jump to navigation

Treme too authentic for the New York Times April 9, 2010

Posted by The Typist in Debrisville, Federal Flood, fuckmook, FYYFF, New Orleans, NOLA, We Are Not OK.
Tags: , , ,

Cross-posted from Back Of Town.

I am struggling to figure out what precisely offended New York Times TV Reviewer Allessandra Stanley about Treme. The gist of it seems to be that it is not didactic or angry enough, that is “is more an act of love, and, odd as it sounds, that makes it harder to embrace…

“[Treme] is a tribute to the “real” New Orleans by filmmakers who have become connoisseurs of the city, depicting its sound and ravaged looks with rapt reverence and attention to detail…

“The effort to get New Orleans “right,” to do justice to the city’s charm, its jazz tradition, and now its post-Katrina martyrdom, is at times so palpable it is off-putting, a self-consciousness that teeters on the edge of righteousness.”

Let’s start with her use of the phrase “its post-Katrina martyrdom.” I want to know when New York plans to get over it’s post-9/11 martyrdom. If Allessandra gets back to me on that one, you will read it here first.

She is also disappointed that Treme is “an elliptically told tale, and it takes a few episodes for the plot and the characters to pick up steam.” I’m sure you’re quite busy up there in New York, but it is kind of hard to tell a story of this sweep and depth in a way that you can watch episodically on your I Pod while waiting on the platform for your train. MTV is shooting a Real World New Orleans episode. Maybe you should wait for that.

On balance, she manages a good job of retyping the material that came with her review copy, giving a basic idea of the plot outline and characters, sort of a TV Guide snapshot for people who would not be caught dead reading the TV Guide. With some tight editing, bits of it might make for decent jacket copy for the boxed set but I suspect most of it was written up the first time by Simon’s staff.

In the end, she casts the show (I presume she saw the first one or two episodes most reviewers got) as a reflection of the snobishness of some locals toward the outside world (keying in on the scene when the visitors ask to hear The Saints), that the film is taken with that attitude and is too reverential towards its subject.

One wonders what she expected. Perhaps she is a die hard Wire junkie and was just itchily waiting for that new package. As she points out, Treme ain’t that. If I went looking for analogies I wouldn’t think of Simon’s prior oeuvre, or Spike Lee’s move or even Trouble the Water. If I hope for anything, it is precisely achingly reverential treatments Ken Burns gave to subjects like the Civil War and Jazz, mingled with strong and representative characters (because at one level, New Orleans is all about the characters), characters who tell the story of one of the great cataclysms of American history, a story that attempts to convey what Ashley Morris and all the New Orleans bloggers have been talking about since 8-29: it’s not just about saving not just the real estate, but about saving something recognizably New Orleans.

I don’t expect everyone to love Treme, anymore than I expect everyone to love New Orleans. Some people are only happy in their own tightly constrained milieu and are never going to be happy outside of it. If they travel, they go to all inclusive resorts and tell every one they went to Jamaica when they really went to a fucking Marriott and never set foot outside the door. New Orleans is different, and not just in the way Idaho is different from New Jersey, but rather z a place with a unique local culture that has evolved over three centuries, longer than most of America has even been settled by Europeans. If you don’t like it, that’s OK. I’m not too fond of Phoenix, but then I haven’t heard anyone nominating Phoenix a world heritage site.

If Allessandra Stanley doesn’t understand what she calls our chauvinism, if she doesn’t understand why someone of Simon’s talent would want to reverentially recreate New Orleans, she’s entitled to her opinion. She’s a reviewer, that’s what she does, but a reviewer who approaches their subject with a closed mind or one that snaps shut like a trap at the first whiff of something that does not fit some preconceived notion, well that’s a waste of perfectly good trees.

I think most New Orleanians are like the people I met traveling to New York, people who would gladly stop and give us directions or swipe my wife into the subway with their own fare card when my wife couldn’t get her to work, people who were glad we came to share in one of the great cities of the world even as they carried deep inside a profoundly chauvinistic conviction that New York is one of the great cities of the world, and that it was perfectly natural we should want to be there.

— wet bank guy

And the colored girls say: FFF FYYFingF January 20, 2010

Posted by The Typist in Federal Flood, FYYFF, Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, NOLA, Sinn Fein, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: , ,

“[The HBO show Treme’, set in immediate post-Federal Flood New Orleans] wasn’t a bummer. It was more looking at (the setting) and having the same feeling that John Goodman’s character had. ‘There’s something wrong here and it needs to be fixed.’ It didn’t bum me out as much as it made me want to jump up and say, ‘We need to do something for New Orleans. Look at all this wonderful flavor. Look at all these great characters. And why are they still having these problems? I don’t want them having these problems.’”
– Susan Young, a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area whose writing appears in People and Variety, following the critics premiere of the first two episodes.

