I remember when I saw The Waterboy in the theater with my older sister. We laughed—at the wrong parts. That wasn’t the first time I cringed when watching a film that supposedly portrayed Louisiana. So, when Steven Soderbergh said, “I think it’s cursed,” and “I’m not superstitious, but that project has got bad mojo on it,” while referring to a film version of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (Riedel, New York Post), I wondered if we’d ever see Ignatius on film. Then, I wondered if it was simply impossible to translate most of Louisiana culture to the big screen. After all, attempts to put Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer on film haven’t been all that successful either.
Why are two seminal novels about New Orleans so difficult to film? I think the answer is as complicated as the state itself. What Toole and Percy accurately portray are the people of New Orleans, the characters who are more than parade-goers ready to throw some more plastic around their necks before riding a huge party wave down Bourbon Street. Both authors write of a unique place where the ordinary and the mysterious, the hilarious and the tragic, reside together. A web tangled so tightly that most outsiders can’t see the threads that have been knotted together for centuries. We are Cajuns and Creoles, Native Americans and Spanish, Irish and Italian, German and Vietnamese. We are white, black, and every shade in between. And our cultural ways, all that amazing food and music, stems from this in between space. Instead of addressing this wonderful diversity that has led to our fabulous and unique cultural ways, the media reduces so much of our history to repetitious myths. If you ask me, the media too often simplifies a population that refuses to follow simplistic categorization. At least, that’s my best guess.
Not that they all get it wrong. Fabulous shows like Treme and any film by Glen Pitre provide accurate depictions of the place so many of us proudly call home. What these representations get so right, along with Toole and Percy, is that they let the people speak for themselves in a state that often mixes the divine and the mundane and calls the result normal. So, next time you want a true depiction of Louisiana, I suggest you find your way to the state and experience it for yourself. And for a bit of added fun, go to New Orleans and locate Ignatius J. Reilly’s statue standing guard in front of the old D. H. Holmes department store building. Heck, eat a Lucky Dog while walking the Quarter. Along the way, listen to the folks and all their stories, which they will gladly tell in accents as authentic as red beans and rice with sausage on Monday. Listen to the music, the laughter, the tears—all the sounds that mash together to form a place that refuses to be defined and easily understood. Just the way we like it.
For more on failed attempts to film A Confederacy of Dunces and The Moviegoer, try the following links: