Monday, April 12, 2010

That ain't right

Okay so I didn't like Treme. I know nobody is surprised to hear that so I'll add that my wife, and my friends who watched it with me last night at the Milan lounge didn't like it either. I talked about it with some other people during the day today who weren't happy with it. So I'm a little relieved to report that this is not just me being a grouch. And, yes, I worry about being taken that way so I'll try to be as little of an asshole as possible.

After much discussion this morning, the "hater" contingent has two fundamental concerns. The first is kind of aesthetic and a little picky, I guess. The second is a bit more serious. On both counts we were more or less horrified.

First, the picky stuff. Even if your New Orleans references are a step more accurate than "I need Gumbo to think" beating your audience over the head with them in ways that distract from the story produces the exact same effect. (It would also be helpful to have an actual story from which to distract people but we'll hold back on that for a second) The characters in Treme say things like "Red Beans and rice? It ain't even Monday!" or "You know how I love your etouffee" or "(some character) will be back before Carnival season" In all seriousness, people, who walks around talking like that? It's as if the entire script were saying, "Hello, we're in New Orleans" over and over. We know that already, characters. Now please go do something and try to act like real people in the process. The four of us were laughing out loud at how ridiculous this sounded last night. The rest of the bar was cheering.

This morning, Ros and I decided we're going to write our own medical drama and set it in New Orleans. The doctors will say things like "Little Billy, I'm afraid you have cancer... here in the birthplace of jazz. The treatment will begin next week... which is also incidentally the beginning of Carnival Season. It won't be easy but if all goes well hopefully you'll live to enjoy more delicious chicory coffee and red beans and rice on every Monday for a very long time."

And even that would be preferable to what we watched last night because at least then the characters would be doctors and not the collection of cliched ideas of what Treme's creators imagine "uniquely" New Orleans people to be. I'm not excited about the project in the first place, but if you told me we just absolutely had to write a TV drama about the aftermath of Kartina I would at the very least request that the characters be more realistic representations of the sort of people who lived through it. Why not a show about a nurse, a school teacher, a cop, a veterinarian, and a plumber all trying to rebuild their lives after the flood? Are they somehow less New Orleanian than a DJ, a trombone player, a chef, and a "Tulane professor"? Did something less important happen to them?

I think Treme is telling us yes. And there's our second problem with the show. Treme isn't for us. It isn't even about us, really. It's for a certain intellectual, image conscious stripe of visitor and/or recent transplant and about those persons' cartoonish expectations about what life is like in New Orleans. It's for Ned Sublette and Tom Piazza and Chris Rose and about the imaginary people they wish they were or their Platonic ideal of what a New Orleanian is or something.

I'm a little taken aback at how happy everyone seems to be with the Indian scene as I think this is a perfect example of what I'm getting at here. This was also the point of greatest separation between our party and the rest of the Milan lounge. I had my head in my hands, Hope was giggling uncontrollably, Ros had to leave the room. Menckles, as is often the case, was trying to keep me from randomly punching people. Meanwhile, the kids in the bar actually cheered out loud. You would have thought Tracy Porter had appeared on the screen to intercept the lapsed Indian's reluctance to practice and return it for a touchdown. What the hell is going on here?

Would this scene have been even remotely possible in real life? Think about it. What actual chief would actually go over and carry on that way just for the benefit of one guy. How would that one guy have actually reacted? The scene we were presented with was so ridiculous, such an affectation, such a lame excuse to just show us an indian that everyone should have been insulted. We were. But the enthused reaction from among the young kids in the Milan wasn't related to the believability of the situation. Instead the shriek communicated only, "Yay! I know what a Mardi Gras Indian is!"

I think this is what's actually driving the positive reaction. It can't be the plot because there wasn't one. It can't be the characters because they are calculated archetypal jerk-offs. It must be this banal hipsterism. And, again, I know I sound like I'm being mean and I know I'm oversensitive to that sort of thing so let me try and explain to you why I think this is important.

