New Orleans as a Character

Even before tax incentives made New Orleans and Louisiana an attractive venue for filmmakers, the Big Easy was a popular place to set movies that didn't fit into the molds of New York or Los Angeles. The city itself seemed to live in the American imagination – not always accurately, but always vividly. Here's a not-at-all comrehensive look at how New Orleans has developed on screen over the last half century:

1969: Easy Rider
Modern cowboys Wyatt and Billy, decked out in costumes devoted to their own interpretations of what it means to be American (one in stars-and-stripes leathers, the other in spaghetti-Western-Indian style fringe), are on the road, trying to get across country to live off the dividends of their last, best drug score. They pick up ACLU lawyer George Hanson after he springs them from jail in a small Texas town, and he rounds out the triumvirate of sarcastic costumes in football helmet and letterman's sweater. They head to New Orleans for Mardi Gras before Wyatt and Billy move on to Florida – and after drawing attention for being filthy "longhairs," a group of locals beats George to death. The rest of the time Wyatt and Billy hang in New Orleans is spent blitzed on acid with two high-end hookers. Before they move on (and are mowed down by more gun-toting, two-dimensional locals), Wyatt morosely tells Billy that, whatever they were looking for, they "blew it." All in all, we learn more about writers Peter Fonda's (Wyatt) and Dennis Hopper's (Billy) armchair liberalism than we do about the American South. But a stoned Jack Nicholson playing a stoned George was worth the condescension.

1975: Mandingo
Based off a novel by the same name, plantation owner Hammond rejects wife Blanche for not being a virgin; Hammond ravishes slave Ellen while Blanche romps with slave (and modern-ish gladiator) Ganymede. Hilarity ensues, up until an ending out of Elizabethan tragedy. Representative of the times, Mandingo was grindhouse-style exploitation through and through – so much so that even Quentin Tarantino panned it. But hey, now there's a porn star nicknamed after the movie, so at least it's influencing modern culture.

1987: The Big Easy
Doing for morally ambiguous detectives what Top Gun did for cocky Navy aviators, The Big Easy represented a sort of turning point for New Orleans in film, in that the city itself became the object lesson and the question of how it's Done Down Here becomes the real point of interest. Even if Dennis Quaid was rather hamfisted in his potrayal of Remy McSwain, and even if the film falls a bit short of hitting the mark for which it was aiming, it still became a sort of anthem for the city – at least as far as out-of-towners were concerned.

1997: Eve's Bayou
Incidentally, I've been trying to convince Eve Crawford to rename her blog in kind; no luck as yet. Eve's Bayou featured a less-rabid-than-usual Samuel L. Jackson (no snakes, no sharks and no misinterpreted quotations from the Bible) and brings Creole history to the big screen in a manner theretofore unaccomplished. The Batiste family deals with a philandering patriarch while clinging to high society in 1960s Louisiana, and begins to crumble as seen through the eyes of the youngest daughter. Unfortunately, the film also spearheads the growing trope that indicates that the secrets of Southern society are somehow more interesting, as seen in …

2004: A Love Song for Bobby Long
Before those cell phone pictures accidentally (?) leaked into the Internet, a younger Scarlett Johanssen played a down-on-her-luck high school dropout with an abusive boyfriend whose mother suddenly dies. Seeing that as a good opportunity to start over, she moves to New Orleans, where she falls in with a young writer and his blowhard mentor who are squatting in her late mother's house. John Travolta (who plays the film's eponymous blowhard) inhabits his character with unusual subtlety; something about the water down here seems to make overacting impossible. Unless you're Nicolas Cage, but in his defense, the second Bad Lieutenant film was supposed to be over the top. Speaking of which …

2008: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Since Annie Drummond has alread mentioned a book-to-movie translation starring Brad Pitt that seemed to do pretty well, I thought I'd mention one that … well, it did pretty well also, but through very little merit of its own. The film version of Button not only translocated the story from Baltimore, where Fitzgerald set the short story (that's another thing – how does a short story become a three-hour film?), but also seemed to deliberately miss the point of the narrative, which taunts us for deliberately ignoring our relatives when they are too young or too old for us to relate with any ease. To add insult to the injury of bastardizing a staple of American literature, now you can't take a date to the Newman Bandstand without her recognizing it as "that thing from Benjamin Button." As a story unto itself, the film Button is richly told, beautifully shot and superbly acted – but as an adaptation it fails completely. Hell, they could have named the damn thing Merlin. He aged backwards, too, and the movie had about as much to do with him as it had to do with Fitzgerald.

In any event, I've gotten off topic. In an epoch of remakes and adaptations, it's encouraging that New Orleans is focusing on the latter, even if it gives us such films as Dylan Dog: Dead of Night and Ryan Reynolds as The Green Lantern. I'd still rather have them film those here than the latest superhero reboot (they're starting Spiderman over – again; Superman, too). In fact, if I may be so bold as even to defend Dog, the scene of a Breaux Mart night clerk blithely ignoring a zombie riding in a shopping cart (sorry, buggy) and barfing into grocery bag was a shining example of realism in cinema.


So…what are your favorite New Orleans films (or scenes)?

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