The HBO show is as much about the act of producing art about Katrina as it is about the storm's aftermath
Telling the story of Hurricane Katrina and its impact on the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast has, understandably, taken some time. After the raw immediacy of the event and the unmediated pain captured in news reports, trauma sets in. Trauma requires distance if we are to understand it as more than a wound, if we are to see the possibility for meaningful reflection. The renewal of HBO’s “Treme,” set in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, testifies to the lingering impression of the storm and the flooding of New Orleans on the cultural imagination. The process of transforming the experience and memories of these ruinous events into aesthetic products shows us how our culture meditates on trauma.
I’m particularly motivated to understand the aesthetic afterlife of Katrina because I grew up in the greater New Orleans area and didn’t leave Louisiana until I was 25. Just a few days after the storm, my father died outside of Lake Charles, where my mother had taken him after the evacuation of their Mississippi Gulf Coast retirement home. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, I couldn’t stand to see news reports about the tragedy. In fact, as I watched the news from my home in Ohio and then with family in Lake Charles, I found myself frequently turning away, unable to witness the devastation, abandonment, and loss. Even now, it’s taken me five years to watch Spike Lee’s documentaries about Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans; I needed the distance, even though I was there at the time, and saw the city once we were allowed back into what was left of our homes. I could be there, but I couldn’t watch it mediated, produced for mass consumption on HBO.
It’s one thing to experience a personal, social, cultural, and political trauma of that magnitude and another to see it inevitably transformed for the screen. I think some filmmakers have waited to narrate Katrina out of respect for those so adversely affected by the storm. The waiting allows the trauma to eventually be deployed for other ends — some salutary and healing, others more ambiguous in their intentions and effects, perhaps even potentially self-serving. And indeed, the aftermath of Katrina consists of a complex set of competing narratives about the response to the storm and the history of insufficient preparation for its arrival.
HBO’s “Treme” premieres its third season on September 23, 2012, and the visual media inspired by Katrina, particularly “Treme” and Spike Lee’s documentaries, have been especially difficult to grapple with. I can read Jesmyn’s Ward’s National Book Award-winning “Salvage of the Bones” or Dave Eggers’s “Zeitoun” with relative ease, even some dispassion, but seeing the city devastated has been harder for me to face. I’m unsure this difficulty has anything to do with the much vaunted greater impact of the visual, or if it exemplifies how the circulation of traumatic images in media over time allows us to trace how those images become re-mediated to reflect less on the trauma itself and more on the production of culture about trauma. After the event, the culture industry takes up the trauma to play it, to reflect on it; what is reflected, though, may be the industry’s own production, less a reflection of what happened and more an artistic venture.
In some ways, “Treme” plays a lot like an extension of Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke,” in part because some of Lee’s informants, most notably the actors Wendell Pierce and Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, appear in the show as characters. Lee’s documentary and its companion piece, “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise,” were both produced by HBO, as is “Treme,” so some overlap in overall feel, design, and production is perhaps inevitable. Still, the two documentaries seem raw in the devastating simplicity of their images and interviews, which, spliced together, allows Lee to stand on their own power and force. He risks a bit in focusing on a series of talking heads, but the blending of first-person accounts with shocking photos and videos produces a relentless set of improvisations that steadily compel the viewer to confront not just the natural catastrophe but the human tragedy, the very real human failure to prepare adequately for the inevitable flooding of the city or to care for those left in the wake of the storm and its aftermath.
Lee organizes his documentary interviews and footage in four “acts” that mobilize individual narratives into arguments, primarily about the failure of local and federal governments to respond appropriately to the flooding in the storm’s aftermath. In the third act of the documentary, Lee explores how the state of Louisiana, a leading producer of the country’s natural gas and oil, receives almost no money from the sales of those natural resources. That income could have been used to protect the state and its citizens by building better hurricane defenses. He consistently refers to those displaced by Katrina and the flooding as “refugees,” emphasizing how people were moved from their homes and made to feel alien in their own country.
