Land of dreams

Apr 21, 1999 at 12:00 am

The "city that care forgot" is known as the birthplace of jazz, hometown of Louis Armstrong, center of a thriving carnival tradition, and source of savory Creole and Cajun cuisines. The locality in question is, of course, the grand city of New Orleans, a place that seduces with the promise of a surfeit of sensual pleasures.

For hardcore residents such as Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain, there are few places on earth that get in your blood like New Orleans, and if you should be so foolish as to entertain thoughts of living elsewhere, there’s a "little devil on your shoulder" that "makes you bite your tongue."

Unfortunately, we can’t all live there, nor can we all get away for a much longed for but always too brief visit. Sometimes the best we can do is get a vicarious New Orleans fix through one of the numerous films that are set there.

The sex emporiums of Bourbon Street provide much of the setting for Tightrope (1984), a noirish psychological thriller starring Clint Eastwood as flawed cop Wes Block. Wes is in pursuit of a serial murderer who has been killing women "linked to unusual or aberrant sexual activity" – in fact, the type of woman Wes himself prefers. That is, until he meets feminist rape counselor Beryl Thibodeaux, played with strength and intelligence by Genevieve Bujold. When this emotionally armored cop and courageously straightforward woman size each other up and risk real intimacy, the honesty and intensity of their encounters are riveting.

Wes and Beryl ultimately forge a relationship based on equality and respect, but Blanche Dubois is not so fortunate when she takes A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) to the Vieux Carré – i.e. the French Quarter. There she ends up in a hothouse of sex and violence that is the dingy apartment of her sister Stella and Stella’s crass, crude brute of a husband, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando).

Blanche, a tender soul under siege, is perhaps playwright Tennessee Williams’ greatest creation, and Vivien Leigh is devastating as she gives the definitive performance of this fading Southern belle desperately in need of emotional shelter.

Another type of hothouse atmosphere prevails in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978), featuring a pubescent Brooke Shields as a prostitute’s daughter who comes of age in a whorehouse in the fabled Storyville red-light district circa 1917. Highlights here include the auctioning off of Shields’ virginity and her subsequent marriage to a photographer more than twice her age. Think of this as an extended, genteel peep show filmed by Sven Nykvist, one of the world’s great cinematographers.

In the visually magnificent Easy Rider (1969), the quintessential ’60s road movie, freewheeling hippies Wyatt, aka Capt. America (Peter Fonda), and Billy (Dennis Hopper) take off cross-country on their motorcycles, planning to arrive in New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. En route, they encounter Jack Nicholson – a down-on-his-luck lawyer – stay at a rural commune and experience a hatred of hippies that small-town America can barely contain.

Once in New Orleans, Billy and Wyatt hook up with two whores and drop acid, tripping out in St. Louis Cemetery #1 off Rampart Street. Sunlight, rain, death, religion, birth and sex intermingle throughout this psychedelic sequence, and Wyatt ends up weeping in the ample lap of a marble statue that graces an imposing Italian tomb.

The 700 to 900 blocks of Royal Street in the French Quarter, Oak Alley Plantation and Lafayette Cemetery provide the setting for Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1994). Watch the homoerotic sparks fly among the manic, jaded vampire Lestat (Tom Cruise), his reluctant protégé Louis (Brad Pitt) and old-world sophisticate Armand (Antonio Banderas) in this baroque tale of seductive, powerful, nocturnal creatures who are flesh and blood, yet not human.

After a couple centuries of companionship, Louis understandably begins to tire of Lestat, which leads the latter bloodsucker to create a "child" for his buddy, transferring the dark gift of vampirism to a young girl named Claudia (Kirsten Dunst). In a notably demonic performance, the most supernatural element of this overwrought film is the way 12-year-old Dunst dominates the scenes she shares with megastars Brad and Tom.

Something about New Orleans seems to stimulate an uncanny element of the imagination, and for another descent to the creepy underside of the psyche, see Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987). Small-time private eye Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) hires on with the mysterious Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro), a man who does not like outstanding accounts, and begins to search for one Johnny Favorite. The investigation takes Angel to New Orleans’ smoky blues joints, dark alleyways and bayou voodoo rituals, ultimately leading to the terrifying realization that Favorite is closer to Angel than he ever dared realize.

If your desire for the Crescent City still has not been sated, try Cat People (1982), Down by Law (1986),The Big Easy (1987), Tune in Tomorrow (1990) or The Pelican Brief (1993). It’s said that New Orleans is always a victorious seductress, so you may just have to watch them all.