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Opposite

May 8, 2010

Watching Treme (I keep typing it Tremem) posted this up in the open thread from yesterday and goddamn, I’ve never seen anyone miss the point so aggressively. In the first place, there’s really nothing that declares your insecurity like telling everybody else they’re elitists. In the second place, oh, Jesus, shut up:

Even if you think you love the place, “Treme” is determined to show you otherwise. The surly street musician (who is just visiting himself, from Amsterdam) tartly informs tourists that it’s tacky to request “When the Saints Go Marching In”—that tune isn’t “real New Orleans,” apparently.

You’re not supposed to love and agree with Sonny, Jesus. The point of that scene was to establish that Sonny is a jackass, a snide asshole, who Annie has to basically apologize for because he has no social skills.

A main message from this sultry pageant of a show is that New Orleans is an occult matter that you can never truly “get” unless you’re a native or pretty close to it. The perky, hopelessly “white” tourists from Wisconsin with their nasal voices, the ones who get schooled by the street musician, can be taken as stand-ins for the viewer. Which makes the whole enterprise strangely unwelcoming.

The perky white Wisconsin tourists, by the end of the episode, were in love with New Orleans, were head over heels crazy about the place, BECAUSE they’d been taken in by locals and shown the place’s true face and its heart and they rolled around in it like dogs in the snow. Could they win some Authenticity Olympics? Probably not, but they didn’t care and by that point neither did Davis. He was just happy they’d had a good time. So long as they weren’t going to pick a “who’s more of an insider” fight, neither was he.

Speaking from my own white tourist experience not just in NOLA but everyplace I’ve ever gone, I’ve found if you love a place first, it’ll love you back, and if you don’t make it a contest, it won’t either. We do this all over, this “who’s a true resident of X” nonsense, and what Treme does is the opposite. It doesn’t keep you out so it can wrap its pain around it and be special in its emo-ness that nobody understands. It invites you in and asks you to care by showing you how much there is to learn.

Every time on this show somebody’s made a point of who has more “right” to be or do or say something, that person’s been shown to be a dick or shortsighted or silly or all of the above. Which you could argue is self-serving, as it neatly refutes the idea that Simon has no right to do or say anything about New Orleans, but it is in direct opposition to the point that McWhorter thinks Simon’s making.

Okay, but acting out gets old from anyone. In his YouTube rant, Goodman savagely disses San Francisco as an “overpriced cesspool with hills” when, let’s face it, that’s a pretty “cultural” city too, and has suffered its share of natural disasters. Part of the reason this scene gets by is, actually, Goodman’s obesity­—it takes the edge off that he is “cute” and a beloved personage. The same scene delivered by Edward Norton would be less charming.

The FUCK? That was exactly Creighton’s point, that San Francisco is vulnerable to the kinds of criticisms being lodged at New Orleans and that if you say one city’s expendable then they all are. He’s saying our fate is your fate, he’s saying if you can find reasons to sacrifice one place and its people you can find reasons to sacrifice them all. That’s not a rip on San Francisco, it’s exactly the opposite. And his weight has fuck-all to do with it. If Edward Norton was playing a loving husband and father who was outraged on behalf of his city, he’d be just as sympathetic.

And, “acting out?” Seriously? Trivializing someone’s argument does not refute it.

The fact that “Treme” has already been renewed and is getting so much attention is a sign that its creators can let up on the proselytizing and score-settling. It’d be interesting if after these growing pains, “Treme” settled into being a show about some interesting people in an interesting city. Perhaps, especially after Katrina, there are Americans who think of themselves as better than New Orleans. But how many of them are watching “Treme”?

A show about some interesting people in an interesting city? That’s what this is. And no, none of the people who think New Orleans is somehow beneath them is watching Treme.

Except Mr. McWhorter.

A.

27 Comments
  1. May 8, 2010 6:34 pm

    “Every time on this show somebody’s made a point of who has more “right” to be or do or say something, that person’s been shown to be a dick or shortsighted or silly or all of the above”

    Precisely. The other thing is that damn straight he’s showing the open wounds. That what certain great artists do. Reading English speakers were brought up on Dickens, and a friend has turned me onto Zola, and what that does is expose the dangerous flaws in society through interesting people in fascinating places.

    I don’t want another Frank’s Place. I want Frank’s Place on DVD with the original music. And Treme.

  2. May 8, 2010 6:55 pm

    Ah, the well-worn perils of drama in legendary New Orleans – this place folks either love or hate tends to be lampooned all to hell or simply done wrong on TV or film….and critics take that with them. They just can’t get rid of that baggage to save their lives, and reviews such as this one are a prime example.

    My advice to McWhorter is to get that particular bee out of his butt, sit back, and see what unfolds. So far it’s been pretty good. I’ve talked with locals off the street here and they mostly like it. Even Wendell Pierce, as he talked about it in the JazzFest panel on Treme,

    http://treme-jazz.com/harry-shearer-interviews-eric-overmyer-wendell-piercelolis-eric-elie-and-tom-piazza-of-hbos-treme

    gets it from folks on the street wanting to keep his portrayal of Antoine true, and boy, if you’re NOT getting it from people here, you’re doing so much wrong.

