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And He Keeps It Out Of Sight

May 11, 2011

“Who is the greater criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?”
MacHeath in Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera

People here have complained about the dissonance of hearing Louis Armstrong’s jaunty pop rendition of Mac the Knife over the closing credits, but like everything else about a David Simon production there are layers upon layers. It is truly odd that the song originally known as Die Moriate (The Flick Knife Song) in Bertolt Brecht’s dark operetta The Three Penny Opera, a song about the career criminal protagonist MacHeath’s predilection for gruesome murder as sport became a popular song of the 1950s. If you know the libretto of the opera it is as disconcerting as hearing a snappy Top 40 song about Jeffrey Dahmer. It heightens the shock of the closing shot, plays on the “back in town” refrain in the episode’s focus on the return of crime, and if you dig deep enough you find yourself hearing MacHeath ask the audience in his impassioned speech before the gallows the quote above, and thinking of Hidalgo and Hidalgo. Note that when Nelson is in the hotel bar, the band is playing: Mack the Knife.

The stark contrast of the song and LaDonna’s expression is a fitting close to an episode that is rich in contrasts, the complex interplay between the individual characters: Sonny (revealed by the photograph to be more than we thought) making the effort to get himself off the street even with the knowledge that he will never match the child prodigy on the piano he confronted last week, as compared to Antoine climbing back into the cab when confronted by the unruly school children; Janette who fled her gutted home to New York and slaves in a nightmare kitchen to advance her career seated next to the deeply depressed Lambreaux who can barely bring himself to sew, Janette who left to work a line in New York against Jacques who stayed and works the line for Susan Spicer; Janette’s stoner roommates (think about Sonny’s) and anonymous sex partners versus the friends she left behind in Jacques and Davis (and just realizing as I really think this through how large a role Janette played in building this tableaux); the struggles of everyone else in the story versus Nelson Hidalgo’s easy skim.

All of the other action building those contracts is not as one reviewer thought distractions from LaDonna’s story, were not just fifth business to advance a single character story, but carefully complex story telling. That interplay was critical character development and stage setting for the future in a story that is about the interplay of the characters as much as it is about each, that is about building the stories that are fundamental to the social critique inherent in Simon’s stories, and ultimately about the largest and most central character of all that speaks no lines: the city itself; not a city of architecture but a city of music and food and culture, a city of rampant crime and gutted houses and government dysfunction and corruption, and in the end about why they all come home, why it matters.

Ray summed up the feeling in the city in that winter of our discontent so well in his last post. If that closing credit song set your teeth on edge (as it should) then you have an inkling of what it felt like in that time. It was on so many levels a brilliant choice.

P.S. — While the Treme team rarely misses a note, I am curious why the Downbeat reviewer would refer to Delmond as a “post-modern John Coltrane” and not a “post-modern Miles Davis” for a host of reasons: his instrument, his performances which sound clearly derived from the mainstem of post-bop cool jazz, and his increasing use of New Orleans roots in his music reminiscent of Sketches of Spain. Just askin’. Maybe music supervisor Blake Leyh should get a check off on musical script references.

— wet bank guy

27 Comments
  1. Dexter permalink
    May 11, 2011 12:42 pm

    Tragedy abounds, and while Janette and Sonny are deep in the stew, I admire Janette for the style of her struggles and I despise Sonny as he throws everything away so gracelessly.
    Miracles happen, just don’t bet on some future rehab stint restoring Sonny to a better attitude.
    He may be too far gone. Still…he’s an anonymous hero, no doubt.

  2. liprap permalink
    May 11, 2011 1:12 pm

    “just realizing as I really think this threw how large a roll Janette played in building this tableaux”

    Ummm, “through” and “role”, Mark? Sorry to harp on it, but…

    Love the noting of the contrasts, especially in Janette’s worlds in New Orleans vs. in New York.

  3. brueso permalink
    May 11, 2011 1:24 pm

    besides, Janette’s hook-up walked off with her roll…

  4. May 11, 2011 1:32 pm

    Vicodin! WHEEEE! Ok, fixed my tipos. Just glad it didn’t come out like Coleridge. Going back to bed for a while.

  5. May 11, 2011 1:50 pm

    Your dentist can write you as many scrips for that as you want.

  6. May 11, 2011 1:53 pm

    I like my dentist, but not *that* much.

  7. May 11, 2011 2:19 pm

    By the way, new poll:

    “Mack the Knife” earworm?

    __ Not me.
    __ Earworm? I love that song!
    __ Faded after a few hours.
    __ It’s been three damn days! One more hour of this and I swear to Christ I’m cutting the ear right off.

