Au Contraire, Mon Frère
Before you read this post, first go read Jeffrey’s post about why he didn’t like Treme. We are mostly a collection of partisans of both David Simon and New Orleans, so I think a contrarian view is appropriate about right now. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
I was perhaps five years old the first time I saw Mardi Gras Indians.
I grew up in the green shelter of Lake Vista, my experience of black people limited to the minstrel clowns of the Three Stooges turned white in fright, to Amos and Andy, to Sylvia our part time maid shared with our grandmother who did as much as anyone to raise me, to JoJo the handyman who seemed to a small boy perhaps ten feet tall, black as an Indian demon, always dressed in bibs and boots with a wife beater under, his look exactly the character from The Green Mile. When I rode the streetcar downtown with my grandmother to go shopping there were few Blacks on the old Canal Streetcar, and they moved to the back as reflexively deferential as anyone else I might encounter on Canal Street that afternoon.
My Aunts Gert and Sadie Folse lived in an apartment on Royal Street now the Hove’ Parfumier and that is where we spent Mardi Gras day until they moved back to Thibodaux to die. Driving down Canal Street one Carnival Day the Indians appeared, beaded bird creatures out of childhood picture books, standing on the corner of I think Galvez (probably Galvez) and Canal. My father pulled over, and while my mother sat in rigid fear in the front passenger seat my father stepped out of the car, with the children around him, and we watched, until they turned and went back into the neighborhood.
It was the last time I saw them until I came home to New Orleans in 2006.
Yes, the city is as full of hipsters as it ever was, the same sort of people who kept the Beats at home and not in the bars and coffee shops of North Beach Saturday nights in the late fifties, the same sort who flooded the Haight in 1967 looking for something already dying. I don’t think I am one of those. I don’t think my father was either, although he was fond of berets and guayaberas and painted in oils and hoped to retire someday to the fence at Jackson Square. He also risked his career as an architect mostly paid from public contracts–by the firm that built the main library and the Superdome and a dozen other notable late modern buildings around town–to stand up against the Riverfront Expressway. As chairman of the local A.I.A., he offered to debate the head of the group that eventually became the Downtown Development District on WWL-TV, an offer declined. Was he a hipster, or one of the preservationist crowed who prefer their Indian suits under glass at the New Orleans Museum of Art? Perhaps. Did he intended (by thwarting the riverfront expressway) to destroy Claiborne Avenue? I don’t think so.
He was just a man entranced by a magical city (not his own; he came up as young man from Thibodaux much as my daughter came down here at fourteen); a man who would not gladly see it ruined; a man who would stop where my mother silently signaled she was sure we should not, so that he and his children could have a taste of that magic back when it was still a forbidden fruit.
That I can now park on the Claiborne Neutral Ground on Super Sunday and stand and watch the Indians pass, all of us comfortable in our own skin, that I can take my son down to Taylor Park after: what does that mean? I think it says something about the state of race relations in 2010 than anything else, and speaks a little to the solidarity born of the Federal Flood. If I go to Super Sunday am I a hipster, someone leaching off of another’s culture? If you go to Rome, are you someone leching off of another person’s culture? I don’t think so.
You can view Simon’s take on New Orleans as the exploitation of a hipster in from out of town, or you can take it as an artistic act of love for a magical place. I prefer the latter r view, and believe I can sustain it in argument. I can’t think of a single moment that was genuinely exploitative (unless we’re going to count product placement). The word that comes to mind is reverential, and I think that approach bothers some people. It implies the mindset of the die-hard preservationist who will not change a screw or a nail lest the authenticity all fall down in a heap at his feet. I don’t detect anything in Simon’s statements or the first episode to make me thing that. He is an artist, out to create something about our city, set in our city.
I’ve addressed the whole “how dare he” idea already. (Fuck Zola. Fuck Dickens. &c.)
As to some of Jeffrey’s other criticisms, I simply suggested he was misjudging how a show of this many hours should operate. It does not run on sitcom time or cop show time. It is novelistic in its scope. One way to open something of this length is by focusing on characters as beautiful or as ugly as any fishing lure, and bright with hooks to catch the viewer and bring them into the slowly unfolding story. That is why we get the clownish David McAlary and the pathetic Antoine Batiste, to help drag us into the story. If we fail to do so, then the teacher or police officer or other “real people” Jeffrey laments are not represented have no chance to have their story told, because their will be no viewers, no series, no chance to go deeper into the narrative and present those characters.
That is pretty basic whether you are writing a novel or a television series or an epic poem if you were into that sort of thing. Explain, goddess, exactly what the f–k Achilles and Agamemnon are up to why don’t you, right there in the first chapter? Or find some other way to get us into the story? (That’s probably a bad example, as most epics started as storytelling and most people knew what was going to happen before the singer began. But you get the idea.) Ed.’s. Note: G.B. has addressed accumulation already but I’m leaving the above in so I’m not up all night re-writing.
My take is that Simon gave us first the characters that fill his stringer with enough viewers to tell the much larger story in his head, and through that story (and the place it occurs in) we will see parades of all sorts of other characters. I share Jeffrey’s wish that some of them be cops and school teachers and parents with children and the elderly and everyone who’s been touched in some special way by the flood, that this will grow like the Wire into many stories set in this place, tied together by a common setting and a common experience of 8-29.
But we can’t get there without hooking viewers, and unlike Jeffery I find no fault with the way Simon is going about it. I am comfortable because he is not a hipster, or a creative class capitalist or any of that other ilk who pass through telling us what we’re doing wrong. And I don’t think he’s a one-upping Big Chief pass holder or you not have seen the Jockomo sign at Vaughns or any of the other “oh, it’s not really like that” little bits. A true hipster would never set something at Vaughns in the first place, and let the whole world in on it. That’s someplace the hipster takes dates and friends from out of town to establish his essential hipness. You can’t let the whole world in on it or you’ve blown your whole act.
Hipsters are cultural leaches, who come to live vicariously the creative and expressive lives of others, to shop in the mall of art and culture wherever they land and appropriate the approved styles of the moment. They do not create; they consume. As they consume, they do not grow but shrink, shedding bit by bit whoever they really are to become another instance of the approved, their only claim to fame being the first to jump down the trend hole.
Am I a hipster because I got to Super Sunday or listen to jazz and dance to funky brass bands, because I wear hats and only shop at Meyers? Or am I passe’ because I still love the Maple Leaf (the one from long ago with the juke box that had the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 on it, that I would play on a Saturday night with all the obnoxious airs of Davis McWhatzizname because it was like a line of musical coke), I still go there because it’s just as cool now as when you might run into James Booker or Everette Maddox there, but you don’t because they’re dead. Do I shop for hats at Meyer’s so I can sneer about if you bought your’s somewhere else or because I learned from my father you are either at Acme man or a Felix’s man, and I am an Acme man? You’ll have to be the judge of that. I think I am simply my father’s son, as best I can tell.
I fail to understand how anyone could mistake Simon, based on the work we all saw this past weekend, of being a exploitative hipster. I genuinely believe in my heart that he is the sort of man my father was, doing his work in the world and when some bit of beauty presented itself–the Mardi Gras Indians at the corner of Galvez and Canal, or some subject for a painting– he took it into his soul and grew and somewhere that beauty came back out, and made the world a better place, the sort of person hipsters wish they were and come to feed from like leeches.
– wet bank guy