Pitched somewhere between a documentary and a fever dream, Bill and Turner Ross’ Tchoupitoulas is one of those rare cinematic experiences: a true original. Pushing the boundaries of what qualifies as a documentary while still staying true to the purest form of fly-on-the-wall cinema verite, the film is a wholly unique experience. It’s a loveletter to New Orleans so intoxicating that you’ll not only wish you were there by the time the credits roll, but you’ll hope the Rosses decide to offer a similar treatment to other great American cities. At once an abstract art piece and childish flight of whimsy, it’s a movie that begs to be soaked up and adored by any film lover even if it won’t exactly be flooding into multiplexes anytime soon.
The subject of the film couldn’t be simpler: Bill and Turner simply follow three young boys (William, Bryan, and Kentrell) through the exotic nightlife of New Orleans. William takes up pseudo-protagonist duties simply because he’s the chatterbox of the group with a tendency to slide into philosophical monologues. He fantasizes about being the first person who earn a star on the Hollywood walk of fame for flying or wearing a Super Bowl ring on every finger while commenting on how this night will turn them from boys to men (thankfully he’s not referring to the band despite his youthful love of pop culture). That night in question is a seemingly structureless stroll through the bright lights and eccentric characters of New Orleans. The co-directors keep close to the boys when they can and capture the city with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, through which every glimpse of a burlesque dancer or whiff of alcohol can feel like a magical entry point to the adult world.
Bill and Turner use the boys and their adventures as an entry point and structural linking device, but frequently spiral off to spend time in one of the places or with one of the people that the Zanders’ meet. There are scenes of strippers having a backstage sing along over cheeseburgers, oyster hustlers who turn hawking street food into a theatrical event, drag queens cavorting with clients at the end of a long night, energetic fire-twirlers, a flutist painted up as an angel, and countless other fascinating fringe figures. Though presented as a film captured over a single evening, the Roses actually spent nine months working on the film. Every 2 or 3 minute diversion could have come from a night following a single person and as a result the footage the filmmakers capture boasts a level of personal intimacy that could never have been achieved at a moment’s notice. Some might whine about outdated documentary ethics that suggest the co-directors are lying to the audience by compressing a compilation of footage into a single evening, but Tchoupitoulas is so unlike any other movie that it’s hard to judge it by normal documentary standards. What they sought to capture was the feeling of being swept up in that environment and what they got is too strong to unfold in real time.
The Rosses shot the film handheld, but through the dreamy swooping images, poetically of-kilter camera angles, and abstract explosions of color of a Terrence Malick movie. Tchoupitoulas may have been shot on the fly, but the film is as beautiful as any you’ll see this year and in an odd way functions as a companion piece to the Oscar nominated Beasts Of The Southern Wild. Both feels seek to present the surreal New Orleans landscape through the beautiful perspective of an imaginative child and what Benh Zeitlin did through fairy tale fantasy Bill and Turner Ross do through documentary. Possibly the most remarkable scene in the film comes towards the end when the three boys and filmmakers climb sneak into an abandoned Riverboat Casio to marvel and the crumbling decay of the massive rooms and dangling-by-a-thread chandeliers. The sequence feels magically authentic with the boys mix of elation and fear dominating the mood until they all tighten up thinking that they hear footsteps. It’s the type of moment that you should have to have been there and lived through to understand. Yet through an extraordinary mix of candid observation and choreographed filmmaking Bill and Turner translate that experience perfectly to the screen. That’s true of the film as a whole as much as the isolated sequence and it a movie to soak up and experience as much as it is something to watch.