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Floating/Layers Of Treme #2

April 21, 2011

In my viewing of Season One as a full piece, I was reminded of a conversation I had during a recent family trip. A family member asked about Mardi Gras, grinning with a glint in the eye, expecting torrid tales of boobs and beads and Bourbon Street. I explained that that part of Mardi Gras a la Girls Gone Wild certainly was real. That answer was delighted in and the face looking back at me was fully expecting titillating (no pun intended) stories which would be followed by their obligatory, “I’ll have to come down to see that some time.” A small crowd of young relatives gathered and I told them that sometimes body paint stood in for clothing, some of it so good you had to be almost right on top of them before you realized it was definitely not cloth. Oh, they loved it.

Treading where angels dare not, I started explaining Carnival Season, explaining that the blanket term Mardi Gras, was applied to a very long period of time and covered many events and ways of celebrating. I told them that there were tons of parades, and that when they heard that this or that movie star was king of Bacchus or Endymion, that those parades were only two out of days and days of parades. That Bacchus and Endymion were only two krewes, Super-krewes at that, and that each of those krewes might have 100 or more floats. The floats they saw on television didn’t all come out the same day. They were stunned.

“So, when DO they come out?”

“Which one? There are two weekends of fairly big parades alone.”

“Okay, Bacchus.”

“Sunday, the Sunday before Mardi Gras.”

“Well isn’t that Mardi Gras?”

“No, Mardi Gras is actually Tuesday, but that term is applied wrongly to the entire Carnival Season.”

“Well then, which ones go out on Mardi Gras?”

“If you mean Mardi Gras day itself, then Zulu will roll out early, as will various walking clubs, then Rex, and truck parades. . . but those are just the parades.”

“Do Zulu and Rex have movie star kings too?”

“Well, Zulu has a King and Queen, usually people who have made civic contributions of note, and Rex, well, Rex is just Rex.” (I was not going to get started on that can of worms, ruling the city for a day, balls and courts and Comus and, and, and. . . .)

“So do the girls show their tits for beads at all the parades?”

Sigh. At least I avoided the “what date does Mardi Gras fall on” question.

When LaDonna finally finds Daymo’s body, then adamantly refuses to deal with the arrangements until after Mardi Gras, I could almost hear the collective gasps from people outside of New Orleans. The shallow bitch! She’s spent months looking for her brother and now she’d rather party down than bury him properly? She’s just gonna run off to Bourbon Street and take her kids who are coming in from Baton Rouge to that, that, celebration of boobs, beads and beer? She can’t be serious.

Aside from the visual sweets of the Mardi Gras episode, the writers did a great job of showing non-New Orleanians that that’s not all Mardi Gras is. They even did a delicate balancing act, showing how various socio-economic groups celebrate it all around the city. They could have gone overboard trying to show that it’s not all about boobs, but rather than fight the stereotype they included the wildness as they simultaneously illustrated the rich traditions within families and neighborhoods.

While we were treated (as was Delmond, staying at a friend’s house in the Quarter) to the razzle dazzle costumes and even a car load of bare boobs, we also saw LaDonna’s mother worrying over the gumbo, she can’t start that gumbo til everyone gets there. It’s clear that that woman has spent more Mardi Gras’ worrying over her gumbo than she ever spent worrying about a costume. This is very much a family affair: food and family at the house then off to parades as a family then back to the house for more food.

The Bernette family celebrates as a family as well. They’ve clearly spent time as a family devising and creating their costumes (the blue roof tarp costumes were all the rage in 2006, but the Bernettes did a particularly good job of utilizing them). They are playing Carnival music getting amped up for the day, and all head out with smiles on their faces to take in parades, grab food wherever they can find it and whatever strikes their fancy, and generally take part in the city wide celebration that is Mardi Gras Day. We haven’t seen any extended family involved with the Bernettes, so they go as a cohesive little group, no gumbo making at their house.

