Archive for Louisiana

Southern Comfort: R.I.P. Powers Boothe

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), OBITS with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2017 by travsd

When I was in my late teens, my buddies and I, fans of Walter Hill’s recent hit 48 Hours (1982), somehow stumbled upon his earlier not-such-a-hit Southern Comfort (1981). I’m thinking it was shown on cable, and/or had come out on video, but the upshot is I watched the film several times, and loved it. Action films per se aren’t usually my thing, mostly because the vast majority of them are so formulaic, and on top of that, as a general rule, I find onscreen violence for its own sake (fist fights, gun play, explosions) exceedingly boring without, at the very least, some sort of angle to make it interesting. Walter Hill ALWAYS brings such angles to the table. In fact, 48 Hours was a great example — it hybridized two different genres, comedy and the police thriller, in a way that ended up being extremely influential. It’s not Hill’s fault that now there are a million comedy-buddy-cop-movies. He can take pride in having created the template.

Southern Comfort has a million such angles: a Louisiana bayou location; exotic Cajun culture, a moody Ry Cooder soundtrack. And it has the only kind of macho hero I’m interested in: one who has palpable brains. Actors with this quality are rare enough that I can easily rattle off the ones I like: William Holden, George C. Scott, Tommy Lee Jones. With such heroes at the center of the picture, whether it’s present in the script or not, you can at least project some kind of higher battle onto whatever’s transpiring. It not just “man vs. man” but “man vs. society” (usually the dregs of society) in such pictures. For me, Powers Boothe had this quality, and in Southern Comfort, you don’t have to project it, Hill’s script is all about it.

The film is about a unit of Louisiana National Guardsmen who are sent out on maneuvers in the bayou, and, through a combination of arrogance, ignorance, and ineptitude, run afoul of local Cajun trappers…with fatal consequences. And so this is another reason the movie is a favorite of mine: one of my favorite story structures is the “And Then There Were None” scenario. We meet a diverse group of people who are thrust together for whatever reason,  and then, just as we are getting to know and like them, one of by one, a malevolent force picks them off.  The formula is generally used to good effect in disaster movies and war pictures. It’s also used in slasher movies, generally to much worse effect, because the whole concept hinges on character; if it’s poorly written and acted, the structure has no impact. In Southern Comfort, Hill not only wrote a riveting script, but put together a terrific ensemble cast. In addition to Boothe, it’s Keith Carradine, Peter Coyote, Fred Ward, T.K. Carter, Alan Autry (billed as Carlos Brown), Les Lannom, et al as the Guardsmen; Brion James stands out as one of the Cajuns.

For the most part the Guardsmen, stand-ins for the human race, are all idiots. It requires a certain suspension of disbelief — that a group of guys from Louisiana would be so ignorant of this cherished local culture, and so lacking in respect of people on their own home turf. By “respect” I don’t just mean manners, but also a healthy fear and wariness of those with superior skill. The Cajuns have lived in these parts for generations. They know every inch of the terrain, whereas the Guardsmen are hopelessly lost, the proverbial Babes in the Woods. The Cajuns live off the land as trappers. THEY LAY TRAPS. And the nearest law is very far away. But the Guardsmen provoke them needlessly, steal their boats, scare them with their machine guns (which only fire blanks, but the locals don’t know that). It seems very much a metaphor for Vietnam (and Hollywood hadn’t yet fully rolled out Vietnam as a genre. That would come during the second half of the decade.) It also anticipates by a decade some real life domestic run-ins like Ruby Ridge.

Aloof and above all these assholes are Boothe and Carradine, who manage to keep their wits about them and emerge from the ordeal with their hides intact. Boothe was an inspired choice, one not every producer or casting director would have been smart enough to make. At the time, he was best known for his Emmy-winning performance as Jim Jones in the CBS tv movie The Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980). He had been so good in that part, so creepy and chilling, it was hard to imagine he could ever be a hero in anything, let alone ever be anything but Jim Jones ever again. But, when we saw him in his many subsequent roles, a palpable decency came to seem one of his fundamental qualities. A strong, silent type with a thoughtful nature. (Although, with that dark brow, he could still play a villain, as in in his memorable turn as Curly Bill in 1993’s Tombstone).

