Considering I haven’t posted anything here in a month, and the last post was about Christmas, I am overdue.
If we’re Instagram or Facebook buddies, you know that I am excited about Mardi Gras, or Carnival, season.
Mardi Gras is great for several reasons. Reasons that will now be listed in no order:
1. It makes our area unique.
Granted there are a lot of things that make our area of the country unique, but Mardi Gras is definitely one of them. I also should clear the air here and say that I live in Mobile, Alabama, not New Orleans. Our two cities are “Sister Cities”, having been founded by the same French brothers and both were once the capital of French Louisiana. This will be the 311th anniversary of Mardi Gras in Mobile. The United States is only 238 years old, roughly. And while a lot of people here have a bad attitude of, “We started it, but New Orleans gets all the credit/hype/etc.!!!” I say, “Mardi Gras isn’t a competition!”
Seriously, who cares? New Orleans and Mobile have both been celebrating Mardi Gras for hundreds of years, they are both awesome, so just relax and have fun.
That said, I have a hard time taking Mardi Gras seriously if it isn’t from Gulf Coast Louisiana or Mobile. For instance, I used to volunteer at the Carnival Museum here and someone from Saint Louis excitedly told me, “We have the 2nd biggest Mardi Gras in the United States behind New Orleans!” To which I gave a reflexive, “Pffft!”
In my defense, I felt bad about it later.
The truth is that New Orleans is TEN TIMES the size of Mobile, so of course it’s bigger and more diverse and, generally, more of everything.
And really, Mardi Gras started with Carnival in places like Venice, Italy, so the point is moot about who started what.
I think a lot of Mobilians have a similar feeling like when you tell a friend a joke when it’s just the two of you, but then your friend tells the same joke to a crowd and gets lots of laughs. There’s too much bitterness and not enough revelry.
2. It’s something to look forward to after Christmas
This is a big one. I know a lot of people feel kind of weird when Christmas is over because there aren’t any holidays until Memorial Day or something, but here we get out of work and school for Lundi Gras (Fat Monday) and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). A lot of people leave their Christmas trees up and then decorate them with Mardi Gras junk. We don’t, but a lot of people do. In areas like around here, with a high Catholic population, I’m sure there is something to do to celebrate before Lent starts. A way to get it all out of your system before it’s time to fast.
3. It brings the whole city together
This is more true in New Orleans than here, to be honest. Here, we still have a lot of typical Alabama people, who are probably fundamentalists, who hate Mardi Gras. Still, there’s nothing like drinking with a bunch of people with whom you have nothing in common but the desire to have fun and celebrate Mardi Gras. Last year I bought a round of mint juleps for a band of hobos that were playing music outside my favorite bar.
Mardi Gras, contrary to popular belief, is not about flashing boobs or drunk college kids. It’s about family and friends and being together. Sure, that’s not what it’s about to a lot of people, but I can’t help but feel like it’s a lot more than just those things.
I always remember the times when my mom would dress us up in crazy costumes and take us downtown to catch the Fat Tuesday parades (and catch candy).
I’ll also never forget being in Disney World and seeing a parade and being really disappointed that they didn’t throw anything. I was like, “This is it?!?!?!!” Being a kid, parades meant fun, chaos, and catching stuff, so I had just assumed that, this being Disney World and all, that I would catch some primo loot.
Every year, I’m excited about Mardi Gras, and in the days from January 6th (Twelfth Night, the official beginning of Carnival) to whenever the parades and revelry really start, I am in full-on Mardi Gras mode. Listening to my Mardi Gras playlist everywhere I go, hanging my Mardi Gras flag out on the front of my house, eating King Cake, and generally getting “geared up” for the holiday and festivities.
Just like at Christmas, I want to watch movies and tv shows about Mardi Gras. The problem is that there aren’t a lot of things like that.
In my hunt for things to watch, I have googled “Movies About Mardi Gras” about a zillion times, and every time it seems like there aren’t any good lists out there, or the lists contain movies that I’ve seen about a million times. So I have compiled my top 5 favorite movies to watch to get pumped about Mardi Gras. Granted, some of these are kind of downers, exposing the sides of Mardi Gras that most people would rather not think about, but I like them.
Unlike most of the time, I am going to put them in order, from 5th being “A Must-Watch, but not as imperative as the others”, to number 1 being, “If I don’t watch this at least once, it’s not Mardi Gras”.
Here we go….
#5. Mardi Gras: Made in China (2005)
This is a documentary about globalization, and about how the beads we enjoy at Mardi Gras are made in sweatshops. Not a cheery, partytime, thought, I know, but this documentary really shines a light on what the “true cost” of American excess is.
The problem, I feel, is that this documentary demonizes Mardi Gras, when the exact same film could be made about almost anything we all use on a day-to-day basis. No doubt that is part of the point, but if this had been made about Air Jordans or smartphones, I can’t help but think it might not be as popular. I don’t know if it’s a thing anymore, but I remember hearing about people being shot for their sneakers back in the day.
I am assuming the filmmaker chose Mardi Gras beads because they are a symbol of ““the apex of American bacchanalian excess” (LA Times).
#4 Abbott & Costello Go to Mars (1953)
This one was on a lot of the Mardi Gras Movie lists online that I found, but I had never seen it. From reading those lists, I knew it was a movie that I had to see.
The plot is like a lot of Abbott and Costello movies: they bumble their way to success as Lou Costello goofs everything up and Bud Abbott straight-mans their way out of trouble.