Janette is working, much to Davis’ surprise and horror. (Schools, post offices, banks, offices, pretty much everything but bars, stores and restaurants are closed on Mardi Gras Day.) But even Janette has a costume in her car for when she’s finished working. She goes off alone, leaving a note on her car begging not to be towed or ticketed, but through her restaurant she has lots of social contacts so knows where the good house parties are. At the party some people are in costume, many are not, but they’re all having a great time. (Her sweet, drunken attempt to turn a car into a cab at the end of the day is one of the loveliest scenes ever. We catch a glimpse of Davis’ neighbors in costume walking by and her vulnerablility is such that when a kid comes out from the shadows, we’re a bit worried for her until they have a short conversation.)

Antoine, Desiree and the baby are all encamped waiting for Zulu. Barbecues abound, you can almost smell the food. Costumes are rare but again, it’s family and community that is seen on that neutral ground. And seemingly everyone has beads, two or three strands, that’s it. No crazy bat wings or bare butt in chaps to be seen. Just families, eating, enjoying themselves and waiting to catch a prized Zulu coconut. Probably standing somewhere along Orleans Avenue, (no doubt someone here will tell me exactly where they were standing but knowing the Zulu route, I’m just guessing!) they are no where near the Bourbon Street tourists or the local crowds populating Royal Street in the Quarter. When Desiree heads home early with the baby after explaining the parameters (Antoine says perimeters) of Antoine’s freedom, we know Antoine’s going to get in some kind of trouble and does. He somehow manages to have both the family and the solo traditions all in one day. Only Antoine could really pull that off convincingly.

Over at the McAlarys’, there is also a celebration. Lots of stemware and jolly conversation with a decidedly upscale almost snooty sense of tradition. After all, these folks have a pedigree going back at least to the Battle of New Orleans. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, in one episode there is a reference to them somehow being related to Andrew Jackson, although I can’t remember that one for sure. Family and friends, food and drink, these people are waiting for Rex (of course they are!) and there might be one or two guys in the ubiquitous purple/green/gold horizontal striped polo shirt that they drag out once a year then put in mothballs until the next Mardi Gras. Davis is in costume and they find that to be cute, not their traditional way, but cute. Their conversation about Lafitte having been a slave trader is priceless. The family bursts into a couple choruses of the Battle of New Orleans, to Davis’ mother’s feigned chagrin, and that’s probably about as wild as that bunch will get. They’ll probably get snockered, but not too wild. I mean, really, what would the neighbors think?

The Big Chief is in jail. On Mardi Gras Day. It breaks your heart. But his Indians are still sewing, sewing, sewing. Will there be any Indians out on Mardi Gras Day? We are left fervently hoping so.

Sonny, Davis and Annie are our solo tour guides. They cover a lot of ground. Sonny with only a mask, Davis in his Lafitte getup, and Annie in a clearly what-have-I-got-that-will-work outfit all go out starting the day alone. They go through the Quarter and the Marigny with multiple stops along the way to dance, drink, eat, people watch and just generally party. Theirs was a uniquely local and predominantly white celebration. It’s through them that we see the party down version of Mardi Gras, complete with over the top costumes on some people. Costumes that probably took a year to make and may be broken down the following morning to be cannibalized for next year. Nothing is too outre in their experience of the day. Sonny goes off with the crazy leather and drug girl, Davis and Annie spend the day together by chance, ending with him being the ultimate gentleman, and Annie thinking she might leave New Orleans and seeming to know that she’ll not experience anything like this anywhere else.

Finally Delmond sees an a couple of Indians crossing the street after dark, and in that moment, all the traditions seem to coalesce in one iconic image and we know that all the traditions will somehow stay alive. His father’s determination is not in vain. The storm didn’t wipe out the culture. And Farewell to the Flesh doesn’t have to be a permanent state of being.

For the Treme writers to have been able to communicate all of these diverse celebrations of Mardi Gras in a way that broadens outsiders’ view of it was brave but subtle, clear but not preachy. They didn’t leave it at the boobs and beer scenario, nor did they turn it into a sociology lecture. They managed to show Mardi Gras, particularly Mardi Gras 2006, as a communal celebration of tradition and survival. Their layering of the complexity of experience was thorough and unique, unlike just about anything else ever shown regarding Mardi Gras.

Oh yeah, and Antoine sneaking in after his perimeter exceeding activities with LaDonna to find Desiree asleep on the couch with the Rex ball on the television, was inspired.