At any rate, despite the many things I’ve seen him in over the years, Boothe’s role in Southern Comfort will always be the one I think of first. It’s not a part that required much emotional range or anything, his character is merely sensible and stoic, but I like what the character represents, and how Boothe inhabited that character, in an old fashioned Hollywood kind of way. He passed away yesterday at age 68, of what we are told were “natural causes”. (Not too natural, 68 is pretty young). He was always a welcome sight on screens big and small and will be missed by fans like me.

 

NOLA: Day Three

Posted in AMERICANA, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, FOOD & DRINK CULTURE, Travel/ Tourism with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2015 by travsd

Continuing our thread from yesterday

Saturday, November 7

Faulkner House

Snuck out early again and had a chance to snap a few additional sites. First to the perfectly harmless looking Pirate’s Alley (which apparently has nothing to with the Lafitte Brothers but is associated with them anyway), but is the site where William Faulkner wrote his first novel (it’s now a bookstore).

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And yet another Tennessee Williams house.

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And a closer shot of the Andrew Jackson statue in Jackson Square. Jackson was the hero of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, fought six miles away in Chalmette (and which several of my ancestors and relatives participated in. Stay tuned for a visit to the battlefield).

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Then, joined by the Mad Marchioness, we toured the Historic New Orleans Collections with all their paintings and artifacts, and their new exhibition of Rolland Golden’s Katrina related paintings:

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Then the Cabildo , St. Louis Cathedral, and The Presbytère. All in a row, it’s easy to see them all at once like one large museum (though the one in the middle happens to be a house of worship). The Cabildo was the seat of government during the colonial period.

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The Cabildo had great exhibitions on the Battle of New Orleans, in which the Marchioness and I both dramatically participated:

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And an equally terrific Civil War exhibition (New Orleans was occupied by Union forces for most of the war.)There was also an intriguing portrait by William Rumpler, purportedly of Adah Isaacs Menken, subject of Horse Play, although it looks nothing like any of the photos of her. 

Adah Isaacs Menken by William Rumpler

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Here is the interior of the Cathedral.

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Fats Domino’s piano — destroyed in the flood

The Presbytère has a terrific, moving exhibition about Hurricane Katrina, covering it from every angle. It’s sensitively handled, and comparable to New York’s 9-11 museum.

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The famous “Doreen’s Jazz New Orleans” — we saw them busking almost every day

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Thence to the Beauregarde-Keyes House, an 1826 American-style house (unique in the French Quarter, where so many of the buildings are Spanish). We were surprised to learn that the house’s connection to General P.G.T. Beauregard is nearly tangential. It wasn’t his personal home. When he was destitute following the Civil War, he lived there for a year and half when it was a boarding house. After this it was the home of author Frances Parkinson Keyes (pronounced “Kize”), best known for her murder mystery Dinner at Antoine’s. If you like creepy dolls, you will love this museum. The house was built on land originally owned by the Old Ursuline Convent, which is now across the street. The convent, built in the late 1740s, is currently the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley:

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It was raining by this point. We wended our way home by way of the terrific galleries on Royal Street, at least 6 or 8 of which got us totally jazzed.

Royal Street Gallery

But the drizzle was cramping our style so we made it back to the hotel. And the show came to us! Out our window, we saw (and heard) a wedding party “second line” go by, in the pouring rain, full of joyful shouts and music. This town really knows how to celebrate.

For Day Four go here. 

NOLA: Day One

Posted in AMERICANA, Travel/ Tourism with tags , , , , , , on November 5, 2015 by travsd

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I crossed a certain catastrophic birthday threshold the other day and to ease the sting the Mad Marchioness took me for a 5 day debauche in the heart of Crescent City. The Mad Marchioness: I think I’ll keep her.

