A few years back, James Frey caused a fracas by marketing his book A Million Little Pieces as a memoir. After Oprah selected this tale of a recovering addict for her book club in 2006, The Smoking Gun revealed that many of its details were fabricated. Random House, the publisher, was so mortified that it offered refunds to customers who felt Frey had deceived them. It seemed that a discernible line had been drawn between truth and fiction.
Fast-forward to 2013, and we're back where we started with movies like Tchoupitoulas. Don't get me wrong: Mixing facts and inventions isn't necessarily wrong. For the most part, truth isn't absolute, and memory is an imperfect tool for reconstructing the past. And lots of great fiction is inspired by real-life events. But we tread into murky territory when a documentary recorded over the course of nine months claims to unfold in a single night.
Tchoupitoulas is actually a lovely film. Filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross follow three young brothers -- William, Bryan and Kentrell -- on a nighttime journey through New Orleans' French Quarter. The sights they capture are mesmerizing. A parade, complete with floats and a booming brass band, appears out of nowhere. A clown holding a cocktail in one hand and a rubber chicken in the other dances in the street. We hear slow, syrupy blues and upbeat Dixieland jazz, and a tour guide proclaiming that Andrew Jackson is Michael Jackson's great-great-great-grandaddy. Entrancing carnival music begins and ends the story. It's fitting, for this tale seems like a dream. But somehow, it feels very real as well. Therein lies the problem.
This sense of authenticity stems, in part, from the Rosses' impressionistic shots. They capture the wonder that comes with experiencing something for the first time. Instead of imposing a narrative on the scenes they've collected, the filmmakers let sounds wash in and out. Just when the formlessness starts to become overwhelming, William says something almost profound.
"The angel flute, it had a perfect harmony," he muses, recalling how a young woman dressed in wings and a halo gave him an impromptu flute lesson on the curb.
The filmmakers amp up the magic by suggesting that the boys have missed the last ferry back to their town across the river. They're stranded in a wild city until the sun comes up. They feel an exhilarating rush of freedom, knowing that their parents are looking for them. But in reality, parents were consulted. The film was recorded on several different days. And some lines seem memorized. The sights and sounds will fill you with awe, but it's too bad part of the story was faked. With so much real magic to behold, why go with the fabricated variety?
Tchoupitoulas, 4070 Vilas Hall, Friday, April 5, 7 pm