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There’s Hope in New Orleans

June 9, 2010

I always figured Delmond as the hard-headed pragmatist of the group. Sitting in with Big Sam’s Funky Nation, he noted to a rather jubilant bar crowd:

Saw me some Indians tonight. Forgot what a thrill that was, man; I got goosebumps. I still got goosebumps. Indians on Mardi Gras day, man, kinda makes you think New Orleans might just make it … you know? Might just come back.

Unexpectedly, a woman shouts:

We back!

For once, I’m glad I was wrong.


Snap Judgment: Creighton Bernette

May 27, 2010

We get it Creigh, you’re upset. New Orleans is worsening and no one seems to care (despite your spirited You Tube manifestos), you can’t quite get the right words on the page and, because of this, it seems your relationship with your wife is slowly deteriorating (I might be a bit a head of myself here, but I think that’s where Simon is taking us). The truth of the matter is this: Creighton has become terribly flat as a character up to this point. This became painstakingly clear in Episode 6. We saw a softer, more caring side of Antoine as he tried to cope with the death of his former music teacher, we saw Janette and Davis growing closer (as friends, “with or without benefits”) as a result of her having to close the restaurant and, to my surprise, we saw Simon close a chapter in LaDonna’s life–we discover Daymo is dead, not locked in prison somewhere. This is particularly interesting to me because, up until this point, LaDonna has been consumed with finding her brother, so it’ll be interesting to watch where her character will go from here.  With Creighton, all he does is complain about the same things: the lack of attention to New Orleans, how he’s uninspired to finish his book and why his city is such a great place to live despite the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Yeah, yeah, we get it. There was, a few episodes back, flashes of an overprotective father that highlighted a different side of him but, other than that, I can’t think of many scenarios where we are introduced to a different layer of Creighton Bernette the man. To me, Creighton Bernette the writer is my least favorite, probably because, watching him stare helplessly at the blank page on the computer screen, he reminds me so much of myself and my daily frustrations trying to create original and lasting work. Usually, I’m all for characters I can relate to, but not here.

Talking Points: Episodes 1-5

May 16, 2010

Eric: I am going to go ahead and say it: Treme has been a disappointment for me so far.  For all its strengths—great acting, wonderful camera work, sharp writing, and compelling characters—the show has yet to capture my imagination with a single narrative. This ranges from the subplots that make up the episodes to the overarching storylines. For instance, I’m losing interest in whether LaDonna finds her brother. Corruption. Bureaucracy. I get it.

I know that David Simon is a writer who rewards patience—and I am ready to give him more time, ready for those stories to come together. But are you guys beginning to worry that Treme will get bogged down satisfying the whims of the creative types involved instead of our very visceral needs as an audience? Maybe I’m jut selfish.

Reeves: Say it loud, Eric. I think anytime “wonderful camera work” has to be mentioned to bulk up a show’s list of positive qualities, something’s awry. I’ve had the same conversations with multiple people: “[Insert general complaint about the plot], but I’m obviously going to keep watching.” But I took a look at the ratings for Episode 4, and they’ve dropped by almost half since the premiere. One imagines the only people hanging on are Wire devotees and jazz buffs (two already small demographics).

One question I haven’t seen broached: where does the show end? Six months after the storm? A year? For many of these characters, there is no end game: either their lives get back to normal, or they don’t. Few have tangible goals. LaDonna’s looking for her brother. Apparently Davis is now running for city council. And everyone else is sort of muddling their way to . . . something.

That said, I’m obviously going to keep watching. It’s only five more hours, right?

Jason: I particularly like what Simon is doing more so with character development than plot. Yeah, I know: How can tell a compelling story without a plot? Well, you can’t. But you can’t tell a compelling story without compelling characters either. I, for one, loved the opening scene in Episode 5. For a second I thought Simon had given in and LaDonna had, finally, found her brother. But—surprise, surprise—it was a dream. I hope he continues to play with the surreal in the coming episodes (especially in relation to LaDonna, I really believe he’s on to something with the dream sequences). It would also be advantageous to explore the mysticism of New Orleans more, examining deeper rooted traditions like the origins of voodoo and its relation to jazz and New Orleans culture.

It does, at times, seem like every one is running in circles, but isn’t that the beauty of storytelling? Ralph Ellison’s own treatise on black life, Invisible Man, was, at its very core, a story of a man who undergoes wayward leaps in a concentric pilgrimage. As you mentioned Eric, Simon is a writer who rewards patience, and I believe, in time, something substantial will surface and reveal itself. Until then, I don’t mind watching the characters unfold.

Fiction and Historical Fiction

May 15, 2010

From a storytelling perspective, the most interesting thing to me about Treme is that the show is a work of –albeit recent — historical fiction. And Treme is more than just fiction that takes place in the past, like say Michael Chabon’s Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. In the meticulous tradition of writers like Robert Graves and James Michener, Treme is fiction that seeks to recreate and broaden our understanding of the past.  The characters are fictional people whose lives are affected by the movements of real people and real events.

That historical fiction aspect has also been my biggest problem with Treme. I have this creeping fear that David Simon and company are more interested in the history than the fiction; that they are sacrificing the literary, the deeply human, the entirely intangible truths for the sake of the factual truths.  It can be a challenging reconciliation, but Simon proved with The Wire that he was capable of the balancing act. Why is it then that Treme continues to strike me as a parade of “Hey look how accurate we are!” type details?

Anyway, I bring that up to share this great quote from novelist Nathan Englander. Englander was asked by The New Yorker if when writing about devastating historical events (and I think Katrina and its aftermath qualifies), he feels “any burden of responsibility to the historical truth?”

