Monday, April 25, 2011

Treme Returns and so does New Orleans

Good review of Treme. It was great seeing John Boutte on the show-- Heard him and talked with him at length last summer at dba.


As we return to the post-Katrina New Orleans of "Treme" for the start of season two (Sunday night at 10 on HBO), things are in many ways much better for the musicians, chefs and other locals we met in the drama's first season.

Itinerant trombonist Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) decides the time is right to form and front his own band, while his ex-wife LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) coincidentally decides to expand her bar's business by adding live music. Trouble-making DJ Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) tries to start a record label to promote his love of the city's bounce music, while his violinist friend Annie (Lucia Micarelli) finally starts establishing herself in the local music scene. Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) gets to work patching up the home that was destroyed in the storm, while his trumpet-playing son Delmond (Rob Brown) sets out to reinvent his sound and, in the process, reconnect with his New Orleans roots.

Most of these characters have moved past mere survival now. Their lives have found some level of post-Katrina equilibrium, and now they're all looking to build something. It's an attitude exemplified by one of this season's two new characters, Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda), a carpetbagger from Texas looking to get rich by helping to reconstruct the devastated city.

But even as many of the people of "Treme" are doing much better than when last we saw them, the city itself - only 14 months removed from the storm - is in more dire straits than ever. At this point in time, people have returned to New Orleans, but so has crime, at a rate and volume that's far more than the city's police force - represented by the show's other new regular character, Lt. Terry Colson (David Morse) - can handle. Half the city is on anti-depressants, and there's a sense the other half probably would be if they had a minute to pause and recognize how they're really feeling.

That mix of ambition and indecision, of construction and devastation, provides the backdrop for a second season that's unlikely to change the series' reputation as The Wonderful Show Where Very Little Happens, but only because change to the show seems to only come as incrementally as it does to the city.

"Treme" was co-created (with Eric Overmyer) by David Simon, whose last HBO series was the densely-plotted great American novel for television "The Wire." So the new show's focus on atmosphere over story, on small character beats over big developments, has been a tough transition for some viewers, even the ones ready to follow Simon and fellow "Wire" alums Pierce and Peters anywhere thanks to their work on The Best Show Ever.

I understand the reluctance to embrace the laid-back aesthetic of "Treme," even though I don't share it. But I will say this: in season two, the strengths of "Treme" remain strengths, while some of the show's weaknesses have been much improved.

First, the stuff that worked before and continues to do so: The atmosphere, sense of place and absolute love of that place are all second to none on television. As a love letter to the city of New Orleans, to its culture and food and (especially) its music, "Treme" was, is and will likely continue to be fantastic. And the performances remain among the best you'll find. Alexander and newly-minted Oscar winner Melissa Leo continue to shine as a pair of strong women still grieving over the loss of, respectively, a brother and a husband. Pierce is still a superhuman reservoir of charm, Kim Dickens (as Janette Desautel, a chef who has fled to New York after the post-storm failure of her restaurant) still so touching and vulnerable (and this year has material largely written by celebrity chef/foodie Anthony Bourdain), and Morse (who appeared briefly last season) such a natural fit as a wise but weary veteran cop with no idea how to keep his district together, nevermind the city.

And, hell, the music alone (with the actors, other than professional violinist Micarelli, largely faking it while working alongside real-life fixtures of the New Orleans music scene) is often worth the time investment. Regardless of the style - traditional jazz, bounce, funk, classical and everything in between - the musical numbers are done with so much joy that it doesn't matter if they're only sometimes informative of character or plot.

As for the areas that were more problematic a year ago, the new season definitely feels like it has more forward momentum. It takes a while to get there - I've seen 5 episodes, and had a conversation with a friend who had only seen 3 and felt like the pace was just as ambling as before - but after a while there's a much clearer sense that there are stories being told here beyond "character X tries to pay the bills and hold onto their sanity," and that many of the stories tie together in a way they didn't before.

The simple fact that Batiste - the closest the ensemble show has to a lead character - has a storyline at all this year, as opposed to what was essentially an ongoing situation last season, is a huge step forward in that area. Characters seemingly cross paths more frequently than before, and even as Delmond and Janette spend much of the early episodes off in New York, an effort is made to keep them tied to life in New Orleans.

And some of the new character combinations feel more promising than what was there before. Last season, Annie was dating Sonny (Michiel Huisman), a bitter junkie resentful of her greater talent and determined to hold her down at his level. Being paired instead with Zahn's goofball Davis brings out more of Micarelli's inherent sunniness. And once Sonny is no longer a weight at the ankle of Annie and has only to deal with the limitations of his talent in a city with no shortage of better musicians, he becomes a much more interesting and, dare I say it, sympathetic figure.

There are still frayed edges that haven't quite been dealt with. Where the Baltimore of "The Wire" was filled entirely with fictional characters and events - even if many of them were heavily-drawn from real ones - "Treme" has an at times awkward mix of the fictional and the real. Lt. Colson, for instance, spends a lot of time discussing real-life New Orleans PD scandals that are in his recent past but took place 5 or 6 years ago for us, and those scenes never quite feel connected to the lives of the show's characters.