Additional material on the DVD set, including several rants about George W. Bush and the systemic neglect of the city’s working poor, is even more fascinating, less ordered into the documentary format, and more intensely accessible. “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise” continues the story of survival after Katrina, opening with the 2009 Saints Super Bowl victory, a rousing set of images that gave me chills. Lee moves quickly from these images of victorious overcoming to stark questioning about how little had been done to assist the city and its residents in their recovery efforts. He foregrounds inadequate corporate and governmental responses to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to underscore yet more systemic neglect. Much is made in the documentary about how Katrina provided some politicians an opportunity to close down low-income housing projects that had been scheduled for closing for several years before the storm as part of a national move to get rid of public housing,
Perhaps the most moving aspect of the documentaries comes from the interviews with people who share their stories of tremendous pain and outrage. They describe losing family members and homes; experiencing long-term physical and mental disability; encountering bureaucratic indifference from government and insurance agencies; and seeing their beloved city transformed by powerful lobbies to drive out the working poor and recreate New Orleans as a middle- and upper-class tourist destination. With such powerful voices layering over one another, again and again, Lee’s documentaries preserve a sense of the New Orleans that has itself been buried under layers of silt and corporatized visions of financial opportunity. The impoverished city has been swept clean, leaving a clear path for investors to re-imagine it, and Lee’s subjects are left to testify to their former ways of life, the lives of many working poor, lost in the shuffle.
In many ways, “Treme” wants to testify to these same losses, and the show chronicles a city undergoing profound transformation. To their credit, the makers of “Treme” give viewers a sense of both the struggles to survive post-Katrina and a sense of what natural catastrophe and human error have cost the city and its residents. “Treme” furthers the narrative based on the same images of blown out houses and stories of blown out lives that we see and hear throughout Lee’s films. Stories about police indifference to inmates recall what we know of police brutality in the aftermath of the flooding. One subplot focuses on the closing of the housing projects and the anger of those displaced from their homes, sometimes in perfectly inhabitable condition, which have been slated for demolition to make room for urban gentrification. The length of these narratives puts some of the immediate anger and frustration on display, but also allow us to see the long-term effects of systemic neglect, racism, and classism.
“Treme” is co-executive produced by David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” a landmark television show in the portrayal of urban realities. “Treme” also features two regularly appearing actors from “The Wire” (including Wendell Pierce, who also appears in Lee’s documentaries), and features a long second season narrative about Oliver Thomas, a former councilman convicted of taking bribes, who actually plays himself on the show. “Treme” also integrates actual musicians like Dr. John and Elvis Costello, and chefs, like John Besch, into its troupe of actors, many of whom also play instruments and sing. Like many of the other long-form dramatic narratives produced by HBO and Showtime, the aesthetic approach to “Treme” banks on a simulation of reality that seeks, in part, to pay tribute to that reality.
But in contrast to Lee’s documentaries, “Treme” indulges in more than a little cinema clichévérité. “Treme’s” writers draw on New Orleans’s most widely known and expected stereotypes: jazz musicians struggling to make a living; slackers drinking their days away in the city that care forgot; a hint of voodoo and Catholic mysticism. As in “The Sopranos’s” use of the New Jersey mob and “Hung’s” use of post-apocalyptic Detroit, the clichés mount, creating a sense of eerie, overly familiar hyper-reality, a reality that has the veneer of the real, a King Cake frosted glaze of the authentic.
But maybe I’m being too harsh; after all, teleplays are not documentaries, and do not make the same claims to truth-telling that documentaries must. “Treme” certainly borrows from real life, but what does it do with it? In many ways, “Treme” acts as an archive, often movingly so, placing a lot of emphasis on the artistic and musical traditions of New Orleans, one of the birthplaces of jazz. The DVD set includes extensive and authoritative commentaries about the music performed. The show’s artistic themes preserve New Orleans’s musical culture, seeking to document what otherwise might be tragically lost, And indeed, preserving the city’s musical culture and traditions becomes one of the more important narrative threads of the show.