Through some typical cartoon-worthy way, A&C inadvertently steal a rocketship that is, presumably, on its way to Mars. Instead of Mars, they land in the bayou outside New Orleans… during Mardi Gras. The city is in Mardi Gras mode, and the revelers are so weird to A&C that they think they are on Mars. Eventually, they realize they aren’t on Mars and they get back in the rocketship, along with two escaped convicts, and travel to Venus.
That’s really all the plot summary you need, because for our purposes here, it’s the Mardi Gras scenes we’re after.
What makes the scenes in this movie so valuable is that it depicts a Mardi Gras that has since vanished. For me, one of the most interesting parts is the revelers’ use of confetti.
Why? Confetti has been banned from Mardi Gras for years. I asked my uncle why it was banned and he said that everyone used to run around and throw confetti in the air all the time. Sometimes in people’s faces.
Also, the drains downtown run straight into the bay, so the city has gotten more stringent about litter downtown, though an interesting documentary could probably be made about the effects of tons of beads running into the bay.
In “Abbott & Costello Go to Mars”, everyone is constantly throwing confetti in the air. And everyone is dressed up with giant papier mache heads on, which is the main reason A&C think they are on Mars.
Here is a close-up shot of Costello (Orville in the film) talking to a “Martian”:
You also get some shots of some old-school Mardi Gras floats. I wish there were more shots like these, I would love to see a Mardi Gras parade from 1953:
I’m sure this was some wild stuff to audiences back in 1953. This was probably before a lot of people had televisions. I love seeing old footage and photos of Mardi Gras pre-television because the crowds are so dense. I’ve talked with older people who were around back then and they all say, “You didn’t miss a parade, back then.” I blame television.
#3. By Invitation Only (2006)
This short documentary is about New Orleans Mardi Gras Societies. To be more specific than that, it’s about the really old Mardi Gras Societies.
And, to be even more specific than that, it’s about how these really old (think 1800’s) Societies still exist and may be racist.
In 1991, the City of New Orleans passed an ordinance saying that Carnival clubs cannot discriminate against anyone based on “race, color, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, age, physical condition or disability”.
A nice gesture that may, or may not, have made any difference. The only thing that I know happened for sure is that the Mistick Krewe of Comus, the oldest Mardi Gras Society in New Orleans, quit parading.
But rather than discuss social issues here on the blog, I’ll just tell you the facts about what this movie is about:
A young lady, who is the daughter of a person who is involved in some of the old Carnival traditions, brings her boyfriend home for Mardi Gras. He is black, and therefore she is not chosen to be Queen of Carnival, something we are led to believe was her birthright. Instead, she must sit on the sidelines and watch another girl become Queen.
The King of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is Rex (Felix here in Mobile), and even though Carnival was originally about crowning a peasant as King (Lord of Misrule), it is apparent in this documentary that the families that the Kings, Queens, and Courts of Mardi Gras come out of, truly are the Kings and Queens of New Orleans Society and, probably, hold equivalent power in that city.
Anyway, I know it’s a downer, but over the years, both in New Orleans and Mobile and anywhere else that celebrates Mardi Gras, it’s the people who have really made Mardi Gras their own that make it fun. Not the bluebloods who only let 1% of the population participate in their little (boring) parties. You can order a copy of the dvd, and watch a preview, here.
#2. The Order of Myths (2008)
Yes! Finally, a documentary about Mardi Gras in Mobile!
Oh damn. It is also about how we’re all horrible racists.
Much like “By Invitation Only”, one of Mobile’s native blueblood daughters returns to her hometown to shine a light on the racism that is inherent in the old-line Carnival traditions.
I ranked this one higher because it is longer and does a better job at focusing on how complicated the issue is.
I know a few of the people highlighted in this film, and they are kind of pissed at Margaret Brown, the filmmaker, because they feel they were duped into thinking she was making, basically, a travelogue about Mobile Mardi Gras. Instead, they are all portrayed as racists at best, and KKK members at worst.
Still, the camera doesn’t lie and these old pre-Civil War traditions do not die easily.
Like in “By Invitation Only”, it is emphasized that it is less about race, and more about family and social and economic class. And in the end, we’re talking about private clubs here, so they can do what they want, no matter how boring the old-line Carnival stuff is.
I also ranked this one a bit higher because it shows some of the fun of Mardi Gras. It’s not all a downer, as you can take what you want from the film and from Mardi Gras. In the end, it’s a free show, a street party, and an excuse to celebrate with your friends and family.
To quote one of the main characters in the film, “You know, uh, there’s a good spirit. It developed into a fun time. I mean, ah, you can make something bad out of anything. I mean, the spirit of Mardi Gras is Fun.”
#1 All On a Mardi Gras Day (2008)
This is, to me, the best Mardi Gras movie because it’s the most fun! Sure, there are some bummer moments, like when they talk about how Claiborne Street is now the home of the I-10 overpass, but for the most part, this short documentary is very positive.
It also shows how the black community in New Orleans, excluded from participating in events like those shown in “By Invitation Only”, took Mardi Gras and made it their own.
There’s something very punk about that, and I feel like it’s something I can identify with, even though I’m on the outside here, just as much as I am with the King Rex and Felix Society types.
You also get to see a side of Mardi Gras that a lot of people don’t get to see. A side that is so far removed from “Boobs on Bourbon” that it may as well be a completely different holiday.
Here in Mobile, there are very few Mardi Gras Indians, and there are no “Skull and Bone” groups or “Baby Doll” groups. The few Mardi Gras Indians that do exist here, I have never even seen in person.
You can order this film from amazon here.
So those are my top five movies to watch for Mardi Gras. I know some of them are not that fun, and downright depressing, but I’ve always felt there was a sad side to the revelry. It’s Folly chasing Death because we would rather not think about the depressing sides to life.
In this case, Death has just as much room on the float as Folly.