Director Shainee Gabel’s “A Love Song for Bobby Long” is not just a movie set in New Orleans; it is a movie about New Orleans. The city transcends its expected role as mere scenery to truly become a character-an entity that interacts with the cast and alters both their actions and their destinies. The film begins with the death of Lorraine Will, a promising New Orleans
singer/songwriter who finally loses her long, ugly battle with drugs and alcohol. Lorraine had a daughter, Percaline, whom she was unable to care for.
Percaline grew up in Florida with her grandmother, who told her little about Lorraine except that she was a singer, a junkie and quite possibly a prostitute to sustain her habit. Percaline is consumed by feelings of bitterness and rejection from the mother who always promised to send for her, but could never stay clean long enough to fulfill that promise. Despite these emotions, upon Lorraine’s death, Percaline returns to New Orleans and her mother’s house. Percaline finds the dilapidated shack has been willed to herself, her mother’s friend Bobby Long and his friend Lawson. Bobby is a quickly deteriorating ex-English professor who would rather examine literature than his life. He is endowed with raging alcoholism, a brilliant mind and a bitter past. Lawson is Bobby’s former teaching assistant and best friend, also an alcoholic and inextricably linked to Bobby’s tragic past. Lawson is also a self-deprecating writer whose nine-year project has been to write the biography of Bobby Long.
Lawson provides voiceover narration throughout the film, and in one of the opening scenes he states that, “New Orleans is a siren of a city. A place of fables and illusion. A place where Lorraine had to escape from and Bobby and I had to escape to-away from Alabama, away from lives that no longer belonged to us.” There is a common conception that New Orleans is a haven for misfits, a place where even people destroyed by life can find and make a home. And the film certainly reinforces this idea. After all, Bobby and Lawson chose New Orleans specifically to run from a shared and hurtful past. However, the film also pushes constantly on the duality of the city as both a place of beauty and a place of decay. In this film, New Orleans simultaneously serves as Bobby’s refuge and Lorraine’s prison. Yet for both Bobby and Lorraine the city does serve one constant role-it is a place of limbo, a sort of indeterminate stagnation. It is a place where one need not worry about forward progress or facing one’s problems. In this way, a second major conception of New Orleans is explored-the issue of time. As portrayed through this film and popular discourse, time does not affect New Orleans as it does other cities. There is instead an emphasis on the leisurely and the unhurried, potentially to the point of utter stagnation.
This film repeatedly calls upon and utilizes both of these commonly held beliefs. Firstly, it expresses the idea that New Orleans possesses two coexisting but conflicting sides: the beautiful and the decayed. It is expressed through the scenery, the juxtaposition of camera shots and the characters themselves. The very first shot is a tight frame on Bobby Long (John Travolta) sitting in a dark, rundown bar drinking hard alcohol in the early morning. His clothes and physique are unkempt. Even his toe is ravaged by a black fungus. Everything about the shot suggests slow, lonely decay. But then he steps out into the light, and the camera changes to a wide shot. All of sudden, the viewer is exposed to vibrant colors and expansive scenery. The sky is beautiful and wide; the grass is lush. This technique is used many times throughout the movie. One scene will show the dank interior of a house, or a cold, sterile hospital room followed immediately by the stunning beauty of New Orleans in bloom or the quiet splendor of a brilliant sunset. By placing these scenes one after the other, there is an implicit connection drawn between all that is beautiful in New Orleans and all that is undesirable, as if there is no way to separate the two entities. As Lawson describes it, “New Orleans is a siren of a city.” As with the sirens, this city has an almost inescapable, undeniable appeal, but lurking beneath is something intangibly stagnant and destructive and even potentially dangerous.
This parallel charm and corrosion is seen again when the camera follows Bobby winding through different parts of New Orleans. First, he passes his own neighborhood where it’s only rows of rundown ramblers. The brick is crumbling and cracked, and the paint is peeling. Then the camera cuts to an obviously wealthier neighborhood where large, white two-story houses are the norm with meticulous lawns, automated sprinklers and perfect exteriors. The disparity in housing quality speaks to a broader disparity within New Orleans-the rather substantial economic divide between different communities. The shots of “poor” houses and “rich” houses were placed one after the other to emphasize the idea that these two extremes of the economic spectrum live in relatively close contact with one another. So again, the viewer is shown beautiful footage of this striking city, but is immediately reminded of the poverty and excess that exist side by side within the confines of that city.
