life,
Dry Wood and Hot Pepper became twin films that each focus
on different aspects of that culture: daily life and music, respectively.
Of the two, I prefer the former, and this film feels like a supplement
to Dry Wood; as such, it functions best as a showcase for
Clifton Chenier's musical performances.

But that's not to say the film isn't worthwhile. It's probably Blank's
most dynamically edited film, the most lyrical and rhythmic. The
sequence that accompanies "I'm Coming Home" is delightful, inspiring
a nostalgia for Louisiana in me (in spite of the fact that I'm
currently living here). The film's best shot dwells on the rippling
reflection of a sunset on a lake, a moment that achieves pure
abstraction, visualizing Chenier's music for us à la Oskar Fischinger.

Lagniappe


Just sharing a Chenier song. Below I've included a portion of the
lyrics (the rest are included under the Youtube video) because they
include a few distinctive Cajun-isms.

C'est pas la peine brailler
Oh moi j'suis gone
C'est pas la peine brailler, 'tite fille
Oh oh moi j'suis gone
J'ai donné tout mon argent
Tu prends mon argent là t'es gone


The Cajuns contract whatever they can, so words like j'suis are very
common. 'tit and 'tite are common abbreviations for petit(e), and 'tit cher
is frequently used as a term of affection down here (I even have a friend
named Tshy whose name derives from that phrase). And the English word
"gone" sticks out. Cajun French incorporates a lot of vernacular English,
and you'll notice that "gone" conveniently rhymes with "argent".

Image
The King of Zydeco

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Sun Aug 23, 2015 7:28 am
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Macrology wrote:
(Y'all can expect reviews of Blank's other Louisiana documentaries in the months to come as I make my way through the set.)

Happy bout this btw.

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Sun Aug 23, 2015 7:45 am
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Colonel Kurz wrote:
Happy bout this btw.


I'm glad to hear it! I just hoped someone was reading this thread. I was starting to wonder though.

I just watched the last Louisiana film of the Always for Pleasure collection last night, so I'll post something about that one soon.

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Fri Aug 28, 2015 8:55 am
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I always read it! I haven't had anything to contribute lately, though that's no excuse. I've learned a lot, anyway. :)

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Sat Aug 29, 2015 12:34 am
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Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking | Les Blank | 1990

This documentary about Louisiana cuisine was made largely using additional footage
shot for Blank's full-length documentary J'ai Été Au Bal (not on the Criterion set,
though I still intend to write about it). Most of Blank's Louisiana films touch upon
cuisine in some capacity, but this one indulges in it, and his deft mix of observation
and conversation makes the film feel like a gathering in the kitchen, casually chatting
with the cooks as they sweat over the stove.

Blank is not only interested in the local cuisine: he's also interested in our attitude
toward it and the culture that shapes that attitude. These folks are PROUD of their
cooking, of the fact that they've never cracked open a cookbook, of their place in a
long-standing tradition. I consider that the film's most notable achievement (though
the cooking tips don't hurt). Otherwise, it plays a bit like a "Best Of" Blank's other
films: Marc Savoy has a central role, Clifton Chenier's widow makes an appearance,
and the Rebirth Brass Band (now an internationally renowned, Grammy-winning
group) strolls down the road just seven years after their formation, evoking Always
for Pleasure
. It also bears the same signature that marks all of Blank's films:
a shot of flowers (illustrating the name of his production company, Flower Films).

Lagniappe
The Jambalaya Calculator

As demonstrated in Yum, Yum, Yum!, cooking in Louisiana tends to be a
matter of approximation. Proportions are important, but we usually eyeball it, and
we often make such large quantities of food that measuring them out might get
tedious. But to make sure you maintain that all-important balance when cooking up
bigger batches of jambalaya, local cook Jay Grush conceived of the Jambalaya
Calculator to help regulate proportions.

You can download the calculator via that link (it's a simple Excel spreadsheet), and
I recommend it if only to see how thorough and serious we are about our food. The
file contains not only calculations determined by serving, pot size, and quantity of
food, but features tips, recommended methods, a "Pastalaya" alternative, a resources
page for food and equipment, and several links and other recipes (under a section
called Lagniappe, appropriately). It's an impressive effort which took Grush several
years to compile. And of course if you'd like to make jambalaya, it's very handy.

(You'll notice the prevalence of onion, bell pepper, and celery. They appear in most
Cajun dishes, and we refer to them as the Holy Trinity. We take them about as
seriously as we take our actual Catholicism.)

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Sun Aug 30, 2015 10:58 am
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I'll be grabbing that for sure.

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Mon Aug 31, 2015 12:21 am
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Rising Tide | John M. Barry | 1997 | 524 pages (w/ index)

Like the Mississippi River itself, the scope of this book extends far beyond
the borders of Louisiana, but anything involving the river invariably ends up
here. To cultivate a fertile understanding of the flood and the breadth of its
impact, Barry constructs a complex portrait of the river and our relationship
to it, encompassing its pivotal role in the nation's growth and prosperity, our
early attempts to engineer it, and the socioeconomic conditions that it helped
engender. He casts a stark light on U.S. race relations, our foolhardy fight
against nature, and the impunity of powerful men. I have a hard time calling
the book nonfiction; to me, it feels more like myth-making. Barry describes the
river with a lyrical sense of awe, and the bankers, politicians, businessmen, and
landowners who struggle against the river (and each other) take on the stature
of warring gods.

In New Orleans that mythological grandeur is even more pronounced because
here it's practically literal. Men of wealth and status forged social connections
and consolidated their power through highly exclusive Mardi Gras Krewes, most
of which were named after Greek gods: Comus, Momus, Proteus (nowadays we
also have Bacchus, Muses, Nyx, Morpheus). Barry investigates how a few men
of power, most of whom were not elected officials, controlled the city's capital
in an unparalleled capacity, and how those men persuaded the local and federal
governments to dynamite the levee and flood rural St. Bernard Parish to secure
New Orleans' financial interests during the threat of flood. It also ties them to
power structures throughout the Mississippi delta and the U.S. as a whole.

