“The Order of Myths,” about America’s oldest — and still-segregated — Mardi Gras celebration, is as divided in its sensibilities as the city of Mobile is in its racial attitudes. Doc may find an audience, but it will likely be because of the derisive nature of its portraiture rather than the weightier issues of race and class that helmer Margaret Brown attempts to grapple with — when not making some easy targets look ridiculous. Film’s concern with entrenched sociopolitical attitudes is commendable, but snideness will more likely be the factor that broadens its appeal.
Mardi Gras in Mobile was founded in 1703, we’re told, before New Orleans was even a city. Given what was apparently unprecedented access to the behind-the-scenes machinations of Mobile Mardi Gras (helmer’s grandfather is a longtime member of two mystic societies, one of which lends its name to the title of the film), Brown makes short work of the defenses mounted by people who want to maintain separate celebrations.
The explanations are often vacuous, strained or embarrassing — one man even delivers his from behind a Mardi Gras mask, which in its way evokes the history of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama and the fact that the last lynching of a black man there took place as recently as the 1980s.
The strongest point Brown makes is that people descended from both sides of the city’s slave trade are still on each side of Mardi Gras celebration. Brown also has a solid visual style — the baroque quality of the costume rituals are effectively contrasted with Mobile’s scruffy streets.
But it’s hard to take “The Order of Myths” too seriously when the film treats its main subject so frivolously. If Brown thinks it’s all silly, why shouldn’t we? A pre-parade wine-tasting among the white elite of Mobile turns into very low comedy; the antics of black celebrants is made to look just as inane, in either their behavior or their investment in a fairly ornate, tradition-bound exercise in pre-Lenten excess.
Mobile’s parades are run by two groups, the all-white Mobile Carnival Assn. and the all-black Mobile Area Mardi Gras Assn. There’s a strange subtext involving the royal courts of both groups: While the black group chooses a grade-school teacher, Stephanie Lucas, as its queen, the white group chooses Helen Meaher, who ancestors smuggled the last slave ship, the Clothilde, into Mobile harbor.
While never directly addressing Meaher about her lineage, Brown gives an inordinate amount of screen time to Brittain Youngblood, a white debutante and member of Meaher’s court, who is more poised, articulate and liberal than the charmingly awkward Meaher (as far as we can tell, anyway). The not-so-subtle implication is that the better candidate was overlooked in favor of bloodline, which may be true, but addressing the question directly would have made the film seem more honest.
“Order of Myths” looks good, and its characters are memorable. It’s important to know that the “traditions” extolled by both sides of Mobile involve keeping people apart. But it’s not clear at all that Brown is bringing them together.