His answer:

As for responsibility toward historical truth, I feel a huge responsibility. I do massive amounts of research and feel a deep obligation toward accuracy. But it’s a controlled accuracy. We’re talking about fiction here, about creating new kinds of truth. I believe that anything that a story needs to be true is true by virtue of its necessity. If it’s not essential, then it may not be changed. But you need to have the facts to make those decisions. If a character jumps off a building, you need to understand gravity, and the limits of the human body, rate of falling, and all that, and then you can decide if you want him to fly. In this story, I can’t even tell you the number of things that I looked at or looked up, finally testing them on my devil’s-advocate friend Joel in Jerusalem, arguing the theoretical through. Then when it’s time for a big decision, I’m ready to stand behind it. So if a reader wants to write in and say, “There’s no way that an Egyptian soldier ever accidentally sat down with an Israeli soldier because they were wearing identical French-supplied uniforms,” I’d feel comfortable responding, “That may generally be true, but it definitely happened once—because it happened to Shimmy Gezer. It says so right there in paragraph two

You’ve written fiction about some of the most devastating periods of twentieth-century history, including the Holocaust in this story and others. Do you ever feel a burden of responsibility toward the historical truth?

New and Different

May 12, 2010

Those two words are, apparently, what defines HBO programming, and if true, undoubtedly explain much of Treme’s existence. Those words comes from a mildly lengthy 2007 piece by a former HBO employee. So does this:

My boss and I were attempting to pitch her a series of short bio-pics about R&B legends like Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. Potter got it immediately, and spent time exploring the idea, its possible permutations and overall potential, before telling us bluntly that while it might be a good project, it wasn’t a good HBO project. It’s the quintessential HBO experience for visiting producers, a kind of Socratic dialogue:

What’s a good HBO project?

Something new and different.

Isn’t our project new and different?

Not enough for HBO.

So what’s new and different enough for HBO?

We know it when we see it.

The difference between HBO and conventional television starts with a business model that doesn’t rely on advertising. You pay a monthly fee to your cable system if you want HBO; and if you don’t want HBO, you don’t pay. Every month, some people pick up the service, and some people drop it. Cable executives call this “churn.” The goal is to have positive churn rather than negative churn—to give people a network of shows worth paying for.

Much of the criticism leveled at Treme seems to stem from the fact that its “different” than what we expect from other, good television shows. Namely, a driving plot. A show should not be excused for eschewing the demands of storytelling simply in the name of being different. But it appears that HBO, perhaps with good reason, has decided that different sells, perhaps even better than good. Of course, being different will often mean that you stumble upon good things more often than others.

I happen to think that Treme is both different and good, and am prepared to deploy all the italics in my arsenal to argue as such. More to come.

So, what just happened?

May 12, 2010

I just got to this week’s episode, which I rather enjoyed (more later). But I was left with one immediate question: what happened with Sonny and Annie and that dude from Houston at the end of the episode? Did I miss something obvious?

Annie asks Dude if Sonny was back on the drugs. We see Dude run off with Annie after the gunshots. Annie’s crying in Sonny’s arms. Dude gives Annie a knowing look on the way out. Sonny says he hopes to see him again. The simple explanation seems to be: Annie made him leave because of the drugs. But why all the other nonsense? We didn’t see any of the other major characters escaping the Second Line, after all.

My theory: Dude assaulted Annie after the Second Line; she didn’t tell Sonny, but, instead, told him Dude had to leave because of the drugs; Dude left, on good terms with Sonny because all he is to him is a connect.

Please do tell me how far I’ve overshot this one.


May 6, 2010

Lagniappe just ain’t what it used to be — Creighton Bernette

When Davis blew his tire out on the way to piano lessons, I heard a word that was new to me. It sounded like lan-yap. The old man who offered to watch the Davis-mobile told him not to worry about paying him for the service — to consider it lan-yap. I even paused the episode to discuss with Matt what the hell he was saying. The best we could come up with at the time was that the old man said “Consider it laying you up.”

Then, of course, Creighton drove Davis back to his car. Window smashed. Keyboard gone. Mysterious word repeated.

“He said it was lan-yap.”

“Lan-yap just ain’t what it used to be.”

What the hell were they talking about? A favor — we could gather that much from context. But what was that word?

When I googled my silly phonetic spelling lanyap, the result came back: Lagniappe.Lagniappe is, per Merriam Webster: a small gift given a customer by a merchant at the time of a purchase; broadly : something given or obtained gratuitously or by way of good measure.

Its origin is Spanish (la ñapa), and its Wikipedia page features a great passage from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi on the lagniappe, which is reproduced in its entirety below:

We picked up one excellent word — a word worth travelling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word — “lagniappe.” They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish — so they said. We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune, the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth. It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a “baker’s dozen.” It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure. The custom originated in the Spanish quarter of the city. When a child or a servant buys something in a shop — or even the mayor or the governor, for aught I know — he finishes the operation by saying — “Give me something for lagniappe.” The shopman always responds; gives the child a bit of licorice-root, gives the servant a cheap cigar or a spool of thread, gives the governor — I don’t know what he gives the governor; support, likely. When you are invited to drink, and this does occur now and then in New Orleans — and you say, “What, again? — no, I’ve had enough;” the other party says, “But just this one time more — this is for lagniappe.” When the beau perceives that he is stacking his compliments a trifle too high, and sees by the young lady’s countenance that the edifice would have been better with the top compliment left off, he puts his “I beg pardon — no harm intended,” into the briefer form of “Oh, that’s for lagniappe.”