A morning meeting with Margaret Brown for coffee in an Austin, Texas, hotel first means a hunt for "natural light." The term comes from her mouth several times as we blunder, under-caffeinated, about the coffee lounge in search of a suitably lit spot.
But, as viewers of Order of Myths discover, as they did with her marvelous last feature Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, Brown has an instinctive feel for the distinctive light and textures of Dixie.
Brown is a native of Mobile, Ala., and it was to that Gulf Coast town that she returned to make Order of Myths, a fascinating, fly-on-the-wall look at the Western Hemisphere's oldest Mardi Gras celebration—or celebrations: one for the black community and one for the white. The film is a portrait of two Mobiles preparing for the revelries of the season, including separate-but-equal Mardi Gras courts.
But first, the Brooklyn resident wants to talk about mumblecore—for the record, she doesn't use that term—referring to a loosely knit group of filmmakers who are churning out micro-budgeted films about life before 30. She'd been out the night before with the creators of Baghead and Nights and Weekends, two such films screening at SXSW. "Those guys are so inspiring. The films are low-fi, but feel really authentic, emotional ... people aren't doing that right now.
As it happens, Brown wants to make a narrative next, "But I keep getting sucked into docs and getting immersed in a personal journey." Brown initially approached Mobile's hidebound Mardi Gras traditions with the thought of a fictitious narrative inspired by her mother, a onetime pageant queen. "I was thinking about a runaway Mardi Gras queen—my mom married a man outside her social group who was Jewish," Brown says.
When Brown came of age, she continues, "My grandfather pressured me to be a debutante, and I said 'no way.'"
Although Brown resisted the festival as a younger woman, as a filmmaker she would include her grandfather's testimony in the film. Her film is named, in fact, for one of Mobile's secret societies, to which her grandfather belongs.
Despite her insider credentials, Brown approached the material as an outsider. "We met people in Mobile who were great characters, in a moment in history when things are changing. But are they changing?"
To make her film, Brown and her cameramen, Lee Daniel and Michael Simmonds, shot 370 hours of footage during the run-up to and aftermath of the 2007 Mardi Gras. Much attention was paid to shooting atmospheric images of Mobile in the early morning light. But don't use the industry term "B-roll" in Brown's presence. "I object to the term 'B-roll.' I hate the term. B-roll defines the texture of the film. It should be called A-roll."
Margaret Brown will be present for her film's screening, at 1 p.m. Saturday, in the Civic Center.