Of course, as a film critic, I tend to think of life in cinematic ways. When I used to work in retail, I’d often imagine walking down aisles as shot from different angles, or would splice in a memory to juxtapose or comment on a current situation – usually mundane acts like stocking shelves or cleaning the floor. I’m not sure when it started, thinking of my life as one long movie. Was it with my first film experience, watching Rocky IV on VHS, or is this just an example of my overactive imagination? Perhaps a combination of both? I observe my interactions with others and their interactions with me in a highly curious and suspicious manner, like an expert carefully glossing over a painting in a museum, or a critic watching a movie go by, frame by frame.
A city weirder than Austin: a city that needs not a catchy slogan like “Keep NOLA Weird” – as if we have trouble keeping our attitude – New Orleans is the area where I call home. My family, going back many generations, has lived here, seeing some changes and many constants. For all of our political talk and gentrification stress, we remain ever so faithfully America’s destination; for decadence, for dancing, for drinking. And in the early months of every year, comes the biggest and brightest party you’ve ever been to.
If I’m writing honestly, and I’d like to think I am, I find the parades to be sensory overloads of a higher degree than any Michael Bay film. In fact, comparing Mardi Gras to watching a movie is apt. If done right, both are colorful, boisterous and engaging. Movies are, as Roger Ebert has called them, empathy machines. They can cross language and emotional barriers to help us see and experience something beyond our worldview. Can the same be said for Mardi Gras? Yes! And yet, no.
I’ve read of a type of film called “Post-Cinema”, which describes a movement – in the positive or negative depending on who is in the audience – that lacks traditional narrative storytelling and instead relies heavily on action and behavioral conventions. Well, mostly action. It is the kind of film where things just happen, without reason or consequence. Now, there IS a reason for Mardi Gras, at least historically, but you probably won’t find an attendee who would know or be interested. And consequence? Well, the parades come, roll through, and go, leaving strings of beads in the Spanish Moss and on the streets. There ARE consequences to the party, with cleaners sweeping the ground and police rounding up the usual suspects, but again, you’d be hard pressed to find someone in attendance who cares.
Mardi Gras is of the moment, and mostly for the people watching, yelling, dancing and drinking. For them, it’s an experience much like going to see a film in IMAX. Seated in a comfy recliner, Coca-Cola in the holder and a meal on your mini table, the theatrical movie watching “experience” has become tailored to our docile aspirations. It has become escapism to a higher and previously unthinkable degree. Mardi Gras may be post-cinema or, rather, post-gathering, but in the sense of docile escapism, to that end, the comparison stops. Mardi Gras is crazy and sometimes obnoxious, but bland or tailored, it is not.
The cinema has moved towards fully embracing the escapism traits, but our Mardi Gras remains baffling, satirical and too much fun. For some in the crowds just visiting, it is similar to the multiplex. For those fortunate locals, it represents the best of what movie-going used to be, and what films ought to be. Engaging, thoughtful, bright and colorful empathy machines about community and life itself. Both can learn from each other.
At the cross section of horror and drama, of character and setting, existsFat Tuesday. From filmmaker Jorge Torres-Torres, this 2017 New Orleans Film Festival selection tells the intimate story of some friends who, during their Mardi Gras celebration, are picked off one by one by a mysterious female hitchhiker. On the surface, it’s a horror of the bummer variety, where partiers are slashed and killed by increasingly gruesome means. Underneath, it’s the tale of a mass gathering of seemingly disconnected folk, connected through happenstance and environment, finding death instead of ecstasy. In a nutshell, Mardi Gras.
A mysterious woman arrives in New Orleans by way of hitchhiking from parts unknown. She has many an alias, and is armed with a festival mask, gloves and a backpack with various supplies. Unlike most slasher flicks, we closely follow this woman for most of the story, seeing her preparations as well as her interactions and kills. We know it’s her who is the murderer, but we never really know who she is or what her motives are. The movie plays it coy with this, as she enters and walks about the city in total control of herself and her victims. At first, I felt the ambiguity was a detriment, but upon multiple viewings, I realize this as important to understanding the whole.
There’s a tight group of friends who cross paths with this woman, and invite her to enjoy the French Quarter with them. Our killer eats in solitude but drinks openly with her new pals. These pals are nice and kind, but to call them locals would be a stretch. One came from Washington to start a new life, another from even farther away. Almost like NYC, NOLA is depicted in Fat Tuesday as a near melting pot of people looking for something different. A change in them?A change in their surroundings?Maybe an escape.An escape into what? For the serial killer, she has a purpose here. For the residents she comes across, they are still finding themselves, and they’ve chosen the most charismatic of all U.S. cities to do so in. So many distractions, so little time.
Fat Tuesday maintains a serendipitous eye throughout, finding moments within frames of street voyeurism that express a certain magic to this reality we share. Some of it is in the cutting, where shots compare to other shots in glowing and eerie ways. Some of it is in what was found when filming, and how the camera finds placement of people and objects with and without one another. It’s a staggering piece of micro-budget filmmaking, capturing moments inside moments that ring all too true. When the murders pile on faster and faster, the gore becomes excessive but never unimpressive. That poor clown who just came to the city to eat light bulbs. That poor girl, who just wanted to eat some shrooms worry free. For them, the party is over, and most definitively.
This is horror romanticism, by which I mean it’s a mashup. It’s not romanticizing horror nor is it making romance horrific. Fat Tuesday represents a time and place being as scary real as it can be lovingly idolized. New Orleans can certainly be both at once, heartbreaking and fulfilling, magical and grounded, or even cruel and kind. In its twisted way, the movie is a drive-in/b-movie style warning to young lovers seeking for more to life than the familiar. It’s also a statement of sorts on the holiday itself, showing the true heart of what may be lurking in the alley or down the corner. We see the lights and the beads, but also the costumes that look uncomfortably like Klansmen, or the bourgeois throwing the rest of us “keepsakes” for our troubles. But there is also a beauty to it all, even to the on screen killings. Somehow, even at its darkest, Fat Tuesday is what I wouldn’t want changed about the actual Fat Tuesday: Magical. For better or worse.
Grab a look at the trailer for Fat Tuesday HERE.
Bill Arceneaux is a New Orleans area independent film critic and member of SEFCA. He can be found on twitter at @billreviews and on letterboxd.com/neauxreelidea.