Capturing in any meaningful way the essence of New Orleans, even a slice of it, is something many films have attempted with varying degrees of success. The rambling, semi-documentary Tchoupitoulas, shot by brothers Bill and Turner Ross, aims to paint an Impressionistic portrait of the French Quarter and surrounding areas at night, from the point of view of a young boy tagging along with his two older brothers as they walk the streets with their dog. The film works best when portraying the city’s post-midnight culture in brief, gritty vignettes, but viewers hoping for focused characterization or a solid narrative thread may be disappointed.
The premise is simple: Three boys take the Algiers ferry in the early evening across the Mississippi River into the French Quarter and miss the last ride back, leaving them to stay and explore until the next ferry at dawn. The casual pace and the child’s perspective add a dimension of dreamlike wonder to the episodes that play, unrehearsed and undirected, before the camera. We are immersed without narration in an all-night odyssey.
There are three types of “scenes” in Tchoupitoulas: internal monologues by 11-year-old William Kantrell, about everything from Michael Jackson to the book of Revelation, often accompanied simply by static shots of out-of-focus colored lights; handheld shots following the three brothers on their explorations; and unconnected scenes in clubs, with street musicians, and behind the scenes at a burlesque show. During the first cutaway, backstage at a strip club, it seems the film may broaden its scope by bringing in other perspectives for parallel narratives, but the filmmakers have something less contrived in mind. This is a low-key walkabout seen through a child’s eyes in a city too often romanticized out of all context.
The Ross brothers understand that the spirit of New Orleans is best conveyed poetically, and they consequently avoid editorializing in order to allow us to connect the disparate elements on our own. This cinema vérité approach is the movie’s main virtue, but the intentionally informal style unfortunately often overlaps at times with sloppy filmmaking. One of the boys can be plainly seen wearing a clip-on microphone in one shot, while a cameraman is clearly visible in another scene. Because most of the movie takes place at night and is shot with non-professional cameras, many scenes are poorly exposed and difficult to follow. The handheld cinematography, especially in conjunction with the frequent tight close-ups, can be dizzying, and arguably not in the way the filmmakers probably intended.
These criticisms, however, may admittedly be inconsequential depending upon viewer expectations. Whatever effect Tchoupitoulas achieves during its running time is secondary to what it is likely to leave moviegoers with: a textured, colorful and decidedly unromanticized vision of New Orleans that accurately renders part of the city’s complex character and will linger in the memory.
Produced, directed, photographed and edited by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross. Starring William, Bryan and Kentrell Zanders. Running time: 1 hr 20 mins. At Chalmette Movies.
New Orleans photographer and writer Jason Kruppa reviews movies for NolaVie.