Nothing is wasted June 26, 2010Posted by Mark Folse in 504, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
Tags: David Simon, HBO, Treme
“they say that
nothing is wasted:
it all is”
— Charles Bukowski
At some point in watching the first and last episodes of Treme last night (my wife wanted to start from the beginning; I wanted to re-watch the last) I had the realization I have hinted at over at Back of Town in the past. In great art, nothing is wasted: not a word, not a brush stroke, not a moment of silence before the next note. In great novels (the closest analogue to a season of episodes running to over eleven hours in length) detail is piled upon detail and in the greatest works every piece is a working part of the great machine. Oh, perhaps an appendix is left in in the manner of an intentional flaw in Asian art but everything else serves the purpose.
I know that as I go back through the series I will find these fine details more and more often, will connect the threads to small to see on first viewing.. It will not be a matter of taking the scenes apart, parsing the dialogue and the soundtrack as if I were decoding an encrypted text. It will be a discovery of that new thing: that word, that song that has to be there and suddenly it’s so obvious, you’re standing transfixed before the canvas and the guard comes by to remind you it’s closing time.
I don’t remember what started this train of thought but I know where I lost it: a moment I missed with a house full of friends for the first episode, the gumbo party that started as a drunken joke in a bar, running to the kitchen for beers at the end of Buona Sera: at the end of the sequence of perfectly apocalyptic shots of the dark and empty city. that one perfect shot of the plastic bags swirling in the wind, at once trapped in the current and rising up to heaven, proxy ghosts for all the lost in quick fading (you will miss it unless you step through the frames) to the unanswered call on a silent telephone.
I think I should perhaps change the epigram at the top to the one Ken Kesey recorded somewhere in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: “go with the flow…you’re in the hands of experts” but that would be wrong, because this is no bad trip.
Before I go any further: a confession. I rarely watch television anymore. If twenty seasons of Law and Order isn’t enough to ruin you for crime drama forever, start watching the Wire if you’re new to Simon’s work then dip into an episode or two of conventional cop shows. If it were not for Treme and my bundled internet connection, I think I could save about $150 dollars a month if my family wouldn’t put me out of the house and change the locks if I disrupted their access to Futurama and The Housewives of Where Ever. (Not dissing Futurama, mind you; just cataloging what gets watched around here by others).
The armchair television critics around the internet can complain all they want that Treme is not good television because they are right. It’s not just the sniveling juveniles at Warming Glow. It’s this superficially thoughtful but ultimately convention bound review on Salon. Television is a medium, but one that blurs with film with the proliferation of wide screen, high definition sets. It is to some extent simply a delivery channel, albeit one with clear expectations. To complain that Treme does not conform to the expected tenets of episodic serial television is like complaining that the milkman also delivers orange juice. These malcontents are tourists walking into McDonalds in Paris and discovering snails on the menu, subjected to a tremendous cognitive dissonance because of the cubbyholes they have constructed to organize their world.
It is an ironic distinction as something much on my mind largely is the opinion many writers hold of bloggers, that blogging is not writing (paging Truman Capote: Mr. Kerouac on line one). Most of the time it isn’t. It’s noodling and air guitar playing and coffee pot chatter and bathroom graffiti and screen magazines and gum comics and trading cards and a hundred other things. It can be all of those things and still host brilliant writing because it truly is a delivery system as much as what Marshall McLuhan would recognize as a medium.
Not everyone has the chops to write something as massively complex and interleaved as Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow, and few have what it takes to navigate the labyrinth of Hollywood to win approval of and then manage the thousands of threads that must be tied together to produce a major television series, to do it on a scope of almost twelve hours and still create something on that scale with the attention to detail of a painter. I think that is an equal part of why I am so deeply drawn into this show and not just because I live in New Orleans. I am about halfway through The Wire (I am not just another fawning fan, knowing Simon before the last few months largely by reputation) and I am just as taken in by that world as well.
We all talked again last night about how universally accessible Treme is or is not but I think that’s a moot point. If my son and I pop The Seven Samurai into the DVD player my wife will find something else to do. Some people need a translation into the familiar language of cowboys and bandits; some don’t. There may be a language where the words loss, betrayal, defeat, and hope don’t translate well but I have a hard time imagining it. You can find all those themes on a hundred channels at the same time but they don’t deliver the depth that something like Treme does. Catharsis depends in part on hubris, upon watching the high brought low and seeing it coming. We don’t live in a land of incestuous kings but by stretching to the limit of his grasp and the limits of the medium (and the audience’s tolerance) and then trying to stretch just a little bit further, Simon substitutes his own ambition for Oedipus and Lear, and achieves the same effect with characters some might find mundane and uninteresting. But like Shakespeare or Sophocles some effort is required of the audience.
In the end Treme will be judged as success or failure by those who job it is to mediate culture. As long as we rely exclusively on the judgments of television critics it will often be judged harshly even as Simon is praised for stretching the envelope. Go read that Salon review. There will be more like it everywhere and for all its pretension to a literate critical distance it is built on the same bad foundation as that of the knuckleheads at Warming Glow.
Or better yet, go into a darkened room where you won’t hear the neighbor’s weed whacker screaming and turn off the cell phone and start to watch again, and savor the moments of auteur brilliance like the trash bag spirits or start to do the Sunday Times crossword puzzle of music and plot. Don’t listen to the whiners. They will move onto the next vampire spin-off soon enough and leave us to enjoy what we have discovered, to spend our time unraveling the weave and putting it back together again and again rather than be forced to choose something less suitable just because it’s what is expected.