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Distorted Mirrors?

April 14, 2010

Photo by Loki

I find it only appropriate that my first viewing of Treme was on videotape. The grainy lack of clarity was a component of those days so it is only fitting it should inform this re-imagining of them.

Yes there were errors. There was much more dust and grime in the air and coating everything due to the drought that came in Katrina’s wake.  There was nowhere near that much green because the plants had pretty much all drowned. Quite a number of inconsistencies actually, but you know what? I don’t think that matters.

Let me tell you why. The vast majority of the HBO’s audience does not live in New Orleans. Shocking, I know, but true.  To them this is an alien world, one obscured by the patina of tragedy and the mystique of legend. For them this stands as the most accurate and undiluted glimpse of New Orleans available without physically going there. How long have we all complained at length that people in The Big Easy and other efforts always sound like they’re from Atlanta or Birmingham and not New Orleans? Well for the most part this sounds right. People sound like New Orleanians more often than not. That alone is a step forward.

It was accurate enough to engender an intense bout of homesickness. It’s been so long since I’ve seen Kermit at Vaughan’s. It’s been so long since I had anything other than f-ing frozen Chinese crawfish. Brass is almost non-existent in Ohio music and what there is lacks that shake your ass decadence that NOLA bands exude without trying. Treme was close enough to home to make me get a knot in my throat. It’s the most I’ve wanted a cigarette since I quit them.

As someone who has now been living on the “outside” I cannot express how happy I am to see this on the air. Yes it is a simplification, that is not always a bad thing. If it builds over time, as all good series do, there will be numerous opportunities to add nuance. Look at any of your favorite TV series, go back and check out its first episode and you’ll see that as far as beginnings go this is a solid one. It serves to communicate a reasonably accurate picture of things to those who have no context for it outside of their five year-old memories of histrionic newscasts. That picture can be brought into tighter focus for the viewers as the future seasons play out.

It is the feel, the magical atmosphere that New Orleans has even on its bad days, that is important. It gets across things that are different from other places, like the pervasive nature of music in the city and the combination of cultural standard bearers and jackass hipsters that swirl around it. Like the high standards born of proximity to the water – “I won’t have f*cking frozen crawfish in my kitchen!” Living in Cincy for almost a year now has really reminded me just how much of a cultural variant NOLA is when compared to the rest of the USA. In this regard I think Treme is on the right track.

Three months later places the pilot episode in November of ’05. Here is a small excerpt from one of my HumidCity posts at that time:

Uptown is an island in the midst of a sea of chaos. It is truly bizarre to think that mountains of refuse, empty streetcar tracks, and all the other details of Post-K life are not only the “new normality,” but also vastly better than neighborhoods only a few blocks or miles away. A few blocks on the other side of St Charles Avenue it goes completely dark. No power, streetlights, or anything. Yet I know people living there, camping out in their homes using generators for heat and refrigeration (if they have a working fridge which is rare). A few minutes away lies the total devastation of Lakeview and the Lower 9. A trip into those areas is a disturbing and frightening thing.

Now let’s get this straight, I’m one of the lucky ones. While my wife and I were displaced to NYC with our cats for six weeks, we returned to find that most of our stuff had survived. We had been moving into an old slaves quarters when the storm came. That apartment was in the Isle of Denial you heard them talking about in Treme. That means that everything we had already moved there was high and dry. Meanwhile three blocks away the water lines began. Most of our belongings made it. We were incredibly lucky.

That said I have to admit that this is a very hard one for me to watch. Two of the main characters are based on people in my social circle, one of whom is dead now. More of the secondary characters remind me of people I know. The red-headed guy with the long hair is actually my friend Henry Griffin who does dance like that all the time. The DJ at WWOZ, (NOT Davis) reminds me of a few different announcers I worked with there. And so on. In so many ways it is as accurate as the constraints of dramatic television will allow.  I must say that I do somewhat fear the possible dilution of my own memories of this time that may come hand in hand with the story becoming art. We shall see over the course of the next few episodes.

I loved it, it made me homesick as hell. It also made me really remember again the ugliness of those days, the feeling of living on the edge of civilization. I used to joke that we were in the Forbidden Zone from Planet of the Apes. Despite eliciting that feeling in me I don’t think it adequately communicates the crazy weird feel that seeped like humidity through the streets in the wake of the levee failures.

I will be watching it. I’m cautious but fairly optimistic. If they can maintain this it will be a great thing. The rest of the country fails to “get it” because of a lack f context. Treme seems to be a good first step towards providing that context. Isn’t that part of what we have all been blogging towards since those early days?

In the final analysis my feelings are mixed. I need time and more viewings to see what I rightfully attribute to the work itself and what is actually the resonating homesickness in my heart vibrating in time to the themes of post levee failure trials and displacement.

One last thing: No matter what problems some may have with the scene where Albert Lambreaux comes out in his indian suit it was brilliantly powerful to sit here in Ohio and hear the refrain that so epitomizes NOLA, “Won’t bow. Don’t know how.”

  1. Scott G. permalink
    April 14, 2010 1:24 pm

    If only that smell could translate . . .

  2. Classicgrrl permalink
    April 14, 2010 1:25 pm

    I was fortunate enough to visit New Orleans LONG before Katrina. I have purposely avoided footage and revisiting since Katrina because I didn’t want my memories of its beauty tainted.

