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On verisimilitude

April 13, 2010
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I know and like Jeffrey but I think he is dead wrong, for several reasons.  Not just because I liked what I saw in the premiere – but that it was a pilot episode.  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.

It’s been said by folks more eloquent than me, but this isn’t a documentary.  We’re not watching David Simon tell a story about Ashley Morris, Susan Spicer, Davis Rogan, Donald Harrison Jr., and Mary Howell.  We’re watching David Simon tell a story. And right now, we’re just getting to know the characters.  Those who were here in fall 2005 know their own stories, they know their friends’ stories, and so they may have an expectation that David Simon is going to tell their story, but he’s not.  This is no different than picking up a work of fiction – I’m currently reading The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, for example, so say I picked it up and said to myself, “This is about a crazy Midwestern family.  I have a crazy Midwestern family.”  If I started reading his book with the expectation of seeing my own family in print, I’d be horribly disappointed, and I wouldn’t be trusting Jonathan Franzen to tell me a story.

Baltimoreans expected some measure of verisimilitude from The Wire, just like New Orleanians expect from Treme, and at least some must have been elated, watching the show.  I don’t know Baltimore and I’ve never been there but David Simon told a story about fictional people and set it in this place that he so obviously loves with his whole damn heart, and used it to tell us, his viewers, something about ourselves and our institutions.

I trust that David Simon is going to make me care about these characters and what happens to them.  I trust that he loves and understands New Orleans enough to make me focus on the story he’s writing instead of nitpicking the details.  Mostly, I trust that he’s going to use fiction to tell us something about ourselves, and by ourselves, I don’t mean New Orleanians, I mean the viewers. I trust that the actors in the show are going to blow me away.  That was why Clarke Peters in the suit had me so transfixed – because what are the writers trying to tell us with this scene?  That this exact scenario played out in November 2005?  Or that Albert Lambreaux, a character we’ve just met, is so determined to singlehandedly wrest his traditions from the brink that he’ll don the suit he’s saved from the flood to get someone to pick up the debris from in front of the bar?

My bigger problem with his review is this knee-jerk oppositional stance that equates newcomer with hipster:

“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.”

“It must be this banal hipsterism.”

“In our experience, the newcomers have a knack for rather boldly instructing us in the art of how to be ourselves.”

“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?”

“I saw a parade of hipster pseudo-New Orleans douchenozzling. And I think that’s what the crappy people in the bar wanted to see on TV.”

This betrays a perspective that is more about being bitter than anything else.  This says, “I hate these people in this bar and I hate everything they like.”  Nothing in the show I saw was an instruction manual.  Nothing about it communicated that people came back for the food and music, but rather, they came back, period, and the food and music came back with them. New Orleans is a place where people “fucking live.”  So are Chicago and Wichita and Dallas and Sacramento, but those are places where home cooks don’t season their food properly, where you can live your whole life and never hear music played outside, where people clap on 1 and 3, and that matters. Appreciating what is here and only here is not an infallible tenet of hipsterism: it’s being alive and awake.  Ray says he’s in exile. How many people are trying to crawl back to New Orleans any way they can? How many people don’t yet know they belong here?  How many people will watch the show and realize that they’ve been asleep their whole life?

26 Comments
  1. April 13, 2010 1:17 pm

    wow, I had just this minute finished reading that post at Library Chronicles, via a link in a tweet .

    Mostly, I trust that he’s going to use fiction to tell us something about ourselves, and by ourselves, I don’t mean New Orleanians, I mean the viewers.

    yeah, this.

  2. April 13, 2010 1:24 pm

    Maitri tweeted the link to this Atlantic piece that mentioned Back of Town. I think it gets to some of what you are trying to say here:

    “Treme offers us the rare opportunity to go back in time and see and understand what was previously inconceivable for those of us who were elsewhere. More important than time travel, the opportunity to replace the cliched images of Katrina we’ve been force-fed is a vital one, for the healing of New Orleans and even ourselves. While some see Treme as new entertainment to be fisked and followed, I wonder if it could go further, evoking compassion and creating allies where there was once indifference to the plight of one of America’s greatest cities…”

    The whole article is a good read.

