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The Big Uneasy

The only time I visited New Orleans was for a weekend in the spring of 1991, while covering the junket for Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for the Chicago Sun-Times. The movie sucked and I didn’t get to see much of the city, but what seems significant now is the reason the junket was held there. Costner was in town shooting Oliver Stone’s JFK. He was playing former New Orleans DA Jim Garrison, who, in the dank back alleys and ritzy townhouses of the city, uncovered a possible conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.

Regardless of one’s opinion of Garrison’s or Stone’s theories, the image of New Orleans evoked in JFK is a cinema convention. On the surface, it is decadent, sensual, overrefined, and inviting. But underneath — or within, or pressing from without — evil, death, depravity, and barbarism loom.

In Jezebel (1938), in which Bette Davis plays a scarlet woman in antebellum high society, disaster takes the form of a yellow-fever epidemic. In A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Stanley Kowalski’s brutish patriarchal power overwhelms the hoity-toity Blanche Dubois. In Easy Rider (1969), the acid trip at the end of the road in New Orleans is the prelude to death for the two American Dreamers. In the diabolical detective stories of Tightrope (1984), Angel Heart (1987), and The Big Easy (1987), investigators search for a suspect through the city’s labyrinth only to find something terrifying about themselves. And in films such as David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) and Neil Jordan’s Interview With the Vampire (1994), New Orleans’s gaudy façades are the masks of ultimate madness and evil.

While the floods unleashed by Katrina have laid waste many of the landmarks recreated or recorded in those movies, they also uncovered their essential truth. Images of floating bodies, looters, desperate families stranded on rooftops — almost all black and all poor — reveal the fragility of our security, the mendacity and fecklessness of our leaders, the anger, iniquity, and racism festering beneath our illusion of prosperity. Katrina did not destroy the cinema image of New Orleans. Tragically, she confirmed it.

Issue Date: September 9 - 15, 2005
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