Call it Mardi Gras, call it Carnaval, or, as in Margaret Brown's haunting, surreal documentary on the events that yearly engulf her hometown of Mobile, Ala., prior to Ash Wednesday, just think of it as a carnival, minus the Tilt-a-Whirls and spun-sugar stink of Six Flags. This is the oldest existing pre-Lenten celebration in the United States, its mystic orders predating the Big Easy's by decades, awash in MoonPies and masquerades and, yes, racial boundaries etched in time.
If you thought New Orleans had a bayou padlock on backwoods mysteriosos, surrealistic skeletal floats, overindulgence both of spirit and spirits, not to mention thick, rancorous streaks of racial disharmony cloaked in the sullen guise of "tradition," The Order of Myths will come as a revelation, both good and bad, in black and white, pitting wealth and class against family and – there it is again – tradition.
Lensed with a cunningly open eye by four different cameramen (including Michael Simmonds and Lee Daniel), Brown's follow-up to her heartrending Festival favorite Townes Van Zandt: Be Here to Love Me is the cinematic equivalent of those Russian nesting dolls wherein each new explanation – why, in 2007, Mobile holds two distinct sets of Mardi Gras ceremonies and celebrations that cleave bone-close to the city's color line – demands further exploration.
"With Townes," says Brown, from her post-Austin home in New York City, "the limiting part to it was that he had died in 1997, and so I never knew him, really. And having grown up in Mobile, it was a place that I knew, and I knew it was not like other places. My mother was the Mardi Gras queen in 1966, and initially I wanted to make a narrative film about a reluctant Mardi Gras queen in that time period, but when I actually began doing research at the Mobile Mardi Gras Museum, the people I was meeting were such characters in their own right that I couldn't believe it. I couldn't have written them. And I just started to realize that this was a place and a time that I really wanted to document."
Brown's documentary strategies only become apparent to the viewer afterward: You know, going in, that issues of race and class and privilege and the lack thereof are in some way the shadowy underpinnings that hold both Mobile's daily life as well as its strictly observed Lenten debaucheries in thrall; you're just not certain how it all ties together or, more to the point in this racially fraught election year, how traditions so clearly predicated on seemingly outdated notions of antebellum heritage can even survive in this day and age.
But that's the genius of The Order of Myths. It uncovers both obscured truths that go back as far as anyone in Mobile can recall and allows the viewer access into a world that, for at least part of the year, is dominated by secret societies that remind you of nothing so much as the Freemasons and all that they imply.
"My grandfather was the one who made all the phone calls," notes Brown, "and just, really, vouched for me. There was certainly some hesitation on the part of people when we were filming the coronation of the white king and queen of Mardi Gras, and in fact, they wouldn't let us film it at all. And to this day, I don't know why. But then going in, I had no idea how much the film would come to focus on race. I was sure it would be a component, but these things that we could never, ever have predicted then began falling into place, and, you know, that's what you hope for in a documentary, really. We were lucky."
Ultimately, The Order of Myths upends the notion that the past is anywhere but right behind us, everywhere, all the time. Nowhere is this more evident in Brown's film than in her coverage of the Mobile Mystics, a Mobile Mardi Gras group of recent vintage (1993, actually) who are first seen in a boisterous, beer-fueled session notable for its gimme caps and aggressive good-old-boy-isms. But then, suddenly, the film reveals that of all the various carnival groups in Mobile – white and black – they're the only ones seen performing community service as, masked and festooned with beads, they parade through an otherwise dismal nursing home. Nothing here is as it seems.
"One of the guys in that organization is actually the only white guy who's also in the Conde Explorers, which is their black counterpart. And they're very proud of that. It might seem on surface that they're rednecks, but then, you know, that's not always the case. There's so many surprises like that – in the film and in Mobile – that you simply can't predict what's what or who's who. And from a documentary standpoint, that works to the film's advantage."
Saturday, March 8, 11am, Paramount
Thursday, March 13, 11am, Alamo Ritz
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