Another focal point is the city of Greenville, Mississippi, which was developed
by LeRoy Percy, a wealthy landowner, U.S. senator, and the uncle of Walker
Percy (who wrote The Moviegoer). Barry gives us a nuanced impression
of the Percy family, coloring their public actions with details from their personal
lives. He talks at length about William Alexander Percy (son of LeRoy and the
adoptive father of Walker Percy after Walker's father killed himself). He
discusses WAP's homosexuality, his writing (a noted memoir and poetry, some of
which Barry quotes), and his own failed efforts in the political arena. He paints
an ambivalent picture of LeRoy Percy, who fought and defeated the Ku Klux Klan in
the heart of the delta when their influence was nationwide -- but primarily out of
self-interest, to enable black labor in the region to thrive. Learning more about
the Percy family broadened my understanding of Walker Percy and The Moviegoer,
especially its views on class, seen most witheringly in the aunt's monologue near
the end of the book.

This book isn't just an impressive achievement, it's essential reading for anyone
interested in American history (the New York Public Library named it "one of
the fifty best books of all kinds-- fiction, nonfiction, and poetry-- in the preceding
50 years"). Its staggering attention to detail enriches its ambitious scale, tying
the hardships of black planters to the political machinations behind Herbert
Hoover's bid for presidency. Its dissection of old New Orleans society offers acute
insight into problems that continue to plague the city, in particular its economic
decline over the course of the 20th century. And Barry's critical attitude toward
the Army Corps of Engineers is prescient, considering when this was written; after
unprecedented legislation, the Corps took responsibility for the nation's flood
control infrastructure, and they were their levees that failed to protect New Orleans
in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina a decade ago.

Lagniappe
Image

Not only does John Barry write about the history of Louisiana, he's actively involved
in making history as well. Until recently, he was a board member of the Southeast
Louisiana Flood Protection Authority - East, a group of specialists who oversee the
levee system that protects New Orleans. A few years ago, they filed a landmark
lawsuit against over 90 oil and gas companies for damage they've done to the
wetlands, in an attempt to secure funding for our wetlands restoration project, which
will cost the state at least $50,000,000,000. Once Barry's term was served, Governor
Jindal (maybe the most widely reviled governor currently in office) removed him
from his position on the board, but the lawsuit is still active in the courts, and Barry
is still fighting for wetlands awareness.

The map above is based on a survey done by Harold Fisk for the Army Corps in the
forties. It tracks the meander of the Mississippi River -- that is, the various courses
it has followed over the centuries, with each course distinguished by color. Fisk and
Dement (the cartographer) made over a dozen of these maps, and they are among
the finest examples of incidental art I've ever seen. I have a poster of one in my room.

Full image of the meander map

But that meander, like the loss of our wetlands, presents very real problems for us
today. The Mississippi River would like to switch its course to the Atchafalaya Basin
(partly due to the 1927 flood), so the Army Corps built The Old River Control Structure,
one of the most impressive and least-known feats of 20th century engineering. It
regulates the flow of one of the largest rivers in the world. John McPhee's lengthy
New Yorker article "Atchafalaya" gives a very thorough account of the structure's
purpose, its daily operation, and the potential consequences of its failure.

Atchafalaya

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Wed Sep 02, 2015 10:04 am
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MAC

So I'm once again trying for NOLA, this time for my birthday in December. I booked everything through Expedia so the hotel and flights are already paid for which means I just have to save up some spending money. I don't get a full refund if I cancel so this time should be a go.

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Tue Sep 29, 2015 7:22 am
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A giant of New Orleans music, Allen Toussaint, died this past Tuesday.
He was an excellent musician, as the song above demonstrates, but his
influence is most felt in his work as a songwriter and music producer.
He wrote songs recorded by Lee Dorsey ("Working in the Coal Mine"),
the Neville Brothers, The Who, Three Dog Night, The Rolling Stones, and
Ernie K-Doe ("Mother-in-Law") and worked with The Meters, Fats Domino,
Paul McCartney, Dr John, and Labelle (of "Lady Marmalade" fame). I'm
not terribly familiar with his work, but considering the theme of the thread
I thought it fitting to pay tribute. So here's one more song by him, one of his
own compositions:



Image

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Thu Nov 12, 2015 5:52 pm
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J'ai été au bal | Les Blank | 1989

This is the cornerstone of Blank's documentary work in Louisiana. Most of
his films are short portraits or unobtrusive slices of life, but this one is feature
length and has the ambition to be the definitive film about Cajun music.
That difference is felt: the film is less intimate, but its scope is admirably
broad, and we learn about two dozen of the most noteworthy Cajun musicians
of the 20th century (including Clifton Chernier and Marc Savoy, who Blank
had worked with before). But he also delves into the past to discuss musicians
who have since passed and left their impact on the culture. It's the only one
of his films that dwells as much in the past as the present, and it has an
academic backbone that the others lack.

But that's not to suggest that the film is remotely dry or that it fails to entertain.
It's not as freeform and flowing as his shorter films, but Blank's trademarks are
all present: his personable attitude, his easy way with interviews, his delight in
people who take delight in things, his fixation on ephemera (especially old
photographs). And his poetic sensibility makes itself known, if not as freely; near
the six minute mark, Blank cuts from a musical washboard to its visual echo:
ripples on the surface of a steel-grey lake. Above all, though, we have the sheer
pleasure of the music and the winking mischief of the lyrics. The personalities of
the musicians bring life to the film, like Marc Savoy's demonstration of the complexity
and durability of the accordion.

Lagniappe
Image

Lagniappe | Les Blank | 2006

Lagniappe for lagniappe. This film was made with leftover footage from Always
for Pleasure
, and like J'ai été au bal focuses more on the music than
anything else. It feels like a highlights reel of music from the time, including
performances by The Wild Tchoupitoulas and Queen Ida. It's more a curio than
anything, but it's worth watching for the performances and the quality of the music.

This is the last of the Blank films I'll be reviewing for the thread. As you may know,
Les Blank died in 2013, but his influence is still very much felt in Louisiana. His films
serve as vital documents of our culture, in particular the Cajun culture which has
altered so much in the intervening years, and his attitude lives on in many ways. For
instance, this very weekend New Orleans is having its second annual Always for Pleasure
festival, inspired by Blank. It's a festival just for the hell of it, and the line-up includes
art shows, a DIY strip club, and screenings of his films. I'll be participating in the festivities
later tonight.

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Sat Nov 14, 2015 4:07 am
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Macrology wrote:
J'ai été au bal | Les Blank | 1989

Thanks for this! So much good music, and history straight from the musicians' mouths. A real delight!

