Film culture is alive and well on its way to something greater in New Orleans, this critic says. For years, I’ve attended the New Orleans Film Festival from near and from afar, equally impressed by and curious about their programming selections and panel events. Our film society, for this marquee showcase of movies, strives to strike a balance between what will get moviegoers in through the doors, and what will stimulate their minds and hearts. This can be hit or miss, but more often than not, it’s safely bold.
For this cine-philistine, I greatly appreciate this combination of thinking and execution, enjoying the occasional hordes of people, mingling with one another, discussing the latest and greatest of what they’ve seen – Always interesting to overhear, sometimes insufferable ala Annie Hall. It’s the independent and underground, the low-budget and perhaps never to be seen again films, however, that I make an effort to go watch above meeting and greeting others.
These shorts and features, ranging from the obscure and experimental (like in the Cinema Reset section of the fest) to the advanced in theory and heavy on emotional engagement, always find their way to the city, one way or another. This is the way I prefer: On big screens, in front of big crowds, done up in a big way.
From the 2018 fest – the 29th Annual – and for your enjoyment, I have made available below three experiences in the form of interview, transcription, and review, that cover two award-winning movies and a genre/theme that is scarcely discussed. With your permission, here is my wrap-around:
Q&A with The True Don Quixote (2018 Audience Award Winner for Louisiana Narrative Feature) Director Chris Poche
Bill Arceneaux: What makes Tim Blake Nelson, for you, a “true” Don Quixote?
Chris Poche: In addition to being very, very smart, Tim is a true believer. I’ve never met anyone who throws himself into things quite the way Tim does. He started growing that beard the first day we spoke when all I had was a script. For months we got and lost financing, got and lost actors, got and lost our own faith in the project. Any other actor would have been looking for another project. Tim spent the whole time working on his accent, learning stand on his head, and growing that big, itchy beard.
BA: I’ve always felt that Southeast Louisiana would be perfect for a Cervantes adaptation, considering the bayou vistas and peculiar people. Was it at all difficult to reconcile the setting with the skeleton of the original story, or did it all kind of just fall into place?
CP: I, too, had thought it would work because of the weird beauty and the way South Louisiana has of accepting oddballs. But it wasn’t until we scouted in St. Bernard that I knew just how well it would fit. It was actually shocking to go to these locations and find that what I had written was already there, ready to shoot. We needed an inn, which in 1605 would have been a bar full of locals with food and a few rooms to rent. And there it was, on St. Bernard Highway, complete with the disco balls we would have installed. It happened over and over. And many places were improvements on my imagination.
BA: Your previous feature screenplay, Flakes, is a local favorite of mine. Cute with an oblong rebellious edge. The same can be said for True Don Quixote. What attracts you to the punks and misfits of life?
CP: (First of all, you saw Flakes? Wow.) We’re all mostly misfits, and the easiest thing to do is to hide the parts of ourselves that are interesting and meaningful behind the correct job or shoes or beer or Instagram filter. But then what are you? So I really admire characters – and people – who have the courage to just declare their personal oddness and live it out. And I think there’s real power in it. Maybe you can’t change the world, but when you change how you operate in it, you can change your life and change the little part of the world that you touch.
Favorite Quotes from Mike Miley’s “Crazy in Love, Twenty-Four Times a Second: Cinema on the Run” Talk
1) “We know the beats of this story quite well, even when the particulars change: insane, charismatic rebel misfit meets innocent-but-willing girl, and before you can even say archetype, they kill her uptight, possessive daddy, grab their cigarettes, hop in a gorgeous, fast automobile and hit the road, leaving a trail of violence and mayhem in their love-crazed wake until they meet their fates in a lonely, remote place. Even though the law may separate them, not even death can kill their love for each other.”
2) “In the view from my windshield, I see the genre having five distinct phases, which I’ve named “gears,” in honor of the lovers’ preferred mode of transportation.
The films that make up first gear have their roots in Depression-era crime fiction, with the protagonists’ doomed love standing in for the country’s sense that America was failing them. Throughout the timeline we’ll look at today, it’s curious how this story appears at times of economic anxiety and cultural instability: the Vietnam and Watergate era, the 90s culture wars, the post-2008 crash.
Early entries You Only Live Once and They Live by Night give us purely tragic couples who never really have a chance. No matter how well-meaning they may be, their love is tainted from the start because one or both of them is incorrigible or insane, unable to adapt to the demands of the respectable world. They may try to go straight and start families, but crime finds them wherever they go.
3) “Even though Thelma and Louise are not lovers in the literal sense, they become the archetypal lovers on the run after Louise shoots a man attempting to rape Thelma. Though I’d argue they’re on the run even before the assault takes place: recall Thelma left without telling her husband she was going away for the weekend. While not a crime, refusing to inform Darryl of her whereabouts makes their trip defiant in its design, a dress rehearsal for their subsequent rejection of male control.
Like it does for Bonnie and Clyde, crime provides Thelma and Louise with access to the kind of power that the men in their lives enjoy legally, and it’s interesting how, with each crime they commit, more men assemble to track them down. Their journey deeper into the barren desert landscape may not seem as restorative as other flights into greener pastures, but the space is utopian precisely because of what it lacks: men.”
4) “For all intents and purposes, this genre becomes co-opted by what I can only call the Tarantino-industrial complex: films directed, written by, or starring Tarantino or independent and studio films looking to cash in on his brand of self-aware, self-referential meta-cinema. As omnipresent and overcooked as this cinema of quotation may be today, its postmodernist pastiche of the lovers-on-the-run genre actually reveals some important truths about cinema and ourselves that we can’t see otherwise.”
