So, I have been religiously watching the first four episodes of Treme. I’m a bit conflicted about the series overall so far. There is a lot to like so far, but also a lot that leaves me kinda wondering why they’re pushing the insider/outsider theme so hard. It almost feels like a play on Bush’s motto: “You’re either from New Orleans, or a sycophantic parasite.” I’m sure there’s a number of ways to imagine this, and given how early it is I have to believe the series is still trying to find its legs and establish a variety of characters within the world it portrays. A world dominated by the almost instantaneous urban blight left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Whenever the series starts talking about details of the city’s mismanagement, FEMA’s fuck-ups, or how various Louisiana parishes have been exploiting federal funds, it makes for interesting, even if morbid, watching, but at the same time I’m wondering why I’m compelled to watch a train wreck. As Rick Prelinger notes about the coverage of Detroit over the last 10 years, is this just more “ruins porn” in which you bring your audience in knowing they want to find out more about the devastation of Katrina only to give them the dirty details bit-by-bit, and concomitantly make them feel guilty all the while for being a voyeuristic outsider—the very one whom you count on for the success of your narrative. It is, after all, for the outsider that they are retelling this tale, isn’t it?
One of the things that struck me in the first two episodes of Treme was that it seemed surprisingly hopeful given the subject matter it was dealing with, and I found that refreshing. As I finished episode four I’m finding it increasingly hard to stomach the pain-in-the-ass dude from Amsterdam who guilts everyone into not being from New Orleans, or at least going there. How annoying is he? By far the worst character in the show thus far, and his whole line of some kind of essentialized/romaticized vision of New Orleans may be just what this series will have to struggle through for a while yet. Authenticity is the driving logic thus far, and in my mind it seems a bit circular. My favorite way out of this tautology in the series is the simple line in episode 2, “There’s pride on Bourbon street.” Even if no one really believes it, it still frames the predicament faced by the characters—who can afford pride? A far more interesting and complicated way of approaching the situation than suggesting everyone in the series can—which right now is what they all have in common and is what makes them all special in their own way. I guess this is part of the hopefulness, but also part of the struggle, at least for me, with seeing beyond the idea of the assumed “real” New Orleans.
All that said, the music so far has been awesome to listen to, and I’m following The Sound of Treme blog as a guide to the music—which is all pretty new to me and I am enjoying it thoroughly, particularly Fuck Katrina. Which, by the way, allows me to segue way into the very reason I started this post, namely to talk about YouTube, citizen rants, the reincarnation of The Big Lebowski‘s Walter Sobchak as Treme‘s Creighton Bernette, and a missed opportunity. I have to admit I loved Creighton Bernette’s YouTube video in episode 4 in which he rants about the abandonment of New Orleans by the rest of the country. John Goodman is without question channeling Walter Sobchak for this role, and it’s interesting that while Creighton won’t work on his novel or leave the house, he will rant for the rest of the world to hear on a rather young, albeit very popular, video sharing site in December of 2005 called YouTube 🙂 In fact, the idea of the new web and blogging really hit home for me personally in August of 2005 when I was just beginning to wrap my head around the concepts and was regularly following and commenting on the Philadelphia blog The Tattered Coat, which provided a remarkable, almost minute-by-minute update, of what was happening in New Orleans during Katrina. Matt of Tattered Coat did some amazing reporting/updating of the crisis, and I was both impressed and suspicious of how very different this means of communicating such an event was. In fact, the networking around a catastrophic event like that is something we almost take for granted just four years later, just think of the earthquake in Haiti and how quickly folks mobilized relief and various news channels for information so that people could be immediately updated and also have the ability to send money, food, general support, etc. Blogging was not nearly as commonplace in August 2005, but I remember being blown away by how quickly so many people mobilized to share information about Hurricane Katrina. In particular, I remember this post on Tattered Coat titled “On Looking at Photographs of the New Orleans Dead” as a swift kick-in-the-ass in regards to the truly transgressive and disturbing power of social media, it could circumvent mass media’s attempt to censor and simplify a nightmare scenario like Katrina—and seeing the macabre images of the dead littering the streets in the wake of Hurricane Katrina still haunts my imagination. Not since I was a rogue 12 year old guiltily partaking in the illicit cult pseudo-snuff video Faces of Death (1978) had I felt anything as viscerally as when I saw the images in that post. Only difference being I was 21 years older and still had great difficulty parsing the medium through which I was trying to piece the various fragments of this whole thing together.
So seeing Creighton Bernette launch his tirade on YouTube suggested the means through which social media like YouTube, both during and after the hurricane, might be one way of providing an alternative narrative to what the mainstream media is canning for the rest of the country, if not the world. What you have is a series of pissed off folks that are done being pushed around, and this becomes an outlet for frustration, grief, and communicating a narrative through an alternative channel. Something I think we have lost some sight of four years later. So, I’ve included the YouTube video rant below, but my question to the folks creating Treme is why did I have to upload this clip? Why wouldn’t you actually film Creighton’s rant via YouTube and upload it to YouTube yourself? And potentially spark a whole series of rant videos about the aftermath of Katrina? Why not experiment with the very medium you are chronicling? –even if fictionally. It actually once again begs the question who is Treme for? The outsider or the insider? —or some third, socially mediated space between? Why not imagine elements of the show as some kind of ARG that allows us to rethink media and the delivery mechanisms for rants, because much of Treme right now is a rant, and it seems like the show is aimed at drawing attention to that fact, and providing a kind of awareness that New Orleans is still very much recovering 4 years later, but at the same time wants to be left alone. Who will know if everything is locked up behind an HBO paywall (even if only imaginary)? I guess the word will leak out if and when the show catches fire, but why not experiment with the very channels that made Katrina one of the first major events mediated through an assortment of social media channels? It just seems like a missed opportunity to me not to experiment a bit with making the show something more than another HBO series, as amazing as many of them have proven to be over the years. But the fact is, social media informed many of us about Hurricane Katrina in some powerful ways, through a variety of different channels—can a show dealing with an historic event like this use these very tools to make the conversation that much more distributed, dynamic, and open? Rick Prelinger seems to be trying to do something very similar with his documentary “The Lost Landscapes of Detroit” is, as Prelinger notes,
A collection of amazing and almost-all-lost footage that celebrates a vibrant, busy and productive Detroit from 1917 through the 1970s. The idea is to bring these images back to Detroiters for their contemplation and use as they rebuild their city for the future.
Footage to both contemplate and use in the rebuilding of a city, isn’t that what the people of New Orleans need right now as well? Isn’t it what we all need? Prelinger’s work is in many ways a starting point to get more footage out there from citizen archivists to both share and create with, and I wonder if Treme might be thinking along the same lines? A means to get the rants, stories, and images out there for everyone to continue to share as the rebuilding continues. If that were the case, how exactly can TV do this alone?
OK, anyway, here is the rant 🙂 And to be clear the following video is a rather long, extended f-bomb. You’ve been warned.