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Voyage | Female Gaze | MACBETH | Sokurov | Fassbinder | Greenaway | Denis | Book Shelf


Sun Nov 15, 2015 9:35 am
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Glad you enjoyed it! I've done a little reading on Blank, and here are a few things that stood out:

Documentary Film and the Pleasure Principle
A solid article about Blank's ethos and the vitality of his art.

And this article doesn't say much I haven't said, but I found this observation really eloquent: "Blank . . . was known to take forever to edit a film, and nearly all three dozen of them are like collages, or quilts, with patiently gathered scenes that are stitched together with humor that ultimately has quite serious ends. . ."

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Mon Nov 23, 2015 3:45 pm
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So occasionally I'm just going to use this thread to brag about the fact that I live in New Orleans and show y'all the awesome stuff that happens here.

Today the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and The Arcade Fire led a second line in the French Quarter in memory of David Bowie. Over 4,000 people gathered to participate. This is the crowd outside of One Eyed Jacks dancing while the bar blared Under Pressure:



My sister appears briefly near the end. It was an absolute blast. Crowded as hell, but everyone was friendly and so very into it.

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Sun Jan 17, 2016 9:57 am
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Southern Comfort | Walter Hill | 1981

At the beginning of the film, I wondered whether Hill would resist the urge to
kill off his characters with alligators and quicksand. He abstains from one but
indulges in the other, and that's an accurate assessment of the film: half good,
half bad. It falls way short of the less conventional Hard Times -- the plot
is pure cliché and the characterization is totally off the wall -- but the pacing is
tight, it's got snappy dialogue and solid action, and the sheer incompetence
of the protagonists gradually acquires a darkly comic quality.

I was also apprehensive about its treatment of Cajuns, but unlike Deliverance,
its struggle centers around misunderstandings, and the Cajuns are acting out
against theft and assault. Half the time, the "antagonists" are indistinguishable
from the swamp itself (comparisons to Vietnam War films, which use the same
technique, are apt). It brings war to the homeland and strips away the surreal
trappings of The Warriors. The finale, which takes place at a Cajun fais do-do,
normalizes Cajun culture and serves as a compelling and unusual setting for a
showdown. (And Marc Savoy, from Blank's films, makes an appearance playing
with Dewey Balfa during a rendition of "Parlez nous à boire", the song I posted
earlier in the thread!)

Lagniappe
Image

Many Cajuns live near the Atchafalaya Basin, the wetlands that surround the Atchafalaya
River, which drains out of south-central Louisiana. It is the largest swamp in the
United States. Historically, the Atchafalaya was a backswamp that only received
significant deposits of sediment from the Mississippi River during floods, but human
interference drastically altered the ecosystem: in the 1800s, Captain Shreve (for
whom Shreveport is named) removed the Great Raft (a log jam that spanned over
160 miles) to facilitate the navigation of the Red and Atchafalaya Rivers. This opened
channels to the Mississippi, and now 30% of the Mississippi's flow is diverted to
the Atchafalaya Basin (regulated by the Old River Control Structure I mentioned in
the lagniappe of my Rising Tide post).

Around the same time, massive logging operations cleared out miles of old-growth
cypress forest. Now Cajuns make their pirogues out of aluminum or plywood rather
than the hollowed-out cypress trunks of old. For centuries, and up until the 1980s,
Cajuns could make a living as subsistence trappers and fishers living off of the land,
but sedimentation and dwindling water levels has reduced the amount of oxygen in
the water, which in turn reduces the region's wildlife populations. Unlike the Mississippi
River delta, this is still a growing delta, but a rapidly changing landscape has forced
many communities into extinction within the past fifty years. Yet people are still striving
to adapt to these changing conditions, and it remains one of the most iconic landscapes
in the country.

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Thu Apr 28, 2016 11:41 am
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I'm currently reading Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, a (mostly) nonfictional account of his days as a riverboat pilot and his return to the river over twenty years later, in the 1880s. It covers the length of the river, but everything about the Mississippi ultimately ends up in Louisiana, and he talks about New Orleans extensively (the lagniappe quote at the beginning of the thread was taken from this). I'll post a review of the book once I finish it, but while I'm reading I plan to quote passages that catch my fancy. For today:

.

On the architecture of the French Quarter:

Quote:
The houses are massed in blocks; are austerely plain and dignified; uniform of pattern with here and there a departure from it with pleasant effect; all are plastered on the outside, and nearly all have long, iron-railed verandas running along the several stories. Their chief beauty is the deep, warm, varicolored stain with which time and the weather have enriched the plaster. It harmonizes with all the surroundings, and has as natural a look of belonging there as has the flush upon sunset clouds. This charming decoration cannot be successfully imitated; neither is it to be found elsewhere in America.


.

On the musicality of Southern speech:

Quote:
I found the half-forgotten Southern intonations and elisions as pleasing to my ear as they had formerly been. A Southerner talks music. At least it is music to me, but then I was born in the South. The educated Southerner has no use for an r, except at the beginning of a word. He says "honah," and "dinnah," and "Gove'nuh," and "befo' the waw," and so on. The words may lack charm to the eye, in print, but they have it to the ear. [. . .] And they have the pleasant custom -- long ago fallen into decay in the North -- of frequently employing the respectful "Sir." Instead of the curt Yes, and the abrupt No, they say "Yes, suh"; "No, suh."


.

And the lagniappe quote from the original post actually has a final sentence I mistakenly ommitted:

Quote:
If the waiter in the restaurant stumbles and spills a gill of coffee down the back of your neck, he says, "F'r lagniappe, sah," and gets you another cup without extra charge.

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Sat Jun 18, 2016 8:42 am
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More from Life on the Mississippi:

.

On the Civil War as a subject of conversation (and a keen reminder of how much more deeply the South was affected by the war):
Quote:
In the North one hears the war mentioned, in social conversation, once a month; sometimes as often as once a week; but as distinct subject for talk, it has long ago been relieved of duty. [. . .] The case is very different in the South. There, every man you meet was in the war; and every lady you meet saw the war. [. . .] In the South, the war is what A.D. is elsewhere; they date from it. All day long you hear things "placed" as having happened since the waw; or du'in' the waw; or befo' the waw; or right aftah the waw; or 'bout two yeahs or five yeahs or ten yeahs befo' the waw or aftah the waw.


