[12 February 2009]
Along the arc of the Gulf of Mexico, running from Galveston, Texas to Pensacola, Florida, there occurs a strange annual phenomenon known as Mardi Gras. Like the hurricanes that all too often scour the area, most of the intensity is confined to the coastline. Indeed Baton Rouge, Louisiana (where the solid ground starts) is the remote northern outpost of Mardi Gras, whose spirit dissipates in the pine forests a few miles or even a few hundred yards inland.
But what spirit! Mardi Gras (French for ‘Fat Tuesday’) was originally a European Catholic holiday that served to blow off steam before the grueling ordeal of behaving well during Lent. (Now the Baptists seem to be the most enthusiastic participants and Lord do we need it.) It was first celebrated in America at Mobile, Alabama by the audacious explorer Bienville and his hardy band of French colonists in 1703. The nearly simultaneous migration of the Mobile, Pascagoula and Biloxi tribes towards Texas shortly after the event may or may not have been coincidental.
Over the ensuing three centuries, Mardi Gras has spread out and grown far beyond its modest beginnings. The only interruption of Mardi Gras in Mobile occurred when the Yankee’s had the place under occupation in the 1860s, but it soon recovered. Whether the New Orleans Mardi Gras will recover from the Yankee occupation known as the 1985 Super Bowl is still open to question. But year-by-year Mardi Gras is celebrated, passed on to, and gratefully received by each group of people who subsequently arrive on the Gulf Coast.
One of the differences between the true celebration of Mardi Gras and the barely contained French Quarter riot that a cash desperate New Orleans is forced to endure, is that the rules don’t disappear but are changed. At the beginning of the season a significant chunk of America becomes suddenly and fiercely monarchist. It’s an immediate and amazing change. One moment you’re a member of an advanced, post- industrial democracy and the next you know exactly what your place is in a quasi-Medieval chain of being. You also know everybody else’s place with far more surety than the editors of Burkes Peerage and Gentry.
At the very top are the royalty of the most respected orders (or krewes). They organize the parades, the parties and the balls. All societal and a large chunk of civil authority rests in the hands of an unelected but universally recognized aristocracy. At the bottom are the ill mannered. In between it’s quite hard to define in any rational way, but everyone can tell.
Margaret Brown, a native of Mobile and a noted filmmaker, returns to her hometown and explores the mysteries of Mardi Gras in her brilliant yet flawed documentary The Order of Myths. The film’s focus is on the 2008 Mardi Gras season in Mobile, which was very grand. The excitement and sheer fun of it made me want to run to a parade and chow down on Moon Pies (a Mobile tradition).
Moon Pies are round pastries with flavored marshmallow in the center and a soft crust coated in chocolate. One of the more charming parts of the film is when various schoolchildren are reading their essays on why they love Moon Pies. There’s another scene in which a krewe visits a nursing home in costume, bearing beads but without the clamored for Moon Pies. The distress of the residents is palpable. There are a lot more fat people down South but we all had a great time getting that way.
So there are balls, parades, parties and Moon Pies as well as quite a bit of Mobile history in the film. There’s also rigid segregation, both by race, ancestry and class. Though the latter two never occur to Brown (rich folks are funny that way), she is focused on the racial separation of the Mardi Gras societies and treats this as a modern American tragedy.
I suspected that this had more to do with Brown’s guilt about being a daughter of old white wealth and privilege than any abnormal racial angst lurking in the heart of Mobile. To her credit, she’s quite honest about it. One of her ancestors smuggled the last group of Africans into Mobile in the 1850s and her family has been amongst the city’s elite ever since. And yes, Mobile had a segregated and violent past in which African Americans suffered a great deal. It’s described pretty fairly except for the Michael Donald murder in 1981. The murder is vividly portrayed but the fact that one of his murderers was executed and another is serving a life sentence isn’t mentioned. It’s an interesting omission.
