Monday, May 17, 2010

episode 6: light/heat

Treme doesn't have a lead actor. Its based around an ensemble cast. And Treme doesn't have a unifying plot. Its not a cop show, or a show where everybody is stranded on an island and is trying to get off. Each episode cuts back-and-forth between people from vastly different social positions in vastly different situations and what connects them together is the shared experience of being in post-Katrina New Orleans. The place and the culture are the glue.

Its a bit of an experiment in script writing, if you ask me, and since you asked I'll admit that I'm not sure how effective it is. I love this place and these people and I still find myself looking for a storyline to make me care and keep coming back, because the scriptwriters' determination to "get New Orleans right" by deluging viewers with authentic local culture and dropping localisms at every turn ("Always for Pleasure!" "There's Pride on Bourbon Street!") doesn't necessarily make for good TV. If local culture is the protagonist of Treme, than culture needs to get out more and do stuff rather than always trying on different outfits and looking at itself in the mirror, pouting when it doesn't like what it sees and smiling when it does. I find this more crucial to the show's significance that the insider/outsider authentic/inauthentic New Orleanian/non-New Orleanian debates that have ensnared Simon.

In Episode 6, its Mardi Gras, or the lead up to it, that binds the scenes together. More than Christmas and New Years, its the Carnival season (Twelfth Night to Fat Tuesday) that's the apex of the yearly calendar for New Orleanians, and this week we're smack dab in the middle of the festivities. But this is not the Bourbon Street frat-party hurricane-and-titties Mardi Gras, its those parties that constitute Mardi Gras for locals from every strata of the city: the Indian "gangs" are busily preparing their suits... the elite Mardi Gras Kewes are having a ball... and those in-between are irreverently parading in the streets.

Albert Lambreaux's Mardi Gras Indian tribe, the Guardians of the Flame, is gaining momentum on the march toward their first Mardi Gras post-Katrina. At least since Emancipation, black Indians have marched through the streets on Mardi Gras morning in elaborate handsewn costumes that honor Native Americans who “won’t bow, won’t kneel." Every year, the members of the tribe come out in a new suit that takes months to sew. Albert enlists his ladyfriend to cut fabric while he stitches beads and feathers, and the whole gang gets together to practice chants like "Shallow Water, Oh Mama" that Indians sing while they move through the city on the search for other tribes.

Its hard to imagine a group more emblematic of black working-class resistance than Mardi Gras Indians, and as you might imagine, tribe members are often at odds with law enforcement and city government. This history gets a Katrina-treatment in Treme as Albert battles to have the housing projects reopen. "My gang needs someplace to live," Albert tells his councilman's assistant after being offered a tiny FEMA trailer while the projects remain shuttered. "They're like refugees in they own country." And so it will stay, with Albert living at Poke's bar while his second chief sews patches for his costume in a van parked outside.

If Katrina, and especially the governmental response to it, have created obstacles for Albert's tribe, surprising opportunities have arisen for others. With the eyes of the world on New Orleans and its distinctive traditions, any New Orleanian who can claim to be a "culture-bearer" has the potential to step into the spotlight. Albert's son Delmond is touring the U.S. with Donald Harrison Jr.'s modern jazz band in a kind of "New Orleans Revue" with the banjo-toting trad jazzman Don Vappie. Onscreen and in real life, Harrison bridges the traditional and modern, comfortable playing contemporary bebop or singing Indian chants he learned from his father, Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. of the (actual) Guardians of the Flame. (Or mixing all of the above on his startling CD Indian Blues.)  But Delmond is younger and hasn't struck a balance yet. Tradition all smacks of pandering. He wants to stake out new territory, and for him that means cutting his New Orleans roots.

Before a show, Harrison suggests they "give the people of Arizona what they want to hear" by closing with Iko, Iko, Mardi Gras Mambo, or (gasp) Saints, all local standards that Harrison has reinterpreted throughout his career. Delmond protests and wins the battle but loses the war: the next night in Houston the band encores with Iko and by the time the tour hits Snug Harbor in New Orleans Delmond is thoroughly conflicted. His dad socializes at the bar while the band plays a lot of notes and only seems to take interest when talking with Harrison chief-to-chief. Later, Delmond stops by Indian practice and allows himself to tap his foot to the beat and sing along before jetting back to NYC.

The Katrina spotlight is also shining on Tulane English prof Creighton Bernette, whose incendiary YouTube rants about the governmental drowning of his beloved city have made him a cause-celebre and renewed his publisher's interest in his long-dormant novel. Creighton begrudgingly promises his agent that he'll get back to work, but he'd rather be marching through the French Quarter to the sounds of the Panorama and the Stooges brass bands at the Krewe du Vieux parade that kicks off the Mardi Gras parade season.

But Katrina was not an equal-opportunity employer, and trombonist Antoine Batiste has found himself left out in the rain. Or hung out to dry. Missing the boat? Anyway, he can't get a gig, even a spot on a Dr. John tour that was handed to him by Philip Frazier of the Rebirth Brass Band but went to the younger, hipper Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews instead. (Shorty, needless to say, would never show up to a black-tie affair in a suit because his old stained tux got shrunk in the washing machine.) When Kermit Ruffins throws Antoine his scraps - subbing in a big-band at a Mardi Gras ball - Antoine is grateful but deflated. Playing charts of swing standards is not Antoine's idea of creative expression (i.e. its not authentically "New Orleans"), and though his spontaneous solo on the warhorse Take the A Train earns him a smattering of applause from the polite dancers, the glare shot by the bandleader will surely have more of an effect on Antoine's fumbling quest for a steady paycheck.