  8. Anita permalink
    May 11, 2011 2:20 pm

    That song was searingly apt. It slid along, music so light and words so dark, gliding gracefully like the vultures assembling this season. It accompanies Hidalgo, who smiles as he moves about the city, slicing here and slicing there. Happily watching cartoons absent from his childhood, he rewards himself for heeding his father’s admonition; he won’t be one of the ones who clean the boat. (I just flashed back to the scene last season when the chief turned over the boat at his wild man’s house. And remembered the tour bus. Foreshadowing vultures.)

  9. May 11, 2011 2:40 pm

    Wetbankguy gets full marks for his attention to detail here. The sleazy Hidalgo is indeed outlined by Mack the Knife in the club scene. Crimes are committed on the streets and in the board rooms of America. Who does the most harm, the greatest violence to us? Ladonna’s suffering is difficult to watch and I certainly could never really appreciate such pain, but what about the Chief and the paltry insurance check? Hasn’t he also been violated?

    On another topic, I despised Sonny last season but now I’m starting to feel for the guy. Perhaps the music muse hasn’t found him yet. Perhaps he’ll get the gig with Antoine and we’ll discover he has the groove after all. The fact that he keeps on trying, he keeps on pushing forward, he doesn’t wallow in failure and he doesn’t try to blame others for his misery–that makes him heroic in my eyes. To paraphrase SNL, “He just wants to be loved, is that so wrong?”

    Peace,

    Tim

  10. virgotex permalink*
    May 11, 2011 3:10 pm

    Def have the Mack the Knife earworm, though I am enjoying it, switching back and forth between the various versions I have knowledge of. (My fav. is the recording of Ella Fitzgerald (I think in Berlin?) where she forgets the words but still just rocks the hell out of it)

    Great post, Mister Folse. The Brecht quote of course reminds us of Omar’s I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase observation.

    Re the overlaying and juxtapositions in this episode and the show in general, anyone here remember The Subway, the HLOTS Peabody-winning episode that James Yoshimura wrote? Immediately after the gutwrenching (no pun intended) conclusion plays out and Lange meets his end, we see his girlfriend, jogging past the scene, along with the rest of the bypassing crowd, all completely unaware of what’s just played out underneath their feet.

    That’s how life happens.

  11. May 11, 2011 3:15 pm

    I knew somehow we’d get the answer to the Sonny “did he or didn’t he” do rescues. Of course the photo cleared that up and he’s no doubt got some PTSD. The only thing that didn’t ring true for me is that at the end of last season we see Annie and Sonny staying as the storm comes in. If they were together, and he was out doing all those rescues, she’d have noticed his absence for hours at a time. I know that right after the storm we kept close eye on anyone we knew was here, cuz, hey, it was a strange time. We knew if one of the guys who’d stayed was gonna go recon an open Popeyes in Houma. Everyone knew when we went to find an open Walmart to fix a tire. Everyone kept track of everyone and each other’s property as there were so few here. So the only thing I’m struggling with is if they were together as the storm came in, and presumably during and right after, what was Annie doing through all that and why didn’t she notice when Sonny came home after being gone for hours to who knows where in a city that was utterly broken.

    Not only his absence would have been noticed. Information was at a premium. You only knew what you knew in your little corner of the universe. Any information from another point in that drowned universe was passed around like a good joint. He would have come home and told her, and anyone in Johnny White’s if he wound up there, which he probably would have, that there were still people in attics. He would have known things outside of their area. We were all hungry for information.

    She woulda known. Just sayin’.

  12. May 11, 2011 3:33 pm

    Total earworm and I like it. Not sick of it yet. Since I’ve been on a Brecht/Albee kick lately (don’t ask) I found a cool little bit of Mack trivia. Something I’d never noticed. Kurt Weill wrote the song for his wife, Lotte Lenya. In the late 50’s live Louis Armstrong version, if you listen to the names he puts in he includes Lotte Lenya. Why? Because she happened to be in the audience that night and he knew it. She didn’t know he was going to do that.

    Useless knowledge. My head is full of it.

  13. May 11, 2011 3:44 pm

    Remember “I wasn’t in the boat” from the bar scene in the first season? Its not that she hasn’t heard his stories, just that at some level she doubted them, doubted him.

  14. Anita permalink
    May 11, 2011 3:49 pm

    I also wondered about the line comparing Delmond to Coltrane. Why not Miles?

    Maybe it’s not about the horn. Exact contemporaries, both composers and enormously influential but Coltrane was only 40 when he died. Miles lived another 25 years. Is Delmond being set up for the pen of Pelacanos this season?