As we were leaving the bar last night, I asked Menckles what the hell is wrong with these people. What makes them this content with an empty stream of forced inappropriate references in place of any actual story. "Some people just want to see themselves on TV" she said. I guess. Sort of. But I didn't see myself on TV. I didn't see any of the people I grew up with. I didn't see any of the people I work and play with either. I saw a parade of hipster psuedo-New Orleans douchenozzling. And I think that's what the crappy people in the bar wanted to see on TV. Not themselves so much as a validation of the pose they've assumed.

I talk with people around me a lot about our friends and neighbors who moved away after Katrina and the contrast between them and the people we deal with who have moved in since. In our experience, the newcomers have a knack for rather boldly instructing us in the art of how to be ourselves. As if being a New Orleanian means constantly talking about when Mardi Gras is coming or how much you like jazz music or whatever. And look, those things are all great. I just went to French Quarter Fest on Sunday and had a wonderful time. Everybody who knows me knows I do every damn parade during Mardi Gras. I chase after indians. I follow second lines. I'm a pretty decent cook too if I do say so myself. I love that stuff but it doesn't actually define the parameters of my life in any meaningful way. And the real people who grew up and live in work in New Orleans don't live their lives around those things either. They are ours, certainly. But they are not us. A better show about Katrina would tell us about people coming back to New Orleans, not because of the food, not because of the music, not because some guy in feathers is shaking a tambourine at them, but just because it's where they fucking live. Isn't that enough?

When David Simon appeared on The Colbert Report the other day, he showed a clip of John Goodman's Ashley Morris-like character ranting about Federal culpability for the flood. Afterward, Simon and Colbert both kind of sheepishly dismissed that as one of the "opinions" of the outraged people down there... or something like that anyway. I think if they really took that point of view seriously, they would have presented us with a show that argues in favor of saving this American city and not the unnecessary "Why New Orleans Matters" vehicle they've created. The case they're making isn't save New Orleans because people lived there and were fucked by the crappy flood protection system. It's save New Orleans because look at these cool things that we're interested in about it. I think that's a significantly weaker argument to make on our behalf. But, as I think I've made clear, these people really aren't speaking on behalf of us as much as they are their fantasies.

I think that's pretty damaging. It validates these misapprehensions about what it's really like to live here. It commodifies them in new and annoying ways. It encourages the slumming fetish of the "Cajun Expats" (Please click that link. Really. It's an enlightening little item.) It also belittles the experience of anyone who doesn't conform to this fetishized idea of what makes a New Orleanian. It, in fact, allows the perpetrators of these fetishes to judge your fitness to occupy your home on the basis of your willingness to play their phony roles. This, in fact, opens the door for all sorts of mischief. It facilitates the conversion of your neighborhood into Condo-Disney-Jazzland. It permits the not-so-subtle subjugation of everything to the tourism-based paradigm to such a degree that the recently revised mission statement of your civic institutions actually say things like this,

Like jazz music, the New Orleans Public Library is authentic to New Orleans. We embrace and utilize the fundamentals of jazz and the healing spirit of New Orleans through

* Improvisation: individual investigation and life-long learning
* Blues: the sound of American optimism
* Swing: quality and style with participation
* the Three C's of the authentic New Orleans experience: ceremony, celebration, and competition.

What does that mean? Who knows? I've pondered over this passage on many occasions and cannot say that I've fully penetrated its mysteries. What it suggests to me, though, is that substance has taken a back seat to coolness and that certain favored creative products of free artists are now the boundaries of a bizarre kind of conformity enforced upon the rest of us.

