Tomorrow is Mardi Gras. For many people, it will be their last chance to celebrate and indulge before the start of Lent. Though there are annual celebrations across the country, the city that everyone think of when they hear the words “Mardi Gras” is New Orleans. If you’ve not going to be able to get down to New Orleans this year to celebrate Mardi Gras, don’t worry. Through the Shattered Lens has got you covered with these New Orleans and Mardi Gras-related pulp covers!
“Do you think fish dream?”
— Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
Happy Mardi Gras!
Since today is not only Fat Tuesday but also rapidly coming to a close, I think it’s time for me to share one final New Orleans film review. Admittedly, though this film takes place and was filmed in New Orleans, it doesn’t feature any Mardi Gras scenes. However, it does feature a lead performance that is perhaps as bizarre as anything that you’re likely to see in the French Quarter tonight. Of course, I’m talking about Werner Herzog’s 2009 film, Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans.
Whenever I mention this movie to anyone, it only takes a few minutes before they get around to saying, “What was the deal with the iguanas?” Everyone remembers the two iguanas who would randomly show up throughout the movie. At one point, they were sitting in a coffee table while Lt. Terrence McDonagh (Nicholas Cage) and Sgt. Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) were watching a house across the street. When McDonagh demanded to know why the iguanas were on his coffee table, Pruit replied, “There ain’t no iguanas.” McDonagh looked down at them and grinned. This was followed by several hand-held close-ups of the iguanas, looking around inquisitively while McDonagh kept giving them the side eye.
The iguanas show up a second time, after McDonagh has tricked one gangster into killing another gangster. “Shoot him again,” McDonagh demands, “his soul’s still dancing!” Herzog pans over to show us that, indeed, the man’s soul is still dancing next to his corpse. After the soul gets shot down, an iguana wanders across the floor.
What do the iguanas represent? Some people think that they actually are meant to be hallucinations. As the result of a back injury that he received saving a prisoner during Hurricane Katrina, McDonagh has permanent back problems and this has led to him getting hooked on drugs. The perpetually high McDonagh sees and does a lot of bizarre things over the course of this movie. Perhaps the iguanas are just a part of his addiction.
Myself, I think the iguanas represent the fact that, no matter what McDonagh and anyone else in New Orleans does over the course of the film, the randomness of nature is going win out in the end. After all, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans opens with Katrina, which is perhaps the ultimate example of how helpless modern society is in the face of nature’s whims. The film takes places in neighborhoods that have yet to recover from the flooding. Every corner of the film is full of physical, emotional, and mental debris. McDonagh pops pills and snorts cocaine in an attempt to maintain some semblance of control but ultimately, the iguanas are going to show up regardless of how much control he thinks he has. Just as how Klaus Kinski, at the end of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, couldn’t keep the monkeys off of his raft, Terrence McDonagh can’t keep the iguanas off of his coffee table.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans apparently started life as a reboot of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film, Bad Lieutenant. The script (which was credited to William M. Finkelstein) is full of moments that mirror scenes from Ferrara’s film. Once again, the protagonist is a corrupt police lieutenant who spends almost the entire film fucked up on drugs and whose only friend is a prostitute. Again, there’s a disturbing scene in which the lieutenant harasses a young woman in a parking lot. Again, the lieutenant has gambling debts and again, the lieutenant has to solve a horrifying crime.
While promoting his film, Herzog always said that 1) he had never seen Bad Lieutenant and 2) he didn’t even know who Abel Ferrara was. Judging from the way Herzog directs the film, which is the complete opposite of the approach that Ferrara took to similar material, I’m inclined to believe Herzog. Whereas Ferrara’s film was a grim and humorless plunge into the depths of Hell, Herzog takes an almost satirical approach to the story. The running joke throughout Herzog’s film is that the bad lieutenant gets results precisely because he is so thoroughly messed up and incompetent. The final part of Herzog’s film features so many sudden twists and turns that it’s hard not to conclude that Herzog is poking fun at how American crime films always have to wrap everything up within the final fifteen minutes, regardless of how messy or convoluted their plots may be. Whereas Ferrara’s film featured Harvey Keitel naked and bellowing in soul-searing pain, Herzog gives us Nicolas Cage grinning, laughing, and apparently having a ball.
This has got to be one of Nicolas Cage’s wildest performances. He yells. He bulges his eyes. He grins maniacally at the strangest moments. He interrogates a suspect while taking hits off a joint. Because his character has a bad back, Cage moves stiffly, carrying himself almost as if he were a living Golem. McDonagh may have his demons but, at the same time, he also seems to be having a blast every time we see him. Wisely, Herzog also allows the character some quieter moments. When the lieutenant talks about how he used to imagine there was pirate treasure buried in his back yard or when he and an ex-con sit in front of a gigantic fish tank, Cage gets a chance to show that there actually is something going on underneath all of McDonagh’s bluster. This not only one of Cage’s most over the top performances but also one of his best.
