Trouble the Water

In 1927 there was a great flood in Louisiana; the National Guard came to rescue the white landowners, but left the black sharecroppers to tend to the crops. Immortalized in Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” some fleeing landowners sang “Bye, Bye Blackbird” to the doomed farmers. In the end, the “blackbirds” won; nearly 700,000 people were homeless, and they left for the cities, mainly Chicago. This gave birth to the Chicago blues, and the influx of new voters dumped Republican Hoover and his empty promises. The Party of Lincoln was abandoned for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. History repeating. It’s a bit more complicated, as Hoover got both elected and rejected due to how he handled the refugee camps for the displaced. The Wikipedia article makes for interesting reading.
Trouble the Water is the record of a family weathering Katrina, video camera in tow. 24-year old Kimberly Roberts and her husband Scott don’t have gas money to evacuate, so they hole up in their 9th Ward home as the storm hits. We get to see the terror of opening your front door to see a raging ocean where your yard once was. They survive, and we see them survey the wreckage of their neighborhood, the remains of those less fortunate, and the utter lack of any government response. The Indonesian tsunami a few years earlier- we had people on the ground faster for that.
They reenact their survival tales, and interview their neighbors. Kimberly reports on the scene like guerrilla news anchor, signing off with her rapper name, Black Kold Madina. It’s easy to roll your eyes, but this is what we didn’t see. Instead of pointing at a man in water up to his neck, holding a single loaf of bread and crying “looter,” like our talking heads did, this is embedded reporting from inside the hell hole. Jean Valjean would get torched these days, wouldn’t he? Their footage is interspersed with news bites, 911 calls, and factoids. But the real meat of the film is just following Kimberly and Scott through the wreckage of what was once their lives.
What’s most distressing is the interview with the soldiers who guarded empty base housing. They talk of protecting “government interests,” and how “civilians don’t know how to survive.” Quotes were cherry-picked I’m sure, but they are damning enough. When even a few soldiers are more concerned with protecting the government than saving fellow Americans, the leadership of their superiors is morally bankrupt. Maybe the best of our men were too busy overseas. On the other hand, the neighborhoods pulled together. “My enemies helped me,” one man says. They help each other navigate the bureaucratic mess FEMA imposed.
Trouble the Waters was nominated for Best Documentary last year, and lost to the cheerful Man on Wire; personally I thought Errol Morris’s excellent Standard Operating Procedure should have won, but it didn’t even get nominated. Trouble may not be a great movie, but it is worth seeing to see what our news media missed and ignored about the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the second disaster of our government’s inept response. I think it might have been better as an episode of Frontline, but it got more exposure this way. If you’re interested in seeing one couple’s story of surviving Katrina, it should not be missed.

Rating: Worthy

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Like Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth, a beloved director has come back with a story of a man who begins aging backwards, and it’s a disappointment. I love David Fincher- after eating the shit sandwich he was handed with Alien3, he made some excellent, stylized films- Seven and Fight Club, the serviceable Panic Room and The Game, and the excellent police procedural and period piece that is Zodiac. Now he’s back with another period piece fantasy based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, about a man born old, who eventually un-ages into infancy. With a screenplay by the guy who gave us Forrest Gump, we have another film about a joke stumbling through history.
But the similarities begin to snowball. The film is endlessly narrated by its main character, who puts on a rather bad Southern accent. They are both men whose age belies their naivete, who are innocents of a sort. Instead of giving us conversations, we get Benjamin telling us what they talked about. He showers us with platitudes like, “that was the first time I’d been kissed by a woman. It’s something you never forget.” He’s a child no one would want, but is raised and loved by someone who sees beyond his infirmity, and he lives an unlikely life, traveling the world and meeting all sorts of extraordinary people. He leads a charmed life amid historic events. He even walks with braces at one point.

The make-up is fantastic but a tad uneven- at some point it seems that Fincher expected the audience to be crying out to see Brad Pitt’s mug without wrinkles, and he looks a lot younger, just with white hair. This happens when he meets the always excellent Tilda Swinton, who plays the wife of a British minister in Murmansk. She and Ben have an affair after many nights of tea, where he listens to her and seems knowing and sympathetic, when he’s just innocent. This part reminded me of Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardner in Being There. And I missed when Tilda left the movie.
The film has many enjoyable scenes- it’s hard not to be engaged by the brief scene during the Second World War, but then it ends with something so smarmy I wished I didn’t know that the Forrest Gump guy wrote this. A man with a tattoo of a hummingbird on his chest dies, and shortly after, a hummingbird shows up like a feather on the wind in a very improbable place. It’s the kind of thing I can’t believe Fincher didn’t cut out of the script. A man named Button who made buttons is buried with a jar full of buttons. It’s framed by a woman on her deathbed as Hurricane Katrina brews off the coast. What does it mean? Is it supposed to be deep? I’ll see Troubled Waters if I want detail on that disaster, not this insulting Hollywood hat-tip.

The movie is not that bad; it’s a decent, if overlong fantastic drama about … I’m not quite sure. Is there some sort of wisdom to be gained by seeing a man age in reverse, when he still hasn’t the wisdom of age? He’s got the worst of both worlds. One amusing point is that Tilda Swinton looks like an older Cate Blanchett, both “all knees and elbows” redheads; and Cate once again turns into Katherine Hepburn as she ages. Two actresses I adore, taking a back seat to Forrest Button, playing his “Jenny” and following the whims of the plot instead of being characters and following their own. I must say the second half of the movie is less exciting, but more enjoyable and less smarmy than the beginning. We know how it will end, and there’s no real meaning to its premise; I made the mistake of reading Ebert’s review before watching it, and I think he sums it up well when he says that Fitzgerald’s story was a joke, and this is a drama based on it. We begin life in diapers and we wind up back in them if we live long enough. But this is the first 3 hour movie explaining that platitude.
At least we’ll be treated to The Curious Case of Benjamin’s Butt-Cheeks if the porn industry has any gumption.

3 butt cheeks out of 5

Under the Bridge – 2 years after Katrina

Living in a tent under the I-10 overpass in New Orleans while thousands of tourists have the time of their lives mustn’t be much fun. The Quarter seems to have fully recovered, except it’s even more commercial now. It’s lost much of its character and is resembling another hedonistic tourist spot, but there is still much to enjoy there. We didn’t do the “Katrina Tour” because I can’t ogle someone else’s misery, especially when I’m there on vacation. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we spoke to a Jersey Girl and a Pennsylvania fella at Molly’s “13” tavern on Frenchmen Street who were there helping with the recovery. It’s nice to see young folks volunteering to help people when the glory’s all going to Brad Pitt and the like, after much of the country has forgotten the needless tragedy that befell us a mere 2 years back.
After the denizens got the kick in the face of hearing that the meddlesome Army Corps of Engineers cannot be sued for the levees failing against a Cat-3 hurricane when they knew for years a Cat-5 would make the city part of Lake Pontchartrain, it’s nice to know some “have not forgotten.” It’s more profitable to not forget 9/11 (and I was working in Manhattan that day, before you start) and while millions have already been squandered by FEMA, I doubt the Gulf region will be anything like it was before Katrina hit when the next big storm comes to knock them ass over teakettle.