There are many large-format movie screens spread across the city’s too-plentiful AMC multiplexes that profess to be “IMAX” theaters. It isn’t until you visit the city’s only true IMAX screen at the Aquarium that you realize how blatant of a lie those faux-MAX screens are by comparison. I was most recently confronted with that contextual reminder myself at a New Orleans Film Fest screening of the gross-out romantic body horror Are We Not Cats?. Watching the full hideous majesty of that film’s trichophagia & self-surgery on a skyscraper-scale movie screen was a memorably horrific experience, one that makes me wonder why that cinematic resource isn’t put to better use more often. Instead of regularly projecting similar artsy-fartsy monstrosities like The Neon Demon, Climax, or We Are the Flesh on the city’s biggest movie screen, it’s a resource that’s wasted on bullshit nature documentaries produced by tech nerds like Greg MacGillivray. Having developed three new cameras specifically designed to optimize the IMAX format himself, MacGillivray is seemingly more personally passionate about technical accomplishments than cinematic poetry. His movies boast titles like Dolphins, Coral Reef Adventure, Arabia 3D, and Greece: Secrets of the Past. They’re more concerned with format than they are with content, using the IMAX tech he helped develop more as an amusement park attraction than a theatrical tool. To me, the biggest offense in this waste of local theatrical space is that our one IMAX screen is regularly used to relive the horrors of Hurricane Katrina for visiting tourists, as if that event were just another Coral Reef Adventure, ripe for entertainment. It’s also an offense that directly concerns our current Movie of the Month.
When Glen Pitre directed Belizaire the Cajun in the mid-80s, he seemed poised to graduate from making low-budget, Cajun-French “gumbo Westerns” for local markets to directing much bigger indie affairs for legitimate festival distribution. Belizaire the Cajun’s presence at high-profile festivals like Sundance & Cannes offered a much wider platform for Pitre’s Cajun-fried indie movies, and you can find pictures of the former Cut Off resident rubbing elbows with the likes of Spike Lee & Jim Jarmusch while working that circuit. Those bigger productions never materialized, though. After a couple ignored thrillers & made-for-TV productions, Pitre retreated from the narrative feature format and sought to preserve & promote Cajun culture in a different way: by making documentaries. Pitre has dedicated the last few decades of his career to documentaries on local Nature & local culture, with a special focus on the dangers of wetlands erosion. That’s how Pitre found himself in collaboration with California tech nerd Greg MacGillivray. With funding from The Weather Channel to produce a program on Climate Change and funding from The Audubon Institute to educate tourists on the dangers of wetlands erosion, Pitre wrote and co-directed a 40-minute documentary for MacGillivray titled Hurricane on the Bayou. If the documentary short were made at any other time in Louisiana history, it would have been forgotten by now – no more worthy of discussion or easy to access than any of Pitre’s other nondescript local docs. Unfortunately, it began filming three months before the coast was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, so it’s been playing in constant rotation in the city’s only legitimate IMAX screen for almost fifteen years now. Hurricane on the Bayou is, for worse or for much worse, the most easily accessible Glen Pitre film in terms of both theatrical and home video distribution.
Hurricane on the Bayou was originally conceived as a hypothetical “what if” scenario, warning gravely of the damage a high-category hurricane might cause without a healthy wetlands barrier protecting the coast. From what I can gather from the “Making Of” featurette produced by The Weather Channel, the film was already in post-production when Katrina hit. What had previously been filmed for IMAX theater distribution was a tidy educational film in which a baby-faced, Disney Channel-ready Amana Shaw took the audience on a tour of our actively disappearing wetlands inbetween narrating a fictional familial drama played out by real-life alligators and staging awkward fais do-do jam sessions with fellow local musicians Tab Benoit & Alan Toussaint (R.I.P.). Besides its large-format Nature footage, the other major showcase of IMAX tech lied in its Rescue 911-level dramatic reenactments of a 1950s Hurricane disaster, complete with CGI simulations of what a modern storm might look like – which is what I assume drew MacGillivray to the project in the first place. After Katrina hit, the tasteful thing to do would’ve been to abandon the project entirely and eat the loss. Instead, the crew retuned from Los Angeles to fight past local blockades and sneak their way back into the city to shoot large-format misery porn. Where MacGillivray’s projects would usually capture the majesty of swimming dolphins or some other screensaver bullshit, he instead hauled expensive, ginormous cameras around a flooded New Orleans to capture a city in emotional turmoil (including a now emotionally devastated Amanda Shaw). He then slapped a few paragraphs of narration from Meryl Strep on top to afford that exploitation an air of prestige. It’s gross. The project never should have been completed, much less have been allowed to play on continuous loop for fifteen years so that drunken tourists have a place to escape the sun for an hour of passive, air-conditioned entertainment.
I don’t think any less of Pitre for participating in this NOLAsploitation documentary. Watching the ”Making Of” featurette, it’s clear his heart was in the right place. Pitre gets incredibly choked up recounting the hell of filming in post-Katrina floodwaters, describing the roadside corpses & decimated cityscape as if he had navigated a warzone. The stated purpose of the documentary was to promote “good stewardship of our habitat” in the context of preserving wetlands (this was before Katrina floods were recontextualized as a man-made infrastructure disaster, another reason why this film should disappear forever), but Pitre is much more truthful about its actual effect. He explains that “people need to see it” on the biggest screen possible, since Katrina’s full impact isn’t truly felt on small-screen TV news reports. The way that documented misery clashes with the cutesy Amanda Shaw tour of the city & CGI disaster porn filmed before Katrina doesn’t sit right with me at all, but I at least empathize with his motivations to see the project through. Still, catching a glimpse of Pitre sporting a Belizaire the Cajun promotional t-shirt while guiding his Los Angeles collaborators through the swamp makes me incredibly sad. Why isn’t that the kind of movie being screened at the city’s only IMAX theater, along with other underserved local productions like Dirty Rice or Cane River? At the very least, this far out from Katrina we should have a more updated, nuanced documentary on the wetlands erosion topic screening in that format. Or, better yet, MacGillivray could supply us with a localized version of his Coral Reef Adventure frivolities – maybe one where gators & turtles swim around in swamp water for 40 minutes to zydeco music (which is exactly how Hurricane on the Bayou begins). After recently seeing A Real Movie in that impressive venue, it’s just such a shame to know that this miserable, exploitative dreck is what’s eating up its screentime – almost exclusively to the benefit of tourists. It also being the only readily available Glen Pitre film, as opposed to something like Belizaire the Cajun, is only the bitterest of lagniappe.
For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the 1986 historical drama Belizaire the Cajun, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its modernized counterpoint, Dirty Rice (1997).