But Mardi Gras is too fun to be spoiled by the guilt trips of an over privileged white girl. The sense of tragedy felt by Brown and certain reviewers in Los Angeles and New York is conspicuous by its absence among the revelers. Everybody is having far too good a time, drinking, flirting, and partying down.
There’s some footage of an order that was founded to promote integration during Mardi Gras. The founder seems to be a bit pompous which probably explains the confused expression of the order’s sole white member. “I thought this was supposed to be fun. Isn’t it?”
There’s also some silliness about a LGBT order trying to get the gay community involved in Mardi Gras. Talk about clueless! Why do you think the white orders have better gowns? Any order needs only one type of Queen to be a success.
Another vital component to any successful order (as in any French Court) are the various eminence grise, the older gentlemen (and ladies) who are the unseen powers behind the rather naive Kings and Queens. Brown’s grandfather is wonderful in this role (semi-retired but quite influential). He clearly thinks that his grand daughter is being a bit silly but he’s obviously used to indulging her.
But the champion eminence grise is working behind the scenes at the white order. Not only does he have his normal duties but also this year he has to deal with Brown and the white Queens remarkably badly behaved French boyfriend (more on him later). Brown is busily trying to generate a bad scene but a true Southern gentleman is hard to beat.
Almost certainly goaded by Brown, the Black Queen and King crash the white coronation and are pretty nervous. Then the eminence grise shows up, warmly greets them and gets them a waiter who is instructed to get them whatever they want. Later they are introduced to thunderous applause and a standing ovation by the white order. It was damn well played and one can almost hear Brown grinding her teeth.
Later in the season the white King and Queen visit the black coronation along with their eminence grise. An eminence grise of the black order observes that he has written to invite the white King and Queen to the black coronation for the past five years. The white eminence grise counters that he has written the same letters for 30 years. It was all a most interesting and honorable contest of graciousness that very few American cities could emulate.
Since my experience of Mardi Gras is confined between the Mississippi and Pascagoula rivers, I contacted my friend Kathy Perkins. Kathy is a professor at the University of Illinois, a noted theatrical lighting designer and author. More importantly she’s a native of Mobile, African American, and very fond of banana flavored Moon Pies. She saw The Order of Myths in Mobile and has the DVD. I asked her what she thought.
Basically she thought it was an unfair portrayal of black Mobile residents, in which a poverty stricken populace is depicted as pleading to be accepted by white people. The same run down block is shown every time the black community is mentioned. Most importantly, though, the elementary school teachers who were the Black King and Queen in 2008 seemed perfectly nice, they weren’t representative of Black Royalty.
Two former Queens immediately came to Perkin’s mind. One was Yvonne Kennedy, a state representative and former college president, and the other was Alexis Herman who was Secretary of Labor during Clinton’s second term and probably sits on more corporate boards than anyone else in Alabama. According to Perkins,” We have our own prosperity, our own prominent, cultured and well-traveled people. Why would we want to join a white order?” Touché.
The Order of Myths is a good film about a great tradition. Brown puts the viewer in such a good mood that her self-absorption is easy to forgive. If she gets more mileage out of Mardi Gras by feeling guilty about it, then it’s her right. But to be frank, I’d much rather go to Mardi Gras with Perkins.
The extras include the standard and universally dreary voice over commentary (no DVD does this well) and the theatrical trailer. It also includes a fantastic section of deleted scenes. Notable among these are the scene about the first Black Queen who was crowned in 1940 and is still elegantly beautiful, the Dancing Man, and more Moon Pie essays.
There’s an incredible deleted scene that shows the White Queens French boyfriend. Oh my. Oh dear. I’ve seen some pretty bad behavior at Mardi Gras, but this dude should be denied further entry into the United States. I just hope the White Queen denied him further entry as well. This scene is documentary proof of two facts. The first is that Southerners will treat you politely even if they want to kill you. The second is that a Southern girl will forgive a man anything if he’s pretty enough.
So by all means watch The Order of Myths. You’ll have a great time and should be inspired to see the real thing. C’est le bontemps roulet!