“I Only Want People with Talent to Express Themselves”

I FINALLY got to see this last night and by the middle of it, I was already ready to see it again. Fran Lebowitz, writer/wit/public intellectual, author of Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, agreed after ten years to allow Martin Scorsese do a documentary about her and her city, New York. She’s great on writing, race, urban living and the idea of public intellectuals. It was a joy to watch someone so smart simply talk, yet feel at the edge of your seat hanging on the next word — a thrill ride. Great archival footage: Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal are among the figures highlighted. She took square aim at the publishing industry saying there were “too many” books published that had been written by people who can’t write. The reason this is true, she posits, is that they all have good “self-esteem” — and this is our downfall.


Ventriloquism: The Highest Form of Compliment?

LAST WEEK, I happened to catch an episode of Hell’s Kitchen, one of chef Gordon Ramsay’s many TV franchises. I hadn’t really been watching it too much this season figuring that one season, and that the very limit, two, was probably enough. You get the arc of this narrative pretty quickly.

It’s not a show where one thinks consciously about race — it’s simply its own little survival-of-the-fittest island — but last week more than a couple of the wanna-be exec. chef’s were liberally peppering their patter with their read on hip hop (read: black) argot.

The most uncomfortable voicing throughout has been Sabrina, a trash-talking, 20-something blond who frequently boasts about her “ghetto” this or that , or is wondering if “Diddy” is going to step out of the limo arriving for early seating at the Hell’s Kitchen restaurant.

It’s simply painful to both listen to and watch her. Horror show.

Check her out right about 2:25ish in this clip (and make sure to make it to 2:47):

Later, she sends out this riposte to Vinny, the last chef eliminated: “I took your black jacket, bee-yatch”


Then there’s Russell, who addresses everyone as “bro,” and recently referred to himself as a “grown-ass man” then turned and did a gangsta limp out of the room. Last week, he turned it up mid-episode to challenge the kitchen’s most nebbishy cook, Trev, to “come correct.”
Well, all right.
I began to fantasize that Jason Ellis or Nilka or better, Tennille (who had the temerity to get in Chef’s face — more than once and without hesitation) — were there to put her in her place. I wonder if she would have felt as free to speak this way if she had someone around to check her.

This all hit home yesterday as I was flipping through a couple of books that I’m putting together a preview piece for the paper. Obstensibly, they are about black oral tradition — the rhythms of passed on wisdom-culture. One of the books, The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois (with forward and afterward written by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Common, respectively) speaks to this. Writes Gates in his intro: “Rap’s influence on the English language is palpable in the currents of contemporary, everyday speech. It’s a vivid vocabulary and often explicit.”
We’ve grown so used to it, I seldom blink.
I don’t think I would have reacted as much if Sabrina’s voicings hadn’t been so, well, cartoonish. She looks and sounds ridiculous. It’s barely ventriloquism — it’s a sideshow. If it had just been Russell, I wouldn’t have blinked. He seems like a tough-guy who grew up as a kitchen urchin — and Trev better indeed “come correct.” No doubt.

I’ve  known enough full-time cooks and stressed-out executive chefs and all about their all-hours, back-breaking work that stretches from dawn to dawn. I’ve come to know precisely how much a proving ground  kitchens can be and who they attract and why. You’ve got to be tough. There is a commraderie and a system of proving yourselves — a brotherhood if you will. But there was something so off and discordant about her posturing — the eye and neck-rolling — and all else that goes with it.

Come on Sabrina, come correct.

Nicholas Lemann on “Treme”

NEW ORELANS native Nick Lemann on Treme in the New York Review of Books — thanks, Richard.

Just now wading into it. . . .

A snip:

I can’t help looking at Treme as a long-departed native, and judging it for accuracy and acuity. I grew up more or less inside the world represented by Davis Mc-Alary’s parents, which takes up very little time on camera and didn’t seem to me especially well drawn—it’s generically Southern la-de-da rather than specifically New Orleanian. (In fairness, it would be quite difficult to capture that highly ritualized and private world, in which a plurality of the people are connected to ancient local Creole tribes, Villeres and Livaudais and Charbonnets and Lapeyres, that have opened their ranks to some but not all and have entered modern business and professional mores to an extent but not completely.) Treme is essentially populist, and it’s interested in elites far more as objects of ordinary people’s well-deserved scorn than as fully realized subjects. What limited negative attention it gives to the subject is directed more at the light-skinned black elite—public officials who appear briefly as unfeeling jerks, or the dullards at a society ball where Antoine has reluctantly accepted a gig in a big band—than the entirely separate white one.