Like a lot of the music in this episode, this performance seems designed to leave us cold. The lighting, the cinematography, and the sound of the modern jazz and big-band scenes are muted in comparison to the vibrant practice session at the Indian bar. For those viewers in search of locating where authenticity begins and ends, the look and sound are a kind of thermometer for gauging the way Simon and his team assign value. But for those in search of an intimate, cohesive story, Treme may be giving off more light than heat.


  1. Matt,

    I really enjoy your blog, particularly your elegant writing style.

    I do disagree though with your critique this week. Stylistically, "Treme" departs from the genre of television, and may appear therefore to lack a "theme". As you've pointed out, it focuses on a wide range of characters who are only loosely connected, if at all. Yet, all are struggling with reestablishing their lives as New Orleanians. In this sense, the show's theme "reads" like that of a novel, rather than like something you'd normally find in a TV show.

    "Treme" is like Simon's "The Wire" in this way. It requires attention over multiple shows. Often, plot points involving individual characters are introduced then remain unexplored over multiple episodes. Simon is purposeful in his work, even if his intent isn't immediately apparent.

  2. Hey Anon, I agree w/everything you said, and I think I've made some of these same points over the course of the season. For me, its a question of whether this "novel" about the struggles of New Orleanians post-K does justice to the complexities of the subject material. I mean, Katrina is a fascinating episode in contemporary America because its connected to so many issues of criminal justice, governance, globalization, terrorism... and if anyone can show how these mammoth abstract forces effect individual lives than its Simon and his team. That's what they were able to do in The Wire that could be done here in a very different way that would be true to the distinctiveness of New Orleans while illuminating all the social/political infrastructures that made Katrina so devastating and interesting.

  3. I'm a different anon from the anon above

    I wonder if Simon's use of stasis isn't supposed to be reflective of the way in which New Orleanians were figuratively stuck after Katrina, wanting to be able to move forward but being denied at every turn. Just when things look like they're about to go somewhere (ie finding Daymo, Annie leaving Sonny, Creighton furthering his career) they end up right back where they started-- paralyzed.

    I am in two minds about this. On the one hand, it does mirror how I remember those days after Katrina, some days distinctly seemed to be getting better and then a few days later everything seemed to be getting much worse again-- two steps forward, one step back so to speak. On the other, I have yet to really be thrown for a loop. Everything that has happened so far, with the exception of Davis' character who I think is kind of the main character, has been terribly predictable and that's very Un-Simonlike. Maybe it's because I live here, but I've seen everything so far coming from a mile away-- Sonny hit Annie and she came back to him, Delmond beginning to appreciate his roots, Big Chief harping on the projects and sewing his suit. Even the quest for Daymo has been straight ahead with very little interesting twists and turns. I compared Treme to Ulysses in an earlier comment to an earlier post, but even though Ulysses is the definition of stasis, the progression of one man's day from the morning to night, nothing that happens is expected, it's all very interesting observations, language, themes. It takes the ordinary and turns it into art. So far, Treme has very interesting characters that just kind of stumble from one predictable place to another.

  4. Thanks Anon#2... thats a really interesting take on the insider's perspective. Perhaps Treme seems predictable to those who experienced Katrina. Coincidentally, my wife just pointed me to the Treme Facebook page, where there's hundreds of fans who are entranced by the New Orleans culture portrayed in the show. Guess its all about perspective.

  5. I wanted to raise something regarding the issue of "authenticity" in the show.

    I think it's actually something that *the characters* struggle with as they attempt to make choices in their lives. Our choices in life are often between acting in a way that meets your own expectations (i.e. authentically) or meeting someone else's expectations to get something you want. For example, Antoine must decide whether to play on Bourbon Street for the cash even though he despises the atmosphere. The traditional rule that "playing Saints is extra" underlines this struggle. This struggle is heightened at a time when the characters have much limited options, post-Katrina. Antoine, for example, didn't have trouble finding gigs before the storm.

    At the time the show is portraying, many New Orleanians talked about the mayor and the rest of the administration "selling them out". They claimed that the city government wanted to create an environment that encouraged tourism at the expense of its citizenry. According to critiques, an inauthentic New Orleans was in the making that excluded a previously vibrant local culture.

  6. re: authenticity... most definitely. i guess this comes across most clearly in the 'disaster tourism' bus scene. the gov't won't help the Indians rebuild their houses or bar, won't reopen public housing, but the Indian culture still attracts tourists as an authentic/exotic display of local culture. I'm sure we'll see more of the 'cultural tourism' debates in the show, since musicians often feel like they're living 'exhibitions' of tradition.

  7. The storytelling seems to be based on jazz. The characters riff off each other, but there's only a loose underlying structure. It will get to its conclusion eventually, but there will be unexpected, interesting twists and turns along the way.

    I think it's a brilliant melding of subject and style.

  8. Great post and thinking all around. Here's my take on this week's episode, and I guess I wrote it as a guy who has performed jazz professionally for over 25 years. In that regard, I find some different inflections, but don't disagree much with all that has been said here.

  9. Interesting comment by Lisa. It reminds me of Toni Morrison's novel, "Jazz," which was her conscious attempt to follow the form of jazz music to tell a story. Love to hear what Matt thinks.

  10. I think the characters definitely riff off each other over a loose underlying structure... and I think jazz performance as an ensemble of interdependent actors is also a good analogy w/Treme... in fact I think the performances and writing are nearly flawless... I'm just being picky about the subject matter... the 'tune' if you will. Too picky, perhaps, but I'd like to see the band stretch out on some different repertoire.