  3. jeffrey permalink
    April 13, 2010 1:43 pm

    1) The automatically generated possibly related posts here are hilarious.

    2) “I hate these people in this bar and I hate everything they like.” Well, I mean, duh.

    3) I get confused. On the one hand we get this and many many passages like it:

    “Treme offers us the rare opportunity to go back in time and see and understand what was previously inconceivable for those of us who were elsewhere. More important than time travel, the opportunity to replace the cliched images of Katrina we’ve been force-fed is a vital one, for the healing of New Orleans and even ourselves. ”

    But if the “cliched images” are replaced with different and slightly less tossed-off cliches then that’s just our fault from expecting too much realism from a work of fiction? That’s a neat trick.

    4 and finally) “Trust the storyteller”? When is that ever good advice?

  4. April 13, 2010 1:59 pm

    So are Chicago and Wichita and Dallas and Sacramento, but those are places where home cooks don’t season their food properly, where you can live your whole life and never hear music played outside, where people clap on 1 and 3, and that matters.

    If I didn’t love the sounds of the Chicago L trains rushing by at night when the neighborhood is quiet, like the tide going out and coming back in, if I didn’t love the kind of belligerence it takes to live in a place where people will call you an asshole to your face for putting ketchup on your hot dog, if I didn’t love the freeways and the side streets and the horns and the noise, if I didn’t even love in some crazy way our shitty baseball teams and their Soxtard and Cubtard fans, I’d live somewhere else.

    Your point is a good one. What makes a place special is what brings you back to it, it’s why you come back when you have the choice to go elsewhere. Not many people think about why they are where they are, and if they truly want to be there. We do a lot of bullshitting of ourselves, that we have no choices, and living someplace it takes work to live is a choice.

    A.

  5. April 13, 2010 2:15 pm

    You like Jeffrey? Cool. I do too but he’s the king of contrarianism and self loathing. Me, I like Chicago and there’s great food to be had there.

  6. alli permalink
    April 13, 2010 2:22 pm

    I love those things about Chicago, too. The feel of fresh air on your skin the first time you get to wear a t-shirt outside in April, the breezes off Lake Michigan, that soaring stomach-jumping feeling you get driving out of the tunnel under McCormick Place? I miss those things. But I couldn’t live there. New Orleans has ruined me.

    Word to your point about choice.

  7. alli permalink
    April 13, 2010 2:24 pm

    Trust the storyteller to actually tell you a story? I don’t think that’s bad advice.

  8. April 13, 2010 2:27 pm

    Seems to me you’ve got some tunnel vision for the perceived cliches while you’re missing the good stuff.

  9. April 13, 2010 2:28 pm

    A friend wondered if anyone in New Orleans could review Treme, and there’s something to that. The conversations around the show remind me of those that surrounded Obama – clearly people projecting their own desires, hopes and interests on David Simon’s project & are reacting angrily when the show doesn’t match their projections. On Twitter, an African-American woman was disappointed because it didn’t deal with middle class, more successful African-American families. Another reviewer (at ingoodtaste.com.blogspot.com) was upset that a degenerate and thief like Davis got so much time, and that Treme didn’t show a broader range of people. When I interviewed members of the production, I had to stop myself from telling them stories that I thought they should focus on and things I thought were important – in effect, trying to get the show to line up with my perception and recollections of the time, only some of which are consistent with the vision of the show.

  10. April 13, 2010 2:32 pm

    Especially not when the storyteller has a good track record.

  11. jeffrey permalink
    April 13, 2010 2:37 pm

    Hey I’m a Cubtard. Must count for something.

  12. April 13, 2010 2:41 pm

    I liked the pilot and thought it was a good pilot to set up the characters.