.

On the spectacle of mule racing in New Orleans (a tradition that has since grown to include camel, ostrich, and dachshund races):
Quote:
As each mule and each rider has a distinct opinion of his own as to how the race ought to be run, and which side of the track was best in certain circumstances, and how often the track ought to be crossed, and when a collision ought to be accomplished, and when it ought to be avoided, these twenty-six conflicting opinions created a most fantastic and picturesque confusion, and resulting spectacle was killingly comical.

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Mon Jun 20, 2016 8:59 am
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Life on the Mississippi | Mark Twain | 1883 | 295 pages

Throughout this book, Twain marvels over the capriciousness of the river: its capacity for collapsing
shores, relocating islands, and washing away river towns. It is prone to diverting its course and all
manner of fluctuations, and as if inspired by it, Twain structures his book the same way. As a contemporary
review
put it: "The material offered by observations on the journey is various beyond enumeration,
and much of it is extremely amusing. Hoaxes and exaggerations palmed off by pilots and other natives
along the way upon supposed ignorant strangers; stories of gamblers and obsolete robbers; glimpses
of character and manners; descriptions of scenery and places; statistics of trade; Indian legends;
extracts from the comments of foreign travelers, -- all these occur, interspersed with two or three
stories of either humorous or tragic import, or of both together."

It's part history, part travelogue, part memoir, and all of it rife with anecdotes, social satire, heartfelt
commentary, pathos, and Twain's characteristic humor, which ranges from deadpan to absurd. It's
purportedly nonfiction, and for the most part you can buy that, but many of his stories are deliberately
crafted, if not outright fabricated. One story involving morgues, robberies, hidden treasure, and an
unlikely reunion carries the influence of Edgar Allen Poe and Washington Irving. The tone has a light
touch, but Twain does not shy from tragedy. He relates two different incidents where someone burned
alive, and his descriptions are harrowing. These fluctuations in tone and content are sometimes erratic
to a fault, and the book has what modern readers might deem an excess of statistics about the Mid-West
circa 1880, but Twain's deft prose and callous wit enliven every page.

The book is divided into two primary sections: Twain's induction into the life of riverboat piloting in his
youth, where he delights in describing the vast breadth of knowledge and prowess necessary to succeed
at the job, and his return to the river over 20 years later, revisiting the cities and people he had encountered
in his former life and reflecting on their changes. If the first half is bright with Twain's enthusiasm for youth
and the river and steamboat piloting, the second half is tinged with nostalgia and melancholy. Whole chapters
recount towns that progress passed by, pilot friends who have since died, a stirring visit to his hometown
of Hannibal, and most of all a remorse over the waning glory days of the steamboat.

Lagniappe

Mark Twain wrote:
I saw the procession of the Mystic Crew [sic] of Comus there, twenty-four years ago -- with knights and nobles
and so on, clothed in silken and golden Paris-made gorgeousness, planned and bought for that single night's use;
and in their train all manner of giants, dwarfs, monstrosities, and other diverting grotesquerie -- a startling and
wonderful sort of show, as it filed solemnly and silently down the street in the light of its smoking and flickering
torches; but it is said that in these latter days the spectacle is mightily augmented, as to cost, splendor, and variety.


One final quote, this time referring to our Mardi Gras traditions. Given the time period, Twain must have witnessed
one of the first parades of Comus. But I want to pick out one particular detail: the "smoking and flickering torches".

Most Mardi Gras parades rolled at night, but our gas street lamps were not sufficient to properly light the spectacle, so
people were enlisted to carry torches alongside the route. These were typically free men of color, although some of the
earliest parades also used slaves, and over the years these torch-bearers, called flambeaux, became a fixture in every
nocturnal parade. Flambeaux are depicted in the engraving below walking in a row beside the parade.

Image

The role grew more performative over the years, as the flambeaux started dancing and entertaining parade-goers to
earn tips. This exchange of banter and tips made the parades more interactive and engaging, and it's partly what led
to the popularization of "throws", the beads and other trinkets that are tossed from the floats.

Flambeaux are still a staple of our Mardi Gras festivities, including the dancing and tips, but now they carry gas flames
fueled by propane tanks on their backs. Since they're not needed to light the floats, they're mostly present for tradition's
sake. The pictures below will give you an idea of what they look like, as well as their characteristic attitude and swagger.

Image

Image

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Thu Jun 23, 2016 2:21 pm
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Anyone live or had experiance roach hunting in Louisiana? My parents live on the edge of a bayou just south of Lafayette. I went there in September and only found mosquitos and super smelling millipedes. Perhaps the constant spraying of the mosquitos was the reason. Strange how the spray killed everything but. Would there be a better time of year to find some? We were there during a love bug frenzy, that was fun lol.


Sun Aug 07, 2016 5:10 am
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Bourbon Street: A History | Richard Campanella | 2014 | 384 pages


As a tour guide I end up reading some esoteric material, like architectural tracts about the masonry in
our cemeteries, but even the most niche pieces offer subjects for discussion and anecdotes for my tours.
Richard Campanella is a geographer and a professor at the Arts and Architecture School at Tulane, and
he helped redefine my understanding of what constitutes geography. It isn't just naming places or
making maps; he charts how New Orleans developed over time, tracing the impact of the social, historic,
economic, and geologic forces that shaped the city's structure and culture. He extracts piercing insights
from exhaustive research, and while I wouldn't recommend them to anyone who doesn't live in New
Orleans or have a deep investment in its history, his books straddle a curious line between academia
and popular entertainment (he's something of a local celebrity among the literati in New Orleans).
He's aided by a mischievous sense of humor and a knack for finding pithy quotations that illustrate and
elaborate his points.

