Monday, October 20, 2008

Movie Review: The Order of Myths

Margaret Brown intended to make a narrative fiction film in her native Mobile, Alabama, and set it in Mardi Gras season; when the time came to get down to business she discovered that the local dramas more than outweighed her own imagination and so it become a documentary. The Order of Myths takes its name from a specific Mardi Gras parade and yet it's even more fitting for the film, a thoughtful examination of the racial and economic segregation of the players and legends of Mobile's Carnival - the oldest such celebration in the US - and how traditions are used both as means and reason for the ongoing separation of the classes.

Mobile has two Mardi Gras celebrations; one for the descendants of its European settlers, one for descendants of African slaves. Order introduces us to the King and Queen of both courts, a handful of other players who make the civic aspects of Carnival happen as planned, and a few from the sidelines with helpful knowledge of Mobile history. Brown's own mother was a Mardi Gras Queen and her grandfather a respected Mobile elder, circumstances which gave her access to places no others have ever been allowed to film, and people who might not otherwise talk to a NY film school graduate.

The majority of the court speak openly of their highly mixed feelings on the segregated nature of the event and its people: the white court, a bastion of wealth, power and privilege, knows it's antiquaited but sees little reason to mess with what works; the black court would like to mix it up a bit more, but they also want the comfort of tradition. Having been to one of the few renowned Carnival cities, it's hard to blame them; there is a civic aspect to Mardi Gras that's never communicated by Richard Simmons' bead-throwing TV appearances and The Order of Myths does a terrific job of demonstrating Mobile's pride in its people and the other side of the coin, the downer aspect - so much of that pride falls on one specific group to the exclusion of others.

The most disturbing moments arrive through the players on the sidelines. A thread of self-inferiotic thought evidenced in some of the statements of the African descendants: the little girl who states the white Mardi Gras is probably better; the black formal train designer whose esteem for praise delivered by her white counterpart seems a tad unhealthy; on the other end an ingratiating train designer declaring to a former, now aged (white) Mardi Gras deb, "there is only one Mardi Gras Queen."

What makes The Order of Myths such a great watch (in addition to the very well-shot HD-to-35mm print) is that Margaret Brown shows all this without condemning anyone and without manipulating the viewers into doing it for her (many of at the showing I attended found a good deal of humor). These are her own roots she's examining and trying to reconcile herself to. She's also trying to get a conversation started. Happens easier when no one's yelling.

Directed by Margaret Brown - 97 minutes. Expect audio from an interview in a few days.

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