'Tchoupitoulas': A Journey Into New Orleans

Tchoupitoulas posits time and space as internal experience, embracing subjectivity and uncertainty, not so much recording what happens as helping you to imagine possibilities.


Director: Rill Ross, Turner Ross
Cast: William, Kentrell, and Bryan Zanders
Rated: NR
Studio: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-07-16 (The DocYard)
I witnessed Turner get what I’d bet would have been his best shot to date. Very intimate. It was very late, a burlesque dancer drunkenly dancing her heart out by herself in an empty bar. She and Turner connected. Cameraman and subject. Beautiful. He came over after smiling and I said, “Grab a drink -- you never hit record."

-- Bill Ross

"One day I'm going to be able to make Michael Jackson my idol, and make a song about Michael Jackson and be able to do the moonwalk like he was. Y'all hoping to see his new movie, This is It? If Michael Jackson was still living, if y'all had the chance to win tour tickets, would y'all win? I know I would." Eleven-year-old William trots and bobs along the sidewalk, just behind his brothers Bryan and Kentrell and their pitbull, Buttercup. They're making their way through the French Quarter, surrounded by dancers and vendors and preachers. The brothers' white t-shirts gleam in the twilight. The dog pulls the leash. William keeps bobbing.

Whether he's pondering the possibilities of Michael Jackson or telling a dream he had, "actually a close-up of my future," where he was in the NFL and had, "like, six Super Bowl rings, all six of 'em on one finger," William's energy is pretty much relentless in Tchoupitoulas. And as such, it propels Bill and Turner Ross' film, a portrait of New Orleans that is by turns poetic and poignant and rapturous. As the three brothers lead the camera crew through streets, over railroad tracks, and along the riverfront, they appear to be making their way into on long night, though the film was shot over some nine months. While temporal ambiguity is surely familiar in accounts of this city, here it takes on another valence, as places and bodies also elide and shift, as light and sound (music, traffic, solicitations) become inextricable.

This isn’t to say that the film -- which screens at the DocYard on 16 July, followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers -- repeats the trope of French Quartery carnival. It is to say that it posits time and space as internal experience. In this it rethinks documentary parameters, embracing subjectivity and uncertainty, not so much recording what happens as helping you to imagine possibilities.

Like the Rosses' previous film, 45365, which charted life during a set of seasons in Sidney, Ohio, Tchoupitoulas engages with its subjects, seems to follow them so they seem to lead. But where the residents of Sidney shared their stories, their aspirations and their pasts, the three Zanders brothers travel in a perpetual present. Even as William describes his "flash to the future" of a dream at the film's start, his face fills the frame, inviting you to see him, even to feel him, as he rides into the city, lights bright against the night sky. Gathered in their kitchen in the West Bank, the boys argue, pushing and ducking, other siblings jostling. William finds solace in his bedroom, writing down notes on a music sheet. His song is rudimentary, the camera close on his profile as he paces his room, playing his recorder. When his brother invites him to come on their evening's excursion, William is reluctant: "If you're not gonna be mean," he says.

The brothers, in other words, are like other brothers, at once competitive and complicit, intimate and unfathomable. As they proceed into a kind of perpetual motion, they challenge the camera to keep up, encourage you to anticipate, to imagine what's in the next frame, what you can't see yet. The streets in the French Quarter and Faubourg-Marigny are, of course, populated by characters, clowns and acrobats (including a fire dancer), prostitutes and musicians and tour guides. White girls ask to pet Buttercup, a marching band invites passersby to join in ("Who dat? Who dat?"). A young woman with a flute -- as well as glitter on her face and feathery angel wings on her back -- offers William instruction on his recorder. "Learn all the scales," she urges, as the boys pass by her sign ("Leave a tip, take a picture, or just enjoy!") and cross the street away from her. "Have a safe, adventurous time of it," she says, the sound of her flute giving way to distant brass, the frame pausing as the brothers pass directly into another dimension, well-fed tourists taking pictures of themselves at an outdoor café.

"We saw some pretty amazing things," William observes as they walk away from the camera, across grass and up the cement steps at the ferry terminal. A guitar sounds somewhere off screen, bluesy and scrappy. While his brother use a payphone inside the station, William walks the dog, reassuring, "You gotta mark your territory Buttercup." Here again the film transitions, the very idea of territory transformed into something more fluid. Over a dissolve to fountain water cascading, William narrates, "I wanna stay at 21 forever, so I don’t have to get old and lose my good looks and all that." A scratchy, sentimental recording accompanies his reverie. "I'd stay on the phone all night, try to travel all over the world, ride around with Lamborghinis. I'd do things that I'm not allowed to do." The film cuts back to now, a view across the river to a stunning orange moon over a freight train, clanking slowly. And then another cut, this time to the boys' and Buttercup's backs, watching the train pass.

William's fantasy and the brothers' situation slide into one another, movements and sounds dissonant (vertical and horizontal, water and train) and also intertwined. As the Zanders make their way from night to morning, from city back to suburb, their adventure is both yours and theirs. You watch them as you imagine they watch you, looking into the camera, their eyes knowing and unknown, aware of its presence and working with it, but also apart. It's this set of effects, the film's invitation and its resistance at the same time, that make Tchoupitoulas seem insistent. It doesn't tell a story so much as it ponders what stories can do, how experience and perception shape one another, how you can't know, but how you can, sometimes, understand.


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