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Is the Plight of New Orleans Still Timely Enough for Americans to Bother About?

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Well, I certainly think so. And sadly, it's not that hard to prove. Check out this release from the Associated Press, issued just last month: " In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in New Orleans, the hurricane survivors accused the makers of using inferior materials in a profit-driven rush to build... temporary homes. The lawsuit asserts that thousands of Louisiana residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina...were exposed to dangerous levels of formaldehyde by living in the government-issued trailers and mobile homes."

As serious as this sounds, I know it's not the only issue or screw-up I've read about on this subject over the past months. It seems increasingly clear that all those initial bureaucratic snafus didn't end with the public outcry over the fumbled aftermath of Katrina, and that FEMA -- and those overseeing it -- have still not got their collective acts together. Surprise, surprise.

Just two years after the catastrophe, the images of people abandoned by an incompetent federal government haunt and shame us still. And though we can't claim there's been no progress since; as indicated above, our overall report card is sub-par.

Even if we're not all down there building houses ourselves, my wife and I are still U.S. citizens who pay our taxes. In the richest nation on earth, like so many others I'm outraged by the ongoing ineptitude, if not outright corruption, that has characterized our Katrina response. And if there's one place I want our tax dollars to go (beyond controlling the barbaric slaughter in Darfur), it's to a project far away from that mess we've created in Iraq, right in our own backyard: to re-build the magic city of New Orleans, and relieve the ongoing privation of its inhabitants.

Now, if I haven't visited down there, how can I be so passionate at such a distance? Therein lies the power of film -- and in this case, documentary film. We should all salute the immensely talented Spike Lee for shooting a "four-part requiem" called When The Levees Broke, produced by and originally aired on HBO. About four hours in length and available on DVD, you can view Levees all at once, or in installments. Regardless, it's a film that demands to be seen. Here's more on it from my website:

When The Levees Broke (2006) - Once Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans, Lee began making this ambitious and definitive account of the tragedy and its aftermath, focusing on the egregious failures of government officials who were agonizingly slow to respond to the catastrophe. Told in the words of those who lived through the calamity, this four part film offers an unflinching look at the ravaging of Crescent City by this monster storm, and the shocking indifference that caused impoverished, mostly African-American residents of the Ninth Ward to suffer the greatest indignities. Lee covers in detail the storm itself, the pivotal surge over the levees and resultant flood, the looting, the citizens' mass flight to the Superdome, the interminable waiting for help from FEMA, and finally, the efforts underway to rebuild this historic city. It's very much an emotional portrait, not a dry recitation of facts, and so "Levees" features punchy interviews with survivors, local politicians, and celebrities like Sean Penn, Harry Belafonte, Wynton Marsalis, and others with a deep connection to New Orleans. Containing imagery both monstrous and lyrical, and imbued with a characteristically bluesy vibe, Levees is a wake-up call to our bloated, rudderless nation, but also a film to contemplate, both for its justifiable outrage and its profound sense of lament.

I was lucky enough to visit New Orleans twice pre-Katrina, and each time absorbed its architecture, food, music and ambiance like a parched man on his first drink. Though New Orleans will inevitably come back, it will never be quite the same -- that's part of the sadness we all feel. So it seems fitting that we not only secure the future of New Orleans, but also honor its colorful past.

Here then are five stellar film selections, all set in the New Orleans that was.

Jezebel (1938) - Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) is a vain, willful belle engaged to banker Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda) in New Orleans, circa 1852. Needy and manipulative, Julie soon drives Pres away. He later returns with a wife, which foils Julie's plans for a reconciliation. After finding new ways to cause mischief among the menfolk, Julie seizes one last chance to redeem herself when an epidemic hits the city. Reportedly, "Jezebel" was viewed as Davis' consolation prize for not landing the part of Scarlett O'Hara. Inevitably compared to Gone With the Wind (released a year later), this lavish melodrama stands on its own, thanks to William Wyler's expert direction, and his camera's loving attention to Warners' then-biggest female star (Wyler and Davis were also romantically linked off the set. ) Davis, who nabbed her second best actress Oscar for this, is superb, while Fonda is suitably restrained as Pres. Be sure not to miss that famous scene at the ball.

