There's an old saying down in my hometown of New Orleans about how to tell the changing of the seasons. I'm not referring to winter, spring, summer or fall, but rather to the aroma of what someone's cooking up fresh and delicious.
Shrimp, oysters, crabs, crayfish - those are our seasons. It's all a cycle, and before we enter the Lenten season, we gather together to celebrate Mardi Gras.
The parades that began earlier this month won't end until late Fat Tuesday, February 24. This Sunday most of us will come home soon after the Bacchus float rolls down Canal Street, to watch the 81st annual Oscars and root for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
"Benjamin Button" is about transformation and renewal, and one of the film's key characters is New Orleans. Filmed in some of my hometown's most cherished neighborhoods and historic sites - the Garden and Warehouse districts, the French Quarter, Uptown and the shores of Lake Pontchartrain - the diversity, spirit and special grace that imbibe the culture of New Orleans also enrich and inform the film.
While we celebrate the film's 13 Oscar nominations, we should also celebrate its contribution to the rebirth of New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast.
Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who chose Baltimore, Maryland, as its locale, the film version of "Benjamin Button" was instead set in New Orleans by Paramount Pictures. Almost four years after Katrina, one of the most destructive and powerful hurricanes to hit our nation's shores, the movie has ushered in a reawakening and refocusing on New Orleans that will help this treasured city move past the tragedy that almost destroyed it.
Like New Orleans itself, Benjamin Button was born old. Literally. While other children played, young Benjamin sat as a wizened old man in a wheelchair among the old folks who accepted him for who he was, not how he looked - unlike the widowed father who abandoned him to the care of a stranger, a black woman capable of loving Benjamin despite his grotesque appearance and infirmities.
Raised in a rest home, Benjamin grows younger as those around him age and die. He meets the love of his life while both are in their tender years, though they don't become romantically involved until their bodies and emotional maturity are compatibly developed.
As oblivious to his own good looks as he was to his initial ugliness, Benjamin has an innate appreciation for the values many young people typically take for granted - physical labor, survival despite great obstacles, loyalty.
As Hurricane Katrina wheels itself ever closer to shore, its fierce winds and drenching rain pounding at the window, Benjamin's story unfolds as his now-elderly childhood sweetheart lays dying, listening to her (their) daughter read from his diary, a journal neither had ever before read.
Just as New Orleans is loved and revered for its rich and unconventional cultural characteristics, the tragedy of Katrina has allowed a quixotic renewal - a rebirth, if you will - of New Orleans' physical structure while maintaining a reverence for its spirit, historical architecture and traditions, so beautifully captured in the film.
People from all over the country embraced the displaced natives of the Big Easy with open arms until they were able to return home, much like Benjamin's adoptive mother did. Today, New Orleans has the look of a fresh young city complemented with a deep wisdom that only can be gained through near-death experiences.
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" stands as an example of Hollywood "doing right," both artistically and with a social consciousness that expended millions of dollars and created thousands of jobs in an area that desperately needs them. This celebrated picture is a reminder to all that supporting American industry is the key to the rebirth of this incredible region.
The scars of New Orleans' recent past are fading as she welcomes the future, dressed to the nines in fancy new lingerie and prepared for a romantic encounter with the future. New Orleans is about redemption and renewal - as is the most curious case of Benjamin Button.
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