21 Comments
  1. April 21, 2011 2:46 pm

    The commentary track to the this episode, by Eric Overmyer and director Anthony Hemingway, had some pretty interesting tidbits.

    One is that when Janette is dancing to her car, she’s not drunk, she’s tripping on whatever was in the chocolate she ate at the party.

    Overmyer describes watching this with people not from here, and having to explain that yes, on Mardi Gras day you could conceivably end up in ten different places all over the city before the night is over. Seemed normal to me, it never would have occurred to me that somebody would need that explained, but I mostly either watch these alone or with my kids, and we all know how it works.

    And this is the episode where Creighton Bernette mocks the movie The Big Easy and the super-krewes with their celebrity grand marshals. When this aired, we all thought this was an intentional in-joke, since John Goodman was IN The Big Easy, and he was Grand Marshal of Endymion in 1990. Overmyer reports that actually it was a complete accident, he wrote those lines meaning them seriously, and then when Goodman read them he thought Overmyer was fucking with him. Still a hilarious story.

    Also, the scene with Delmond on the balcony of the apartment where King Creole was filmed? Shot-for-shot pose-for-pose Elvis-grin-for-Elvis-grin homage to the King Creole scene. I would never have known that.

  2. April 21, 2011 2:55 pm

    No kidding? King Creole? Oh I love that. I’ll have to watch that again. And love the part about Janette. I haven’t done the commentary yet but aim to shortly.

    And what seems normal to you and Overmyer is very clearly not understood by folks outside of here. The conversation I related really took place and that’s only a snippet of it. The misconceptions are sometimes comical. I halfway thought of doing a piece on popular misconceptions about Mardi Gras.

  3. April 21, 2011 2:59 pm

    You know what’s a cute misconception? Your description of Uptown Mardi Gras day, which it is clear you have never seen before outside of HBO. Baby, we have GOT to get you across the expressway one of these days.

  4. April 21, 2011 3:02 pm

    Fine. I’ll get my damn passport. You know I get the jitters crossing Canal.

  5. April 21, 2011 4:49 pm

    She always gets lost when she comes Uptown, Ray. I’ve invited her and Dave to the Muses party every year since I met them. Maybe she’s afraid of proximity to Homan or something.

  6. April 21, 2011 6:25 pm

    I haven’t had the opportunity yet due to so many other things to re-watch the first season of Treme, but back when it was broadcast it did seem as though the Mardi Gras episode was the very best of them all.

    Love, c.

  7. April 21, 2011 6:28 pm

    Not related to Andrew Jackson (his family didn’t go Louisiana — that was for Virginians and Marylanders). They sing “The Battle of New Orleans.”

    Love, C

  8. April 21, 2011 7:07 pm

    And Kentuckians, who were Virginians, as far as that went (see Henry Clay).

    Tennesseans were Carolinians.

    Whatever!

    Love, c.

  9. April 21, 2011 8:18 pm

    I thought the McAlarys were related to Jefferson Davis, whom Davis is named for.

    Girl, you’re coming Uptown for King Arthur next year. D and I will throw you something real, real nice for your long, international journey.

  10. April 21, 2011 8:38 pm

    Yup. That’s it. Jeff Davis.

    ::::::shaking head:::::::::all the stuff I fit together for this piece and where’s the love?::::::muttering:::::::::neener, neener, she can’t find her way around Uptown::::::informing all of you that I just purchased a compass on eBay even though I realize that cardinal directions have no place here:::::::::

    You guys made me spit my tea all over my keyboard I’m laughing so hard.

  11. Pam permalink
    April 21, 2011 11:24 pm

    Love it! really good description of the many Mardi Gras, including the McAlary’s. I went to school with those peeps. My favorite were the Royal St. ones Marky writes about. Also, my sense of direction is no better than yours. Everybody laughs at me. Thank the Goddess for MapQuest.

  12. April 22, 2011 12:08 am

    You need a New Orleans compass. It always points towards the river.

    (Sam, these were both beautiful posts, you know that.)

  13. April 22, 2011 12:14 am

    Or one of those tshirts with the Lakeside/Riverside/Uptown/Downtown designations. Those are correct I think. As in “Meet me at Mimi’s on the Downtown/Lakeside corner of Royal and Franklin?”

