Tuesday, July 20, 2010
I am forever grateful that I spent time in New Orleans in the 1980's. That is me laying in bed reading SPIN magazine in the French Quarter, in the spring of 1987. A copy of A Confederacy Of Dunces is on the bedside table. I was crazy about cajun and creole food and wanted to check out the music scene...and somehow I managed to get down there with such ambition, while juggling a babysitter as a single mum, and getting time off from a bartending job etc. Sometimes, I still can't believe how lucky I was at the time. I worked in a bar in Toronto that served a cajun menu and the cuisine was just getting trendy at that time. My bosses saw me going to New Orleans as research for working for them, so they gladly gave me time off. I don't ever remember eating as much food as I did on those visits...I ate at every possible place I could find and went to every possible live music venue I could find. It was a really incredible time, and the kind of energy really one mostly spends when they are young. I rode a moped to Algiers, I got a manicure in the Garden District, I stayed up all night and walked home while vendors hosed down the streets at 9 a.m. and I went to house parties of total strangers. I am glad I went to New Orleans before Trent Reznor, before vampires, before Bradgelina...before Katrina. Having said that....New Orleans also has an inertia that defies visitors so it also feels the same on return visits years and decades later. Amen.
But can you ever know New Orleans as a visitor? Can you ever know anywhere as a visitor?
HBO's series Treme sets out to introduce New Orleans to the world. No really. It doesn't matter if you've got street creds and you've been there. In some haunting, languid style...the series brings you into conversations, houses, streets and a seemingly alternative universe of New Orleans that feels very very precious and part voyeuristic and part tangible and immediate.
Sometimes the camera work is responsible for the sense of immediacy, by moving and setting between cast as if it is a domestic handycam. Sometimes someones head is right there in your view and sometimes, the camera is capturing something so private that we feel like..."are we visible?" Should I leave you alone?"
I think Treme is one of the very best programs I've ever seen on tv. And believe me, I watch a lot of fucking tv. I read a lot of books, I watch a lot of movies, and I listen to a lot of different music, and I watch a lot of tv. That in so many ways defines exactly who I am. I am a person who absorbs the stories of humans, low brow, highbrow...i don't care about any such bullshit like "good taste" or "stature'. People made something: I'll at least respect it and check it out. I like storytelling. Period.
Treme is it's own incredible world and it is an accomplishment in character construction, in narrative, and in cinematography and then there is the soundtrack. What an incredibly beautiful journey that Treme has offered us. This is a tv show that should be watched with friends and then have a lovely mixer to discuss each episode. I hope people will be having viewing parties when the dvd is released. I hope people have friends over and enjoy the art of conversation and play music and talk about each episode.
Treme is unusual because it is often very slow moving. Like the city it portrays. If you walk fast in New Orleans, then you just don't get it. If you think you can absorb New Orleans like any other tourist town, then you just don't get it.
Part of the fascinating thing about Treme is that it explores this stubborn purism of the people who live there...who believe the city has it's own narrative that one surrenders to...or not. The city will break you and ignore you if you don't see it's own unique pulse and spiritual undercurrent. You can go to New Orleans and never see the languid undercurrent...but you might if you watch Treme. We come to understand the stubborness of the characters we follow, why they do the very things they do that at first we might dismiss. Every choice of clothing, of music, of improvization, of where they live, of where they work and how they speak unfolds slowly like a mystery. Sometimes breathtakingly.
This is slow cinema. This is cinema verite. This is mise en scene. This is complex, layered storytelling revealing Greek Tragedy and folly. And love. Love for life that maybe it is easy to have forgotten. It's more than a tv show about New Orleans...but if that was all Treme was it is a huge success. But Treme also points a finger at us, where ever we live...do we believe in music? Do we believe in standing up for our ideals? Do we believe in "home"? Do we believe in dancing? Do we really believe it's "the little things in life"?
In the world of Treme the little things in life are revealed for the monolithic powers they offer.
Most of all, I cared about all of the people portrayed in this series. I even landed up having dreams about this series and the characters. Dreams that woke me up.
By exploring and presenting an intimate portrait of several families and people in New Orleans, we have had the camera reveal our own lives and our own communities.
Watch Treme and learn about how you live with music and community.
You can see a few seconds of a scene where Steve Earle is a street musician...and he is busking with his real life son, Justin Townes Earle.
Above is Steve Earle performing the song he wrote for the series, Treme, called "This City" and it was nominated for an Emmy (The Emmy Award show airs August 29)
Wednesday night on PBS, Tavis Smiley tours New Orleans with Wendell Pierce, one of the stars of Treme, and director Jonathan Demme.