Panic In The Streets (1949) - Early Elia Kazan suspense centers around an increasingly desperate search for two criminals on the lam in New Orleans (played by Jack Palance and Zero Mostel), who, unbeknownst to them, have been infested with Bubonic plague. If health inspector Dr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark) and police captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) don't nab their quarry fast, this killer plague will spread and put the whole country at risk. This breathlessly exciting film, shot on location, remains one of the best manhunt pictures ever, with the plague twist adding an extra jolt of tension. Kazan's peerless semi-documentary shooting never obscures the terrific acting from the four central characters, comprising both hunters and hunted. As the mismatched, infected prey, Palance is magnetic in his sheer physicality, and a young Mostel fearless in his own way, portraying a pathetic coward. Here's a tight, pounding little thriller, with pronounced noir undertones.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) - Frayed Southern belle Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) arrives in a seedy quarter of New Orleans, where she plans to stay with pregnant sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and coarse, hulking brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Right from the start, Blanche and Stanley are at odds, as he sees through her high-mannered facade to the neurotic, vulnerable woman beneath. Tensions escalate, as Stanley sets out to confront Blanche about money and her unseemly past. Under Elia Kazan's direction (again), Brando's force-of-nature performance -- an electrifying mix of brute physicality and smoldering sexuality -- made Stanley's infamous bellow ("Hey, Stellllaaaaa!!!") a permanent part of pop culture, and Brando, a household name. But the undeniable strength of this film, adapted from the smash Broadway play by Tennessee Williams, is driven as much by its vivid dialogue and ensemble acting. Leigh herself won an Oscar, as did supporting players Hunter and Karl Malden (the cocky young Brando lost out to old Hollywood's Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen). An atmospheric jazz score from Alex North (also nominated) subtly enhances the tense, combustible interplay. Over 55 years since its release, this Streetcar still offers an incredible ride.

Down By Law (1986) - Former radio DJ Zack (Tom Waits), arrested for driving a stolen car with a dead body in the trunk, meets Jack (John Lurie), a surly street pimp set up by an enemy competitor, in a Louisiana prison cell. Together with cheery Italian tourist and fellow cellmate Roberto (Roberto Benigni), whose broken English comes from a pocket phrasebook, the men argue, grow bored, and finally escape, only to find themselves lost in treacherous swampland. Populated with three of the quirkiest characters ever thrown together, Jim Jarmusch's stellar film is a hilariously deadpan portrayal of hipster cool on the skids. Actor/singer Waits fits his character Zack like the proverbial glove, a struggling record spinner with a gravelly voice like Wolfman Jack's, and long-faced New York musician Lurie is excellent too as the caustic Jack. Irrepressible Italian comic Benigni steals virtually every scene he's in (mostly in the movie's second half), but all three maintain a punchy rapport throughout. Look for Ellen Barkin in her first screen role as Zack's fed-up girlfriend. By turns witty and melancholic, Down By Law is tailor-made for off-kilter tastes.

Dead Man Walking (1995) - When Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), a Catholic nun and anti-death penalty activist, receives a letter from Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), soon to be executed for the rape and murder of two teenage girls in Louisiana, she decides to visit him. Though Matthew is far from sympathetic, Sister Helen agrees to be his spiritual advisor and advocate, and lobbies for a new hearing on Matthew's sentence. Brilliantly adapted from Sister Prejean's non-fiction book by actor/director Tim Robbins, Dead Man Walking delivers an intense, harrowing account of one woman's dogged attempt to assure spiritual (if not earthly) redemption for a condemned killer. Penn is ideally cast as the convict, but Sarandon's stripped-down performance as his spiritual guide reflects truly courageous, gut-wrenching work, fully meriting that year's Oscar. Unavoidably downbeat, Dead Man Walking is also very real, shedding light into spaces we could easily ignore, but shouldn't.

Speaking of which...as we Americans -- and our political representatives -- confront the challenge of raising up New Orleans again, we must resist that very same instinct -- first, to behold something unpleasant and seemingly unsolvable, and then, simply look away.