The NOLA.Com summary of critical reactions by Dave Walker, both on his blog and for the Times-Picayune, gives a capsule on Goodman’s character: [he] plays an Uptown New Orleans college professor who struggles to contain his rage at media misconceptions about post-Katrina levee-failure flooding.”

Hmm. That sounds familiar.

One critic quoted by Walker, Joel Keller of the online TVSquad.com, doesn’t like Goodman’s character much. ““I guess it needed someone to defend New Orleans,” Keller said. “He just seemed kind of out-of-phase with the rest of the cast. I’d like to see what happens as he kind of integrates himself into the rest of what’s going on. Right now, he feels like a totally different story, as opposed to the other stories that are going on.” Others were more kind: “Goodman’s wonderful,” said Ellen Gray, critic for the Philadelphia Daily News

Simon told a small group of bloggers privately last year that his team was writing a character into the show based, at least in part, on Ashley Morris. (We have got to get that boy a Wikipedia page so I don’t have to recap it all here). I am very anxious to see Ashley’s Goodman’s character. Having a commenter outside of the main story line may seem a bit weird to someone who reviews cable television on the Internet for a site hosted by AOL, but it seemed to work for writers back in the day.

The question I have: does America really want to see a sympathetic portrait of an alternative to the mainstream American culture, that banal plate of airline food served where everyone sits in their tiny little assigned seat reading the same in-flight magazine or watching the same movie, wishing they were in first class? (You do remember airline food, don’t you?) Treme’ gives us “those people”–you remember, the ones from the Convention Center and the Superdome–living in a world just minutes from America where playing bass drum or tuba is honored career choice because the parade season is 40 weeks long, people who don’t just live for the weekend like most Americans anxious to escape their little cubes for the big boxes but a people who live for the parade and the po-boy and if that by chance happens on a Wednesday afternoon well they might be late back to work without a thought.

I am not so sure, but I admire the hell out of David Simon for trying.

Treme: Life on the Banquette September 17, 2009

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
Tags: , , ,

How to tell the story of New Orleans? That is the secret I have tried to unravel for the last several years, primarily through my blogs here and the old Wet Bank Guide. Since I folded Wet Bank Guide into Carry Me Home, I let others bandy about the stories of the day and vent their anger or parade their amusement while I look for those odd bits of life in New Orleans that I hope explain why we choose to live here.

An outsider’s view of New Orleans is sadly colored by the coverage of the aftermath of the Federal Flood, by ongoing corruption trials that refresh the long standing perception of corruption, and by a long string of horrible and exploitative films and television shows. Now one of dramatic television’s most prominent figures is attempting to fit the complex and terribly nuanced story of New Orleans onto film: David Simon, creator of the widely acclaimed television series “The Wire” and “Homicide: Life on the Streets”.

For those of us who have suffered through the gumbo parties of “K-Ville” and Dennis Quaid’s insufferable Cajun accent in “The Big Easy” (and bog knows I could go on), this is a promising moment. David Simon is a former journalist whose book “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” became “Homicide” the TV series, the spiritual father of the gritty and morally ambiguous cop noir television of today. He pulled no punches in his portrayal of Baltimore in “The Wire,” and one has to hope his talent as writer and producer will result in a compelling, faithful and savory portrayal of this city.

Simon and other members of his writing team for Treme told an SRO audience at Octavia Books in Uptown New Orleans last night it will not be an easy task. “Your nuances have nuances.” Having lived through writing and producing two television series set in his own hometown of Baltimore, he warned it “would not be perfect… We’re going to piss you off no matter how hard we try. It’s coming.”

But as series co-writer Lolis Elie, local newspaper columnist and producer of the acclaimed documentary film “Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans,” told the audience, “You won’t be embarrassed by the way we present the city”.

Part of the difficulty is the nature of dramatic television. Simon said it’s all “about life and death, ninety five percent of dramatic television. It’s cops and robbers because that’s life and death, it’s the emergency room (it’s never the proctologist’s office), its about lawyers and the guy in the dock who may go to prison for the rest of his life, so this sort of dramatic series may be a laughable enterprise. Don’t over hype this. Four years from now we’ll be saying we did a show in New Orleans and the guy behind the bar will say, ‘that’s great, now finish your drink and get out of here. It’s 2 a.m.’.”

The series’ first season will focus on the early months of the recovery, a period from November 2005 when people first became to come home in significant numbers and run through St. Joseph’s Day 2006. The storm and flood are not only an intrinsic part of the story line, but what made the telling of this story possible. ““It’s very hard to explain New Orleans on paper to anyone but Katrina gave a relevance to New Orleans and gave the ability to go in and talk about Mardi Gras Indians and not have their eyes glaze over,” Simon said.

