Monday, April 26, 2010

The Canal Street Madam

Cameron Yates | 2010 | 91 mins | US

Sometimes a filmmaker can become so close to their subject that they forget about the elements that actually make the subject compelling to an outsider looking in. Instead, the filmmaker's own experience fills in their film's obvious gaps while several key Ws are ignored, avoided, or forgotten. This possible scenario occurred to me over and over as I watched The Canal Street Madam.

Jeanette Maier was a New Orleans madam who ran a brothel with her mother and daughter that catered to the city's elite. While she was busted and sent to prison following an FBI sting, those elite when untouched and unsullied. Director Cameron Yates picks up with Maier following her release from prison as she tries to make ends meet without being involved in sex work for the first time in many years. She does media appearances, reconnects with her family, and rekindles her entrepreneurial spirit, all with varying degrees of success.

Madam primarily consists of the standard interviews and fly-on-the-wall footage as she goes about her days, but it also contains some interesting video elements culled from Maier's own home movies. They are great additions, depicting parties, the family's Christmas morning, and so on, but certain pieces are needlessly recycled several times until they only serve as a distraction.

The biggest issue I had with the documentary is that it carries on without ever filling in the background details regarding Maier's crimes, arrest, and conviction. We are given some information via local television news clips near the beginning of the movie, but the FBI operation and subsequent trial, though frequently mentioned, is never unpacked. This is a massive oversight. If a documentary can't answer the most pressing questions about a subject, why does it exist?

The rest of Maier's family grants little information either. Aside from her daughter, Maier's family has only fleeting appearances and no real contributions to the story. But since you have her on camera, why not talk with Jeannette's mother about how the two got involved in running a brothel together? How did mom get into prostitution and what did she think of her daughter becoming involved? These may be old stories to friends sitting around the dinner table, but EVERYONE IN THE AUDIENCE wants to know.

There is some good humour in the movie and Jeanette Maier is a compelling character, but with such a thin story the result is a bit of a freak show. While making public appearances Maier frequently states that what happens "between two consensual adults" should be no one else's business, and while I believe that to be true, it is a statement, not an argument. If the film wants to hold up Maier as a victim of injustice and really investigate the issue it keeps trotting out, then there should have been an effort to discuss the prohibition of prostitution and the effect it has had on Maier, her family, and the women she worked with. Vague allusions are not enough to keep this documentary afloat.

The Canal Street Madam plays Hot Docs on May 4 and 6. Check here for schedule and watch the trailer here.

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