Stepping on Brecht’s toes…

April 27, 2010  |  By
Filed under: Field Notes

I was an unabashed fan of The Wire, one of the very greatest shows ever on tv. I’ve read all of Richard Price‘s books, who was a chief writer for the series. I’ve looked forward to the debut of Treme, (accent on the last syllable, like flambé), the new HBO series put together by most of the folks who did The Wire. So far it’s been okay, with some great visuals, great acting, some good writing. It’s about the impact of Katrina on New Orleans. But I’ve had an itch that’s something is amiss and this afternoon, after standing on a street corner in the cold for half an hour, I think I figured out what it is.

Remember how everyone joked that Avatar was Dances With Wolves in space? Well I think Treme is Avatar in the ghetto. All the cops in Louisiana as portrayed in Treme are venal, predatory and racist, just like the corporate looters in Avatar. The corporate interests in Avatar want to pave over paradise for some McGuffin chemical or other; in Treme it’s the real estate interests that want to tear down the black neighborhoods in the interests of gentrification. The scientist played by Sigourney Weaver in Avatar has her equivalent in Melissa Leo’s lawyer: both characters are professionals who “get it,” and struggle to maintain some kind of ethical stance while being part of “the system.”

Good Lawyer Melissa Leo in Treme. Sigourney Weaver as Good Doctor in Avatar

The soldier who “goes native” in Avatar has his Treme equivalent in a character who is white but whose life is completely immersed in playing and promoting the African-American music that is truly the main character in Treme.

Kevin Costner goes Native in Dances with Wolves

Steve Zahn goes Native in _Treme_

Sam Worthington goes Native in _Avatar_

What was so shocking and disappointing about Avatar was that in 2010 a people like the Pandorans could be portrayed in such a sloppy, sentimental and false way as relentlessly pure, superior, spiritual and utterly at one with their natural environment, like soulful pets endowed with intelligence. Like the Native Americans in Dances with Wolves twenty years ago. But I’m truly horrified to see this happening again in a place where I least expected it—in Treme—as the African-Americans of New Orleans are being portrayed as spiritually superior artist cum shamans, who deeply are in touch with the values of what really matters: family, art and soul, and for whom almost every encounter with white people is a violent lesson in racist oppression.

Now I don’t doubt for a second that the racial politics of that part of the country is undoubtedly historically and contemporaneously horrific. Nor that monied interests are behind much of the displacement and suffering experienced by the black communities there. What I’m trying to articulate is a dismay that in all three cases—Wolves, Avatar and Treme—the tediously pedantic and predictable mediation of these experiences are not coming from the Right but from the Left. It is as though we can only justify progessive critiques of our culture if they are couched in the most saccharine of terms, with simplistic and two-dimensional sufferers and transgressors. The Wire achieved the status of art because there was not one episode, not one scene, not one line, in which we knew what was about to happen, could predict what a character would do or say, especially based on who they were. Everyone’s behavior was particular and complex, you couldn’t keep the poetry out of the tragedy the same way you can’t keep germs out of a wound.

10 Comments

  1. Brecht Andersch Says:

    You’re not stepping on my toes, Renny — I don’t write about TV! Actually, though, as you might suspect, I’d happily see all of Open Space given over to moving image art, so step away…

    It’s interesting how similar you make Treme sound in tone to Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (’79), which the museum recently showed again as part of 75 Years in the Dark. The type of gestalt found in this African/African-American-made, underground and militant Pan-African-nationalist work has finally percolated up to pop television. Are there some kind of Hegelian “thesis and antitheses” forces at play here?

    BTW — I envy you that last sentence. Just marvelous…

  2. Anne Walsh Says:

    Renny, I’m interested in your post, and glad for it. I agree with what you say about Avatar especially, and I also loved the Wire.

    Just to vent a little, here’s just one of the things that really irked me about Avatar: the schizophrenic combination of Dr. Grace Augustine’s bad-ass, ass-kicking, refusing to ass-kiss, chain-smoking ‘real life’ character, and her totally ridiculous, regressed styling in short shorts, tank-tops, a face lift, and freaky Bo-braids when she assumes her avatar in Pandora. OF COURSE Sigourney’s character, along with the macho helicopter pilot played by the totally type-cast and trapped-in-the-type Michelle Rodriguez, DIE violent deaths during Armageddon. Can’t let the butchies get away with much. On the other hand, Pandoran earth-mother mom with the phony Swahili accent dies a different, more tragic death, and she is mourned with great ceremony. Apparently the only women who are allowed to be gracefully “old” are Africans. Of the four female characters in the film, the only one to survive is Neytiri, the young, “strong female character”* played by Zoe Saldana, whose fate seems assured by her alliance with super-crip Jake Scully.

    *http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2009/12/14/avatar-star-zoe-saldana-on-the-state-of-women-in-hollywood/tab/article/

  3. Renny Pritikin Says:

    Thanks B and A! I guess we can have a fine old time talking to each other!! Talk about mutual admiration societies…so Brecht thanks for the compliment…it is amazing how close attention and lots-o practice breeds occasional inspiration. Not having seen the movie you referred to, I infer that there’s a kind of essentialist narrative of African-ness in it that you suspect Treme is a pale reflection of, pun intended?
    Anne, it’s interesting how a pop souffle like Avatar can become a tabula rasa for us all to project our issues. You with your anger about the depiction/inclusion of women, especially older/stronger women. For me it’s about the fear I felt when the audience cheered the Pandorans killing the mercenaries. Literally. It reminded me that movies serve the purpose of preparing the public for what is to come, ie objectification of an assigned enemy who deserves to die in the name of one cause or another. Cameron thinks he’s being a militant environmentalist, but he’s really telling the tea baggers it’s okay to kill anyone you don’t understand, don’t like, or who frightens you.

