Tchoupitoulas: A frenzy in the Quarter

January 3, 2013

Grade: 90
Cast: Documentary, with the brothers Zander
Directors: Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 82 minutes

Calling the Ross brothers’ (Bill and Turner) Tchoupitoulas a documentary might raise some hackles among purists; at last year’s Little Rock Film Festival one of the Rosses ( I think it was Bill) admitted to me that what appears to be one night in the film was actually shot over a period of months and that there was at least a cursory attempt to impose a narrative arc on the story, after the fact. Most importantly to the parents in the audience, Bill assured me the filmmakers were always ready to step in if the films’ subjects got in too much trouble.

(On the other hand, they understood that the film required mischief — and they were all too happy to allow their young charges miss the last ferry back home. But they would have called the police if any really bad medicine seemed imminent. )

Still, the film is non-fiction and nothing is staged, and the overall effect (which ought to be all that matters anyway) is stunning. Tchoupitoulas is a kind of fever dream of nighttime New Orleans, as experienced through the eyes of fresh, young and impressionable (if not precisely innocent) eyes.

Those eyes belong to the adolescent Zanders brothers: Kentrell, Bryan and William, who at is both the the youngest and the most extroverted, the film’s occasional narrator and its undisputed star. The film’s conceit is that the brothers take an impulsive ferry trip from their home in Algiers to downtown New Orleans, principally the French Quarter and the Central Business District, an area bisected by the street that gives the film its name.

There (accompanied by the family dog, Buttercup) they are assimilated into the roil of tourists and the Brakhagian blur of light and sound. (William finds “everything [he’d] hoped for” in the Quarter, “naked pictures, clubs …”)

The Ross’s handheld cameras capture a lot, including an encounter with a homeless man Bill (I think it was) told me was muttering something about killing the cameramen and taking their toys. (They didn’t understand this at the time; they only heard the threats when they listened to the audio during editing. )

The only thing that really mars the film is the nagging knowledge that some of the film had to have been staged, which makes a ghostly midnight creep through a moored, ruined ferry a little hard to believe in the cold light of morning.

Still, I saw Tchoupitoulas back to back with the similarly themed Beasts of the Southern Wild at the LRFF and at the time I wasn’t sure which I preferred. It took me a little thinking to decide that Tchoupitoulas wasn’t quite my favorite film of the year — but it was magical in the moment. It’s a great visceral trip that explores, albeit obliquely, themes of community, family and America’s undrownable city.

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