Photo by Adele Leonard

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Screen Shot: New Orleans

I’m sitting in a dark movie theater in Los Angeles, face lit by The Campaign (that’s last year’s Will Ferrell and Zach Galafianakis political farce). I’d seen the trailer, which featured a baby getting punched and debate trash talk that leaned heavily toward the scatalogical. I was not expecting an emotional experience.

A few scenes into the movie, though, I feel a full-body rush. “Go back, wait, pause, I want to see that,” my mind begged. The creators of The Campaign had no such arousal in mind, I can only assume, when they had a pot-bellied Zach Galafianakis stride across a Main Street USA town square in a Cosby sweater and a prissy grin. My quickened pulse was due to a choice made for strictly practical purposes. They chose to shoot their movie in New Orleans, my former home. That’s what had grabbed my attention—the “Wait, is that . . . ?” calculation.

My brain and heart dug deep and fast to solve the puzzle and delivered their answer in an instant. The building labeled Hammond City Hall on screen was the old courthouse in Gretna, a neighborhood on New Orleans’s west bank of the Mississippi River. There were the archways at the base, holding up the four long columns, and then that triangle on top. I remember discovering it on a weekend, part of long sunny day when I took my bike on the ferry across the river. The courthouse appeared as a welcome surprise, stately and proud compared to the neighborhood around it. From the point of that onscreen recognition and the flood of memory attached, The Campaign was no longer about slapstick humor for me. Much as I’d wanted a night free of thought, I was now in emotional territory.

I moved away from New Orleans to Los Angeles a few years ago. The city certainly hasn’t been lonely, though. In the meantime film and television production has migrated in the opposite direction. Thanks to the state of Louisiana’s lucrative (and some have said corrupt) tax credits, countless cable specials, made-for-TV movies, straight-to-DVD releases and, yes, Big Hollywood pictures now set up shop for weeks or months on my former home turf. It’s a big enough trend that budding screenwriters might think themselves savvy to drum up scripts centered on voodoo queens or Mardi Gras heists.

But there seems no need to bother. So many of the TV and movie projects now shot in New Orleans have no use for the city’s particular aesthetic, history, or culture. By erasing any hallmarks of place, a broader range of stories can be set in the city. There’s more money to be made by masking New Orleans’s identity than showcasing it.

I feel some pang of offense at this. I have hard-won specific knowledge of New Orleans, so it’s painful to see it undercover as a generic backdrop. Of course it’s hardly the first place to be used this way. My current home of Los Angeles has had its identity erased for mass audiences since the film industry began. The feeling I’m having watching the old courthouse in Gretna play mythical Hammond City Hall in The Campaign is the same feeling Los Angelenos have had for decades, watching their home play Rome or Africa or New York, or get blown up time and time again for the delight of action movie audiences worldwide.

It’s a feeling filmmaker and scholar Thom Andersen explores in his 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself. It’s a labor of love, a three-hour attempt to dissect the relationship between the actual, physical Los Angeles and the roles it has played onscreen. Composed entirely of voiceover and movie clips from every era of filmmaking, Los Angeles Plays Itself has never been commercially released; the copyrights would be far too expensive.  Andersen acknowledges his hurt feelings about the way his city gets used in the opening narration: “This is the city Los Angeles, California. They make movies here. I live here. Sometimes I think that gives me the right to criticize the way movies depict my city. I know it’s not easy. The city’s big. The image is small.”

The reversal of those roles is exactly the fear, I think. Movies feel big. They travel around the country, around the globe, and earn billions of dollars in profit. Who remembers the city’s contribution once the movie posters are printed, the film has had its run, and the DVDs sit in bargain bins at big-box retail stores? What does the city get once the camera has had its way with her and left her behind? Tax revenue, jobs! That’s what the economists and politicians would answer.

