Monday, October 11, 2010

Dear Followers....

In getting a jump on my future (and past) New Year's resolutions to simplify, I will be consolidating this blog with my Marie of Romania blog in the near future!

Follow me over there! It will be much appreciated.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Julius Caesar: The Dogs of War under Threatening Skies in Queens


The weather itself seemed to help "slip the dogs of war" at a recent performance of Julius Caesar in Long Island City, Queens at the Secret Theatre. The thunder and lightning that dramatically begins scene 3 of Act I resonated in real life beyond the fourth wall all night long, giving the whole evening a disturbed sky outside while inside the political tempest of Shakespeare's tragedy raged.

Under Richard Mazda's direction, the Queens Players present a different kind of Shakespeare even when the current trend is to update and outmaneuver the Bard. "Mark Antony, you're such a tool!," heard from the crowd during the warm-up to the famous eulogy, is not the usual Shakespeare line but not the most unusual feature of this production, the third installment in a "gangland" Shakespeare series. The dress and atmosphere is urban jungle with modern weapons (Mark Antony's "tool" is an ominous baseball bat) and Mad Max-type clothing.

As described by Richard Mazda, who also is the artistic director of the company, this Julius Caesar is offered in an "environmental theatre" format: a very real journey around various areas both inside and outside the Long Island City Performing Arts complex. Scene changes are precipitated by the Soothsayer who leads the audience to the next setting. Even if Caesar will not listen to the warnings of the prophet about the "Ides of March," the audience must follow her admonitions to join her outside in the marketplace or to "watch your head" while we travel down to the conspirators' meeting. After a recent spate of intermissionless hour-and-a-half plays lately, I found this a reinvigorating theatre experience.

To the director's credit, the production doesn't lean heavily on the many renowned quotations that come from this play. In fact, the play heads in the opposite direction—rushing past showstoppers like "Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look," and "Friends, Romans, Countrymen..." well, you know the rest.

Gil Ron as J.C. himself has all the gravitas and magnetism that the role demands, appearing as a cigar-chomping man of the world after the defeat of Pompey, a little like a gangland Patton. It was an interesting and eventually successful gambit to put Caesar in an archaic white robe amidst all that black leather. The white robe brought an image to mind, aside from being a good backdrop for all the murderous blood: white has an apostolate/sacrifice connotation signifying the rising power that Brutus and Cassius were ultimately helpless to stop. After all, Octavius Caesar (Jonathan Emerson) will succeed Julius Caesar, and the Republic of Rome will be in name only despite the power plays on behalf of representation.

There is a lot of storm and stress during the battles at the end of Julius Caesar, but the irony remains strong and standing: that the murder of Caesar only strengthens the dictatorship.

Julius Caesar is problematic in that the play easily becomes anti-climactic after Mark Antony's speech over Caesar's dead body. The true action of the play is in Mark Antony's ability to turn Rome against Brutus and Cassius, to honor Caesar through revenge. The subsequent battles become then a given. Here, the battle scenes have multi-media energy to combat the expected, but much of the dialogue is lost in the rush of war. The chaos may be realistic but doesn't always make for good theatre.

And while the thunder and lightning outside may have augmented the restless mood of hungry Cassius, the elevated train also drowned out important dialogue, making the outdoor scenes big on atmosphere but short on quotable quotes.

David J. Fink is a thuggishly menacing Mark Antony who doesn't seem capable of putting two words together, rather than one of the most famous examples of reverse psychology in the Western canon. When he urges the Roman crowd that he is only speaking at the funeral to "bury Caesar, not to praise him," his tough, stoic demeanor supports his assertion. Alex Cape is effective as a thinking, conscientious Brutus, his ambivalence apparent. The cast on the whole is both numerous and athletic, rushing headlong into Roman war with enthusiasm.

