Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Christmas Eve Bonfires

            The French, Spanish, German, Haitian, West African, Caribbean, Vietnamese, and other ethnic groups that have settled Louisiana in the past three hundred plus years have fused together to create cultural traditions unique to Louisiana. In the past we’ve covered Mardi Gras, the history of king cakes, the Natchitoches meat pie, and crawfish boils. In honor of the Christmas season, we’d like to introduce another Louisiana tradition: Christmas Eve bonfires. 

The bonfires in their full glory

             On Christmas Eve, and more generally in the month of December, residents of Louisiana who live along the Mississippi river, especially between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, construct bonfires on the earthen levees that surround the river. These levees protect the surrounding areas from flood waters. These areas of high ground also make them prime locations for the construction of bonfires. Tradition holds that the bonfires are intended to help Santa Claus—or as the Cajuns call him Papa Noel, because of course the Cajuns have their own name—find his way to the homes of residents of Southern Louisiana. Louisianans construct wooden pyramid like structures, with smaller support logs that give them the appearance of fences. This is the typical appearance for one of these structures, but over the years people have become more artistic in their creations. Many pay homage to Louisiana’s culture, taking the shape of famous plantation homes, paddleboats, or even the ubiquitous crawfish. St. James Parish, located about 30-40 miles upriver from New Orleans, has the heaviest concentration of bonfires, especially in the towns of Gramercy, Lutcher, and Paulina. Lutcher even hosts the annual Festival of the Bonfires at Lutcher Recreational Park where they feature live entertainment, food, local crafts, and of course, bonfires. 

            The origins of the Christmas Eve bonfires are not entirely clear. French and German immigrants settled in St. James Parish in the early 18th century. One theory holds that these settlers continued European traditions of holding bonfires on or around the winter and summer solstices after they established themselves in Louisiana. These original pagan practices were incorporated into Christian beliefs as a way of smoothing the way for conversion. The historical record, however, does not support the claim of a widespread practice of bonfires until the 1920s and 1930s. Groups of young men formed bonfire clubs, where they cut down trees, stripped them of their branches, and dragged them to the levees. After constructing the pyramid-like structures, people filled with rubber tires and other flammable materials. After World War 2, the bonfires grew in popularity due to the development of St. James and the surrounding river parishes. And in a rare victory for environmentalism in Louisiana, local governments banned the burning of rubber tires and other toxins—recognizing that they were bad for people’s health. Now these events serve as important cultural and communal events. As with many of Louisiana’s great traditions, they provide an opportunity to listen to music, eat delicious food, and for people to come together as a community and celebrate the holiday season.  

Of course there's a Saints one
            The tradition of Christmas Eve bonfires reflects the unique cultural forces that have shaped Louisiana’s colorful history.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


            In Dennis Villeneuve’s Arrival, a dozen spaceships land at seemingly random spots across the world—triggering a crisis of international proportions. As world governments—each with their own fears and motivations—scramble to make contact with the aliens, a shadowy military officer (Forest Whitaker) recruits Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a linguist and a theoretical physicist, to figure out why the aliens are here and what they want. Villenueve crafts a remarkably grounded and intellectual film that explores the power of language in shaping identity and how we understand the world around us. Within these events he also offers a heartbreaking story of familial loss.

            The film embraces an intimate and procedural approach to first contact. As Banks and Donnelly (Adams and Renner) approach the alien spacecraft, Villenueve embeds the viewer in the minutiae of donning radiation suits, driving out to the site, and slowly ascending a gigantic scissor lift to reach the alien spacecraft. After dealing with some shifting gravity, the two approach the seven legged aliens—known as heptapods—who are mostly shrouded in a white fog. After their visit, Banks’ hands shake and Donnelly throws up, revealing the stress that would underline such a monumental undertaking. Donnelly names the two aliens—Abbot and Costello, seemingly a reference to the famous “Who’s on first?” sketch and highlighting the difficulties inherent in any form of communication, let alone one where neither come from the same species. The film follows Banks and Donnelly’s grueling work of decoding the alien language, which the aliens create by shooting black ink out of their tentacles. The language, circular and gaseous and without easily discernible characters, occupies much of the pair’s work.