I’ve admired New Orleans from afar for well over half my life. I’ve researched it obsessively. I find everything about it significant or fascinating or both. Historically, the most cosmopolitan city in the American south. The birthplace of jazz. The home of voodoo. A port city; frequented by pirates. The unique mash-up of French, Spanish, English, African and Native American cultures. The world famous cuisine. The enormous reverence for history, which has resulted in widescale preservation of architecture, language, and tradition. Even the local flora and fauna, geography and climate (regional aspects I’m not automatically interested in) are EXTREMELY fascinating.

But especially…jazz. The soul of a nation is expressed through its music. By common consensus, America’s music is jazz and its many offshoots. Which makes New Orleans the literal heart of American culture. You either get that or you don’t. Nothing — not the Iraq War, not the ignoring of the warning signals of 9-11, nor the financial crisis of 2008 (and those are a LOT) — inspires more contempt in me for our 43rd President than his cavalier response to the drowning of New Orleans on his watch. It’s as though (and does this surprise anyone?) he missed the entire POINT of the nation of which he was supposed to be chief executive. You either feel IN YOUR BONES a sense of ownership, of pride in what New Orleans has given to American culture…or it is alien to you, you are detached from it and don’t particularly care if the town — if America’s soul — lives or dies. And Bush’s main observation seemed to be that New Orleans was a “party town” and that he looked forward to rebuilding Senator Trent Lott’s house. (Lott was a Mississippi senator at the time). It’s one thing to be ineffective at saving the city. But not to CARE? About New Orleans? That’s unforgivable. At that point I write you off, not just as a President, but as an American and as a human being.

So. This has been a pilgrimage to a place I’ve cared deeply about in the abstract for most of my life. And it exceeded my expectations. While we were there, waiters, tour guides, gallery owners etc, would say “So you’re from New York? I guess this [i.e. NOLA], isn’t so much, huh?” Au contraire. We were there for the culture — real culture — and New Orleans is abidingly rich in that….at a time when New York’s culture withers, atrophies and seems to be taking its marching orders from some industrial park in New Jersey. We were enthralled by NOLA, and don’t be too surprised if some day we choose to go back and stay there permanently.

Now: I meant to blog daily while I was there, but I couldn’t get my new computer to work in the hotel, and besides I was having too much fun. So what I’ve decided to do is BACKDATE my daily blogs and post them today in six separate day-by-day chunks.  About a quarter of the pictures were taken by the Marchioness. Here goes nothing!

Thursday, November 5

Upon boarding the plane we saw two elderly, turbaned African American women in the first class section, laying out rows of playing cards on their dinner trays and gazing at them in a fashion most oracular. Thus before we even left LaGuardia I felt we’d already arrived at our destination. Unfortunately though we were seated in coach, where the only voodoo is an attempt to hypnotize you into thinking a bag containing four peanuts is a “snack”.

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Hey! You! Get Offa My Cloud!

On the ride from Louis Armstrong airport to our hotel in the French Quarter the taxi driver kept gabbing to a friend on a cell phone in Creole French  — a second wave transitional cushion.

For our first few days there the weather was steamy and close. I went around in shorts almost the entire time. Here’s where we stayed:

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Look cozy? Well, two doors down from our hotel there was this:

Museum of Death

We didn’t get around to poking our heads in until near the end of our trip. Initially gung-ho, we backed off when we got closer and saw that it was just a shabby storefront with a gallery full of gory photos, charging two to three times what all the legit museums were charging. Besides, we get all the gore we need in New York. So it was on to….

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Bourbon Street was just a block from our hotel (and just about everything we cared about was within walking distance). The street is legendary of course (that’s why we took this picture) but there’s no way to ever explain it to anyone. “Carnivalesque” is the first word that comes to mind, in both senses of the word. You turn the corner, and you are on a sort of extremely long midway, a strip of eateries, bars, night clubs and sex shows, all housed in these historical old buildings. August, 200-year-old establishments share space with places like “Larry Flynt’s Barely Legal Club“. It is as though you mashed together Times Square with Colonial Williamsburg.