    (I have all of you, especially Maitri, to thank for now needing to ask this question in my head every time I reflect on one character or another. Thanks a lot!)

  15. May 11, 2011 4:03 pm

    If they dangle Dinneral and take Delmond: brilliant but tragically sad, just as he starting to come home to New Orleans (or didn’t you notice they were vamping on Second Line in the club in the first or second episode?)

  16. Anita permalink
    May 11, 2011 4:23 pm

    You might remember how much I abhored DJ Davis at this point last year. Now I have to admit he has made a place in my heart much like a puppy would.

    Sonny is having a rude awakening and I might end up liking him too but I’m certainly not there yet. Addicts lie and Annie knew Sonny well enough by that time to know that. We don’t know either, much about what Annie was doing. All we’ve been told is that she flashed the National Guard and it was Sonny who said that.

    Poor National Guard, getting flashed and MF’d in this show. Back then, I stopped my bicycle and thanked every one of them I could, every time I had a chance.

  17. Anita permalink
    May 11, 2011 4:28 pm

    Oh, I think Dinneral is a done deal but the set up is for later in the season.

  18. May 11, 2011 5:24 pm

    Speaking of layers upon layers, with that song choice, it sure looks like Simon and Leyh are going all Brechtian on our simple Louisiana asses.

    Also, thank yooouuuu, pal, for putting this earworm back in my head. Now, I have to do more math in my head to kill it (proven scientific fact).

  19. brueso permalink
    May 11, 2011 6:35 pm

    Simon’s talked about Batiste in the sense of ‘what’s it like to be the 10th best horn player in a town like New Orleans’; I guess Sonny’s got a similar problem. Seeing that kid perform in the shop made him contemplate that maybe he’s not all that special of a musician after all. A tough thing to swallow for any artist. “Pop- I’m a dime a dozen”.

  20. brueso permalink
    May 11, 2011 6:37 pm

    and more of that useless trivia- she’s in the German film version from 1931 which is pretty thick with atmosphere.

  21. brueso permalink
    May 11, 2011 6:40 pm

    this could be a common question “Well, you say you care for him/her- but do you care enough to move to Baton Rouge for him/her?”

  22. racymind permalink
    May 11, 2011 6:58 pm

    Heh… I’d like it if Brecht’s Whisky Bar lyrics made it into the show’s music because I think of New Orleans every time I read or hear “For if we don’t find the next whiskey bar,
    I tell you we must die!”

    The lyrics became known as “Alabama Song”, but who wants to drink Whisky in Alabama?

  23. brueso permalink
    May 11, 2011 7:02 pm

    Jim Morrison, apparentally.

  24. May 11, 2011 10:38 pm

    In general Simon and his team do mimic the classic 19th century novel of social critique and he wants us to love little Nell. There was an aspect of the Greek chorus about Ceighton, especially when we were looking directly at him on You Tube but he’s gone. Interestingly A Blog Supreme (who I should credit for calling out Mack the Knife in the bar scene before my rewatch) suggested Steve Earle’s character as chorus but it’s not the same in my view. Sophia taking up her father’s screeds is great though and consistent with the character’s development. Treme doesn’t go quite as far as Verfremdungseffekt but I can’t help but think it was intended as a conscious slap in the face to highlight the effect of the last scenes.

  25. May 11, 2011 10:53 pm

    I think the Greek chorus is that taxi driver with his middle finger up.

  26. brueso permalink
    May 11, 2011 11:56 pm

    or maybe they’re just making shit up. 🙂

  27. wigatrisk permalink
    May 12, 2011 12:16 pm

    The “Alabama Song” reminds me of the Brecht observation that resonates most with me when thinking particularly about New Orleans: “There is more gold to be gotten from men than from rivers”, also from Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Although it’s context is the naked avarice of the gold rush, I used it as the epigraph for a senior undergrad seminar on slavery this past year, in which we focused on Louisiana. Twelve pale Newfoundlanders trudging through 2.5m of snow to discuss Gwendolyn Midlo Hall and Walter Johnson, among others. Disorienting at times, but provocative and productive.

    As with last season you Back of Towners, like Ray this week, have been a powerful and deeply affecting companion to someone who is just a passing visitor to the city. Thanks. I watch Treme more for the universals than for the locally specific I can sense but know relatively little about, and you folks help immeasurably in bridging the distance. I still have the occasional dream of Antoine playing for Koichi in the courtyard. Transcendent.

    (my) Wig-at-risk,
    Come From Away

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