While they almost certainly have plans for striking new projects that expand our understanding of what documentaries can be, Bill and Turner Ross—the directors, producers, camera operators, and troublemakers behind Tchoupitoulas—could do posterity a service if they simply resigned themselves to replicating this one-night-in–New Orleans documentary for each of the world's great cities.
You know how sometimes, watching an old silent or something, you can get caught up in the fleeting glimpses of L.A. or New York street life and yearn for the hurly-burly plot to slow for a breath so that you can savor? Or how invaluable the real-city footage captured by early filmmakers and compiled on collections like the "Picturing a Metropolis" disc of the Unseen Cinema collection feels to us today? The Rosses have captured on film something rare: what a night spent stumbling about New Orleans actually feels like. Here are the street characters; the make-joy-from-thin-air musicians; the spooky, shadowed parks; the tour guide in Jackson Square who insists "Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, was the great-, great-, great-, great- grandfather of Michael Jackson." Here's the way, as you pass tin-ceilinged bars and the stalls of tchotchke-sellers, competing musics muscle in, get pushed out, and sometimes tangle up into something new. Here's that sense of thrilled and weary anticipation that anything can happen at anytime even if you've had enough.
The filmmakers show us a homeless guy hitting a nice woman with a ridiculous come-on, a drag queen's refusal to go home with a fan, burlesque performer Perle Noire in pasties, shimmying, and then, touchingly, breathing heavily back stage and sucking on a bottle of water, tired but not unpleased with a good night's work. Then there are the fire twirlers: As they whip their flames about, the movie—which alternates between a raw, handheld-camera attentiveness and meditative passages that Groucho Marx might call "strange interludes"—goes fully abstract, the fires going out of focus as we stare, until at last they are flares of abstraction, just pulsing, dancing octagons.
Of course, what can be experienced before one sunrise can hardly be recorded in that same time, especially not with the artistry on display here. So it's little surprise to learn that this loose-limbed doc was actually shot over the course of nine months. The Rosses take "documentary" to mean the documenting of an experience, and are more open about the misrepresentation of space and time for the good of the film than most other practitioners of their craft. Here, in what is no doubt a "documentary," the filmmakers pass off more than half a year's worth of New Orleans street life as the adventures enjoyed by three young boys over the course of a single night out. The boys—William, Bryan, and Kentrell Zanders—aren't actors, and their reactions to the city around them seem real: "This is everything I hoped for!" pipes eager William, the youngest. "Naked pictures, clubs, you know what I mean?"
A scene of that kid running alongside a Mardi Gras parade float and hollering up to its riders for beads is as infectious a depiction of youthful excitement as I've seen in film. Much later, when the three of them (and the unseen cameraman) sneak onto an abandoned riverboat casino, Tchoupitoulas fully captures one of childhood's most exhilarating feelings: the terror/pleasure of creeping around the places no adult would allow. That is especially powerful when, in this rotting palace of chandeliers and hiding places, the kids freeze and listen for footsteps. The light of the camera goes out, and we wait in the dark.
Would the kids have chosen to explore this boat without the egging on of the filmmakers? Would they even have been in its vicinity to consider it? Questions about the literal truth of Tchoupitoulas are thorny and perhaps besides the point. After all, the filmmakers aren't hiding the artifice. Early on, the boys ride over to New Orleans on the Algiers Ferry; before the film is halfway through, they race back to the station to catch the last boat home. They miss it and then mope about, uncertain of what to do: call their folks? Spend the night on the streets? Never do we see them do what, if this were "true," anyone would: Ask for help from the guys with the movie cameras.
If you can get over that meta-factual weirdness, though, the film is rich with pleasures. William occasionally narrates his dreams: Not only will he learn to fly, but he also says, "I'll be the first person with a star on the walk of fame for flying." The Rosses sometimes leave the boys behind and venture off into the nightlife: We see strippers in a dressing room parsing the lyrics of "Iko Iko"; we see a flirtatious oyster shucker joke with the sweetest of old women that shellfish "is gonna make you rock and roll, baby." She sniffs back, "I'm not worried about that."
The Rosses offer little context. There's no talk of Katrina or the city's class and racial divides or why sometimes the film is set during Mardi Gras and other times it isn't. There's just New Orleans and a trio of likable kids, trooping through it, finding every marvel.
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