From the very first moments of When the Levees Broke, I was struck by the contrasting imagery shown in its introduction. The introduction to this film in the place of our class serves to transition us from from the fictional apocalypse of The Day After Tomorrow to a documentary about true devastation in When the Levees Broke. Beth, in her careful planning of the course, decided to have us watch these two movies back-to-back in class while slowly working through Joseph Roach’s chapter “Echoes In The Bone,” so as students we should be asking ourselves why this juxtaposition is important.
I want to focus on the introductions to these two movies, analyzing how the types of footage and styles of cinematics compare between and within the two movies, the importance they have inside their respective movies, and how this relates to Roach and our class.
The Day After Tomorrow has a quite simplistic introduction up to the first scene where characters are introduced (where I assume the ‘introduction’ ends). Fading from black, the title sequence begins with the movie’s title and various production credits over a slow pan of an arctic landscape. A continuous shot flows over arctic waters with patches of broken ice, covers chunks of polar ice cap, and slowly stabilizes over a massive stretch of ice to show an awesome mountain range, the sun on the horizon, and a settled camp that seems insignificant in comparison. Going into the movie with knowledge of the disasters to come, this style of cinematic shows the audience how immense the environment can be and how small humans are in the midst of mother nature, but does this in a clean and innocent way.
To the tune of Louis Armstrong’s “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” When The Levees Broke opens by jumping between various types of videos, each type representing a specific time or theme associated with New Orleans. As opposed to going through every single shot I want to highlight a few of these types of footage and imagery that recurs, then describe their themes and messages.
Black and white footage shows an earlier New Orleans in better days, with trolleys driving down the road, the bustle of everyday foot-traffic, and even a jazz band in a garage. An outlier of this peaceful footage is a clip of what seems to be a test flood on a model house. Water almost comically flows with the camera’s steady slow pan, nearly reaching the roof of the house and the top branches of the front yard’s tree; the massive flooding seems almost harmless, with the house and tree hardly reacting to the turbulent water. This could represent the glorified resilience that New Orleanians felt they would have against Hurricane Katrina, as many interviewed people expressed their initial beliefs that they could have ridden out Katrina as they had rode out Hurricane Betsy in the past. I think specifically of one person who recalled the water only going up to their front porch’s steps during Betsy, leading them to believe they could ride out Katrina as well.
Handheld or found footage during Hurricane Katrina show the destructive power of the hurricane firsthand. Whether showing intense winds pulling at trees, or water just shy of topping a street sign, these scenes show the true power that Katrina carried across New Orleans and remind the audience that there were people behind these cameras experiencing such vicious conditions.
Footage walking through Katrina’s aftermath shows larger than life damage to houses and the situations that people might come home to find and have to deal with. This walking perspective emulates the audience walking through these scenes themselves, which adds to the surreal experience. Cameras walk past a house found on top of a car, through a path of debris that used to be houses, and by hundreds of people gathered on a sidewalk. Such cinematics remind us of the people directly affected by Hurricane Katrina and what they are left with in its wake, but it especially urges us to not let these people become supernumeraries along with the waste of their houses. Forgetting the human victims could allow them to become supernumerary – a group of excess who are dehumanized and cast aside, expendable and allowed to be forgotten in the aftermath of their trauma.
There are various clips of parades and bands from different time periods, seen in black and white, early color and recent footage types – there are large floats, people dancing both with and without coordination, and marching bands all shown working their way down streets. Two clips show suited men with their hands against their chest somberly dancing in unison, almost just slowly walking down a street, while another shot shows a highly coordinated group of women jovially dance down a street. These may have originally been clips taken from Mardi Gras celebrations or a funeral procession, but when placed in the context of this documentary they function as dirges and second lines, respectively, for the damage and lives lost to Hurricane Katrina. The music and dancing show the audience that New Orleans’ cultural traditions are self-sustaining, and the culture is resilient to Hurricane Katrina despite the lack of aid given to survivors and the lack of effort placed in rebuilding the city.
While the introduction to The Day After Tomorrow focuses on the serenity of nature’s size in a fluid and calm cinematic, When The Levees Broke introduces the audience to the violence that nature is capable of and the human level of damage that can result from it. When The Levees Broke sets up the audience for a bleak reality with lots of stark imagery of New Orleans’ landscape and culture before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina.
Utimately, while the introduction to The Day After Tomorrow does not set up much for an audience or have a greatly unique importance to this class, the introduction of When The Levees Broke serves as an important transition into thinking about and respecting the realities of a natural disaster. Sparked by our most recent Roach reading, last class we began talking about supernumeraries, dirges and second lines, all of which are discussed in the movie and present in its introduction. I am familiar with these topics as they were prominent in a class I had with Beth before, and they are very useful vehicles for discussing New Orleans and natural disasters, and will likely spawn much content in future blog posts. Moving forward in the class I am sure these ideas will recur and be important in Beth’s mysterious lesson plan. These topics that we recently discussed were all covered in the introduction to When The Levees Broke, whether you had realized it or not on your first viewing. Beth has reiterated that we already know everything Roach discusses, we just have to slow it down and think about it, and analyzing the documentary’s introduction further shows how Roach’s words ring true in a wider realm than we had first perceived. Moving forward in the class, it is important that we continue thinking about Roach even after finishing the reading.