Yet I’m thinking more of pride, glory, honor, history. “You’re too good for this, baby,” I want whisper to New Orleans as I take her delicate elbow in my arm and steer her away from the film set. When I see one of her wrought-iron balconies blurred in the background of a satirical stump speech, I try to resign myself, like Andersen does, to the fact that my gripe is moot. “Of course I know movies aren’t about places, they’re about stories. If we notice the location, we’re not really watching the movie.”

After all it is me who’s failing to do my job, not the movie. I am neglecting to watch the way I’m supposed to. Though how can I ignore the fact that the camera is sweeping in on the main dining room of Commander’s Palace, that grand dame New Orleans restaurant? There are the unmistakable birds on the periwinkle wallpaper, and my eye even catches the real feathers that stick out from the wall, the taxidermy specimens. What could the film’s characters possibly be saying that would be of more interest to me than figuring out what’s on their plates? Is that the pecan-crusted Gulf fish? A filet mignon topped with lump crab?

Like an old lover you see unexpectedly walking down the street, I recognize New Orleans immediately, and everything in the foreground dissipates.  The rise of a pillar like a familiar neck. The silhouette of a rooftop like the slope of beloved shoulders.

When Will Ferrell stands at a podium for a scene of a candidates’ luncheon, I recall a real one. It was in this space, a hotel conference room, where a handful of men and women making a run for mayor of New Orleans gave speeches in 2006. Back then, in person, I also stared at the half oval of tawny carved wood above each set of French doors.

It’s not only my personal history I feel I’m defending. When the movies come to town, their imprint can overshadow the deeper history of a place. Los Angeles is a city many people visit assuming there is no past that matters except the movies. One reason fictional narratives so easily layer on top of the place is that the general public doesn’t know or care what else happens here. Visitors ride around in open-air buses to snap pictures of sites where movies were shot. A precious gem of public space like Los Angeles’s Griffith Park observatory becomes not a place to view heavenly bodies but a photo op with a “real” star—a bronze bust of James Dean installed conveniently with the Hollywood sign in the background.

It concerns me that New Orleans would add this strata of meaning. Take the brick arch facing the Gretna courthouse. It didn’t get a fake sign for the movie; it still says Jefferson Memorial on the screen. Without knowing the exact location, you can’t see that it’s a gate, of sorts, to the banks of the Mississippi River. It serves a memorial to the veterans of Jefferson Parish. There’s also a brown state history sign at the foot of the arch, telling you that an old iron works there cast the first gun for the Confederate navy. A conflicted history, to be sure. I imagine a new sign hung just below or next to this one, noting that the major motion picture The Campaign was filmed here. Perhaps a scene from the movie will be cast in bronze. I doubt the film will make the annals of cinema, that the next generation will have any idea that The Campaign existed. Then again, maybe they won’t know much about the Civil War either.

To be fair, the film industry can play a role in history and preservation. In Los Angeles, one of the city’s finest architectural prizes, the Bradbury Building, was restored in part because of its long history in film. Its intricate iron and wood interior played in several noir films of the 1950s and later in Chinatown and much of Bladerunner. New Orleans landmarks have benefited from work in film, as well. As the city continues to restore itself after Hurricane Katrina, the revenue from location work has helped theater owners, schools, homes, and churches beat a path toward restoration.

I doubt that seeing New Orleans go undercover for a movie bothers current residents as much as it does me. Because I’m away, my pride in the city is easily wounded. I’m still in a mindset that New Orleans is threatened, that it needs protection, that its beauty and history cannot and should not be ignored. Locals, hopefully, don’t walk around in a constant state of buzzed consciousness over every sweeping side porch or perfectly proportioned window pane. They’re moving along with their lives, their stories, their own fictions set against the backdrop of the city. When my feathers get ruffled over how New Orleans is represented on film, it is indeed desire at the heart of it. It’s a longing for my own story, the one that unfolded in that red-framed doorway, lunched at that corner table, strolled across that particular square, and met my very best friend on that very same street.