But does it matter? Not to Simon, apparently. Here's another favorite recent interview of mine in which he says,
"The culture of the city was its own weapon in the rebuilding of the city." Simon adds, "It was a war we won."
I am eagerly awaiting Simon's hosting of the next Excellence in Recovery Awards Banquet. The mere suggestion that the struggle of the past five years constitutes some sort of victory is downright disturbing. Who won this war, exactly? If Simon is saying "we" as in the culture vultures looking to sell off the last bits of the carcass, he's got a point. Five years after the flood, what is being trumpeted as a "recovery" is really just an acceleration of the same gentrification that was already underway. We are being swallowed up by Jazzfest. What we're left with is a stage where the festivals, music, food, folkways that that most of us rightfully took as sort of for-granted elements of life here, are now props arranged for mostly someone else's entertainment. And those of us who don't fit on that stage... well it isn't clear that we're really needed anymore. Spoils of war, I guess.

And maybe none of this is important. Maybe I'm overreacting to a goofy and obscure TV show. But I'm certainly not the only person reacting. Treme has been front page news and the main topic of all sorts of media including two very well written blogs dedicated solely to its discussion. (Seriously, the same thing I said when I found Back of Town still applies. Read it even if you're done with Treme) So if I'm making a big deal out it, I'm only following along behind the parade. In overblown Treme-speak you might say I'm in the second line of.. uh.. big deal makers here. And so to everyone worrying themselves over this business, here is my wish for you and for all of us. I wish that New Orleanians both new and old weren't so hyper-conscious about what the rest of the world thought that we give these occasional Hollywood representations of us the power we do. I wish we spent more time just being ourselves than trying to meet these romanticized and limiting expectations. I wish we thought a little bit better of ourselves overall.

In order to end the requisite gloominess here on a high note, I'll reproduce for you my favorite moment from his year's Carnival season. It happened immediately after the Endymion parade. I described it here.
We watched the people scatter and then stayed while the crews cleaned up around us. Then we stayed and watched the traffic. We saw some guys almost get arrested for trying to drive through police barricades. We gave directions to fellow stragglers trying to get down to the Quarter. People riding in the back of pickup trucks hooted and hollered at us. Other motorists honked and waved. Mostly we just stood around drinking while the world moved around us.

This is what Mardi Gras is all about to me. It's not about rushing to some specific place to see any can't-miss event. There's no ridiculous admission fee. You don't have to get dressed up and perform for anybody. It's just an opportunity to stand around in the street talking to people doing nothing in particular while random absurdities happen around you. Every year there comes at least one moment in the Carnival season where I'm fully aware that this is exactly what I'm doing and this year, this was that moment.

What I'm trying to say here is that being New Orleans at its best isn't about a beat or a taste or "the three Cs" of any specific recognizable product or brand you can dream up. For me, it's about living as freely and unpretentiously as can be managed in whatever way best suits. It's a simple thing but it's the one thing that belongs to everybody. And it's not something that Treme, for all its odd attempts at poetic representation, ever really hits upon.

Update: Jesus a lot of people are very serious about this matter. I take back what I said about maybe overreacting to a TV show because, if the general chatter is any gauge, this is very important stuff we're dealing with here. Anyway two things real quick. Last night, when I asked everyone to imagine a realistic reaction to the indian scene, I neglected to note that Cliff had already supplied the dialogue for us.
If I had written that scene it would have went a little different. The brother would have came outside after hearing that noise, saw his boy dressed in full yellow Indian gear and said something like this….

“ Man…what the F#$k are you doing walking around looking like Big Bird on this dark ass street? …. <<>> ….Get your crazy ass inside before the National Guard come by and shoots all our asses. You done loss your rabbit ass mind out here acting like a one man parade. Hey Bay, I’ll be back. I’m going around here with Albert crazy ass and help him with the bar before we all get locked up.”

Also at Back of Town, Alli is slapping me upside the noggin right now.
I’ve heard Jeffrey say how he didn’t like The Wire, either, and I suppose that’s fine, but that means he probably went into the viewing experience with a different opinion of David Simon.

That’s my first problem with his review – he doesn’t trust the storyteller.

Trust the storyteller? Are you nuts? That is always the first and worst mistake. (Imagine a smiley or something here)

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