Even still, “Treme” moves beyond the archival method, particularly in its second season, engaging arts of improvisation to show us how New Orleans will only survive if it allows itself to be transformed. We see this improv aesthetic in several characters, such as Davis, a white DJ who wishes he were a black jazz musician. Davis is something of a slacker, but the flood seems to energize him, and his dominant storyline involves him mixing and matching musical styles, piecing together a band of hip-hop, bounce, and traditional jazz musicians to play and record his songs of political protest. Although his leadership of the band, DJ Davis and the Brassy Knoll, is often played for laughs (and he eventually is displaced as leader), Davis is more than just slapstick relief — he’s relentlessly positive and confident in the adaptability that will help him see himself and others through this tragedy. Davis’s foil is a more serious musician, Delmond, an African-American who has moved to New York in pursuit of a career in modern jazz. He struggles with his art and his father, an African-American Indian who dances and performs in elaborate handmade costumes during Mardi Gras parades. Delmond has left New Orleans and, when we meet him, no longer plays New Orleans jazz, but the post-Katrina state of the city keeps drawing him back. By the second season, he’s described as “half New York, half New Orleans,” and we see him recording an experimental album combining New Orleans’s Mardi Gras Indian chants with modern jazz. (The music performed in the show isn’t actually new, but is taken from Donald Harrison’s album from 1991, “Indian Blues.”)
The art of improvisation through music stands in for the adaptability of post-Katrina New Orleans as a whole, and the emphasis on the aesthetic becomes central for “Treme” as a way to reflect on and interpret trauma. Of course, most shows are innately aesthetic products, but while “The Wire” plays as aestheticized documentary, “Treme” plays like a documentary about aesthetics. Indeed, the more one watches “Treme,” the more one realizes that the show is really about the production of art — on the surface, it romanticizes the rich artistic traditions of New Orleans, particularly jazz and the city’s distinctive food culture, but, more subversively, the show plays into a principle trope of the postmodern: meditation on its own mediation. Nearly all of the story lines involve artists, generally jazz musicians or wannabes, as well as a struggling chef. These characters are incredibly aware of themselves as artists, and reflect constantly on their roles as they steadily turn their art into occupation, protesting the failure of the government, local and federal, to rebuild the city, to protect and provide for the poor, to do the right thing. Delmond’s father, Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux, Afro-Indian chief and Mardi Gras costume maker, camps out in boarded-up but perfectly livable housing projects in hopes of forcing the government to let the residents come home. The failed restaurateur takes her kitchen to the streets, cooking up food for a variety of events, including the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras, which is depicted as an act of political resistance as well as a sign of survival. Slacker ex-disc jockey Davis marshals his friends to create a CD of protest songs that forms the basis of a satiric run for city council.
But the show’s true anxieties — anxieties of influence, and perhaps also of aesthetic status — are filtered through the character of Tulane English professor Creighton Burnett, who hasn’t published a novel in eight years but takes up the making of angry do-it-yourself protest videos that he posts on YouTube. In a striking scene, his New York-based Random House agent flies to New Orleans and the two discuss his future literary career, an airport jazz band blasting in the background. The agent wants to publish Creighton’s abandoned novel (ostensibly about a flood from the 1920s), but only if he can update it with a Katrina frame and use the “fuck you” voice he’s found in the making of his videos. In subsequent episodes he struggles to complete the novel, and turns, predictably, to drinking, throwing the pages of the unfinished manuscript into the air. Unable to cope by the end of the first season, he commits suicide, his DIY video making unable to satisfy him. In the second season, when his daughter starts making similar videos, her DIY practice is coded as problematic acting out, a sign of her inability to cope with her father’s death.
