I fell in love with the movies in 1975. I was at UCLA at the time, and Los Angeles offered more movie-going opportunities than a New Orleans boy had ever known. The best was the Nuart on Santa Monica Boulevard. An old neighborhood single-screen, the Nuart may have invented the repertory house that became popular in the 1970s across the country and would eventually include our own Prytania. For a single buck you could see two foreign or classic American movies, with titles changing every night. A month-long program let you plan ahead.
I saw more than 200 movies in 1975 and continued that pace for many years afterwards, racking up titles at the Venice Repertory while still in L.A., at the excellent campus Bijou while in graduate school at Iowa and at the Prytania and elsewhere after I returned to New Orleans to teach at UNO in 1979. Late in 1980 I started writing this column for Gambit Weekly, and for 20 years thereafter, as this weekly's sole critic, I averaged nearly 250 films per year. Counting films on DVD and video, my pace has slackened to only about 150 movies a year in the new millennium. But that's still approximately three a week.
And then Katrina.
I scored an airplane ticket, fled to North Carolina just ahead of the storm and glued myself to a TV for the next half week as the national news media botched the story in every way imaginable; commentators from major networks declared, "New Orleans has dodged a bullet." Dodged it only in that it missed our heart, I suppose. Still ignorant that the drowning of our city was already underway, I emailed Gambit Weekly Arts & Entertainment Editor David Lee Simmons late on Monday evening, Aug. 29, to inquire about my assignment for the week. He had wanted me to review Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm, but the film hadn't opened at the one cinema in Sanford, N.C., where I had taken refuge.
What should I do instead? Was my deadline still on Thursday, or could I push it to Friday? David Lee never got the email, of course, for he was in refuge, too. And Gambit offices were already filling with water.
Eventually, I got a new assignment and new deadline, eight weeks later. But by then, a lot had changed for everybody who worked and wrote for Gambit, as well as for everybody who reads it.
During the eight weeks I was most severely Katrina-ed, like so many other New Orleanians, I was a vagabond. I bought a used car (both mine and my wife's were lost to the flood), stayed for a while with friends in Nashville and then in four different locations in Baton Rouge, where I worked with my colleagues to revive a fall semester at UNO and begin the university's ongoing rebuilding process. But during that long, uncomfortable and relentlessly wearying two months, I did not go to a movie. Weekdays, I was involved with UNO work. On weekends, bluffing my way past National Guardsmen, I worked on my house, pumping out a basement that brimmed with 8 feet of water, emptying my home of furnishings and carpet and tearing out the studs to my ground floor that stood for two weeks in 4 feet of brine and sludge, binding up refrigerators and dragging ruined appliances to the street. At night, soaking joints aching from work they hadn't performed in years in glasses of Scotch that weren't really their friend, I watched news programs. Movies ran on other channels. I could have purchased a DVD player for under $40 and rented movies I had been eager to see only a few short weeks earlier.
Historians tell us that Americans sought refuge by the millions from the horrors of the Great Depression. But in my own great depression, I didn't seek the sanctuary that has been my three-decade passion. Instead, I cut amber liquid with hotel-corridor ice and sipped it from a coffee cup while watching new programs that still got things wrong as often as right. And I wondered if it weren't conceivably possible that I had suffered a horrible nightmare from which I couldn't seem to wake.
The nightmare continues, of course, as any drive across the city displays. I am back in New Orleans, but not yet back in my home. Eight weeks ago, Clancy and Margo DuBos brought Gambit back into publication. Preparing my first column back, a review of North Country, I sat in the dark at the Clearview Palace, which had just reopened. The lights dimmed. The trailers began to run. And I found myself crying, understanding for the first time what those Depression-era moviegoers so fervently craved and that movies are uniquely able to deliver: the blessing of transport to other times and places. Some movies are good, others not so, but they are all blessings. And if Katrina has nothing else to teach, it is that we should count our blessings, of which all of us who survived have more than we sometimes realize.
- Reviewing North Country (starring Charlize Theron) gave our senior film critic a chance to rediscover how movies can transport us to other times and places.