  3. doctorj2u permalink
    May 8, 2010 7:06 pm

    This article did not bother me. I guess after reading blog posts titled “Bulldoze the Shithole Down” for years has mellowed me to criticism some. LOL! As I posted on “Watching Treme” I really get the feeling he is miffed that he can’t be part of the “real” New Orleans, which in fact is a very real New Orleans thing. Ask the fat cat Texans that came into town in the 1980’s. I do think Mr. Simon is a little heavy handed on some of his treatment of outsiders. Someone mentioned earlier and I felt it to be very true, that locals are very welcoming to visitors and newcomers. We love our culture and want others to love it as much as we do. (It is more the converts to the city that are uppidty about being real.) That still does not give the visitors the same access to what it means to be a New Orleanian, born and bred. How could it? Anyway, the author says he will keep watching. I hope he begins to understand the richness and layers that make up the city.

  4. May 8, 2010 8:28 pm

    Given some of McWhorter’s past commentary on assimilation, it’s a logical assumption he might be biased against the the basic underlying issue of a Black cultural enclave fighting fiercely against being assimilated by mainstream America. I’m not going to engage in mind-reading here but he is a noted pro-assimilation Black conservative.

  5. blksista permalink
    May 8, 2010 9:07 pm

    Athenee and y’all:

    Don’t even stress about John McWhorter. He’s one of these black conservatives. Meaning, he doesn’t know his ass hole from a hole in the ground. He’s always got to find fault with anything having to do with the worst clusterfuck in American history that had to do with black people and made the Republicans look like killers. Which is what they were.

    Say hi to Scout for me. I’m still stuck in Wisconsin and want to get down there to New Orleans. Blessings.

  6. adrastosno permalink
    May 8, 2010 9:43 pm

    Tremens? Uh oh, Chief. Oops, I sound like Jimmy Olson now…

  7. May 9, 2010 12:01 am

    But that’s her point, and mine: the characters who strike that pose are struck down pretty quickly.

  8. May 9, 2010 12:10 am

    Hmmm, delirium Tremens…I must watch Treme and get the right kind of shakin’ going on…

    Tremem, though, sounds like some white rapper from backatown.

  9. doctorj2u permalink
    May 9, 2010 8:44 am

    Mark,
    It is posts like this that make me love this blog. I have a scientist’s mind, and tend to miss what an artist is trying to imply in their work. You and the other posters help me get so much more from the episodes. BTW, I enjoyed your book.

  10. Mr. Scribbles permalink
    May 9, 2010 10:06 am

    I too find it kinda preachy. Perhaps “proselytizing” is the right word. There’s a term in screenwriting called “expository writing” — there’s too much of this going on in the show, too, and way more than we saw in “The Wire.” I’ll keep watching, hoping, as McWhorter put it, that the series will settle into “a show about some interesting people in an interesting city.” Simon did not beat readers over the head preaching about Baltimore issues, yet we *got it* — he showed and didn’t tell. I wish he would do more of that in “Treme.”

  11. May 9, 2010 11:10 am

    ‘Missing the point’ is exactly my reaction to this fuckwit’s review. Every single item he complained about was so clearly brought to the table my the reviewer himself. It’s a case of interpreting everything threw a filter of the writer’s own bias, and then attributing his biased read-ins as being content.

    IT’s profoundly clueless, and frustratingly so. Are there points you could criticize Treme on? Sure, there are a few, and certainly ‘i just don’t like it’ is always valid. But ‘I don’t like it because I transfer my imaginary issues onto the show’s creators’ is pretty baldly stupid for someone reviewing the show for a major site.

    He’s really got to go back and review his own lack of objectivity before he savages any more art he doesn’t understand.

  12. May 9, 2010 12:53 pm

    McWhorter is always a dork. One would expect more of a linguistic professor, i.e. that he’d understand language better. But a neocon’s always a con.

    Love, C .

  13. May 9, 2010 1:28 pm

    Tremeniem? From Laffeight Mile Road? Is that the guy you’re talkin’ bout?
    😀

  14. Anita permalink
    May 9, 2010 4:13 pm

    On the other hand, here is a guy who gets it (and he hasn’t even seen the show yet:

    http://whaleheadking.blogspot.com/2010/05/new-orleans-moment.html

    No kidding, check it out.

  15. rickngentilly permalink
    May 9, 2010 5:59 pm

    hey mcwhorter , lick my ball sweat after a 12 hour shift.

    dear moderators , please feel free to delete this.

    i apoligize for bringing that to your site.

  16. May 9, 2010 6:27 pm

    Thanks, Anita. I just stumbled on this thread by accident and I was surprised to find myself mentioned. I wasn’t able to know New Orleans first hand before or during Katrina. I’ll only get familiar with it a few years after the fact. I can’t apologize for that though I know I’m missing something critically important. Maybe not. Beauty inspires and perseveres no matter the circumstances. From what I gather, this is the gist of the Treme series and the basalt that underlies New Orleans in real life.