    My wife didn’t like the pilot. I am not sure if she will watch anymore beyond the pilot.

    To each their own I suppose.

  13. April 13, 2010 2:41 pm

    Alex, that’s one of the reasons why I linked to Cliff’s review of Treme earlier today, in which he says: “After watching the show last night and getting opinions from people I realize that we are all too close to the situation either positively or negatively to judge it fairly. We all have personal issues that affect how we see the show.”

    http://cliffscrib.blogspot.com/2010/04/treme-week-one.html

    We’ve done our damnedest to be atop our versions of New Orleans, it can be tough to see past it, or to even realize that opinions of it may differ.

  14. April 13, 2010 2:42 pm

    So’s my husband, dude. It counts for a great deal….except when you’re a Mets fan like me.

  15. alli permalink
    April 13, 2010 3:27 pm

    I just want to be clear that I’m not bashing other cities (Chicago, Dallas, etc) – as Athenae made clear, everywhere is home to someone.

    My point, which I didn’t make very well, is that when talking about what’s cliche and what’s not, what’s normal and what’s not, what is part of the fabric of everyday life and what’s not, food and music and architecture and the pulse of life in New Orleans aren’t just incidentals. They’re what makes this place tactilely, aurally, visually unique, and we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that for many of the show’s viewers, they’ll have never witnessed anything like this before, ever.

  16. April 13, 2010 3:30 pm

    They’ve missed voodoo thus far; much to my relief.

  17. Elspeth Ravenwind permalink
    April 13, 2010 3:47 pm

    Adrastos – but they are featuring tubas…😉

    Alli – great post! I’m one of the many that know they fit there (even if a bit gushes out over the top) and I’m trying to beat down my over-cautious self so I can just frakkin’ move. I’ve been susie-jo-living-on-the-fringes for long enough. Time to stop letting my fears distract me and just fire off that resume’.

    I know some folks say “bloom where you are planted” – but I was planted in the wrong yard!🙂

    Cheers all!

  18. April 13, 2010 4:52 pm

    “I saw a parade of hipster pseudo-New Orleans douchenozzling.”

    Yeah, I knew any Treme commentary by Jeffery would be a prime opportunity for him to draw from his mighty arsenal of variations on the word “douche.” If only Simon had hired him as a consultant …

    But I’m happy to hear he’s a Cubs Fan. I’m a non-practicing one–I guess you could say I’m culturally a Cubtard (I get bonus points since I grew up in Chicagoland)–but it’s nice to feel like I nearly have common ground with Jeffery other than living in the same neighborhood and going to parades and music festivals and maybe following “some guy in feathers … shaking a tambourine” and ranting about politics and … douchenozzling.

  19. jeffrey permalink
    April 13, 2010 5:51 pm

    The tragedy is I can’t even take credit for that one. I cribbed it from its introduction in an earlier post in the email thread discussion from which that post actually derived.

  20. April 13, 2010 6:32 pm

    Where is this “Chicago” place of which you speak, and why is it that the first time you get to wear a t-shirt outside is in April?

  21. Kevin permalink
    April 13, 2010 11:53 pm

    Jeffrey’s right; that was my overuse of douchenozzle, but it was aimed directly at the Zahn character, not sprayed scattershot over the landscape of the fictional Treme. I feel about him the same way Jeffrey feels about the whole shootin’ match.

  22. April 14, 2010 12:22 am

    Kevin, I hereby sentence you to be locked in a very small room with the *real* Davis Rogan. No exit, dude.

  23. jeffrey permalink
    April 14, 2010 11:44 am

    In all seriousness, I really should stick a post-it note on my monitor that says, “If you’re doing it ‘Douche’, you’re doing it wrong” or something. In my defense I will note that a few years ago I actually put the question of banning the word out to a vote of the readership and the results were overwhelming in favor of retaining it. Tyranny of the majority, you know.

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