Thar she rolls! One of the most magical moments of Mardi Gras 2015 so far was the appearance of "Gilliam" the mysterious white whale float during the Feb. 7 Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus science fiction parade.
Illuminated only by streetlamps, the wrinkled white surface of the 50-foot leviathan reflected a ghostly glow as it passed Alvar Street on St. Claude Avenue. Atop its 11-foot tall back rose a silhouette of the New Orleans skyline, and within the skyline stood a handful of riders. One rider's bare torso was painted white, another was dressed in a king's robe, a third wore a squid-shaped headdress.
The whale was built in two parts, a 25-foot body and a trailing tail section that was almost as long. A gang of white-clad marchers pushed the un-motorized monster along. The gently bouncing cantilever tail cast an elegant forked shadow on the pavement as it passed.
It was a Carnival float that somehow provoked the dreamy free associations of surrealism.
Leading the great white whale was a marcher carrying a banner bearing a symbol that combined a question mark and an exclamation mark. The eccentric punctuation, called an interrobang, is also the name of the marching group that produced the marvelous whale.
Josh Pitts, one of the whale builders, said that Interrobang is a democratic organization and as such solicited member ideas for the theme of the 2015 float. Two concepts emerged from the group's December conversations. One faction favored a rolling thundercloud; another favored a great whale. Instead of choosing between the two, the marching group decided to combine concepts.
As Pitts said, the two visions were easily compatible for the simple reason that "all of us, at times, have looked up in the clouds and seen animals."
Thus Gilliam - named for Terry Gilliam the science fiction/fantasy movie director -- was born.
Artist Sarah House said that the cityscape that surmounts the great whale was inspired by an episode of the British "Dr. Who" sci-fi television series in which a futuristic city is carried on the back of a cosmic whale. She pointed out that a whale also falls through the emptiness of space in the novel "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." So, despite first impressions, the strange whale had a conceptual pedigree perfectly compatible with the Chewbacchus parade.
House said the fact that the Bacchus parade, which is one of the inspirations for Chewbacchus, has a giant whale float is just a coincidence.
Pitt pointed out that Moby Dick was, of course, in the back of everyone's minds during the project. In fact, he said laughing, his nom de Carnival is Captain Afab...ulous.
Gilliam is built on the steel chassis of an earlier homemade Mardi Gras float, the two-story steam punk-style Trojan Horse of the Krewe of Ragnarok that appeared in the Marigny during two recent Carnivals.
Pitt, fellow builder Jefferson Moss and others assembled a lightweight skeleton of bamboo and plastic plumbing pipe atop the carriage, and covered it with wire mesh and billowing cottony batting. The eerie life-like eyes of the beast were produced with a pair of laptop screens and the teeth were carved from foam swimming pool "noodles."
The effect was both artistic and reasonably authentic.
Digital lightning was supposed to ripple beneath the whale's translucent cloudlike skin, but somehow the power failed at parade time. That wasn't all that went wrong.
Near the railroad tracks that cross St. Claude Avenue, the whale became beached, do to a broken bolt in the steering system. Neighborhood volunteers provided the stranded Interrobangs with emergency lumber and three-inch screws to fix the trouble. Fevered repairs ensued in the darkness within the whale, which looked splendidly strange as it rested on the curb continuously splashed with the headlights of passing cars.
Pitt said that the marching group was terribly disappointed to have missed the Frenchmen Street leg of the parade at the far reaches of the route, but they were able to rejoin Chewbacchus as it headed back downriver.
It's certainly regrettable for the marching group's sake that the whale broke down, but the Interrobangs should know that for those of us who saw the great beast go by, it was a Mardi Gras masterpiece. House explained that the interrobang is meant to express surprise and wonder. With Gilliam, the Interrobangs produced exactly that.