“Tchoupitoulas” is a documentary that doesn’t feel like a documentary – and that’s a good thing. This portrait of the famed New Orleans street is more of an experience, a sensation, a mood that washes over you. The new film from the Ross Brothers (Bill and Turner) is another step forward in their continued experimentation with documentary storytelling and expressiveness through film form. They shot footage over seven months in the city, capturing the essence of the town before they met three brothers, whose one wild night of prowling the town frames the story of this experience. The result is a dreamy melange of sound, light and color that gives you a taste of the gumbo pot that is the vibrant, unique city of New Orleans captured from the perspective of childlike wonder.
The film opens with a blur lights and images at night from the view of a moving vehicle; the nighttime whizzing by as a young boy’s face emerges and we hear the voiceover of our protagonist of sorts, Will, the youngest brother of our trio, an irrepressible scamp who never stops pontificating on a variety of subjects from how to woo women to Michael Jackson. This voiceover with abstracted nighttime images serves as a loose structuring device within the film, one of the few minimalist narrative elements that keeps the movie in place. The lack of traditional film story does not make this a “difficult” movie to understand – there are no roadblocks to your comprehension of the plot, but it doesn’t spoonfeed or hold the hand of the audience.
As the boys wander the streets, taking in the sights, sounds, music, food and people, their conversation blends into the rich soundscape of ambient noise, street musicians, chatter and sirens. Every now and then, you might catch a word or phrase that keeps the story moving forward. Catch the word “ferry,” and you know that the boys need to begin their odyssey back home, a journey that is much longer than expected when they miss the last one, and must kill time exploring until the sun comes up. This is a movie that you listen to as much as look at, but dialogue is relegated to a background element. You’re listening to the boys talk but what they say is not important to understanding the plot. It blends into and around the sounds of street musicians, flowing from jazz quartets on the balcony, to brass brands parading in the street, to rappers onstage in a club, to drag queens lipsynching, to street buskers singing for their supper. It’s a patchwork quilt of the uniquely aural experience New Orleans offers.
As cinematographers, the Ross Brothers have the ability to capture tiny moments that not only add color and intimacy to the experience, but build the story on these moments themselves. In “Tchoupitoulas” each sequence – in an oyster bar, backstage with the burlesque performers – is built in a way that introduces one aspect of the subject, such as the hands of the oyster shucker or the naked side of a dancer, with the ambient conversation and sound to introduce the character before we see their face. The revelation of the whole image then turns to abstraction, which transcends the mere representation of the subject into a personal, intimate, sensual experience of the subject itself. It’s the same process that the film practices, resulting in a documentary experiment that pushes the boundaries of storytelling and form to transform cinema into sensation. It’s these moments where the film excels in its mission. If there’s a critique to be had (and this film is not for everyone; the experimental documentary is not necessarily accessible to mainstream audiences), it’s that it could find a way to wrap itself up a bit tighter as the boys find their way home. After a climactic moment exploring a profoundly creepy abandoned riverboat, the denouement lags a bit, even as we are treated to beautiful, abstract images, the process gets the better of itself and the pace lags to the film’s detriment. Still, “Tchoupitoulas” is a worthy successor to their award winning film “43565,” a fascinating development in the filmmakers’ experiments with documentary storytelling, and a damn good time exploring the sights, sounds and sensations of New Orleans at night. [B+]