Monday, January 09, 2006

jezebel and katrina and, surprise, david denby

Jezebel is set in, I think, say, 1850 New Orleans. And it was made in 1938.

One of the first scenes in the movie includes a bunch of New Orleans big-wigs, bankers, lawyers, the town doctor sitting around a sort of board room table. They are discussing the economic utility of a railroad to New Orleans and the ways in which New Orleans might become cut off from the rest of the national economy.

The doc speaks up and calls the city leaders attention to a yellow fever epidemic that could return. There's some talk of draining the swamps, cleaning up the streets, the city's responsibility for public health and sanitation, and so on. No one really takes doc seriously. As the film unfolds, a second yellow fever epidemic does hit the city.

And as the film incorporates this into the narrative, there is attention to:

The responsibility of the city for public health and safety.

The relationship of the city to the nation, economically and politically, and the isolation of the city from the nation.

The restriction of mobility in the city during yellow fever epidemic; there's the shooting people who "cross the fever line," the designation of parrishes as safe or unsafe, and the isolation of communities within safe or unsafe spaces.

The sick, dying and elderly bodies as they are removed from the city and contained in an isolated space.

This is not to suggest that the moral of the story is "nothing ever changes" but rather that there are conventional ways of representing New Orleans, race, poverty and public health crises (and, to some extent, a dichotomy of urban and suburban life in the US) that we still rely on today, despite the breaks and continuities of history . . . I might use this for teaching, if I teach again soon and it's appropriate.

This wouldn't be so interesting if the yellow fever just sort of provided a backdrop for the narrative, but given the recurring attention to abject bodies, described below, it's more disturbing than just background . . . and the whole film is so damn disturbing that it really is more of an indictment of the social and political violence of the ante-bellum South than some sort of plantation nostalgia.

***

Of course I read Denby's review-bio of James Agee's collected works. I'll leave aside for now how Denby develops a really lame definition of film criticism . . . and just try touch on the poverty themes. I mean, he's writing about journalism and poverty and a kind of Christian WPA politics and aesthetics of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (objectification mixed with sensationalism and sentimentality mixed with an emphasis on proximity and distance) and there's some pretty sensationalistic images of New Orleans in the very same New Yorker. Not the exact same conventions (the abject poor are white in Evans-Agee and that changes a hell of a lot) but it's interesting when the US allows or produces very in-your-face visual representations of "national," "domestic" poverty and when such representations disappear . . . and I think in every case this tension between what is considered national or domestic and what is "foreign" is very much at stake.

I'd say we've got them now, and I remember sensationalistic stories from the late 80s and it seems like they were popular in the 1930s and the late 1800s . . .

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