However, this simultaneous beauty and decay is not only shown through the tangible objects of New Orleans-it is also shown through the actions and ideals of the residents themselves. Bobby Long is a flawed man. He is stubborn, crude, womanizing (in his younger age) and intensely alcoholic. But that being said, he is also a poet and an intellect, a lover of language and life. He adores his children although he is unable to return to his life where they remain.
Lorraine was likewise troubled throughout her life. She was addicted to drugs and alcohol, driven to prostitution shortly, and unable to care for the daughter she brought into the world. But she was also a talented singer, a woman that touched people’s hearts and lives, and crazy about her “pretty, golden Percaline.” Even Percaline’s character follows this similar pattern.
Lorraine named her after the golden yellow plant percaline. And while the plant is beautiful and vibrant, it is actually a weed and a common pest to gardeners. Similarly, Percaline puts up a hard faÃ?Â§ade. She acts as if Lorraine meant nothing to her, but by the end of the film, she is able to reveal her real feelings. She is able to express how hurt she was, how desperately she longed to know and be loved by her complicated mother. Each of these characters calls New Orleans home, and they are truly the people that make New Orleans what it is. They are the people that add to the mystery and the allure. And just like the city itself, these people have a magnetism about them that people cannot avoid, but they are also deeply troubled by their respective demons.
Part of this mystery and allure of New Orleans is the foreign way that time and chronology are viewed by the residents. In many places, time is viewed in a very linear sense, almost creating a bell curve (noting of course that this is a highly generalized shape). However, in essence, life begins with birth, there is an ascent into one’s prime, after which there is a descent until that individual dies. But for the New Orleans’ residents, time is almost a forgotten and/or ignored presence. In a letter from Lorraine to Percaline, she writes, “Ã¢Â?Â¦time seems to stand still in these places. But somehow too much has passedÃ¢Â?Â¦” This excerpt illustrates that feeling of stagnation, and the dual consequences which it presents. On one hand, there is a sense of immortality that accompanies this mindset. There is a freedom inherent in the disavowal of time and consequently the renunciation of one’s own mortality. But this quote also reveals that reality hasn’t abandoned the city. While the people feel this contortion of time, real time keeps moving on without them. Many of the scenery shots support this idea. Barges creep across the frame so slowly the viewer is not sure if they are even moving. The camera lingers on a plant or a sunset for an indulgent moment, and the viewer cannot help but feel the laid-back, unhurried pace of the city itself. There is no imminent need to continue the plot of the story, and in this way the camerawork very subtly and very effectively reveals in part how New Orleans deals with time itself.
The other major distortion of time present in New Orleans is the non-adherence to a standard chronology of a life. Typically, there is birth, life then death, and that is the conclusion of the cycle. However, in New Orleans, the dead simply do not stay dead. Lorraine is very much a character in this film’s plot. She is as integral as Bobby or Lawson or Percaline. But she is never shown once in the entirety of the film. There is not a flashback scene. There is not a photo shown. There is not even a recording of her voice. She exists in the film solely through the memories and the stories of her living friends and family.
There is great value in dissecting and analyzing art that deals with these commonly held beliefs about a particular city. After all, beliefs held by enough people begin to be viewed as absolute truth, sometimes without consideration of the origins of that truth. This can restrict what one feels he/she can or cannot think about a city or its citizens. And this kind of mental pigeonholing can lead to apathy or a sense of hopelessness for a city. Looking at New Orleans, it is not impossible to lead a productive life there. The citizens are not doomed to an eternity of stagnation simply because of their geography. Therefore, as seen in “A Love Song for Bobby Long,” art should not seek to simplify these conceptions, but always to observe, challenge and complicate them.