Demme’s ‘Carolyn Parker’ Captures a State of Grace
I’m Carolyn Parker must be categorized as a documentary since it is a nonfiction, slice-of-life account of a real person, but it transcends genre classification because it is really an extraordinary character study.
Director Jonathan Demme went to Louisiana after the Hurricane Katrina debacle in 2006, but he had a different purpose than those carpetbagger journalists and filmmakers who used the catastrophe to show off their bleeding-heart sanctimony. This film is part of Demme’s original project to document the American issue of “right to return” when citizens of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward were denied the right to reclaim their flooded homes. Demme found a great subject in charming, articulate, middle-aged Parker, who survived an unsuccessful marriage, assorted career ventures and genuine tests of faith as well as a hurricane.
Parker held fast to her cultural and spiritual heritage and her citizen’s rights, which makes this a far richer film than Spike Lee’s two (count ’em) overblown HBO Katrina documentaries, any of Anderson Cooper’s countless, grandstanding CNN reports/arguments) or the ridiculously exoticizing indie film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Lee and Cooper shared the typical liberal condescension toward less-fortunate people that allowed them to show off their bourgie political dogma. Demme works artistically to show the distinctive qualities and atmosphere of Parker’s community and the warm, funny depths of her character. (Her laughing, smiling reflexes are survival techniques.) At one point Demme judiciously inserts footage from the great Robert Flaherty’s 1950 film Louisiana Story, but this film, made with less remarkable aesthetic daring, has comparable uniqueness.
Beyond the story of Parker’s survival against government intervention (FEMA and local politicians like do-nothing Mayor Ray Nagin), this film surveys the spiritual endeavor of a modern American. Nothing else in contemporary cinema matches Parker’s effort to restore St. David’s Catholic Church on St. Maurice Street, her specific church home. It’s a tough struggle against various secular do-gooders, but Demme respects the sincerity of Parker’s faith. (For that reason alone, this film deserves a wider audience than Spike Lee’s hideous, blasphemous Red Hook Summer.) Demme keeps remarkable distance when observing Parker pray or meditate in church. These moments are as full of serious wonder as anything in Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest.
Like Parker, Demme refuses political grievance. Unlike knee-jerk liberals who offer pity, complaint and outsider aloofness, Demme responds to his subject’s humanity. (Demme’s subtitle, “The Good, the Mad and the Beautiful,” is redundant.) The audience is able to bask in the grace exuded by Parker, her daughter Kyrah and their friends. One friend tells Carolyn, “We are spiritual beings going through a human experience.” That summarizes Demme’s art.