Neaux Reel Idea is a Vague Visages column by Bill Arceneaux, in which he explores the cinema of his native New Orleans.
In the obscure The Wacky World of Doctor Morgus — featuring the New Orleans TV movie host Morgus the Magnificent – there is a sign on the wall of the doctors laboratory that reads “Fight Mental Health.” Certainly, this explains the disposition of the character Morgus, but what of his environment? His city? In a later scene, he joins fellow denizens of the famous French Quarter for a drink and conversation at a local watering hole. Teeth protruding, lab coat menacing and his facial expression disturbing, Morgus never sticks out like a sore thumb or feels out of place. No judgments passed, no hesitations or second glances given. For him, this is home, and perhaps the only one that’ll take him as is — that’ll take anyone “as is.”
New Orleans, as often depicted in film, is seen and perceived as being a 24/7 street parade, with larger than life personalities to match. Colorful beads, court jesters and jazz bands come to a tourist’s mind. These make for nice set dressings once a year, but what of the remaining time? What happens in between the explosion of parties?
From the filmmaker who helmed Heathers, Airheads and Hudson Hawk came the New Orleans shot and set Flakes, about a rag tag group of breakfast cereal bar misfits who come into conflict with a copy cat business and their own lack of maturity. It’s not an altogether affair of a film, but what makes it an enjoyable gem is both the use of setting and commitment from the cast and crew. Zooey Deschanel played the excitable and quirky (how rare for her) Miss PussyKatz, who spends her days selling street art and instigating scenarios. In any other place in America, she’d just be the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, here to fulfill the fantasies of an insecure male. In NOLA, and in Flakes, PussyKatz is a fleshed out, take no guff woman who guides the potential of her man (and he is hers) to the fullest possibility.
Miss PussyKatz is the heart of the film, and connects it to the fantastical truth of its depiction of New Orleans itself.
Flakes, for a good number of years, was my barometer for genuineness of this city on screen. The muggy air that somehow lifts up the volume within a person’s soul, the resistance to outside change and the sheer array of people beyond the label of misfit, getting along in such a tight space. The recent Laundry Day has far replaced it.
From the filmmaker who helped make the Woody Allen obsessed Burning Annie, Randy “Armak” Mack, comes a film that goes above and beyond its own call of duty — that being to tell a story by, of and for New Orleans. Make no mistake about it, this is not a movie obtuse in its mission or smug about anything. It’s not a love letter or a postcard home. I like to think of Laundry Day as a fictional reenactment meant for would be visitors as a piece of evidence. More often than not, documentaries about the city act either as romances or deterrents. Why hassle with “reality” when you can just stage from memory and mood?
Starting with a multi person fight at a bar/laundromat, Mack presents a four way collage of events that lead up to a calamity. There’s a street entertainer, a drug dealer, a musician and a bartender, each working their way toward the establishment affectionately known as “Check’s.” Often, some will say “have a good shift” to one another. Work. Checks. Shift. Money. The hustle is real in NOLA, and it looms over everyone in palpable and inescapable ways. You’re earning, but not enough. You’re moving, but not even baby steps. Any which way but lose (not loose) is the name of the game, and to stay afloat any way you can is how you play. For my freelance bones, this rings true. When held down by such stress in a most humid location, how does one take care of oneself? How does this impact relationships? Is happiness attainable? Through the events of Laundry Day, which are as hysterical as they are thoughtful, our four under the table working class leads chit chat and walk on by with the same attitude a coworker might have. They are jovial but heavy in mind, just trying to pass the time and make their way back home, hopefully with some cash. Always with their spirit. Forever with their character.
Truth is relative here as well. At least when it comes down to exact events. When following one of the main timelines, viewers can see how the characters perceive each other’s interactions and observations, hearing and seeing things slightly or perhaps outright differently. When taking a moment to smoke a cigarette, street performer Nat hears a joke. Later, when the perspective shifts to someone else, the joke is heard again, but changed. This use of sort of alternate realities and fantasies that are held in each character’s heart represents a staggering way of expressing inner feelings and desires on a rich level. Laundry Day treats New Orleans as an identity and a dream, different for everyone within, but similar in understanding. Remarkable.
One moment in particular struck me hard. In the back of a pedicab, a drug deal is about to be made. When the wheels hit a rough patch of road, a passenger spills some of his open drink all around. Almost without noticing, he whips his head around and carries on the transaction. It’s in these moments, small as they are, that expose the eye for environment and feel of attitude that Laundry Day has. Nothing about place or time is squandered, and thus everything about those that live inside is comfortable and relatable.
The pulsating beat of this New Orleans is set to the tune of improbable situations, twisted twists and the dreams of a better kind of living. Not different, just better. Different can be in any other city. Why not make this one better? It may be just beyond reach, but why stop grasping? Laundry Day posits this near in sight optimism to become the Empire Records of NOLA made films. The drudgery of day to day living may be cyclical, but so are the bright spots — those few and far between instances where things go right, and you feel aces. Til they happen, bottoms up and smile.
Laundry Day is currently touring with the roadshow film festival CineFlix. The schedule can be found at http://www.cineflixfest.com/laundry-day/.
Bill Arceneaux is an independent film critic from New Orleans and member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association. His favorite David Lynch work? Inland Empire. And Batman v Superman continues to puzzle him. Follow him on Twitter @billreviews and visit his support page at patreon.com/billreviews