BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Gambit is New Orleans' alternative weekly paper. Because of an online forum set up by the Association of Alternative News Weeklies based in Washington, D.C., we were able to track down The Gambit's Arts and Entertainment Editor, David Lee Simmons. He evacuated from New Orleans to Lafayette, where it seems he found shelter at the home of another city's independent weekly editor. As a culture critic and a citizen of New Orleans he's had ample opportunity to consider the cinematic depictions of the city he loves. Ultimately those images may be the dominant artifacts of a vanished city because, though it may be rebuilt, historic New Orleans is most likely gone forever. David Lee Simmons joins me now from Lafayette. David, welcome to OTM.
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's take off some of the most famous movies set in New Orleans. Elia Kazan's 1950 film "Panic in the Streets" features Jack Palance as a killer with pneumonic plague, no less, hiding out in the city
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: "Panic in the Streets" captures New Orleans about as realistically as any of the movies made or made about or set in New Orleans. It does a very good job of capturing kind of the "lower life" that exists in New Orleans, the hoods, criminals, people who are sort of scraping to get by. And Palance's character is very indicative of that. In fact, there's a rat metaphor that is used in the film to kind of describe him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, then let's talk about the film that follows "Panic in the Streets" which is also by Elia Kazan, "A Streetcar Named Desire"
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: Mmm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: from the Tennessee Williams play, which is famous for Brando's impassioned "Stella!" and Vivian Leigh's professed reliance on "the kindness of strangers."
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So is this quintessentially a New Orleans film?
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: I think it's a quintessentially New Orleans film in its poetry. [FILM CLIP]
BLANCHE: So late. Don't you love these long, rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn't just an hour but a little piece of eternity dropped in our hands? And who knows what to do with it? [END OF FILM CLIP]
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: This is sort of an apartment dwelling of lost souls, which I think you see recurring again and again in films about New Orleans. It's funny. I I often [LAUGHS] tell my friends while a lot of people come to New Orleans to find themselves, I think many more come to New Orleans to lose themselves. It's just sort of this odd place of refuge where nobody bothers you. You really can sort of make yourself anew. So Blanche's desire to make a new life in New Orleans, obviously she made a really bad choice. [LAUGHS] But, you know, this is her place to sort of start a new life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Blanche made some bad choices
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: because the place is so wide open. Do you think that's why bordellos are such a frequent New Orleans movie trope? I guess it has its historical roots. I'm thinking of a couple of films. There's "Walk on the Wild Side"
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: Sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: which is a 1962 film...
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: Mmm hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: starring among others Jane Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck as a lesbian brothel owner.
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did that film have any resonance for you?
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: Well, I think the main character, played by Lawrence Harvey, is a visitor to the city and he's obviously trying to kind of find his own way. I think any movie where a stranger comes to New Orleans and often [LAUGHS] they don't realize what they get themselves into it's this film noir-ish land where nothing is as it seems it always resonates with me because I came to New Orleans not necessarily knowing what to expect but certainly having my own assumptions. And then they just completely changed. It sort of defies all of the expectations and the cliches.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so I wonder how those themes fit into Louis Malle's 1978 film "Pretty Baby," a disturbing story of a 12 year old prostitute played by Brooke Shields? [FILM CLIP]
MAN: Why are you glad it's me?
VIOLET: Well, you look nice and you have a nice chest. [MUSIC] I can feel the steam inside me right through my dress. [END OF CLIP]
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: So, I mean, you're looking at a film that's probably one of the few to really provide a sense of the Storyville district of New Orleans in the early 1900s where they tried to essentially regulate illicit behavior, and most notably prostitution. And you see an outsider, a photographer inspired by the real life photographer E.J. Bellocq, who is so enthralled and in love with the city that it manifests itself, it becomes eroticized in his falling in love with an underage prostitute played by Brooke Shields. [LAUGHS] It's a disturbing film in that sense but it does definitely challenge your sense of morality. And I think anybody who's lived in New Orleans for a period of time certainly starts to think about morality [LAUGHS] one way or another.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I know what your favorite New Orleans film is, and we'll get to that soon enough, but first I wonder if you'll talk about some of those New Orleans movies that you love to hate so much that in the end maybe you kind of like them?
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: [LAUGHS] There's such a string of New Orleans movies that are underrated or that initially seem bad but they always have something in them that's really worth noting. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of them is "King Creole," starring The King, Elvis Presley. [SONG: "KING CREOLE"]
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: It was Elvis' favorite film, by far. He had a great director in Michael Curtiz, who had done "Casablanca." It's about this troubled kid named Danny Fisher who lives in the Quarter with his very emasculated father, played by Dean Jagger, and his sister. He's literally just trying to get out of high school and he just keeps getting into trouble. And sure enough, as often happens in an Elvis movie, he sees music as a way out of the Quarter. This story kind of envisions him as a prisoner of the French Quarter, you know, as somebody who's sort of trapped by illicit behavior, by crime, by gangsters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You take a film like "Angel Heart," which starred Lisa Bonet fresh off the "Cosby Show," or "Cat People" or "Interview with a Vampire" and you get the drift. There's something not quite right about the Big Easy.
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: Well, you're definitely not going to see a Preston Sturges film [LAUGHTER] in New Orleans. Although there was a movie I think it was called "New Orleans" that started Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday that was just nothing but a celebration of New Orleans music, which I
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm hmm.
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: I highly recommend. But, yeah, you keep coming back to words like "death" and "decay" and "lost souls" and "decadence" and "morality." Morality plays a really big part in most of the films that are set there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now let's talk about your favorite film, and I gather many people's favorite New Orleans film, and this is Jim Jarmusch's 1986 "Down by Law." [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] It's not exactly a talky film. [LAUGHS]
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: No.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's begin with the opening image. We'll play the music and you give us a sense of what's going on. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: If I had a dollar for every time I ran into somebody at a neighborhood bar in New Orleans who sounded and acted or sung like Tom Waits
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: I would be a millionaire. He he sounds like a New Orleans Skid Row bum. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] But it's such a gritty, lazy, off handed intro, but the visual that you see while this music is playing is of facades of New Orleans' shotgun houses or little black kids playing in empty lots. You see beautiful houses. You see ugly houses. I mean, right away he sets the tone for how pretty and ugly everything can be in New Orleans, I think.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What makes "Down by Law" a great New Orleans movie?
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: There's something I, I've always thought of New Orleans as a cool city, and I think the word "cool" is a very hard word to define. And I think that Jim Jarmusch is about as cool a director as you'll meet. And I'm glad you mentioned how wordless it is. One of my favorite scenes, frankly, when they escaped this revival and Roberto Benigni falls in love with the woman who takes them in, they play "It's Raining," by Irma Thomas. [MUSIC: "IT'S RAINING"] She's the soul queen of New Orleans who thankfully was found alive a couple of days ago. And it's just an amazing, there's nothing else but the start to finish playing of "It's Raining." What movie would do that, would just let a song play out with two people lazily dancing in the morning in their underwear? It's just that's New Orleans to me. [CHUCKLES] ["IT'S RAINING, UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Lee, thank you very much.
DAVID LEE SIMMONS: Thank you very much. I appreciate your inviting me on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Lee Simmons is the Arts and Entertainment Editor for The Gambit, New Orleans' alternative weekly paper. The editors and writers from that paper are coordinating their whereabouts through the Association of Alternative News Weeklies website, aan.org. Up next, telenovelas break ratings records, "Guiding Light" breaks broadcast records, and the Guinness Book of World Records breaks records' records.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from NPR.