This book tracks the history of Bourbon Street, from a dirt road in a backswamp to a world-renowned
entertainment destination. After two centuries of being primarily residential, a confluence of incidents -
namely Prohibition and its speak-easies, servicemen on leave during World War II, and mob-financed
gambling and burlesque clubs - skyrocketed the street to international fame. It's a fascinating story,
and Campanella makes some striking arguments, berating those who shun the street as "inauthentic"
by questioning the validity of the very notion of authenticity. But I'll let Campanella's astute observations
and eloquent prose speak for themselves by quoting one of the most concise and comprehensive excerpts
from the book:

Richard Campanella wrote:
But he failed to notice that the recent wartime bustle of the early 1940s had massively accelerated
the transformations that had originated on a rather small scale in the 1920s. He also neglected to explain
who "they" were. In fact, "they" were not one coordinated effort but scores of players, including
restaurateurs, club impresarios, barkeepers, sole proprietors, managers, and landlords. Nearly all were
locals, none were particularly powerful, zero could pass as patrician, and all acted more or less independently,
keen to rise above their own plebeian past. "They" were, essentially, the ethnic white working class of
downtown New Orleans. Although salient players did emerge - popular club owner Gaspar Gulotta had
been known as the "Little Mayor of Bourbon Street" at least since the war years, and he later headed the
nightclub owners' association - The Street's operators otherwise had no consolidated administration, no
president, no coordinator, no lobby, no marketers, and no corporate funding. Bourbon Street as we know
it effectively invented itself, locally, from the bottom up, with each constituent entity experimenting
individually and adopting innovations laterally via competitive forces. It formed mostly during the second
quarter of the twentieth century but rested upon cultural and structural substrate dating back to the eighteenth
century. It succeeded by uniting an intimate pedestrian-scale framework of historic buildings with the tantalizing
social memory of New Orleans's age-old gastronomical, musical, bibulous, and libidinous reputation. It worked
well, and thus it range true when, in 1949, a respected journalist called Bourbon Street "one of the most famous
streets in the country".


Lagniappe

Nowadays Bourbon Street is known as a pedestrian mall where drinking and people-watching are the
main attractions, but in its hey-day, the street was mostly empty because people were in clubs, listening to
Dixieland bands and watching burlesque performances with live music. These clubs had huge staffs which meant
high overhead costs, so to make a profit they had to indulge in some kind of illicit activity: gambling, prostitution,
and other rackets. But by all accounts the burlesque shows were a thing to behold.

Image

One of the most famous and fondly remembered headliners was Kitty West, aka Evangeline the Oyster Girl,
who would arise from the giant oyster pictured above before stripping. On one memorable occasion, Evangeline
flooded the club by using an ax to break the glass of a water tank where Divena, a competing dancer, stripped
underwater.

Image
Evangeline emerging

Image
Divena stripping underwater and trying to steal the show.

Image
Evangeline isn't having any of it.

Image
The aftermath.

The whole debacle was a publicity event staged for Life Magazine, but no one in the club knew (one patron
stated, ". . . this was a brand new experience for me. I never dreamed the hazards of night-clubbing on
Bourbon Street included exposure to drowning.") and allegedly Divena wasn't in on the gimmick, either.
For more information and pictures about Evangeline and that event in particular, this was my source for the
pictures above.

The tradition of Evangeline remains strong, as the burlesque scene in New Orleans is making a mighty comeback.
As Campanella notes in his book, burlesque today is archly ironic, unlike the original dancers, but there are
some great performers like Trixie Minx and Bella Blue, and Ginger Valentine of Bustout Burlesque recently
remounted the Evangeline act, learning from none other than Kitty West herself.

Image

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Sat Oct 01, 2016 6:50 am
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Hard Target | John Woo | 1993

This film asks a lot of its viewers. Let's assume you're willing to swallow the paper-thin
Most Dangerous Game premise. You'll give the slipshod storytelling a pass because John
Woo didn't know much English and the studio forced major cuts. Maybe the hero's
arbitrary involvement in the narrative doesn't phase you. Supposing you overlook those
obstacles, you still have the matter of JCVD's mullet and -- most ludicrous of all -- his accent.

Allegedly Van Damme's accent was the reason the screenwriter Chuck Pfarrer set the film
in Louisiana, a completely baffling decision (he comes nowhere near Cajun, nor does he
seem to be trying) but arguably the film's saving grace, along with a few solid action
sequences. Our two wooden leads cling to the most tenuous thread of a plot, yet their world
is richly textured. New Orleans oozes sleaze, and the supporting cast brings personality
in spades, with oddball performances from folks like Lance Henriksen and Wilford Brimley.

I'm coming to see that the New Orleans genre film is almost a genre unto itself -- or a
style that transcends genre, as Schrader described film noir -- with distinct and recurring
characteristics: allusions to local culture, memorable set pieces (often using real locations),
supporting casts full of larger than life character actors, and a worn down grittiness and
world-weariness that pervade both the mise-en-scène and the characters. New Orleans is like
a spice used to flavor genre films, giving them some kick they might have otherwise lacked.

Lagniappe
The climactic shoot-out in Hard Target takes place in what Van Damme's Chance calls the
"Mardi Gras Graveyard", an abandoned factory filled with disused floats and decorations from
Mardi Gras parades of the past. It makes for a weird, flaming, explosive finale, but I thought
I'd show what they look like when they're not getting blown up by grenades and shotguns.

The Krewe of Rex is one of the oldest extant Mardi Gras krewes and probably the most famous.
Their parade rolls on Mardi Gras day, and they have many longstanding traditions associated with
the parade. One is the boeuf gras, a giant white bull that represents the last meat of ancient
pre-Lenten feasting.

Image
This float appears near the beginning of Rex every year.

Most Mardi Gras parades have annual themes, and Rex adopted "Horti Regis" ("Royal Gardens")
as their 2016 theme. This included floats modeled after famous gardens, like the Gardens of
Bomarzo. (Most of the krewes contract their floats out to Blaine Kern of Mardi Gras World.)

Image

It also included throws (beads and other paraphernalia thrown from floats) that pertained to
the theme. Each float had its own set of beads and a cup that corresponded to their garden. This
is one of several I caught:

Image
(Most kitchens in New Orleans are stocked with an array of plastic Mardi Gras cups and pint glasses
from The Bulldog, a local bar that gives them away on Wednesday nights.)
Image

And to round it off, a float design from the early years of Mardi Gras -- perhaps one of very
floats Van Damme obliterated with his shotgun.

Image
(Krewe of Rex Mardi Gras parade floats, late 1870s to early 1880s - No. 16, Royalty in a Future Generation)
Source

I'll post more of these old float designs in later Lagniappes!