  4. Anne Walsh Says:

    I’d say FURTHER that in fact it’s not the identity politics that offend me so much about the film as the fact of its hypocrisy, and indulgence in atavistic binarism. Cameron wants to be tree hugger AND blow a lot of shit up: he wants us to believe he’s pro-environment, but he’ll be damned if he’s not going to indulge himself in filming a spectacular cinematic warfare to “fight” for it.

  5. Julian Myers Says:

    Some of us have been expressing our discontent with the Left and its ideations for a while now.

    Avatar is an easy target in this regard – and it seems to me that we miss something vital when we direct our analytical powers at the plot and characters. Its success is primarily about the spectacle and idolization of technics – the plot is a pretext for the tricks. (But perhaps the film is more crudely ideological for that; though its ideas are more muddled than you make out here).

    About Treme, I think we should pause before conflating Simon with Cameron and (shudder) Costner: The Zahn character is a figure of fun, a snob, a douche. Not the hero. And let’s give Simon some time – it took the Wire half a season to seem like something more than a cop show (and even then there were “types” everywhere).

    In the meantime, did you see Simon’s Generation Kill? I think it was overlooked. It’s great.

  6. Renny Pritikin Says:

    Dear JM:
    I did watch Gen Kill and thought it was quite wonderful if ultimately underdeveloped. Needed another 4 episodes.
    Unarguable that Avatard is an easy target. However I think that saying it’s only about the special effects is not how I see it at all. I think that the effects disappear, are normalized, within a half hour. That’s why people cheer when the good guys kill the bad guys: they’re sucked into the narrative/propaganda.
    I do disagree with you about Simon. I think he is one of the 3 heroes of the story– along with the trombone guy and the Mardi Gras chief–but he’s on screen more than most and he’s transparently the entree for the white audience who won’t watch an all-black show. So he’s not only in the Costner/Worthington line, but he’s also the McNulty of this series. I think he’s not portrayed as a dufus but as a charming loser, as was McN.
    And Julian how shall I take your opening remark?

  7. Brecht Andersch Says:

    This post and discussion reminds me of a time when it was possible to make a big-budget movie about war which could be a success and a central subject of interest on all levels of the culture, and yet still be a profoundly rich and moral meditation on conflict, and its causes and consequences. Apocalypse Now contains, in the Ride of the Valkyries helicopter attack on the village sequence (to which Avatar supposedly makes reference), the most moral treatment of colonialist war I’ve ever seen, in that we see both sides of the equation — the hideousness and horror experienced by the villagers (including children) who are attacked, AND both the fear and the adrenaline rush experienced by the attacking Air Calv… It’s a complete picture of the moment that should seemingly lead any thinking person to an emotional understanding of both perspectives — not that it always worked out that way: a friend of mine could never forgive Coppola’s film because when he saw it in its initial run, some future Rambo aficionados shouted their approval of the attack.

    Audiences are uncontrollable — a good thing: film viewing isn’t the passive experience so many theorists suppose… But narrative filmmaking is an inherently manipulative medium, and it’s a shame there are so few works these days leading us to deal with the ambiguity and violence within human nature.

  8. Julian Myers Says:

    Hi Renny,

    Forgive the ambiguity of my first comment. I meant it to say that your criticism of the Left and its ideations gibes with my own feelings. On Avatar, for what it’s worth, we disagree. I despise the movie and Cameron but think the plot and characters are trifles, no better or worse than many other films, and that the films real affectiveness (and perniciousness) is on the level of its immersive technics. Did you read about the “Avatar blues”? http://www.cnn.com/2010/SHOWBIZ/Movies/01/11/avatar.movie.blues/index.html

    On your comparison with Dances With Wolves, there was a compelling discussion in the Comments Boxes in December on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog at the Atlantic. (Here: http://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2009/12/avatar-as-dances-with-wolves/32687/) It introduces some productive nuance and ambivalence, I think, to this damning comparison. (Though Costner still repels…)

    I hope you’re wrong about Simon and Treme. I suppose I feel the need to defend it because I suspect you’re right, or because I have my own misgivings. Often Treme has seemed preachy (John Goodman’s character is the corniest on this front), and too often it has seemed to produce caricatures (the student volunteers, and especially the nefarious police) that are beyond flat – the police might as well have horns and tails. But hasn’t this always been true for SOME of Simon’s characters? I do wonder about your “charming loser”: is Zahn’s character cognate with McNulty, or Ziggy Subotka, or someone else entirely? I don’t think it’s so clear and only time will tell. And let us not forget that McNulty gets comeuppance after comeuppance. By the end of the series his virtues are distant memories, and he’s become utterly misguided and obnoxious.

  9. renny Says:

    Thanks for the links. I’ve never really followed a comment chain other than on this site before so it was interesting to see the one on Coates’s blog. Same quality of discourse I think. I’m amazed of course by the avatar depression link. I wonder if that phenomenon–preferring the media world to the real world–is consistent with a certain percentage of users, such as in Second Life, or other immersive things…
    My recollection of the Wire is so different from yours–at the end I thought of McNulty as having found some peace…did I totally impose that?
    I think my analysis of Treme–meant as a provocation–has some continuing resonance. I think Treme is fun and the Zahn character is in some ways the most interesting–when was the last time you saw a white hipster displayed with any accuracy, complexity or sympathy on tv? But he’s definitely getting his “punishment” for going native; if McNulty was tragedy, Zahn is the equivalent, just taken from the flip side, comedy.

  10. renny Says:

    Hey Julian! Now that Davis is running for city council, and is leading the Treme residents to “rebel,” my view is even more reinforced in my brain that he is in the Costner/Worthington mold…although I have to admit I’m enjoying him, especially his relationship with his boozy aristocratic aunt…

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