Additional cast: Kara Addington (Lucilius, Portia), Elizabeth Bernhardt (Metellus Cimber), Sarah Bonner (Portia), Jeffrey Coyne (Cinna the Poet), Jake Cullens (Decius Brutus), Amelia Gonzalez (The Carpenter), Lena Gora (Publius), Bethanne Haft (Varro), Tyrus Holden (Marullus), Kaitlyn McGuire Huczko (Soothsayer), Suzanne Lenz (Calpurnia), Anthony Martinez (Caius Cassius), Joe Mullen (Ligarius), Rachel Pfenninwerth (Casca), Michael Pichardo (3rd citizen), Michelle Pucci (Cinna), Ashley Denise Robinson (Artemdorus), Greer Samuels (Flavius), Tara Mary Schmitt (Stage Manager), Camilla Skoglie (The Cobbler), and Brian Walters (Lucius). Photo by Aaron Ray-Crichton


Originally published on blogcritics.org

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Emmy Nominations for Treme


Sounding the Award Knell for Treme and Steve Earle who was nominated for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics. The odds look good for Mr. Earle. The competition is underwhelming with various tunes from Family Guy, Monk, How I Met Your Mother, Rescue Me, and SNL.

The game is more closely contested in Treme's other nomination category: Outstanding Directing. Treme's premier episode, under the direction of Agnieszka Holland, was picked but is up against some formidable and quality dramatic rivals in Mad Men, Dexter, Breaking Bad. Oh, yes, Ms. Holland's work also goes up against the final episode of Lost.

It was a disappointment to see the women of Treme get passed over for Emmy nominations. I expected to see at least Khandi Alexander's name on that list. Kim Dickens and Melissa Leo (when she was allowed to do something other than Superlawyer heroics) also deserved to be nominated. Treme is certainly a women's world. But the Emmys are not of David Simon's so I suppose two nominations is a success.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Treme: A Sixty Second Chat with a Pine Leaf Boy

Caught the Grammy-nominated Pine Leaf Boys at Connelly's this 4th of July week-end. Despite common perception, there are people in NYC in July, and most of them were cajun jitterbugging at the Klub 45 room.



I asked Jon Bertrand, guitarist for the PLB pictured here on the left at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, what it was like filming Treme. "Even though we were on screen for a split-second, I get recognized on the street," he laughed. On a more serious note, he added: "Many musicians from NOLA and the Cajun part of the state DON'T have day jobs and the local people don't realize it."

A little dose of reality perhaps, but not yet. No work talk now; it's the holiday week-end. Happy Love and Rockets this Fourth of July.

Photo by cajunzydecophotos: The Pine Leaf Boys film a scene for the HBO Series "Treme" at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, April 30, 1010: shown are Jon Bertrand (guitar), Thomas David (bass), Wilson Savoy (accordion), Drew Simon (not show, drums and vocals), Lucia Micarelli as Annie (violin) and Courtney Granger (fiddle).

7/6/10: Thank you to Jon Bertrand for contacting me with a follow-up on the above quote. It needed correction. I do want to be the blog of record.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Big Thanks to Watching Treme


The blog Watching Treme, under the guidance of Venetian Blond (I wish I had thought of that moniker), passed on the Versatile Blogger Title to the humble Death Knell.

With the title comes much responsibility. I will begin to work on that in a moment, procrastination getting in the way of a good death knell always, but first I'd like to thank you, VB. See you in NOLA perhaps. It will be my first visit too.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Treme: I'll Fly Away...and Be Back Again Some Day

"Still here. One day after the next."

David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s first season of Treme was marked by high expectations - the expectations of devoted Wire fans, the expectations of New Orleanians anxious to see the recovery to Katrina’s heartbreaking devastation accurately portrayed, and the expectations of music lovers to see, finally, a television show successfully harmonize story and song. Glee notwithstanding.

I asked actor Sean Gormley about his own expectations in going to New Orleans and making what is now an iconic
Treme scene between outspoken NOLA resident Creighton Bernette and the BBC reporter. Looking back on the past ten episodes, it is this standoff that epitomizes the whole series so far, a situation that motivated New Orleans viewers of the season preview to stand up and cheer. The reporter challenges the frazzled Bernette as to what exactly is worth saving in rebuilding New Orleans, voicing many Americans opinions, from the outside looking in, about why poverty-stricken neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward should be rescued and rebuilt.