    I wasn’t fishing for compliments, but thank you. I really was laughing uproariously at the comments from all of you. Unfortunately there was honey in that tea and now my keyboard is all sticky!

  14. April 22, 2011 7:49 am

    Not only do they manage to give a realistic picture of Mardi Gras but what stands out for me is that all the experiences are different. You may need to be from here to catch it but the gulf between the beer and barbecue of Antoine and the champagne flutes of the MMcAlarys–really the entires gallery of scenes–portrays at once our class and racial segregation and at the same time the commonality of Carnival.

  15. April 22, 2011 7:53 am

    And why isn’t Antoine working? Anybody on that many musicians speed dials doesn’t get to spend Mardi Gras with the fam, unless its BBQ for breakfast on Claiborne,

  16. Martin permalink
    April 22, 2011 1:11 pm

    I Love Treme’.

    I’m a Pacific Northwesterner who had no prior experience of the uniqueness of the Southeast and the particular uniqueness of Southeastern Louisiana and New Orleans until I spent the Fall/Winter/Spring of 2008-09 there. I was actually based in Metairie (gah!), but took every opportunity to visit and explore NOLA and as much of its surroundings as possible while I was there.

    Anyway, the absolute highlight of my time there was the Mardi Gras season. I, like most other ‘outsiders’, had no idea what it was about or how long it went on, not to mention the acceleration of intensity that accompanied the celebrations as Fat Tuesday approached. The parades I witnessed were utterly fantastic – especially when compared with the two-and-a-half-hour one-shot affairs we here in the upper left corner of the country refer to as parades – and the Treme’ Mardi Gras episode really took me back.

    It was an experience I’ll recall fondly for the rest of my life.

    Lookin’ forward to Sunday and SeasonII!

  17. doctorj2u permalink
    April 22, 2011 7:16 pm

    As someone who did have an ancestor who was a creole grenadier in the Battle of New Orleans (LOL!), I have to say I loved this essay. You are a little tougher on the Uptown crowd than needed, but it does apply to some I know. I find one of the hardest things about reading reviews of Treme is how much the reviewers miss because they are clueless to the culture and the times. My favorite is when they say the music INTERRUPTS the story. Lord help us!!!! I guess I will have to come to terms with the fact that, like New Orleans itself, there are people that “get” Treme and people that don’t. I am just so thankful that Mr. Simon and Mr. Overmyer felt our story was one worth telling. They have done a beautiful job.

  18. April 24, 2011 12:35 am

    He made a big deal of telling one of the Nevilles, “Oh no, uh-uh, I do not work on Mardi Gras Day.” Davis said as much to Janette in a previous episode as well when she told him she’d be cooking on the mobile kitchen.

    Must say I agree with Antoine on that one. Even if I was doing something I love for a living, like writing, I’d probably have to take a pass for the day itself.

    Probably was also a bit of an in-joke with the creators, since they were all gonna be up before dawn on Mardi Gras day shooting scenes at Zulu.

  19. April 24, 2011 4:51 am

    Possible disclaimer on the DVD? “If you’re not from New Orleans – hell, even if you ARE – turn on the commentary.”
    😎

    I had to explain a LOT to friends of mine I visited in Los Alamos who love the show anyhow, but weren’t aware of all the nuances of, say, the Indians or of the actual fucked-up goings-on in the breakdown of law enforcement pre- AND post-levee break the quest for Daymo hinted at. You don’t really get all these layers until you have to explain ’em to someone – and Ray, that King Creole bit reveals how much more we seasoned watchers can still learn, too.

    And Sam, madame, I am in Uptown parade central, on the gray brick road a block and a half off the parade route, and I open my place up Mardi Gras day for pancake-eaters, early Zulu watchers, and appreciators of the samba troupe that passes us by just before Rex comes and just after it passes. You don’t need any damned passport. Call or email me. This invite also goes out to anybody during the season who needs a place to pee.

  20. April 24, 2011 4:52 am

    Nah, she tried getting back from uptown once and ended up on the westbank. It’s not the getting there, it’s the getting back.

  21. April 24, 2011 11:32 am

    Both of these posts were just glorious, Sam! What depths there are to plumb. And I think it takes one off the hook for trying to understand everything, which can be done, but rather to find the gems to appreciate.

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