Simon and “Wire” co-writer George Pelecanos (a part-time resident of New Orleans) count themselves among those irreversibly smitten by the city. He recounted how they would sit around “talking about our record collections and our time in New Orleans,” and the time they were given an radio show for an evening to spin their extensive collections of old New Orleans R&B records. Rounding out the writing team is novelist Tom Piazza, who also penned “Why New Orleans Matters” in the immediate aftermath of the flood. This does not look to be the sort of Hollywood effort Orleanians have lamented in the past.

Any film set in a city is going to draw the eyes of the hometown continuity team, ready to pounce on the details they get wrong (and Simon the New Orleans record collector pointed out that the term “gumbo party” appears in a song by Little Queenie and the Percolators). He reminded the audience that this is dramatic fiction based on the city and the events of year one after the event. “First, we get to make stuff up. [In “The Wire”]some of it happened, some of it could have happened or was rumored to have happened, and some of it plausibly could have happened.” He recounted the story of a scene in which they reversed the flow of traffic on a major Baltimore street in the Wire, and locals complained endlessly.

Simon and Elie also made clear the series would not be a clone of The Wire. “Remember the crime didn’t come back” in the time period of the first season, November 2005 through St. Joseph’s Day 2006. And Elie did promise that the important things would not be missed. ‘Remember all the help you got from your city council member, your governor, you congressperson. We’ll make sure they get the credit they deserve.”

One feature that will carry over from Simon and team’s prior efforts: a focus on character. Talking about the team writing process, one of the speakers (I didn’t catch which) spoke of discussions of the “the arc the characters will take” as a key focus. And authentic and interesting characters are what will carry the show, he suggested. In response to an audience question about Katrina fatigue, Simon replied that “people will care about new Orleans because they care about the characters.”

And privately after the Q&A, when a small crowd of New Orleans bloggers gathered to get books signed and thank Simon for giving a commencement speech at DePaul University dedicated in part to our deceased colleague Ashley Morris who was a professor there, he promised that one character would be based partially on Ashley.

The co-writers also spoke about “the writing room” and how team-written television works. Three are novelists, three journalists, but the film writing experience is “about as different from sitting in a room writing a novel as something could be.” According to Simon, “in a writing room bad ideas tend to get challenged. The arguments are what makes it great.”

What struck me was the repeated mention by several of the writers of the criticality of character in compelling film drama, a focus borne out by Simon’s prior work. My own option is that character and setting drive the story. if you get the characters nailed and them put them into an authentic setting then the characters will take you where the story needs to go, through the actions and interactions with each other and with the environment.

The two things we’ve all complained about in prior New Orleans shows was a complete failure to get the characters or the place right. Simon and Pelecanos have a strong track record of getting both right in Baltimore, and Elie and Piazza know this city as well as any living writers.

If Simon and his team can deliver the characters and the place, can through their characters and the nuances of the visual setting deliver what they have done for Baltimore, I hope that our long-standing complaint about the poor portrayal of the city will be laid to rest by “Treme”.

David Simon on Ashley Morris June 13, 2008

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
Tags: , , ,

From the Chicago Tribune’s TV writer Maureen Ryan:

It’s not terribly unusual for television writers to form bonds with the people who watch their shows. What David Simon is doing for a “Wire” fan this weekend, however, may be a little unusual.

Simon, the creator of “The Wire,” will be in the Chicago area Sunday to receive an honorary degree and to deliver the commencement address for DePaul University. Simon’s appearance at the ceremony, which will take place at Rosemont’s Allstate Arena, sprang from his desire to pay tribute to Ashley Morris, a DePaul assistant professor and “Wire” fan. Morris recently passed away at the age of 44…

[Simon told the newspaper] “the last [e-mail] conversation I had with this gentlemen, he expressed great satisfaction and pride in having worked hard to get me invited to the DePaul commencement,” Simon wrote. “In fact, I was originally scheduled to be in London doing the final sound editing on Generation Kill this coming weekend and so I regretfully declined. He e-mailed me back saying he understand and was very disappointed, but understood the scheduling conflict. Next thing, I learn that Ashley has passed away suddenly.

“So the last thing this fella did was ask me to make a commencement appearance at the school where he taught and I said, sorry, no. And then he departs this vale. Naturally, for karmatic purposes, I had to call DePaul back and say if you still need me I’m there…

“I admired his sense of outrage; petulance and selfish rage are useless, but rightful and righteous anger has an essential place in our times. Ashley was angry on behalf of others, which in my mind makes all the difference. From what he wrote, I am convinced that Ashley loved his city and he loved the people of his city, and he was short and to the point with people who tried to [evade] the real questions using ad hominem and decorum and false civility. He spoke his mind.

“So I never got to know him. And that is my loss. And on some weird level, I owe him a trip to Chicago and a morning spent in a funny hat and gown.”

The rest here…