Leo's crusading lawyer Toni Burnette again has to play private detective to find out what happened to a young man who died in the storm's aftermath, but where last year that quest had a personal stake for the audience because the man in question was LaDonna's brother, here it's the son of a new character we meet briefly and don't see again. (Leo gets much better material in showing how Toni and daughter Sofia, well-played by India Ennenga, are coping with the aftermath of her husband's suicide.)

And while the show takes a fairly nuanced approach to Nelson Hidalgo - he could easily come across as a caricatured opportunist, but instead is written and played as a guy who wants to make a buck but also seems to genuinely fall in love with his adopted new city - Seda is still largely off in his own show for most of the 5 episodes I've seen. He represents the theme of building, but I'm hopeful he gets more integrated with the other regulars before the season's out.

Still, the great vastly outweighs the problematic from where I sit, and the small detail work remains wonderful. The first 5 episodes are packed with great moments, not only for the main characters, but for the people of the city as a whole. Antoine winds up with a music teaching job to help pay the bills, and during one class, the kids are thrown into an utter, understandable panic when a rainstorm gets a little too intense. A later episode features a funeral for a local jazz man attended by what seems like every player in the city; as the man's coffin is being loaded onto the horse-drawn hearse, we see a beautiful tableau of every musician holding his or her instrument aloft as a show of respect.

Even with slight tweaks and an upward narrative trajectory, "Treme" is never going to be a mass-appeal hit - is unlikely, in fact, to even become a fiercely-cherished cult item like "The Wire" was. But I don't think Simon, Overmyer or anyone else involved has any illusions of broad success with this project. Like so many of the characters on the show, if they wanted to hit it big, they'd be doing something else; they do this out of a deep, unbreakable love for this city and its traditions.

Or, as an incredulous Delmond says when an interviewer asks him how his new album is selling, "'Selling'? It's jazz, man."

Alan Sepinwall


Friday, April 15, 2011

Leonardo's Birthday


Mona Lisa model was a male say Italian researchers
ROME — Italian researchers who specialise in resolving art mysteries said Wednesday they have discovered the disputed identity of the model for Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa -- and claimed he was a man.
Silvano Vinceti, chairman of the Italian national committee for cultural heritage, said the Florence-born Renaissance artist's male apprentice and possible lover Salai was the main inspiration for the picture.
However his claim was immediately disputed by experts at the Louvre in Paris, where the painting is on display.
Salai, real name Gian Giacomo Caprotti, an effeminate young artist who worked with da Vinci for 25 years, is thought to have served as a model and muse for several of his paintings. The pair had an "ambiguous" relationship and were probably lovers, Vinceti said.
Comparisons between the facial characteristics of figures from several of da Vinci's works -- such as "St. John the Baptist" and the "Angel Incarnate" -- reveal striking similarities with the Mona Lisa's nose and mouth, he said.
"There are remarkable similarities," Vinceti told reporters.
What is more, Vinceti said da Vinci had left clues to the model's identity in tiny letters L and S which he and his team found painted into the eyes of the Mona Lisa.
"Close examination of a high-quality digital copy of the portrait had revealed an L for Leonardo and an S for Salai," he said.
But Vinceti's claims have been disputed by the Louvre museum.
The museum said it had carried out "every possible laboratory test possible" on the picture in 2004 and then again in 2009, and insisted that "no inscriptions, letters or numbers, were discovered during the tests."
"The ageing of the painting on wood has caused a great number of cracks to appear in the paint, which have caused a number of shapes to appear that have often been subject to over-interpretation," the Louvre told AFP.
The museum also said Vinceti's had made his claims without having had access to the painting itself.
The Italian aficionado, whose team gained notoriety with their claims surrounding the death of Caravaggio last year, said he felt sorry for the embarrassment the museum must feel on having missed the clues all these years.
"I can understand their incredulity and amazement -- after all this must be the most studied picture on earth," he told AFP, but added "they're really blind."
"They have to be serious and accept that they didn't see what was right in front of their eyes," he said.
In order to clear up any lingering doubt over his theory -- worthy of Dan Brown's 2003 bestseller the "Da Vinci Code" -- Vinceti said he would be willing to take his team to France and collaborate on further tests with the Louvre.
"We're ready to go to Paris and extract a tiny bit of paint from the numbers and see whether they match the rest of the painting, to see if they were done at the same time or are marks that have appeared over time," he said.
Whether the prestigious art museum will take Vinceti up on his offer is yet to be seen.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Thoughts upon the last bloom of the orchid falling


"Sex is the root of which intuition is the foliage and beauty is the flower." D.H. Lawrence