Herzog not only gets the best out of Cage but also the best out of New Orleans. He may not make New Orleans look beautiful but he still captures the atmosphere that has made New Orleans one of the most legendary cities in the world. Cage, Herzog, and New Orleans make for a great combination.
Today, a lot of people have traveled to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras. Here’s hoping that they have a better time in the city than Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) had in the 1969 film, Easy Rider.
The scenes below, featuring Hopper, Fonda, Karen Black, and the legendary Toni Basil were actually filmed at Mardi Gras in 1968. These were among the first scenes that Hopper (making his directorial debut) shot for the film and reportedly, filming was so chaotic that they were also nearly the last scenes to be filmed. As those who have seen Easy Rider know, Billy and Wyatt spend the entire movie trying to get to New Orleans so that they can visit a famous brothel. Once they get there, they discover that absolutely nothing lives up to the legend. The brothel is a sleazy mess. Mardi Gras is full of bad vibes. Wyatt has an amazingly bad LSD trip. (Hopper convinced Fonda to really drop acid before filming the scene, which led some harrowing footage.) After they leave New Orleans, Fonda and Hopper cross the border into Texas and promptly end up getting blown away by two rednecks in a pickup truck.
Welcome to the sixties!
In the scene below, we get actual footage of 1968’s Mardi Gras. Just watch all the celebrants who stop to stare at the camera.
And here is the infamous cemetery scene. Fonda resisted doing it and the end result is not easy to watch but it’s also one of the most powerful moments in the entire film:
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I can hear you already.
But Lisa, just because the song is called Mardi Gras that doesn’t mean that it’s about our Mardi Gras…
Okay, you got a point. But here’s my point: today is Mardi Gras. And this song is called Mardi Gras. And I like it. It’s a fun song to listen to while you’re stuck in traffic.
Besides, if you’re complaining about stuff like that today that means that you’re totally missing the point of Mardi Gras.
Ike (Glynn Turman) is a nice guy. He’s a law student living in New Orleans. When not studying, he makes money driving a taxi cab. He has a beautiful and loving wife named Christella (Joan Pringle). He has a nice but modest apartment. When we first see Ike, he is calmly and rationally breaking up a fight. Perhaps the only real complain that can be made about Ike is that he’s actually too nice. There’s nothing dangerous about Ike. He works hard. He studies. That’s about it.
When Christella and their friends tell him that he needs to take a night off from studying, Ike is reluctant. However, he finally agrees to go out with them. They start out at a strip club in the French Quarter and eventually, they end up watching a hypnotist. Ike is one of the men randomly selected to go up on stage. Amazingly, rational and mild Ike is easily hypnotized. The audience loves watching as Ike and the other men all reacts to hypnotic suggestion. What they don’t know is that, while in his trance, Ike has been … possessed!
That’s right! The ghost of J.D. Walker has entered Ike. Who is J.D. Walker? As we learn from a series of gauzy flashbacks, J.D. Walker was a gangster in the 1940s. He wore a fedora. He wore nice suits. He was every bit as flamboyant as Ike is mild. But then, one day, J.D. was killed, gunned down by his former business partner, Theotis Bliss (Fred Pinkard).
Soon, Ike starts to act … well, not like himself. Suddenly, Ike is using 1940s slang. He’s wearing 1940s clothes. He’s gambling. He mugs an old lady who gets in his cab and then abandons her on the wharf. When his wife asks him why he’s acting like a 1940s gangster, he gets violent. Soon, Ike is speaking in a different voice and dancing.
What does J.D. want? He wants revenge against not only the man who shot him but also Theotis’s younger brother, a popular preacher named Elijah (Lou Gossett, Jr.). As wild as the possessed Ike may be, he’s got nothing on Elijah. Elijah was a boxer before he became a man of God and he’s still liable to throw a punch or two during his sermons. Elijah, however, is also rather naive and has no hesitation about inviting J.D. to become a member of his congregation. Theotis, who is now Elijah’s manager, is a bit more suspicious…
An oddly paced film that never quite escapes the lengthy shadows of all of the horror films that inspired it, J.D.’s Revenge is worth seeing for the performances Glynn Thurman and Lou Gossett, Jr. Gossett is all energetic charisma in the role of the reverend, giving a performance that features just enough ambiguity that you’re never sure whether you should trust Elijah or not. Meanwhile, Thurman is very good as the mild-mannered Ike but he seems to be having an absolute blast whenever he gets to play the psychotic J.D. During the final confrontation between Ike/J.D. and the Bliss Brothers, Thurman’s performance is so bizarre and over the top that you simply cannot stop watching him.
J.D.’s Revenge was filmed in New Orleans, which add a little bit of gothic atmosphere to the film. As I write this, a lot of our readers may currently be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I wish them all well but I hope they’ll remember the lesson of J.D.’s Revenge. Just say no to hypnosis!