The questions over what’s real and what isn’t real in a documentary have followed the form ever since Robert Flaherty trained his camera on the Eskimos for 1922’s Nanook Of The North, and it can be hard to gauge where the truth lies in the spectrum between the obviously staged and the fly-on-the-wall, because the camera plays an ambiguous role in all scenarios. With their debut feature, 45365, Bill and Turner Ross sought to obliterate such distinctions altogether, returning to their hometown of Sidney, Ohio for an impressionist, experiential, highly aestheticized portrait of a Midwestern town. The Rosses continue in that mode for Tchoupitoulas, a hypnotic 80-minute drift through nocturnal New Orleans that seeks more to pick up on bits of culture and atmosphere than to tell any stories. They blow up the conventions of documentary realism to capture the city’s soul, a much more abstract, elusive undertaking.
Though shot over nine months, Tchoupitoulas is a night-in-the-life adventure through New Orleans, covering the space between a dilapidated riverboat and the sensual wonders of the French Quarter. In a hasty opening sequence, the Rosses introduce three African-American brothers—Kentrell, Bryan, and William, the youngest and chattiest—as they horse around in the kitchen and skip rocks by the shore. On impulse, the trio and their dog Buttercup take a ferry into the city and wind up staying there until dawn when they miss the ferry back. William, a music prodigy, queries a busker on woodwinds and brasswinds, and the boys have a few ambling discussions, but they’re present mostly as focal points for a tour.
Then again, the tour takes a lot of detours. The Rosses use their subjects only intermittently, to the point where their decision to catch a ferry (and their failure to catch the last one later) is more important to the film than anything they have to say. With its gorgeous, hazy cinematography, Tchoupitoulas cares more about evoking New Orleans nightlife, whether poking its head into drag and strip shows, hanging around as street performers hustle for stray dollars, or wandering off into a train yard. The film’s deliberate aimlessness—the scenes often feel arbitrarily arranged, since it doesn’t have to get anywhere—can get frustrating, but the Rosses are happy to trade cohesion for a rich, varied immersion in New Orleans nightlife. It’s less a documentary than a feature-length vibe.