When did I first grow aware of this truth central to the philosophy of love expressed so well in so many works by my literary mentor, D. H. Lawrence? Perhaps it was at the age of eighteen, when sex with my high school girlfriend meant no more to me than masturbation, but the reticence and budding friendship of her brother meant so much more. It took me such a long time to unravel the mystery of it, often starting with beauty, the woman I met in college, and going backwards by intuition to the sexual union, finally so taking me out of myself and my ego, that I shook like a branch of leaves in the winds of  a changing season. By the age of twenty-one I was convinced that love without sex was impossible, except the love of family, which usually is begun in sex, defined by sex. To this day I still believe this. I have friends with whom I have not had sex, of course, and friendship is a kind of love, true enough. Yet love which takes one out of the individual ego, transcends the self, leads us to behold the beauty of the other, making it part of our own person, is grounded in sexual intimacy. Otherwise, the holding back, the suppression of the sexual impulse, ultimately destroys the love.

My thought brings easy agreement when it refers to the love of the opposite sex, and when the age difference is slight. Many agree today that monogamy, enforced, as if a  given to relationships, is the opposite of love, counter-intuitive, anything but beautiful when it turns to possessiveness and jealousy. The real question for me at an age past sixty, is whether love such as I have known in the past is still possible. 

Last night I saw the film Dangerous Method. The film is brilliant, exploring the ideas and innovative insights of four people: Freud, Jung, and very importantly, Sabina Spielrein and Otto Gross. We all know about Freud and Jung. What Spielrein added for me was the analysis of the collision of egos in love, how that collision overcomes the selfishness and the isolation of the self, becomes simultaneously destructive and creative. She and Freud understood the embrace of Eros and Thanatos in a new way. There is death in every orgasm. 

Then there is Otto Gross. I have read about him all day. In the film he advocates freeing oneself from inhibitions, letting go of what Freud or his followers called the super-ego. Analysis in his view must be revolutionary, not leading the patient to conform and become a good, productive citizen of society, but rather freeing the patient to explore creative, challenging feelings, especially sexual feelings. He became an anarchist, wanting to overcome the restraints, limitations, and narrow views of Victorian society. His attack on monogamy and his insight that bisexuality is a given in the healthy psyche, made him an outcast. So too did his view that a man must accept and understand his own homosexuality before he can be a complete lover of women. He died in poverty in Berlin in 1920. 

One of the articles I read today discussed the "taboo of tenderness." We are fed the rule that men must be strong, must be anchors to women, supporting them, nourishing them, in order to be proper lovers. Lawrence bought into some such view. He believed there was a balance in the heterosexual relationship, a charging of the blood in intercourse. I entertained the idea myself. When I was with the three women with whom I had prolonged sexual intercourse, I was always the strong one, the anchor. It was a role that left me decidedly at sea. I sought an equal, someone like myself, wanting strength and independence, not someone whose happiness depended on me. 

Despite having the best sex in my life with women, finding the most sexual satisfaction in heterosexual sex, I experienced the most profound love in sexual tenderness with other men, often with men predominantly heterosexual themselves. The actual sex we had was not mindless, which even fucking gay men usually turned out to be. It was the very exploration of our selves, our motives, the collision of egos Sabina Spielrein experienced that moved me, that took me from sex to intuition to beauty and back again.

Only I have no answers, even after all this love and experience. In the two most loving and caring sexual exchanges with so-called straight men, they both told me that the experience of sex with me was beautiful, most recently with a man far younger than myself, taboos broken open like an egg. Giving, tender. Beautiful. And yet, then and now, there was no mutual urge to continue to experience that tenderness of touch. 

My love for an older man when I was twenty-one was without question the most important creative development of my own psyche. I learned that nothing is more vital than understanding, of sharing one's deepest ideas and experiences with another person of like mind. We later taught the same philosophy course. We talked of literature and philosophy as if they were the most important things in our lives. We even loved the same person for a while, one of the two men I mentioned above. Ours was a collision of egos that became Aristotelian friendship, mostly Platonic, I suppose, but rooted in sex that we experienced, full of intuitive foliage, flowering into a thing of beauty. We were lovers for twenty years, until he was murdered.

Eros becomes Thanatos.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

On the Eve of our brief April Break

The video below (posted April 4) is one I made a couple of weeks ago with Will. We've become good friends and I greatly admire his musical talent.
Tomorrow after a two hour stint at my school I shall have the remainder of Thursday and Friday off. I had thought of going to Savannah, but decided instead to relax here, with warm evenings on the porch. There are financial items, including my taxes, that I need to do. I also look forward to continuing to read John Irving's Until I Find You. What a superb writer he is.
This spring, my reading, my nights of dialog with Will, and the approach in a year or two of retirement have flooded my mind with nostalgia, with memories especially of Jim and Jake and Julian. Completing a first typed draft of my novel has added to all of this remembrance as well.
Spring has also brought storms and shifts in feeling with the shifting extremes of temperature (today began at 36 and went in mere hours to 76). And so it goes.

Atlanta Lightning
from Wikipedia