Vernon Hightower is a writer, musician, and all around great guy. I was fortunate to meet the great Vernon Hightower almost twenty years ago through mutual friends. We immediately struck a bond nerding out on punk rock music and skateboarding. Vernon exposed me to all kinds of bands I had never listened to, and was one of the most honest, encouraging people I was fortunate enough to be around. His humor is contagious, along with his original, creative energy. Vernon's talents have been heard with bands like “The Immortal Lee County Killers”, and continuing on to play with one of the most influential bands in the South, “The Pine Hill Haints”. He and his wife also have an awesome band called "Heat Lightning", which I wish I could see play more often.
Vernon has been bringing his love for Southern culture, movies, and music via his blog bayoubabylon.com which he describes on the site, Vernon says, "The name (bayou babylon) is both a reference to the Kenneth Anger book "Hollywood Babylon" and to the region I live in: the Gulf Coast, which I love from Galveston to Pensacola. And to the Misfits song, of course." You can check out more about Vernon in the interview we did with him here.
We are now fortunate enough to have Vernon as a contributor now to The Serpents of Bienville. We are excited for his fresh take on local culture, history, and folklore. To start it off, Travis is bringing us his Top 5 Mardi Gras movies, just in time for the Mardi Gras season. We will be spotlighting one each week leading up to Fat Tuesday. Without further ado, here's Vernon.
Mardi Gras is great for several reasons. Reasons that will now be listed in no order:
1. It Makes Our Area Unique.
Granted there are a lot of things that make our area of the country unique, but Mardi Gras is definitely one of them. I also should clear the air here and say that I live in Mobile, Alabama, not New Orleans. Our two cities are “Sister Cities”, having been founded by the same French brothers and both were once the capital of French Louisiana. This will be the 312th anniversary of Mardi Gras in Mobile. The United States is only 239 years old, roughly. And while a lot of people here have a bad attitude of, “We started it, but New Orleans gets all the credit/hype/etc.!!!” I say, “Mardi Gras isn’t a competition!”
Seriously, who cares? New Orleans and Mobile have both been celebrating Mardi Gras for hundreds of years, they are both awesome, so just relax and have fun.
That said, I have a hard time taking Mardi Gras seriously if it isn’t from Gulf Coast Louisiana or Mobile. For instance, I used to volunteer at the Carnival Museum here and someone from Saint Louis excitedly told me, “We have the 2nd biggest Mardi Gras in the United States behind New Orleans!” To which I gave a reflexive, “Pffft!”
In my defense, I felt bad about it later.
The truth is that New Orleans is TEN TIMES the size of Mobile, so of course it’s bigger and more diverse and, generally, more of everything.
And really, Mardi Gras started with Carnival in places like Venice, Italy, so the point is moot about who started what.
I think a lot of Mobilians have a similar feeling like when you tell a friend a joke when it’s just the two of you, but then your friend tells the same joke to a crowd and gets lots of laughs. There’s too much bitterness and not enough revelry.
2. It’s Something to Look Forward to After Christmas
This is a big one. I know a lot of people feel kind of weird when Christmas is over because there aren’t any holidays until Memorial Day or something, but here we get out of work and school for Lundi Gras (Fat Monday) and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). A lot of people leave their Christmas trees up and then decorate them with Mardi Gras junk. We don’t, but a lot of people do. In areas like around here, with a high Catholic population, I’m sure there is something to do to celebrate before Lent starts. A way to get it all out of your system before it’s time to fast.
3. It Brings the Whole City Together
This is more true in New Orleans than here, to be honest. Here, we still have a lot of typical Alabama people, who are probably fundamentalists, who hate Mardi Gras. Still, there’s nothing like drinking with a bunch of people with whom you have nothing in common but the desire to have fun and celebrate Mardi Gras. Last year I bought a round of mint juleps for a band of hobos that were playing music outside my favorite bar.
Mardi Gras, contrary to popular belief, is not about flashing boobs or drunk college kids. It’s about family and friends and being together. Sure, that’s not what it’s about to a lot of people, but I can’t help but feel like it’s a lot more than just those things.
I always remember the times when my mom would dress us up in crazy costumes and take us downtown to catch the Fat Tuesday parades (and catch candy).
I’ll also never forget being in Disney World and seeing a parade and being really disappointed that they didn’t throw anything. I was like, “This is it?!?!?!!” Being a kid, parades meant fun, chaos, and catching stuff, so I had just assumed that, this being Disney World and all, that I would catch some primo loot.
Every year, I’m excited about Mardi Gras, and in the days from January 6th (Twelfth Night, the official beginning of Carnival) to whenever the parades and revelry really start, I am in full-on Mardi Gras mode. Listening to my Mardi Gras playlist everywhere I go, hanging my Mardi Gras flag out on the front of my house, eating King Cake, and generally getting “geared up” for the holiday and festivities.
Just like at Christmas, I want to watch movies and tv shows about Mardi Gras. The problem is that there aren’t a lot of things like that.
In my hunt for things to watch, I have googled “Movies About Mardi Gras” about a zillion times, and every time it seems like there aren’t any good lists out there, or the lists contain movies that I’ve seen about a million times. So I have compiled my top 5 favorite movies to watch to get pumped about Mardi Gras. Granted, some of these are kind of downers, exposing the sides of Mardi Gras that most people would rather not think about, but I like them.
Unlike most of the time, I am going to put them in order, from 5th being “A Must-Watch, but not as imperative as the others”, to number 1 being, “If I don’t watch this at least once, it’s not Mardi Gras”.
Here we go….
#5. Mardi Gras: Made in China (2005)
This is a documentary about globalization, and about how the beads we enjoy at Mardi Gras are made in sweatshops. Not a cheery, partytime, thought, I know, but this documentary really shines a light on what the “true cost” of American excess is.
The problem, I feel, is that this documentary demonizes Mardi Gras, when the exact same film could be made about almost anything we all use on a day-to-day basis. No doubt that is part of the point, but if this had been made about Air Jordans or smartphones, I can’t help but think it might not be as popular. I don’t know if it’s a thing anymore, but I remember hearing about people being shot for their sneakers back in the day.
I am assuming the filmmaker chose Mardi Gras beads because they are a symbol of “the apex of American bacchanalian excess” (LA Times).
Check back next week for number 4, it's definitely going to surprise you, especially because it's out of this world. (Pun intended...I (Sean) will take credit for writing this ending, and not blame Vernon for the pun).