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The Reeler Blog

Strong Second Line Brings Katrina to BAM

By S.T. VanAirsdale

While it's generally more fashionable to debate the vitality (and/or the viability) of recent films about the war in Iraq, the best story going is the dynamic work that's emerged from the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Especially in the realm of short films: Spike Lee's monolithic When the Levees Broke notwithstanding, Katrina yielded a strong concentration of acclaimed fest fare like South of Ten (NYFF '06), God Provides (Sundance '07), Glory at Sea! (SXSW '08) and this year's Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca (among others) selection The Second Line, which screens Sunday night as part of Sundance at BAM.

Stacked with dread: (L-R) Dane Rhodes, Al Thompson and J.D. Williams in John Magary's short The Second Line, screening Sunday as part of Sundance at BAM

Written and directed by Columbia alumnus John Magary, Line introduces storm survivor MacArthur (Al Thompson) moments after his cash is stolen from his FEMA trailer in New Orleans. Disgruntled and not a little disenfranchised, he takes work gutting a house with his cousin Natt (J.D. Williams). Class conflict ensues; the storm's casualties mount. Magary handles proximity with uncanny aplomb, peeking into devastated souls even as his physical scope is so vast as to almost encompass the curve of Earth. His New Orleans is a world capital of filth and dread, with loathing stacked higher than scraps of old homes. Yet MacArthur's breathlessness -- both literal and metaphorical -- yields a shocking, sympathetic optimism. For better and worse, there's control in the ruins. It's the ultimate theme of virtually every Katrina-related film to date, but Magary's twist gives The Second Line its fine, maybe even unprecedented edge.

After the jump, The Reeler hears from Magary about The Second Line, adapting to his next New Orleans story and the near-death experience (really!) of traveling to Sundance.

THE REELER: There's a whole subgenre of post-Katrina cinema out there. Trouble the Water won the fest's documentary competition this year; both of you are at BAM this week. As a filmmaker, what specifically is so compelling about the aftermath?

JOHN MAGARY: There are so many stories and so many ways you can approach this disaster. My generation has seen 9/11, we've seen wars, but this was unique in a way because it could have been avoided. A lot of the disaster was man-made, and it exposed how much we haven't progressed. I think a lot of people assume we're in a post-racism age, and I kind of reject that notion. I've been thinking about this for my feature script, which is also set in New Orleans. It's not Katrina-related, but it sort of goes there -- it moves toward that.

R: How does it relate to The Second Line?

Well, the thing about a lot of the Katrina films that have come out is that they're trying to see beyond what's already been seen: These masses of people and stereotypes -- but also not avoiding those things. It's about a poor black woman with seven children. She has a problem with alcohol, she has a problem with anger, she's sloppy, she's messy. But out of that, I'm trying to shape an individual. And that's one of the consensus notes; you meet with six advisers in four days, and you eventually come to something like consensus. And the next thing I need to do is shape an individual's life. Which is a daunting task, because I'm a young white guy. But at least now I feel strengthened as far as what to do next and how I can move on. I feel like the things that have recurred in my short films and what I've written are absence and holding on to the people in your life. I come back to families a lot; I come back to families a lot. But this is a whole new milieu for me, and the lab has been such a good experience.

R: How did you prepare yourself for sharing The Second Line on this kind of stage?

JM: I do not enjoy watching my film in a theater with other people. Maybe if it were a comedy I would. There are questions that I tried to formulate in my head and tried to answer them without stumbling too much. I imagined that they just took you from the labs by helicopter and dropped you into Park City from 50 feet: "Welcome to the real world!" It's not all about constant support. But I also just got out of five years of film school, so I'm used to lots of notes.

R: And after last year's amazing Columbia showing at Sundance, you and your girlfriend Myna Joseph [writer/director of Man] had the school's only two festival projects this year. How did that reality unfold for you two?

JM: The day we both found out we got in was a very, very good day. It was a big relief, because she found out first. I'm saying, "That's great, Myna!" And then I walk into the corner and look at my shoes. [Laughs] We want each other to do really well, and so our biggest fear -- and this is kind of inevitable -- is that one of us is going to move forward a little more quickly. Or maybe it's not "inevitable," but we're not Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden; we're not working on the same project, so we also know there will come a time when we're both making features and we won't see each other for a while. That's scary, but it's something that you have to embrace in a way. Anyway, it's so exciting to both be there and share it.

R: I heard your plane was struck by lightning on the way to the labs in January?

JM: Oh, Jesus. Yeah. I am quite afraid of flying, but I do it because I have to. We took off from JFK -- in what I thought was questionable weather -- and flew right into an electrical storm. There was this "pop" -- like a large light bulb popping. Then we went into what I would consider a nose dive, and then we were able to right ourselves. So there was the lightning, and then there was horrible, horrible turbulence. And of course the way my mind works is like: "Well, you've got all these promising filmmakers on this plane. A lot of them are from Columbia; a lot of them know each other. This plane is going down." What an amazing story. It's like We Are Marshall!

Posted at May 31, 2008 9:50 AM

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