By killing Creighton and pathologizing his daughter, “Treme” steadily disparages the do-it-yourself and aligns itself with high craft, with the slow painstaking arts of improvisation that can’t be dashed off in a fit of justifiable passion or pique. The show’s praise goes to the jazz musicians, who labor at their art, to Albert, whose complex costume making occupies years of work, and to the culinary artists, chefs learning to mix and match ingredients in ever-more interesting combinations. In all three forms — music, costume making, and cooking — there is an emphasis on hybridity, on the establishment of an artistry built slowly and carefully out of many practices. And isn’t that a lot like “Treme” itself, not to mention other HBO dramas? These shows are hybrids — multi-episode movies that blend documentary and imagination, piecing themselves together over the long haul. Ever further, “Treme” is curiously lodged somewhere between the DIY YouTube video, widely disseminated and viewed, and the high literary culture represented by Random House. The show has the chance to tell a story and be political, to chronicle narratively the lives, loves, struggles, failures, and triumphs of people in desperate times.
Certainly, the creators of “Treme” are playing the improvisations of business off the improvisations of art, and the various storylines commingle, resonating richly with one another. But the close alignment of the two — business and art — speaks powerfully to the ways in which certain kinds of art have become big business. For an easily accessible example of this convergence, we have the production of a show like “Treme.” What’s curious is how “Treme” stages its own aesthetic, highly wrought hybridity, particularly over and against do-it-yourself videomaking. On this spectrum, “Treme” isn’t quite Random House, but it’s close. While we all watch YouTube videos, we also yearn for highbrow art, and we’re willing to pay for it. “Treme” is invested in pitching itself in the direction of modern jazz, haute cuisine, even the documentary — you’re not just watching another TV show.
I don’t hate “Treme,” but the first two seasons are a long, slow, sometimes beautiful, sometimes tedious arguments for itself. And perhaps it has to be. The cost of making the show necessitates that it argue in favor of you watching it, and if mimicking highbrow status or the long labors of learning to improv helps, then all the better. But the show’s narratives remind me of the distinction Walter Benjamin makes in “The Author as Producer.” Benjamin is skeptical of aesthetic work and cultural products that reflect the right “attitude” about class struggles while keeping the means of production of those works safely in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Benjamin could’ve been watching “Treme,” for the show certainly affects the right attitudes about New Orleans’s working class. But it aligns a powerful “means of production” — the YouTube videos — with despair, while lauding cuisine and costuming, and perhaps its own crafting of itself as realistic television.
Not all Katrina media downplays the do-it-yourself, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another documentary, “Trouble the Water,” released in 2008 by Zeitgeist. An award-winning film by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, “Trouble the Water” primarily follows a young woman living in New Orleans, Kimberly Roberts, who wants to record video footage about an approaching storm, Katrina. She does so, staying behind and becoming trapped in her sweltering attic as floodwaters rise. She’s eventually rescued, and the documentary splices together other footage and news reports to tell her story in the aftermath of the flooding. But what stays with you is her desire to record, to document, to make her own movie. She was there — she saw, experienced, survived. And those experiences are raw, powerful, anguished, and uncensored. They speak to the immediacy of the event in ways that “Treme”, and even Spike Lee, can’t. Ultimately, Roberts’s videos become a powerful testament to her experience, but also to the value of making your own videos, about participating in media production and dissemination. We need the raw just as much as we need the crafted. Sometimes we need it more, or we risk falling into the same complacencies that have allowed the flooding of New Orleans in the first place.
The complexity of an experience like Katrina and the flooding of a major city demands multiple mediums, multiple viewpoints, and multiple viewings. Fortunately, in this case, we have them. “Treme” is at times a very good reflection — of a city, a culture, a lost cause, and a possibility. But it is also a story of the changing nature of telling stories, and of the emergence of hybrid narratives that are competing for our attention. And this is where “Treme” resonates most powerfully — perhaps it deserves watching more for the story it tells about culture and art than for anything it might tell us about Katrina.