“City of a Million Dreams” Plays as a Historian’s Seminar and as a Lover’s Romance
Informative and as cheery as can be, even in the darkest of moments.
(Author’s note: The first public post for June, over twenty-something days in? Silly, I know. Lots happened privately, and lots to still complete. Not to worry - there’s plenty to write about!
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I’m ashamed to say that I was so invested in City of a Million Dreams that, by its ending, I was shocked at the passing of the central figure of the documentary, Deborah “Big Red” Cotton. The local blogger’s words, leaping off of her pages and brought to life through voice-over narration (by Andrea Queeley), were so resonant and very much in and of the moment, that I had become lost in them and in the accompanying film. The mass shooting at the 2013 Mother’s Day Parade, her subsequent surgeries, and, painfully, her untimely death was given new light here, which forced me to not just remember, but to re-contextualize.
Deborah Cotton, Dr. Michael White, and director Jason Berry form a trio of eyes and souls for the visual document that is City of a Million Dreams. What began as a retread of information that native New Orleanians already knew - the basics of 2nd Line Parading, the look and feel of the songs and dances, etc - became a cauldron of cinematic and cultural seasonings, boiling to a heightened temperature that everyone can appreciate and learn from. It’s all oh so good, and oh so surprising, just how Berry and krewe turned a book (and really books) into a film of grand history, tragedy, survival, and life.
The trio, or Holy Trinity as they could and should be called, of Cotton/White/Berry, tell the tale of birth, life, passing, and re-birth. Not a tale, but the tale. Beyond the parades and the funerals, beyond the music and the moves, there’s meaning, and it’s that meaning that is defined in this movie. Cotton/White/Berry represent words, music, and look, respectively, playing into one another and off one another in a rhythm of its own. City of a Million Dreams couldn’t be made without either or any of the three.
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Two heartbreaking occurrences put me directly in the line of sight, both involving musician and keeper of local musical history Dr. Michael White. Firstly, after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, around when Deb Cotton poignantly points out that there was talk of abandoning the city altogether by government officials (thankfully that didn’t happen, at least not as it was suggested), Dr. White visits his ruined home, in complete disrepair. He tenderly but sadly puts on a protective mask - something that rings differently nowadays - as he walks through what was once his. Collections of culture, from rare music and movies to photographs and past lives. It’s terribly torturous to watch him not just list the destroyed items but to imagine his being so crushed by seeing it all like that.
Of course, though, this is New Orleans, as we are reminded. And in City of a Million Dreams, it’s made clear that in this city, we make light of our dark times. Dr. White, after witnessing such destruction and depression, goes to a musician’s retreat to conduct and produce new scores and sounds, as ideas came to him in “not a flow, but a flood.” Using such wordplay, dear readers, is just… so wonderful.
Through reenactments, through archival footage and photos, through interviews and music, through dance and tears, Cotton/White/Berry make City of a Million Dreams such a definitive delight. For this New Orleanian (if Northshore-based), who thought he knew much about the heartbeat, discovered that there’s more to this body than basic biology. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,” as it were. While it does work as a heavy tourism brochure from time to time, City of a Million Dreams plays with our own understanding of culture, of history, and of who we are, now and always.
Deb Cotton knew that there would always be something new to report about New Orleans, even and especially in each and every parade, no matter the similarities between them all. She kept the story going, twisting and turning it too. When she essentially forgave her shooter and wished the best, she defined “when they go low, we go high” well before it had even been said. What a way to see the world. What a way to dream.
What a way to live. 3.5/5