The Emmys and Treme

I’M A little late on this … but it’s been percolating. For my part, I thought Treme was on a slow, low flame and that the ending (the last three episodes from the Mardi Gras til the flashback) was worth the wait. Over at Back of Town, some nice commentary/good discussion about what might have happened.

As one poster summed it up:

I am really surprised. I guess America is not ready to “live” Katrina yet.

David Simon, as all of my friends who became devout devotees to The Wire point out, was also passed-over with that series. And so. Next season, with B.P., sadly, in the long future, what happens in New Orleans — it’s life/legacy continues to be an open question. And as we see with what happened with the rebuild in Nola and now the “relief” and “rebuild” in Haiti — sustaining attention for certain tragedies, is, well, a challenge. Too bad.

Remembering the City That Care Forgot

I’VE  resisted weighing-in on the HBO series Treme for awhile now.  There are a lot of reasons, but the one that pulled at me most was that I was quietly rooting for it, just like I’m rooting for the city of New Orleans itself. But last night changed everything: I finally felt  pieces snapping into place for me.

 My New Orleans is a collage, scattered: people, moments, sounds, smells, voices. Something happened last night that made me not just see and hear it, but made my heart ache.

I was born in the West, in California. My  mother migrated from New Orleans in the 50s, part one of the many “LA to L.A.” waves and she took New Orleans with her. I grew up with pieces of New Orleans here — the fish market near the Avenues, places we knew we’d find CDM coffee, file, and even for a while, Creole cream cheese.  The parties that so far away from “Home” would sometimes even still sprout an impromptu second line. I’ve spent formative, steamy summers in New Orleans where I went each year to visit, from August into September, a time of year known for its swampy humidity, its sudden rain deluges. My grandfather lived in the Treme,  on Miro Street, so this show hits close to home and at the same time, a little too close.

Eerily, the bar, Poke’s, where steely Indian Chief Albert Lambreaux (played note-perfectly by Clarke Peters) has squatted and has his gang at work on their costumes is situated,  as it turns out, on Miro.

Miro looked like nothing from my L.A. youth — green-grass lawns and tall, skinny palm trees and space — a city full of pauses. Here, narrow “Creole cottages,” shotguns, most painted white as fresh-laundered shirts, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder.  It felt like another universe because it was.  My grandfather held court at more than a dozen places around town — oyster bars, dive bars, po’boy joints, fancy sit-down restaurants, and more.  My grandfather always salted his glass of Falstaff just before he’d lean into a story. “Here come  Frank.”  And he’d answer back with a sing-song, “Howyoudo?” I remember sultry music swaying out of jukeboxes in the middle of the day, the beans on the stove no matter where you went — public and private merged — people fed you. You could count on red beans on Monday as far as the city would stretch. They all knew Frank — or “Dink” — and he always had a story about what had been on that corner or who “usta stay over there,” but would be equally awed by someone elses remembrance, a different take on things. There was no one-upmanship; it was answered simply: “Well, I declare.”

Although there have been sly, insider touches all along — the “8th Ward /9th Ward cultural divide; the changing meaning of “laignappe”  –there was something of all of this in the last episode, “Wish Someone Would Care” that finally truly felt like the New Orleans I know. Two things I think that struck me in particular were the way music moved in and out of this episode without effort or announcement. This time it was  less “Let’s stop the narrative to showcase which great artist we have here with us this week” and more the way it feels to actually move through the city — the French Quarter, Back of Town, the Treme, Faubourg-Marigny. Rooms  might be lit or painted a color, but  that’s not what you remember in New Orleans. It’s the music and how it bleeds from one place and one style one mood one rhythm  into another.