When the film expands its focus, some weaknesses begin to appear. Backed by largely unnamed teams, Banks and Donnelly work while the world outside deteriorates rapidly.  There’s looting, panic, military escalation, a hysterical media, and growing impatience when the aliens seem to be offering mankind weapons for some unclear purpose. There’s a distrustful CIA agent floating around, seemingly there to remind them of the need for answers while barely acknowledging the Herculean task at hand. There’s an easily manipulated army officer who after a phone call with his panicked wife and a pep talk from a Trump-ish radio host decides to send the heptapods a message about the strength and power of humanity in the way that only the profoundly stupid can—with a bomb. This clumsily introduced plot line vanishes almost as quickly as it appeared. Then there’s the menacing Chinese general, set to blow everything up at seemingly every available opportunity. These peripheral stories, however, remain largely in the background to the nitty-gritty of communication with the heptapods.

            Yet Villenueve has done something incredibly clever with this high-sci-fi premise, he’s placed inside of it an emotionally affecting familial story.  Adams, a generally talented actress, plays Banks as a buttoned up professional trying to keep her work separated from a heartbreaking loss. Villenueve shines as he plays with the audience’s assumptions about this loss and cleverly parallels her personal experience with the efforts to communicate with the heptapods. As a result, Arrival is a movie with both a brain and a heart.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Revenant

            The Revenant seemed tailor made for the Oscars. Fresh off his Academy Award win for Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu telling a story of revenge set in the early American West? Leonardo DiCaprio left for dead and hunting down Tom Hardy across the snow covered plains? A troubled production that had to decamp for South America when Canada failed to provide the appropriate weather for the film’s finale? Despite all the effort striving for cinematic achievement, The Revenant doesn’t actually achieve anything.

            For all the acting talent assembled for the movie, no one plays anything resembling an actual human being. DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass, a seasoned trapper, gets mauled by a bear, survives, watches his son get murdered in front of him, is rescued and chased by various groups of Native Americans, kills an evil Frenchman, and finally tracks down and kills Tom Hardy. His ostensible motivation is revenge, spurred by the memory of his dead wife, but Glass spends much of the film crawling, limping, and slowly walking towards revenge. He wears the grueling pain of every moment on his frost covered face. DiCaprio makes you feel every last bit of Glass’s pain. As he drags himself across the frozen landscape, Glass is a less a person and more a relentless survival machine.

Tom Hardy plays Fitzgerald, the child killing, Glass abandoning trapper, who similarly just wants to make it out of this frozen hell alive. His motivations are the easiest to understand as he articulates a “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” philosophy in leaving a crippled Glass for dead. Every one of us had an ancestor like Fitzgerald and that’s why we’re here today. The problem is he’s the villain of the film and we’re supposed to root for Glass to kill him. Fitzgerald may be greedy and self-interested, but at least he’s something. The rest of the film is populated by unscrupulous French traders, an idealistic trapping company captain (Domhall Gleason), who unsurprisingly gets himself killed, and an Indian chief on a reverse The Searchers. The film also has two female characters. Glass’s wife appears in flashbacks and spurs him to live. The other is the Indian chief’s daughter who gets raped. 
            Knowing that Iñárritu filmed The Revenant solely in natural light to accomplish to capture the brutal nature of the American West is an impressive technical achievement. This devotion to the technique has to be in service of something greater than itself. It’s like a chef who has fallen in love with technical gimmickry over things like flavor. Technique is all well and fine, but the food has to taste good. In The Revenant, there’s graphic violence, a bear attack, snow, ice, cold, suffering, and Leonardo DiCaprio Han Soloing on a horse. And it’s all very impressive, but the film’s relentless devotion to this realism devolves into boredom. At the two hour mark, I checked my watch and leaned over to see if my wife was asleep.  

            The film is also unrelentingly masculine in its themes. Strength and the purity of spirit and character win out. The Indian chief in search of his daughter finishes Fitzgerald off after stumbling upon Fitzgerald and Glass in the last stages of their fight to the death. The film, however, is such a slog to get to that point that it’s nearly impossible to recommend actually watching it. For all of the effort put into The Revenant to make an award winning movie, you just wish Iñárritu had tried to make a good one.