    NOLA is an American treasure. There isn’t any place like it on earth. The closest I can come to your experience is thinking about downtown Cincinnati being destroyed by twisters. I just cannot imagine the devistation and the feeling of loss.

    I don’t have HBO but should the series become available to the public would be interested to see it.


  3. Elyse Hackett permalink
    April 14, 2010 1:26 pm

    Nicely put, I think we are all cautiously optimistic. We are especially buoyed by the release that the show has been picked up for a second season. “Won’t bow, don’t know how” is right on. Love ya, Hoochiemama

  4. April 14, 2010 1:30 pm

    @Scott Thank gd it doesn’t!

    @ClassicGrrl Actually it would be more like destroying all but a chunk of downtown. It was 80% devastated.

    @Elyse I think that might actually become the new meme du jour. I can think of far worse, Lambreaux’s character reminds me of a cross between Donald Harrison and Tootie Montana.

  5. djSanta permalink
    April 14, 2010 2:06 pm

    As you well know Loki, I arrived one week before the storm. So I missed a good deal of the city before, but watching this episode certainly took me back to my first in the Big Easy, which was by the way November of ’05. I remember sitting in the house in Broadmoor lit only by candlelight keeping the cats company for a few hours before heading back to the hotel in the Treme. I remember that first second line. I remember how dingy and dusty and dry everything was until the rains came in December. So, all in all, for a very first episode I applaud this show. Slaointe,

  6. Ceciley permalink
    April 14, 2010 3:19 pm

    I’m planning on watching the first episode on Friday. When I can have a stiff drink to go with it. From the few snippets I’ve seen I’m quite hopeful.

    On the vegetation/dryness issue. I think it would have been too hard to recreate. New Orleans being far from a drought ridden city MOST of the time. And I read quite a bit of bitching and moaning online from people griping about parking and filming schedules, so I can only imagine if they had dained to paint the grass brown, or killed off anybody’s jasmine!

  7. Charlotte permalink
    April 14, 2010 3:48 pm

    “It also made me really remember again the ugliness of those days, the feeling of living on the edge of civilization. ”


  8. April 15, 2010 9:30 am

    (The following CC’d from George’s Facebook page)

    Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures. ~Jessamyn West

    As someone that grew up in Cleveland and North Carolina, but has been all over the world, has lived in Portland for14 years (what I call la-la-land of the progressive set or except, without the irony), but having been immersed in NOLA for the past two years, here’s my take and this is what I tweeted Sunday:

    “Treme captures the spirit of Nola. Accurate? factual? Debatable. But WTF in Nola is accurate or factual in real life anyway?” Rest my case…. See More

    As John Goodman said on the show “A city that lives in the imagination of the world.”

    Treme honors the experience, stories and imagination of New Orleans post Katrina and that’s the important thing for the world to see. It brings a deeper, richer and more complete story of New Orleans to a mass audience, and if it challenges and changes even one of the many, many people with misconceptions about the city out there, and we all know they are out there en masse, then the TV show has done its job in my book.

    And Americans need to be reminded of this history that New Orleans isn’t going away and need to be shown a different story than has previously been portrayed in the mass mainstream media, that’s for sure. That the memory of Katrina isn’t going away and we will never let the US government and anyone forget this. We will not let America forget this.

    Americans need to be reminded of the Soul of America. That soul being New Orleans.

    Yet, I also think Treme is a tipping point of some pop culture kind. Still digesting that part. The thing is, we need to honor Katrina without being stuck in it. We need to have some closure of the previous era of the” New Orleans Victim” story that is still be perpetuated on TV, movies, pop culture. We need to show the world that New Orleanians are a tough, pick yourself up by the bootstraps kind of people, and are moving on emotionally and physically as a city, but there is still a massive amount of work to do and that we will always honor history. Perhaps Treme is part of that, as the Saints and this past mayor’s election have also been a part. Not sure.

    I do worry however that the show will help gentrify New Orleans thus ruining a lot of the culture, affordability, and an historic African American music center neighborhood, much like the NY Times and Vogue exploited Seattle in the 1990s or the Wire did to put a focus on Baltimore. But, that begs the question, has Baltimore gentrified post Wire? Prob not. Whew. Got scared for a second.

    Sorry for the thesis. New Orleans gets to me that way. I was just there for two weeks and am now in Ohio processing the intense (as always) experiences I had down there.

  9. michellebeckham permalink
    April 15, 2010 4:30 pm

    Beautifully written! As a Cincinnatian whose family is from New Orleans, I have to say that I truly understand your homesickness and sense of loss. I just returned from NOLA having experienced French Quarter Fest last week and was reminded (it’s been a long time since I was last there) of just what a unique city it truly is.

    While I don’t have HBO, I think I’m going to work like hell to find someone who does. Maybe I will borrow another poster’s idea of cooking up a pot of Seafood Gumbo and doing a little trade!

    -Michelle (Fontenot)

  10. Elyse Hackett permalink
    April 15, 2010 10:14 pm

    My friend Holley Bendtsen (of the Pfister Sisters) who is in at least one episode of Treme says his character is based on Donald Harrison. Good call.


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