5) “I know it’s not a feature film, but the work of The Carters ushers this story out of the cinema and into the real world. In their work, Beyonce and Jay-Z are not lovers on the run—these lovers run the world.
Their work as a couple, starting with “03 Bonnie and Clyde” and going all the way up to this year’s On the Run II Tour, Bey and Jay have repeatedly deployed the lovers-on-the-run story to depict their relationship and the music they make together. Like Touki-Bouki, the French New Wave informs their vision of escape—
We can see Breathless and Touki-Bouki and True Romance in the promos for On the Run II, and their work throughout this period is equal parts Godard and Tony Scott. In reworking the lovers-on-the-run genre, they synthesize everything that’s come before them, everything I’ve been blathering on about for much too long now, and revise it, making it over in their own image. The results preserve all the sexy rebel chic and self-awareness of the earlier films while stripping them of imperialist hierarchies. Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, these lovers are potent, sexually satisfied, liberated beings who gain immortality on their own terms, even taking their place in the Louvre.
Their love is not a source of madness or violence but strength. They refuse to flee the world in search of a more perfect place. Instead, they use the glamour and defiance of the lovers-on-the-run story to make the world conform to their will.”
Chained for Life (2018 Jury Award Winner for Best Narrative Feature) Review
If you were to ask me for recommendations on films that cover disability, I may have some unfortunate picks. Unfortunate in that they are not considered “classics” or “memorable” to most. Some will go for Tod Browning’s Freaks or Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarves Started Small, which are wonderfully nightmarish visions and capsules of a line of thinking from not too bygone eras, but honestly, I tend to the more boldly honest, bare bones, and (ironically) less accessible stories. Movies like Me, Too feature characters dealing with perceptions by others on one hand, and being in love within a society that sees them as props or individuals to be treated with kid gloves, on another. In that example, it’s a tale involving characters with down syndrome, trying to navigate a world that doesn’t always produce our better angels.
Chained for Life may be the finest, funniest, and most cryptically thoughtful film on the subject that I’ve seen in this or any year. It tells a story in a story in a story of filmmaking, of perspectives, of understanding, of honesty, and of reality – the kind we make and the kind that is probably real. Or reel. Life takes place on an American movie set, helmed by a European director who couldn’t be more “up his own ass” and “completely full of crap” simultaneously. The same could be said for some members of the cast and crew. While technicians walk about, discussing their interpretations of cinema history, actors will mingle and make chit-chat. They do so not because they want to, but out of some misplaced sense of public responsibility, which at times feels as if being guided by a mischievous hand of God. Puppets accepting of their strings, basically. These satirical readings of independent film production couldn’t possibly make me happier, with first-hand knowledgeable wit and a firm grasp on the fantastical inside the real, and reversed too.
Soon, we are introduced to a van full of disabled actors, each with different conditions, who have been cast as patients in an old institution. For the “crazy?” For the “violent?” For the socially unwelcome? Maybe it’s all three. Chained for Life never really clears up on the film being made, but does register for us the actions and behaviors of the participants. Of the newly arrived cast is one Rosenthal (played with great personality by Adam Pearson, previously seen in Under the Skin), who will be sharing much screen time with the lead actress, an able-bodied woman playing the part of a blind damsel in distress. Rosenthal understands why he was cast and has a strong sense of sad but prideful humor about it.
In one remarkable sequence, the actress takes some time to talk with him about the art of acting. As they walk around the set, the camera makes a point of never showing her look him in the face or eyes – She’s not afraid so much as she’s on eggshells, worried of doing something offensive. When the connection does happen, Rosenthal is so charmingly secure in who he is and greatly calm, that she begins to soften up her composure. This doesn’t work on everyone, as evidenced by another actor who asks to pose for a picture, all the while being condescending and too nice.
From here, the film frequently shifts in life on screen, life behind the camera, life with an awareness of the camera, and beyond. The disabled cast is, interestingly enough, segregated to a next door hospital, while the rest of the cast enjoy a hotel. In their quarters, a mini-movie is being made, one that showcases better humanity and more important nuance on appearance and self than the other, which is a murderous horror exploitation that uses outdated notions of the “crippled.” It’s absolutely striking, how Chained for Life is always moving forward, always progressive in narrative and in thoughtfulness. Even when going down the rabbit hole of worlds within worlds, we are never lost, always feeling sure-footed and connected.
Between the laughs (and there are many, including a subtle gag on the “One of us!” line from Freaks), and working well with the pace, there are moments when we take some time to wind down and consider everything we’ve seen and heard thus far. When the cast and crew are having a showing of raw footage, we focus in on the actress and Rosenthal. He is watching with polite patience and professional being, while she glances over at him, wondering how he’s dealing with everything around him. She “gets” that much of the film within is inappropriate, but despite getting to know Rosenthal more, treats him not as an equal but as a victim of sorts, who deserves to be “rewarded” with a nude scene or something.
Really, Rosenthal is an adult, consenting absolutely as he just wants to act and work. He indeed gets it but is resigned to go along with it. He’s the one, most of all, who really is walking on eggshells around everyone. Of course, as the discriminated one, that responsibility falls forcefully on him. And while it makes for many an awkward and hilarious time, the message of inclusivity and ableism in Chained for Life beats on loudly, past the ambiguous and meditative ending, which will linger with me for some time.
RATING: 5 / 5
Many thanks to everyone at the New Orleans Film Society, to Chris Poche, and to Mike Miley for assisting in this article. Here’s to next year!
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations and Occupy. You can read more of Bill’s work here.