    As a newcomer, I am grateful to be welcomed to this city. I don’t understand it yet. I’m from New England and I’m still in culture shock but I couldn’t wish to be anywhere else or anywhere better. It will all come together with time, I’m sure.

  17. May 9, 2010 8:20 pm

    That’s a great post. It doesn’t diminish one place’s magic to notice another’s.

    A.

  18. Anita permalink
    May 9, 2010 8:36 pm

    Just so.

    Thank you Athenae25 for a wonderful article. I read McWhorter and could only babble it made me so angry I was speechless. You said everything I could have desired had I had wits of any sort about me. Some people are better off just staying away, you know.

  19. Kim Marshall permalink
    May 9, 2010 10:36 pm

    I also noted the first comment to that article, which pointed out that other great cities have world-class opera companies and symphony orchestras, and New Orleans does not. They sure do. But those art forms were borrowed from Europe. New Orleans created and nurtured the art form known as jazz. It started here, in this great American city, and it took over the world. That is an authentic piece of musical heritage that is very impressive.

  20. mistlethrush1 permalink
    May 10, 2010 12:55 am

    Maybe there is a New Orleans afficiando group or something similar for those of us who have so much love for this city but cannot live ther (In our case two aged horses who we love as s dearly as anyone in our famlilies). Because we do not live in New Orleans does not mean that we don’t visit frequently and that we don’t have local friends

    WHen I watched tonight’s episode and saw the Japanese man who had such a deep love for the music that he wished to furnish a local (Antoine Batiste) with an instrument of his choosing,best $$ could buy, I felt sympathy for the Japanese man because as much as he wanted to be a part of the city and how culturally important it is, he was a footnote,even if he was an outstanding and excellent one.

    Wah, wah poor us.

    Thing is, we hurt for the city and you all mean so very much to us, even though we may never look at one another eye-to-eye. We love your music and your food and your enthusiasim for life, so we come back as often as we can and we scheme upon how we can eentually live there even though we are at the magical mark of 50, where nothing is real and there’s nothing to get hung about.

    We may make it, aging Davises who should be thankful to share in the culture we know about, having read about and sometimes experienced in our frequent vists.

    We have never come to New Orleans without feeling welcome; if we are not natives, we are still guests and that never made us feel diminished. Watching Trreme with all of you is`as enriching as setting foot in your beautiful, struggling city.

  21. Mr. Scribbles permalink
    May 10, 2010 4:12 am

    I agree with your points about McWhorter’s attitude and misinterpretations. For example, his interpretation of the busker who cops an attitude with the out-of-towners about “Saint Go Marching In” is completely wrong. It’s clear this character is a dark character, one who would be rude to out-of-towners. It’s clear that from the real musicians’ viewpoint: there’s no shame in playing in the FQ. The writers are positing that the street busker with an attitude is not representative of the “validity” that people feel in NOLA, but rather that this particular character has a serious chip on his shoulder not shared by the “authentic” musicians themselves. Also I thought McWhorter defining the violinist as representative of the “Obama generation” simply because she’s racially neutral was bringing race into the dialogue when it was unnecessary to do so. But that’s what you would expect from The New Fucking Republic.🙂

  22. May 10, 2010 8:21 am

    If one wants to talk opera in North America ….

    In the hemisphere there were only three cities with opera companies: Havana, New York and New Orleans. But New Orleans was the only one who had an opera company that sang in French.

    It is just possible that there may have been opera in NO before NYC, due to the San Domingan diaspora’s early days, but I’m not certain about that.

    Whatever. New Orleans was and still is always about music and dancing, beyond any other city on this continent.

    Love, C.

  23. scout permalink
    May 10, 2010 11:26 am

    Hi back to you blksista…you stuck anywhere near Madison?

  24. May 10, 2010 1:11 pm

    Mistlethrush1, you can count Roy Blount Jr as an example of what you’re talking about. The man hasn’t lived down south in decades, yet he keeps coming back visiting (hell, one of his recent collections of essays is titled “Long Time Leaving”) and trumpeting his appreciation of his background and of the places he frequents, such as New Orleans. The south in general, for many, is a hard place in which to live and to make a living. But then again, I feel the same way about New York City as you do about New Orleans. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

    All any of us asks for is compassion leading to constructive action. What this area got after the Federal Flood was anything BUT from the bureaucracy that was supposed to be the entity to turn to. What we needed more of (and we still do) are people such as yourself…because no matter how down a wounded soul gets, that soul can get a great boost from even the smallest gestures.

    You’ll be with us someday on a more permanent basis, I know. Your heart’s already here. That’s what matters.

  25. May 10, 2010 11:33 pm

    It’s always amazing how shit can get misinterpreted. Treme is spot on — about the only complaint I got with the show is Steve Zahn is mugging for the camera too much & they oughta cut back on his screen time.

    Zou Zou’s lost her petals, let’s all go to lunch.

  26. Pam Folse permalink
    May 14, 2010 10:57 pm

    I am a native. I’m not sure the “others” get it, but I’m willing to give you a shot Check Marky if you want to talk to the ultimate native. He believes he owns this city and he may be right.

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