New Orleans Dionysus
Jul 24 2013
In Euripides’s The Bacchae, Dionysus comes to the city and enchants all the women. They follow him out to the woods where wild dances take place under the trance of the god. This is Dionysus before he becomes the chubby guy depicted in all the paintings. This is Dionysus when he is at his most beautiful, almost like a woman. The women who follow him are the Bacchae, and their dances of revelry are called Bacchanalias. In these trances they are not in their usual minds, they have transcended normal consciousness and entered a hyperactive realm where they are capable of anything, both mentally and physically: orgies are implied, great orgies with the young male god at the center. They also tear wild animals limb from limb with their bare hands.
I read The Bacchae in high school, during my Jim Morrison obsession. Morrison identified with Dionysus. He got into Dionysus through Nietzsche, whose ethos balanced the Dionysian artistic drive with the Apollonian drive for order. You can see all of Morrison’s person bound up in this Nietzchean idea of Dionysus: the music as ritual, the lyrics (always calling for people to follow him, to let him fuck them, and for them to kill the father figure), and a stage persona that basically revolved around trying to seduce and screw the audience.
In the play, King Pentheus goes out to the woods to confront Bacchus (the Roman name for Dionysus) because Pentheus doesn’t believe the young stranger is a god. When he meets the women in their wild trance, his mother among them, the women tear Pentheus apart with their bare hands. His mother decapitates him because she knows not what she does.
It’s scary in this age to think about a leader proclaiming himself a god and then leading people to do awful, murderous things. If read through a literal, contemporary lens, Bacchus becomes Charles Manson, or Jim Jones, or that spooky Do dude from the Heaven’s Gate cult. Bacchus out in the woods with his women, screwing them all vigorously, and encouraging them to kill—this could easily be the basis for the Spahn Ranch playbook, or that recent film with John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene.
In 1969, the Performance Group—which would eventually spawn the offshoot the Wooster Group—staged an interactive performance of The Bacchae. Later, Brian De Palma filmed the performance and presented it in split screen, titling it Dionysus in ’69. It’s awesome: they depict the birth of Dionysus by creating a birth canal out of their bodies, and then they murder Pentheus in a similarly grandiose fashion.
We wanted to make a video inspired by Dionysus, especially because we were in a place that has its own special relationship to the god of inhibition: New Orleans. One of the biggest parades during Mardi Gras is called Bacchus, and each year a King of Bacchus is elected.
One year, pre-Katrina, I was in New Orleans filming a movie called Sonny, directed by Nicholas Cage, in which I played a male prostitute. Nic was named King of Bacchus, and as a result, one of the producers and I landed highly coveted spots on a float. We did something disgusting. Before the parade, we stocked up on knick-knacks from a cart on the street: plastic flowers, pins, and blow-up Spider-Man dolls. We added this stash to the boxes of beads we were given to throw from the float. Everyone knows people go crazy for beads during Mardi Gras, but they went full-on bananas for our cache of crap. Everyone wanted a $3 Spider-Man doll, something they could buy from any cart on the street, but ours were ten times more desirable because we were tossing them from a float.
Our bright idea was that instead of asking women to show us their breasts for beads and goodies from our stash, we would ask for kisses. We must have leaned over the side of that float 50 times for kisses from strangers. We're lucky we didn’t walk away with scorching cases of herpes. When the parade finally ended at a huge warehouse where the Bacchus Ball was held, I looked at myself in a bathroom mirror, I saw that my face was covered in grime from all of the smooches. On the float they make you wear jester outfits; I looked like a clown who had been rolling in a pigpen. It was pretty.
A few years later, I was back in New Orleans to film this short. It was in collaboration with Gucci, so of course we had to bring in some influence from Fellini. Our Bacchus was also inspired by Mastroianni Marcello from La Dolce Vita, wandering around New Orleans like his character wandered around Rome. That film, like our video, embraced all the levels and excesses of culture: from the spiritual, to the intellectual, to the aesthetic, to the sexual. It is an attempt to contain all artistic levels.
A god is birthed into the world and he engages with the world. He studies it as a newcomer, but as someone who can perceive it for what it is: beautiful, dangerous, sexual, chaotic, vengeful, karmic, and ultimately harmonious.
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