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“But be zealous for the better gifts” — Treme in the New Yorker

April 8, 2010

The characters in the show are ambivalent about outsiders, and if you’re at all sensitive to that you feel intrusive, rude—almost a colonialist—for appreciating what you see and hear in “Treme.” The series virtually prohibits you from loving it, while asking you to value it.

The take-away point in Nancy Franklin’s Treme piece in the New Yorker is that while the show doesn’t push a particular political agenda or weigh moral differences between characters (other than outsiders), it spends a great deal of narrative effort focusing, very closely, on the culture in which the characters are immersed.

The camera is fascinated by what it sees; its eye couldn’t get in any closer.

What came to mind while reading Franklin’s story is something I deal with a lot in environmental education: the concept  that “people protect what they love, and they love what they understand.” Supposedly, Jacques Cousteau said that first.  It’s a great quote but it’s true only to the extent that only some people want to, seek to, understand, are even open to doing so.

One of the things we learned after the flood was that the rest of America, outside of New Orleans, didn’t really understand much about New Orleans, outside of the French Quarter. That is of course, an understatement as well as an oversimplification.  With his intent focus on this one community, via its musical culture, does David Simon want America to understand New Orleans  better so that we will value/love it, won’t turn away as we have before in the hour of greatest need?  My guess would be that he’s a bit too cynical to think like that.  I know I am.

My problem with the concept is one of frustrated bewilderment that humans have to be taught (or led, or pushed) to value something that is essential to their own survival, be it their environment, their food supply, their fellow countrymen,  or a national treasure of a place like New Orleans, a singular piece of America, of their country’s history. Of course, after the bewilderment, comes the cynicism. Remember, the failure of ourselves, of “us” as a country, during the hour of New Orleans’ need shouldn’t have been a surprise. Far too often, we are a violently mean and selfish nation. Too often, we are a rotten bunch of folks, beset by a host of mental illnesses.  That’s my problem with the concept, and I’m likely not nearly as sophisticated, and almost certainly not as cynical, as David Simon.

Speaking of violently mean and rotten bunch of folks, remember Deadwood? I may be mistaken in the assumption that most Simonverse fans are also fellow travelers with those who have journeyed in the Milchverse, so for those that never saw Deadwood, there was a character, Reverend Smith, whose job in service to the story was to keep stating what should have been obvious — because it was essential for their survival— to his grubby flock. Which was, in short, we are all in this together.  Whether we want to be or not, whether we believe it or not, is irrelevant.

But now are they many members, yet but one body.
And the eye cannot say unto the hand,
I have no need of thee:
nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.

America needs to understand New Orleans, whether it wants to or not, whether it believes it needs to or not.  Whether Treme will help make that happen is anyone’s guess, but even without having seen it, I don’t think this story of New Orleans, of its value, is to be told as a request, with an open hand, with an aspiration, or a goal, other than that of verity.  It’s a story to stand on its own merits, for its own sake. It has value because it is. Some know that, others seeking to know will come to bear their own witness.

12 Comments
  1. April 8, 2010 3:54 pm

    This post has me in tears, Virgo. Maybe it was the mention of Ashley on the Colbert Report and that I found out another young friend has very little time left on this earth, but this, the inter-connectedness we ignore at our own peril, it’s something else.

  2. April 8, 2010 4:19 pm

    Chills. Y’all’ve answered the questions I asked this morning on Facebook. So glad y’all’re doing this.

  3. scout permalink
    April 8, 2010 5:44 pm

    Why oh why does Simon have to go and make tourists from WI look foolish? Why, really?

  4. Kevin permalink
    April 9, 2010 1:36 am

    From my POV, the Wisconsin tourists don’t come off as foolish — just sorta cardboard-y. They’re standins for Freshly Scrubbed Midwestern Innocence. It’s not the most subtle portrayal, but it’s also not the most malicious. They share most of their scenes with the Steve Zahn character, which somehow makes them caricatures by osmosis. (I really hate the Zahn character.)

    I liked them; they reminded me of the hordes of Lutheran teens that came down last year on a service mission. And if Simon et al. want to be REALLY accurate, they’re going to have to show that the fresh-scrubbed Christian kids who came here did a lot more for the initial recovery than all the star-chitects, Markos Moulitsas acolytes and wannabe eco-planners combined.

  5. scout permalink
    April 9, 2010 8:00 am

    Kevin–yes. Those young people did so much and New Orleanians were so grateful for it that the scene just seemed really wrong to me at least.

  6. scout permalink
    April 9, 2010 8:07 am

    Unless of course the scene really is about what a pompous ass the Zahn character is. From Bloomberg review re Zahn character–“You may find yourself wishing that a thug from “The Wire” would show up and whack him.”
    Ouch

  7. scout permalink
    April 9, 2010 4:04 pm

    OK NYT says it’s volunteers from WI which really just makes it worse for me. Real classy. I can’t understand how people are ok with that. I’m done and out

  8. April 9, 2010 4:30 pm

    So unless you’ve got a press contact, we haven’t actually seen the whole scene yet, eh?

  9. April 9, 2010 4:31 pm

    Oh, and the piano player in that scene isn’t Steve Zahn. There are *two* scruffy white piano players in the show.

    BTW, that electric piano he’s using? He bought it on Craigslist from Hana. It used to be Ashley’s.

  10. April 9, 2010 5:39 pm

    Hey, he’s the Hipster we all love to hate. Crapsinthe’s anyone?

  11. April 9, 2010 6:12 pm

    Scout, you know I love you, but what I’m having trouble with is what I take to be your underlying assumption that the characters in the show are somehow speaking for the people who made the movie, that what they say is somehow a message aimed at someone.

    As opposed to the POV of a fictional character who is saying something to another fictional character. And from my understanding of the scene, the keyboard playing dude who says it is acting like an asshole. And the conflict in the scene is between him and his partner, who’s embarassed by him/mad at him and trying to make up for his attitude.

    There’s another scene where the owner of the bar says the problem is that she “married a goddamn musician.” Is that supposed to be a cheap shot at musicians?

    Drama is about conflict. It tells a story. Assholes are part of that story. If I’m remembering some of the comments I’ve read in the Nola.com comments section correctly, there were plenty of them around, pissed off about all kind of things.

    I’m sorry, but it just seems like a really long stretch to say that constituted a cheap shot.

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