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Thu Nov 17, 2016 1:16 pm
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New Orleans, Exported

Image

Junky | William S. Burroughs | 1953

About halfway through Junky, "Bill Lee" moves to New Orleans (specifically Algiers,
across the river, where Kerouac visits him during On the Road). As he falls back into
the grip of addiction, Burroughs describes the seedier side of New Orleans and the despondent
characters who populate it. His keen reportage and deadpan style make for a rare and
insightful time capsule of the local drug scene circa 1950 and the machinations of Louisiana's
law enforcement agencies, which Burroughs navigates with streetwise cynicism.

His initial description is a hard-edged, perceptive portrait of a restless city defined by anonymity.
His description of city-bound locals with Brooklyn accents rings very true.

William S Burroughs wrote:
Eventually I got to Texas and stayed off junk for about four months. Then I went to New
Orleans. New Orleans presents a stratified series of ruins. Along Bourbon Street are ruins
of the 1920s. Down where the French Quarter blends into Skid Row are ruins of an earlier
stratum: chili joints, decaying hotels, oldtime saloons with mahogany bars, spittoons, and
crystal chandeliers. The ruins of 1900.

There are people in New Orleans who have never been outside the city limits. The New
Orleans accent is exactly similar to the accent of Brooklyn. The French Quarter is always
crowded. Tourists, servicemen, merchant seamen, gamblers, perverts, drifters, and
lamsters from every State in the Union. People wander around, unrelated, purposeless,
most of them looking vaguely sullen and hostile. This is a place where you enjoy yourself.
Even the criminals have come here to cool off and relax.

But a complex pattern of tensions, like the electrical mazes devised by psychologists to
unhinge the nervous systems of white rats and guinea pigs, keeps the unhappy pleasure-seekers
in a condition of unconsummated alertness. For one thing, New Orleans is inordinately
noisy. The drivers orient themselves largely by the use of their horns, like bats. The residents
are surly. The transient population is completely miscellaneous and unrelated, so that you
never know what sort of behavior to expect from anybody.

New Orleans was a strange town to me and I had no way of making a junk connection.
Walking around the city, I spotted several junk neighborhoods: St. Charles and Poydras, the
area around and above Lee Circle, Canal and Exchange Place. I don't spot junk neighborhoods
by the way they look, but by the feel, somewhat the same process by which a dowser locates
hidden water. I am walking along and suddenly the junk in my cells moves and twitches like
the dowser's wand: "Junk here!"

I didn't see anybody around, and besides I wanted to stay off, or at least I thought I wanted
to stay off.

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Fri Jan 06, 2017 6:43 am
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The Selected Writings of Lafcadio Hearn | Lafcadio Hearn (editor: Henry Goodman) | 566 pages

Though not a household name, Lafcadio Hearn is one of New Orleans's most intriguing literary figures,
and arguably no other writer has had a greater influence on the public's perception of the city. He certainly
embodies the ethnic and cultural diversity typical of New Orleans: born on the Greek island of Lefkada (for
which he is named) to Greek and Irish parents, he was raised in Ireland before being sent to Cincinnati,
where he was forced to fend for himself. He worked as a journalist until his newspaper fired him for his
illegal marriage to a black woman. . . but he signed onto another newspaper, where he received considerable
acclaim, and had the no doubt deeply satisfying experience of turning down his former employers when they
offered to re-hire him. Later he moved to New Orleans, where he wrote extensively about the city, paying
particular attention to its cultural peculiarities and its marginalized communities. After ten years in the
city, he spent two years in Martinique, and from there he moved to Japan, where he spent the last ten
years of his life, marrying into a Japanese family, collecting Japanese folklore, and interpreting the country's
culture for Western readers.

This collection is unusual for this thread because it spans the breadth of his career, so only a small portion
of it deals with Louisiana. That includes a few short, nonfiction pieces about New Orleans and Chita, a
novella set on the Louisiana Gulf Coast that feels like an exercise in pure style. The rest of the book is
dedicated to his reportage from Cincinnati and Martinique, Chinese and Japanese folklore, his nonfiction
writing about Japan, and his most famous work, the Japanese ghost story collection Kwaidan, upon which
the Masaki Kobayashi film is based. Yet it's interesting to see how his writings from these different time
periods and locales reflect and elucidate each other, and how he adapted his style to suit such a
variety of subject matter.

Hearn is very much a writer of the 19th century, and his style is unabashedly florid -- often to charming
or even startling effect, but he frequently overreaches. Much of his writing is grounded by a thoughtful,
ethnographic approach to his subject matter and a sympathy for the dispossessed, but he was not a
scholar nor an ethnographer, and he does not hesitate to indulge romantic fancies or share his personal
thoughts. This is, perhaps, the defining quality of all of his writing, from the courtyards of New Orleans to
the gardens of Japan: a propensity for finding the romance and mystery in places, especially fading, antiquated
worlds. In New Orleans, he waxed lyrical over the gradual dissolution of the Creole culture in the face of
American capitalism; in Japan, he saw an ancient country waning under the influence of the Meiji Restoration.
He seemed a man perpetually out of time, who wanted to retreat into the past, and while this wistfulness
sometimes hindered his writing, it's also at the root of his most sublime observations. Always, whether he
wrote about the levees in Cincinnati or the mountains of Martinique, Hearn was attuned to the beauty of
language, the evanescence of culture, and the potential for the soul to harmonize with its surroundings.

The following excerpt is from Chita. It was hard to pick just one quote, but this description of coastal
land loss struck me as timely after Governor John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency
for Louisiana's eroding coastline on April 18th. It's also an uncannily accurate description of the
time lapse satellite footage you can see here.

Lafcadio Hearn wrote:
A group of oaks at Grande Isle I remember as especially suggestive: five stooping silhouettes in line against
the horizon, like fleeing women with streaming garments and wind-blown hair,--bowing grievously and
thrusting out arms desperatelynorthward as to save themselves from falling. And they are being pursued
indeed;--for the sea is devouring the land. Many and many a mile of ground has yielded to the tireless
charging of Ocean's cavalry: far out you can see, through a good glass, the porpoises at play where of old
the sugar-cane shook out its million bannerets; and shark-fins now seam deep water above a site where
pigeons used to coo. Men build dikes; but the besieging tides bring up their battering-rams--whole forests
of drift--huge trunks of water-oak and weighty cypress. Forever the yellow Mississippi strives to build; forever
the sea struggles to destroy;--and amid their eternal strife the islands and the promontories change shape,
more slowly, but not less fantastically, than the clouds of heaven.