The the other missing puzzle piece for me has been John Goodman’s character, Creighton Bernette, a Tulane University professor.   Something has felt a little off: a lot of fire but rooted in what? A shift has happened, however, as moves toward a dark epiphany. For most of the series he’d been talking about his pride of New Orleans — and that’s just it, it felt like talk, an overlong monologue. Pride came off as pedantic: This is mine not yours; you would never understand. But that’s not New Orleans. (Even the way you’re corrected in pronouncing the city’s name: not New Or-LEENZ but New-OR-lens — is done by example, polite repetition as not to offend.) This time, however, as Creighton makes his way through the city sampling its signature delights, and we are to presume, his favorites — a bowl of gumbo, barbecued shrimp po’ boys, begniets at Cafe du Monde. Something else is revealed. The bliss he feels standing on Frenchman Street listening to Annie soar on her violin opens his heart. He drops a twenty into her open case. They cut back to the sun in his smile. This level of love is difficult to access and portray, I understand, but there was something in these moments — him sitting waiting for a po’boy in that dark hole-in-the-wall, knowing what he wants. Without a beat. Decisive. That was Dink.

When I think of who most closely resembles the New Orleneans I know, grew up with, it would be Lambreaux. Big Chief isn’t quite Dink, but he has some of my grandfather in him. The back-straight pride, the I’ll-never-leave attachment (Even after much of his primary family left, my grandfather remained. He died in New Orleans) You have to understand that dug-into-the-marsh passion and what’s behind it to be able to form some sense of empathy  for any of these characters. I feel that has been the problem with Treme. With Creighton and gadabout Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) — often they are “announcing” what New Orleans is, was, stands for, is poised to lose — without really allowing the audience deeply into the magic, the rituals, the rhythms of the city (without its “special cameos,” without its quick-dash verisimilitude). That’s always been the beauty of New Orleans: its own step, own language, own rhythms. A place out of time. What we needed to feel was what the bubble was before it burst — even if it is in moments. New Orleneans bring that with them, in their hearts, in their actions: we needed more of  Davis’  ragtag, impromtu Treme parties (“No stereo!” — all live music), we needed to linger and eavesdrop in the half-darkness of a cafe; we needed to see that poetic big river never too far away. It’s the dream — or perhaps more accurately — the illusion — that you don’t want to wake from — when real life, so inelegantly, barges in.

Elevators and Aprons

LIKE many, I’m feeling bereft. “Draperless.”
How do 13 weeks race by in such fast-forward fashion?
This season’s Mad Men was filled with grist and grit as it side-swiped the abstracts of “equality” and “change.” (Something’s coming, rounding the corner: Pete Campbell’s turtleneck promises so.)

Hollis, Sterling-Cooper’s Sphinx-like elevator operator, and Carla, Don and Betty Draper’s unflappable maid, have been floating in the background for three seasons adding social tension to the pastel landscape.

Remarkably, they’ve done it in near silence: Hollis couldn’t have uttered more than 100 words; Carla, perhaps just a score or so more.

No matter. Much of their bewilderment, frustration, anger (often bemusement) is communicated through eloquent body language — Hollis’ steely stare into the middle distance of closed elevator doors as blustering admen fill up the small space with hot air, Carla’s flash of a glare when Betty remarks about the Civil Rights Movement, “Maybe, it’s not time for it happen .” This is only moments after Carla, upon Betty’s arrival home, has quickly silenced the radio news report about the four little girls who lost their lives in the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama church bombing. Carla’s body language — tightened shoulders, a trace of a wince — telegraphs layers. It was bad enough to absorb the reportage, the nightmare in broad daylight, but even worse it would be to stand and listen along side Betty’s dispensing of perfumed platitudes in her tidy knot-wood kitchen.

Earlier in the season, Hollis tamped-down emotions of his own when Pete Campbell asks about what brand of TV he owned. Hollis crisply answers, “RCA.” In turn, Pete informs him: “A lot of Negroes prefer Admiral.” Hollis stares dead ahead.

Hollis and Carla’s world is about to change. Everything will shatter. The fissure will open wider. Something new will step out of it; a new day born. Looking back from the perch of the future, we know, there will be more bad before good, but too much has transpired to say “it isn’t the time.” Until that moment, Hollis and Carla will continue to avert their eyes and stifle what’s thumping deep inside, at the core.

I know Hollis and Carla. They’ve sat across from me at Thanksgiving; they taught me how to crochet; they told long, winding stories sitting in their own easy chair with a high-ball glass in hand; they brought oversized plush-toy ducks in lavender top hats for Easter and Scotch-plaid jumpers (just like daughter Sally Draper’s), for Christmas.
So when I look at those eyes, beyond the masks they wear, I know the anecdotes they will spin when they are cooking in the culture-comfort of their own warm kitchens. The elevators and aprons tucked aside; quite soon, memories.