By Jim Ridley
on Tue, Oct 21, 2008 at 12:10 PM
Consider this a Paul Revere message getting the word out about a movie you shouldn't miss. It's a documentary playing for the next few days at the Belcourt called The Order of Myths—one of those extraordinary docs, like The King of Kong or Hands on a Hardbody, where the scope, detail and characters make contemporary fiction filmmaking seem pale and wan by comparison. It may be one of the best films ever made about the paradoxes and complexities of the postwar South.
The director, Margaret Brown, chronicles the weeks leading up to the 2007 Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Ala.—a tradition that predates Mardi Gras in New Orleans, dating back more than 300 years. But the city's festivities are cleaved in two, straight down racial lines. There's a black coronation ball and parade and a white coronation ball and parade, and questions about integrating the parties are generally dismissed by the city's landed gentry with the classic segregationist dodge: "They like it that way."
Do they? The beauty of Brown's film is that the answer isn't a clear-cut yes or no. The city may be frozen in a kind of pre-civil-rights limbo, but the traditions unique to each festival are cultural treasures: is it possible to bring them together without sacrificing their character? The movie follows the royal court on both sides as they make the first tentative steps across the color line in three centuries—a social event that, in the immutable terms of Mobile society, takes on the significance of a moonwalk.
Brown, a Mobile native, watches the rituals leading up to Mardi Gras (dress fittings, float negotiations, ceremonial luncheons) with amused curiosity but without judgment or condescension. (That's her own kin onscreen, we learn late in the film, and she accords all her subjects the same clear-eyed courtesy.) If racism is an unspoken fact, at a sweeping social level, so is a mutual respect and goodwill between individuals. However separate the races remain as a group, they interact one-to-one in the Mardi Gras economy—whether a black crew chief is renting a white crew's float, or a black dressmaker is putting the finishing touches on the white queen's horizon-long train.
Mostly, though, The Order of Myths is hugely entertaining: sharply detailed, laugh-out-loud funny, possessed of a cast of characters Brown was smart enough to realize she couldn't make up. There is no more surefire recipe for a movie than viewing the world through the fixations of a narrow subculture or prism; most every street scene, crowd shot or place setting brought back my own Southern childhood in a flash. In the post-film Q&A she did the other night at the Belcourt, Brown suggested her surrogate might be the Mobile debutante and self-professed liberal we see in the movie—who reluctantly takes her place in the white celebration, only to get caught up in the tide of tradition.
The good news is that after audiences begged Brown to do another Q&A session—Sunday's crowd contained a lot of Mobile ex-pats, all of whom (in classic Nashville style) seemed to know her daddy—the Belcourt has scheduled a full-fledged post-film talk with the director 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 22. Lucius Outlaw, Vanderbilt associate provost and philosophy professor, will moderate. Just don't ask Brown, who directed the excellent Townes Van Zandt doc Be Here to Love Me, about the top-secret project that has her doing research these days in Nashville.