Lagniappe

In honor of Lafcadio Hearn bridging the gap between New Orleans and Asia, and my own recent trip to China
and Japan, here are some examples of Chinese culture and communities that have found their way into Louisiana!

Hearn mentions early settlements of Asian peoples on Louisiana's coast in Chita:

Quote:
Under their emerald shadows curious little villages of palmetto huts are drowsing, where dwell a swarthy
population of Orientals,--Malay fishermen, who speak the Spanish-Creole of the Philippines as well as their
own Tagal, and perpetuate in Louisiana the Catholic traditions of the Indies. There are girls in those unfamiliar
villages worthy to inspire any statuary,--beautiful with the beauty of ruddy bronze,--gracile as the palmettoes
that sway above them.... Furtherseaward you may also pass a Chinese settlement: some queer camp of
wooden dwellings clustering around a vast platform that stands above the water upon a thousand piles;--over
the miniature wharf you can scarcely fail to observe a white sign-board painted with crimson ideographs.
The great platform is used for drying fish in the sun; and the fantastic characters of the sign, literally translated,
mean: "Heap--Shrimp--Plenty."


More recently, Richard Campanella (whose Bourbon Street history I discussed earlier in this thread) wrote an article about
the now-vanished Chinatowns of New Orleans
, which thrived in the first half of the 20th century. One was on
the 400 block of Bourbon Street, right in the heart of the French Quarter. This is its only remnant:

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A sign for the Chinese Merchant Marine painted on the wall.

He also mentions the Soon On Tong vault in Cypress Grove Cemetery, built in 1904 for the purposes of ceremonies
and temporary entombment until the remains could be shipped back home to the families in China.

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Exterior of the vault.

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Interior of the vault. Offerings could be made at the altar in the center, bodies interred in the vaults lining the walls.

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Sun Apr 23, 2017 7:36 am
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Down By Law | Jim Jarmusch | 1986

This is the first film I've rewatched for this thread; I originally saw it in college
over a decade ago, before I moved to New Orleans. It didn't leave as strong an
impression as other Jarmusch films I saw around that time, like Dead Man,
but the film has a sparseness that lends it clarity, and I remembered it well.
Jarmusch juggles genre tropes more gently here than he does in his other films,
pairing a prison break with a buddy comedy. It's a film of threes: as Sarris notes
on the poster above, Waits, Lurie, and Benigni are a subdued take on the Marx
Brothers (Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, respectively), and its triptych structure divides
the film into three distinct acts/settings (New Orleans, a prison cell, the swamps).

Lateral tracking shots are a recurring motif. They often act as establishing shots,
filing past prison cells and cypress trees, but they are more than merely useful:
Jarmusch and Müller are savoring their surroundings with these shots. This is
especially true of the film's famous opening sequence, where the facades of the
city's vernacular architecture unspool like a film strip in front of the camera. They
also have a knack for capturing the interiors of these places, where high ceilings
in underfurnished apartments make for stark and empty spaces. The whole film
has an unsettling emptiness to it, most pronounced in the New Orleans streets, a
nocturnal landscape populated by our three hapless leads and a few predatory
scavengers. The film's limited budget likely contributed to this, but it has a peculiar
effect and gives the film an atmosphere of unreality.

Like most New Orleans films made in 70s, 80s, and 90s, Down By Law revels
in the griminess of the city, and to be fair, during those decades the city was at its
grimiest. The dialogue is genuinely streetwise, and the accents of the cops and
grifters who frame our protagonists are so spot-on they must have cast locals.
But Jarmusch salvages something earnest, naïve, and wounded from this milieu,
and the ending has the simple, elegant optimism of an Aki Kaurismäki film (no
surprise there, given their friendship). Ellen Barkin appears in a small role (a year
before her lead role in The Big Easy), and the charming, unlikely love affair
with the Italian girl in the middle of rural Louisiana resulted in a real marriage
between Benigni and Braschi.

Lagniappe

It might seem odd that the trio in Down By Law encounters a young Italian
immigrant running a mom and pop restaurant on a dirt road in the backwoods
of Louisiana, but it's more plausible than you might think. Huge waves of Italian
immigrants settled in Louisiana around the turn of the century, during a work
shortage that prompted mass emigration. Many settled in New Orleans, but others
sought work as laborers all along the Mississippi Delta. The breadth of their
impact is too large to summarize in one little Lagniappe, but their greatest legacy
is undoubtedly their culinary influence.

New Orleans is chock full of Italian restaurants with a distinctively Creole flair,
like Liuzza's, Mandina's, and Irene's Cuisine. Some, like Casamento's and Pascal's
Manale, are about a century old. Mosca's, an excellent Italian restaurant in the
middle of nowhere, was once a major gathering place for local mafia bigwigs.
But one of my favorite Italian traditions combines food with general revelry: Saint
Joseph's Day, an Italian-Catholic feast day that happens shortly after Lent.

It celebrates St. Joseph (the patron saint of carpenters and the husband of the
Virgin Mary) with altars decked out with elaborate baked goods. Everyone gets in
on the action: local churches, restaurants, and residents make their own altars,
and out on the street the Mardi Gras Indians use that day as an excuse to show
off their costumes again. Some St. Joseph altars are huge, occupying entire rooms
like this one.

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Others are more modest, like the one that I visited last year at Angelo Brocato's, an
Italian dessert joint famous for their gelato and cannoli. Brocato's is universally
revered by locals, and they have some of the best desserts in town. Their altar was
small but endearing.

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Brocato's St Joseph altar.

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Bread is usually baked into symbolic shapes, like the fish and the saw (near the top
of the photo) seen here. The saw is emblematic of his work as a carpenter.

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Sometimes they get downright decorative with this stuff.

That's enough for now, but I'll have plenty more to share about Italians and the
Italian food of New Orleans later in the thread!

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Fri Jun 02, 2017 4:00 pm
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Now I'm hungry.

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Sat Jun 03, 2017 12:32 pm
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The Cincinnati Kid | Norman Jewison | 1965

The Hustler, except with poker and set in New Orleans and. . . not a masterpiece. Neither
its cinematography nor its performances are as impressive as its predecessor's, and it
lacks the tension and emotional anguish that make The Hustler so searing. For all its shady
deals and broken spirits, it's undeniably lightweight. But that works to its advantage. It
doesn't strain for the same gravitas as The Hustler (and while that film is staggering, it is
also overbearing). This film uses a similar story and milieu, but it brings a sly playfulness
to the tone and upends a few dusty old conventions.

