Sorting out Dream from Nightmare in the Film “Tchoupitoulas”

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans     I really want to like the new documentary of sorts, called Tchoupitoulas, by the Ross brothers, Bill and Turner, structured around supposedly one long, languid summer night for three young African-American brothers (William, Kentrell and Bryan Zanders) and their pitbull (Buttercup) coming over from the West Bank to get a look at the sights and sounds of New Orleans.  I can remember my own adventures to the French Quarter to “watch the tourists,” as I called it, and the wonderful, free rides I would take over the Mississippi River ferry back and forth sometimes for hours.  I love that the Ross brothers were motivated by their own visits to the city and wanted to capture it somehow.

So this is a country of the imagination and the reality that I know well and that I can appreciate the Ross brothers wanting to share.  Add to that, the chance to hear the very engaging Turner Ross and the middle brother, Bryan, talk about the film afterwards in Chalmette, just down the River from me; the fact that it was supported by the New Orleans-based nonprofit, film collective, Court 13, (right on to both of those formations!) who were also behind the amazing Louisiana based, Oscar nominated best picture, Beasts of the Southern Wild; even the fact that brother Bill Turner lives in my Bywater neighborhood and did the interview with the Oxford-American across the Press Street tracks at Sound Café demonstrating a great sense of community appreciation;  the flick had me from hello.

Anytime a movie is pushing that many of my buttons how could I not be brimming over with praise and pushing people aside to buy the DVD?

Parts of the film are gorgeous.  The early close-ups of William, the youngest of the boys at 11 when filmed in 2009, irresistibly draw the viewer into the film.  The music in the beginning is a siren call, pulling ever in deeper to the story.  But, by the end of the movie the dream-like pace, the close-ups, and the musical asides were all too much.  Looking around, way too many of the crowd were splayed out and making the seats into recliners, and fighting the sleep that comes with their own dreams.  Somehow this wonderful vision, the pull of the characters, and the great magnetism of the city had become almost boring.  We were being lulled into something.  There is something that is too pat about this birdseye and behind-the-scenes perspective of a New Orleans as industrial tourism tacky town that makes me wonder whether or not the Ross brothers are really sincere or snake oil salesman trying to sell one bottle, while packing it full of something entirely different.

To the New York Times, Turner Ross says:

 “These aren’t issue based films or narratively structured films.  We’re trying to allow people to experience something we are also experiencing. Pieces of the truth to tell a greater truth.” The filmmakers consider New Orleans like a second home and have spent time there since they were children. They aimed to capture the childlike wonder of the city they had when they were young. “To be a kid and see New Orleans with child’s eyes, to have that kind of wonderment and illusion was like a dream. So basically, we tried to make a dream.”

Is this really true?

In the film, William, the youngest, hits Bourbon Street, and meaningfully says, that “this was everything he had hoped for….”  At other times with the open horizon of an 11-year old, he talks about future careers as a musician, an architect or a lawyer.  For all of their brotherly push-and-pull, they worship their dog and are inseparable.  It feels too good almost.

Alicia Van in Filmmaker Magazine, comparing Beast and Tchoupitoulas, observes:

Both use the dreamy, poetic narration of their pre-pubescent African-American lead characters to put a magical-realist spin on the harsh reality of Louisiana poverty. These kids are living in a very adult world, through very adult times, but their gaze turns what’s around them into a fairy tale.

Natalie Elliot in the Oxford American nails the movie even tighter:

This is a poor black kid from the outskirts of New Orleans — he’s going to have to fight tooth and nail to get to college, let alone become a bassoon player.   As night in New Orleans goes on and on, William gets even more tired, hungry and helpless. The film builds, flipping back and forth from the sex and death behind closed doors on Bourbon Street to William and his brothers playing in the streets, and the night feels endless. But you know the sun has to come up sometime, and you realize what’s about to happen: those closed doors on Bourbon Street are going to open. William is going to grow up. Reality is going to crash into his life like a tidal wave and wash away his innocence….

            Regardless of what soap Turner was selling, this is not a New Orleans dreamscape, this is a documentary about the dream of hope and the devastation of poverty.  Tchoupitoulas is a sly, pretty wrapping with vibrant sound that unfolds from the mouths of babes a tale of the ugliness of poverty and its inescapable human cost, whether they mean it or not.

Bill Ross in the Oxford interview is perhaps too revealing when he says:

While filming, we recorded all these conversations with William because they were so wonderful, but I never thought I’d use them. I didn’t want to. I usually like to let the images talk. Quickly, though, I realized that what I had recorded with him was too special not to use.

The images that hold the truth are of the Zanders brothers always looking from the outside at their city, their noses pressed to the glass or peering through a half opened door.  It is not simply that they are fascinated by pizza making or the semi-naked dancers of Bourbon Street, but the fact that both are equally unobtainable.  Their ages preclude them walking in a strip joint, but despite their hunger, their poverty makes the pizza equally remote.  The Ross brothers let us see where they live before the “adventure” begins, so there are no surprises about their poverty.  The images are enough that we know with William that when they miss the last midnight ferry back to Algiers that there is no one coming to get them.

The powerful sadness of the stripper after dancing gymnastically is so depressing that it obscures her nakedness and makes anything but the tired look on her face disappear in the defeat of her expression.  Finding the Mississippi Queen abandoned and unsecured, looks like the tragedy of the Titantic full of empty ballrooms, broken lights, and dark passages, yet this is the only place that allows the boys to come from the outside to the inside, and again, in Bill Ross’ words, “the images talk.”

The directors have to do what it takes.   An earlier movie had been blocked by the inability to pay for the rights to the music in order to distribute.  In their Kickstarter page they try to mimic the falsity of Treme and package Tchoupitoulas as music in the stereotype of New Orleans that the tourists buy, and it worked when they raised more than $50,000 on their “ask” of only $35,000.   They know that no one wants to see another New Orleans movie that is a version of Katrina home of the lost and the damned, but these guys are too sharp not to know what the images are saying no matter what they are telling the Times, and the potential viewers and customers they want to lure in.

Now 4 years after filming, Bryan Zanders was asked after the credits ran in Chalmette what had happened to the dog.  He answered that they had to give it away to a family that could take better care of it, because they couldn’t afford it.  Asked about his older brother now 20, he said he was Atlanta working.  Asked about William, the youngest now 15, he answered he was  “was in God’s care,” which made me gulp, thinking he was dead, having found the fate of so many young black men in the hard streets of the city.  Later it turned out; he was still alive, just estranged somehow.  Bryan was hoping to get on at a Job Corps gig.  A woman who worked with the SPCA stood from the audience and gave a testimonial about the brothers, whom she had met by offering free vet services for their dog, and how when they showed up for a meal from time to time, their “manners were improving.”

There was no happy ending here in life, just as when dawn finally came in the movie they had made their way on the ferry once again back to the river bank near home with no happy ending there as well.

Bill in one interview talks about hanging out regularly with William until “it wasn’t cool” for him as he got older.

Bill and Turner Ross knew that’s the way it would be, and that’s the way it is.  They know the score, no matter what the sell.  They don’t make this movie easy.  It’s another one of those French Quarter hustles, where the answer to the question of where we got our shoes is not from some store, but right there on the street.  Tchoupitoulas isn’t a walk in the park, but it’s worth the work.