Working the crowd (sometimes fleecing them) are a zillion entertaining buskers: magicians, three card monte operators, shell games, stilt walkers, musicians (of course!), and to my delight and concern: several African American kids tap dancing for coins. “Delight” of course because so many of the vaudevillians I’ve written about started out in just this fashion, dancing for change on street corners. Now here I am witnessing it with my own eyes. It was very gratifying. Why then the “concern”? Because, constantly lurking in the shadows was their obvious Tap Dance Taskmaster. Father? Cousin? Older brother? It was hard not to read coercion and exploitation into the situation but I may be way, horribly off base, and if that offends anyone I apologize in advance. But the grown-up looked like he was scowling and the kids looked like they didn’t DARE stop dancing. Anyway, I really wanted to snap pictures of the kids and possibly even interview them (even the mean one) for the blog. But I put it off until the last night, and wouldn’t you know, just as I approached with my camera, they scampered off. I turned around, and there was a stern looking city cop. They’re obviously breaking some city ordinance with their dancing. I’d like to know more. Is it a family tradition? An entrepreneurial brainstorm?

Preservation Hall

Interestingly, there is far less jazz in the Bourbon Street establishments than one would assume. A couple of nearby places like the famous Preservation Hall feature it, and there is lots of it being played in the streets, but mostly what you get in the Bourbon Street clubs are DJs and cheesy pop cover bands doing songs by Bob Seger or Jimmy Buffet. We later learned that most of the real jazz clubs are on Frenchman Street nowadays. But like I said there was a copious amount of great music being played by street musicians so we didn’t feel short changed.

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It was also interesting to watch the mix of people wandering around the French Quarter. First of all, open containers are the rule of the day, day or night. People are walking the streets with drinks in their hands before breakfast. (Not us! Honest!) But the types of people, ranging from “Beautiful People” in expensive threads…to the ugliest of Ugly Americans. During our time there it was not usual to go into a really classy restaurant with tuxedoed waiters….waiting on entire families who were dressed like four-year-olds, in pajamas and track suits and sweatshirts with the names of sports teams on them.

Patron: “Y’all have Fried Twinkies?”

Waiter: Mais, non, monsieur.

At any rate, I came to this experience PREPARED. I’d already mapped out everything I wanted to see and now that we were on Bourbon Street, I wasted no time. For example, I flew here immediately:

French Opera House 1

It’s not there anymore of course. Here’s what it used to look like:

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The French Opera House was where Adah Isaacs Menken made her theatrical debut. It was part of my research for Horse Play.  Not to pay immediate respect would be a gross omission.

And then there is this legendary place, also on Bourbon Street:

Marie Laveau's = Bourbon Street

For years I had their iconic poster hanging in my house (given to me by a friend who visited the place shortly after it opened in 1988).

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So I wanted to get a glimpse. They didn’t allow photographs inside (not for the reason you might expect but rather, I suspect because it’s a bit shabby. There are many voodoo establishments in the city, and we’ll share our impressions of them subsequently. They were all more impressive than this one, though it’s the best known). In case you didn’t know, Marie Laveau (1794-1881) and her daughter Marie Laveau II (1827-1895) were New Orleans’ Voodoo Queens. But the store is just named after them, not affiliated with their legacy in any way.

Having just got to town and not yet properly oriented, we then ate gumbo at a completely random Cajun place called Le Bayou.  The chow was okay but I was more impressed by the gator over the bar:

Le Bayou restaurant - Bourbon Street

I like a joint with a gator over the bar.

Then we went back and had a couple of drinks at the hotel bar, and listened to the hilariously bad hotel band.

Okay, that’s Day One! For Day Two go here.

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