The New Orleans of The Cincinnati Kid reminds me of the New Orleans of Hard Times.
It dabbles more in the upper class, but it shares the stink of backroom sporting and worn
out characters. That cast of characters is the film's strongest suit: a collection of gamblers,
schemers, and cuckolds. Karl Malden, Joan Blondell, and Rip Torn all give memorable turns,
Tuesday Weld was never more beautiful, and Ann-Margret is so absurdly carnal she acts as
great comic relief, but the stand-outs are Steve McQueen and an aging Edward G. Robinson,
who really brings the weight of his age into the role.

Lagniappe

Gambling and New Orleans have always gone hand in hand. Today we have several
casinos and the Thanksgiving tradition of betting on horses at the Fairgrounds, but
even when gambling was illegal it remained deeply entrenched. When the Louisiana
Purchase made New Orleans US territory in 1803, it "had more places to gamble than
New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore combined." Gamblers throughout the
canon of American literature often hail from New Orleans or made their names here.

In fact, a large body of thought believes that the game of poker likely started in New
Orleans. Though it derived from older forms, the cross-stream of cultural influences
in New Orleans fashioned poker into what we play today. Similarly, the game we call
craps also originated here. In the early 19th century, the extravagantly named Bernard
Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville, a wealthy Creole landowner and playboy,
brought New Orleans a bastardized version of the European game of hazards.

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Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville, aka Bernard de Marigny, aka Bernie
(As a duelist, gambler, landowner, politician, and playboy, he developed colorful and
checkered reputation, and I can guarantee that this isn't the last you'll hear about him.)

Popular stories say that the Creoles called the game crapaud because you had
to squat like a frog to play, and that Americans anglicized the name to craps. That's
unlikely, as Marigny almost certainly introduced a tabletop game played indoors, and
the OED attributes the name to "an 18c. continental French corruption of English crabs,
which was 18c. slang for 'a throw of two or three' (the lowest throw)."

Regardless, what is indisputable is that New Orleans, for a time, had a street named
Rue de Craps, named by none other than Bernard de Marigny himself. When he sold
his family's former plantation into parcels for real estate development, he took it
upon himself to name the residential streets in what is now the Marigny neighborhood,
downriver of the French Quarter. Not all of the streets retain those names, including
Craps, but Marigny's legacy lives on in streets named Music, Poetry, Frenchmen,
and Elysian Fields (originally Champs-Élysées, after the street in Paris).

(Source 1)
(Source 2)

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Wed Jun 28, 2017 4:49 pm
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The Films of Helen Hill

Part 1: Termite Light

In discussing the films and art of New Orleans, I want to pay special attention to those artists
who lived in the city and contributed to the fabric of the community. Almost all of the films
made here are done by outsiders who have brief flings with the city; we have very few
homegrown filmmakers. Also, while we have a strong tradition of narrative and documentary
filmmaking in Louisiana, we have very little in the way of avant-garde or experimental work.
This is why I'd like to talk about Helen Hill, a local grass-roots filmmaker and educator.

I'm going to start by saying that I'm not a huge fan of her work. If I'm highlighting her, it's
largely because there aren't many other local experimental filmmakers to feature. Several
of her films involve cut-out animation in the style of Lotte Reiniger, but the results are so
primitive they seem to show disdain for the craft. On the other hand, her work is really a
collage of different media, many of them more effective than her animation, and her homespun
techniques and casual charm imbue her films with warmth and a distinct sense of community.

Her films are also rooted in New Orleans, both as a place and an identity. Though raised in
South Carolina, Hill split time between New Orleans and Nova Scotia with her Canadian
husband, Paul Gailiunas, before finally calling New Orleans home. I'm going to focus on
three of her films, and the first is possibly my favorite. The film is called Termite Light,
an unabashed homage to Brakhage's Mothlight, and it exhibits a love of cinema and
remarkable resourcefulness: like Brakhage, Hill is working directly with the film strip, but
instead of moths she uses dead termites. New Orleans has a massive termite problem,
and in early summer they grow wings and breed, a two week orgy that ends with
legions of termites dying in your house. I love that Hill took what most consider a
nuisance and rendered it into something beautiful.

(Due to privacy settings, the video cannot be embedded, so here's a link!)

Termite Light

Lagniappe
Image

That is an image of a weather radar, picking up what it thinks is a cloud. But it isn't a cloud. It's
a swarm of termites. To give you a sense of scale, that bridge across Lake Pontchartrain
(the straight red line near the center of the image) is nearly 24 miles long -- the longest
bridge over water in the world.

They are Formosan termites, an invasive species that has done tremendous damage to
historic homes, live oak trees, and sugar cane crops. I wrote about the impact of these
termites very concisely in a lyric essay titled Hyacinth, about wetlands deterioration
and invasive species. The following excerpt touches on the termite problem:

Quote:
Coptotermes formosanus
Formosan subterranean termite
Ferried from Asia to the United States by ships returning from the Pacific after World War II.
Dubbed the super-termite for their destructive potential, their colonies thrive in warm, humid
climates like Louisiana’s. Their foraging is a pervasive threat to the historic homes of New
Orleans; in the fall of 2014, an infestation contributed to the collapse of a structure in the French
Quarter. They devour living plants with the same fervor, assailing cypresses, sugarcane crops,
and nearly half of the live oaks in New Orleans. They are most obnoxious in late May and early
June, when they take wing and swarm in a reproductive frenzy. Even with windows and doors
sealed, they will find a means of infiltrating a house purely for the honor of flying into open
mouths or dying in kitchen sinks. This orgiastic mass suicide leaves local homes littered with
thousands of tiny, iridescent wings.
Attempts at eradication: Formosan termites have never been successfully eradicated; they can
only be controlled. Permanent bait systems can be installed to protect against incursions, but
these systems are prohibitively expensive for most homeowners (it is most common in the
French Quarter, where the treatment program is subsidized). Liquid treatment is a more affordable
alternative, but it is less effective and runoff from these treatments can contaminate water
supplies. Termites cost New Orleans and its residents hundreds of millions of dollars in property
damage and treatment expenses each year.

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Tue Aug 01, 2017 12:44 pm
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