The scene is at the one minute mark of HBO's "Making Treme:"


Sean did not have many assumptions coming into the filming:

“I expected it not to be too big a deal, just me interviewing some local guy - a small scene that perhaps would not even make the final cut, and if it did, that I wouldn't be shown much. It was only during my costume fitting that I learned my scene partner was John Goodman.“




This was a return trip to New Orleans for the Dublin-born actor who first went there as part of "The Commitments" band. I asked him how New Orleans appeared post-Katrina:

“We shot our scene by a canal in the lower ninth ward. The drive from the hotel to the set was the real eye-opener for me as we drove past the area that was one of the worst hit by the storm. You could see the water marks high up on now-abandoned houses. As many of the drivers and crew were locals, I got first-hand accounts of what they had been through.” (more of the interview can be found here)

A dramatic first-hand account of recovery is what Simon and Overmyer undertook this first season of Treme which wrapped up last night with "I'll Fly Away," directed by Agnieszka Holland who also directed the first episode. The season is bookended by second line funeral parades, this time a tribute to Ladonna's brother Daymo, another casualty of Katrina, much like New Orleans itself. As for Daymo's death, as Creighton says, it wasn't the hurricane, "it was a man-made catastrophe."

Daymo, possibly a homicide victim, wasn't the only a man-made catastrophe. Creighton himself was one as well. Suicide is not painless when viewed through the family's eyes, and there was not a scene with Melissa Leo as Creighton's wife Toni that did not invoke an audience resentment toward the professor for his selfishness. He did quit. There may be lots of anecdotal evidence for this storyline, however it doesn't make his family's grief any easier to watch.

As Joe Strummer said in his upended version of "Stagger Lee" via The Rulers, an admonishment to Creighton's despair:

"you must start all over again-all over again
don't you know it is wrong
You got to play it, Billy, play,
don't you know it is wrong
you got to play it, Billy, play
And you will find it is the right 'em boyo"

So many Stagger Lees. So little time.

Steve Zahn as Davis McAlary developed nicely throughout the season from one-dimensional obnoxiousness to redeeming moments of charm, but, boy, did he recover quickly from Janette's departure despite all his best efforts to show Janette all the reasons why she shouldn't leave New Orleans. It was a day that began with John Boutte and ended in the Columns Hotel where Pretty Baby was filmed. I was convinced, but Janette ultimately wasn't.

On second thought, Davis' resiliency, his ability to shrug off such a setback, is his charm. Exit Janette. Enter Annie. It is a parallel and contrast to the immobility of Creighton: "you must start all over again." Davis starts all over again every day.

Lucia Micarelli as Annie evolved too: a parallel journey to where her character's music leads. From Sonny to Steve Earle is a fantastic voyage. Might we see Lucinda Williams next season?

The ending flashback to the onslaught of Katrina counterbalanced an episode that wildly veered from cliche to cliche: Antoine losing his gig money in a poker game to a woman no less; do-gooder Texan, Mr. Reyes, fixes Ladonna's roof forcing Reilly to do the right thing; Lt. Colson wants Sofia Bernette to be "able to believe" that Creighton's death was an accident. Thank goodness this scene was in the hands of David Morse. One of the highlights of the episode, of the series, was acting greats Melissa Leo and Morse at Creighton's abandoned car.

Sonny has voiced some surprising self-awareness in the last couple of episodes: "you're so much better than me, as a player, and now you're leaving me behind." As a musician, this is as painful a truth as could be faced. Sonny had one of the most effective, quiet codas of the night - watching a taxi go by, sitting on the darkened street - a motif for the loss of Annie. Like Toni learns: "the truth doesn't set you free, it's just another burden that you have to bear."

The St. Joseph's Day meeting of the Indian Chiefs was magnificent. Or at least I thought it might have been. Shot by flashlight, this scene was murky with glints of brilliance and sequin. The gangs worked so hard on their outfits; I wished we could have appreciated them more in full daylight. There was one positive, a cliche avoided: the punch-up between the Indians and the police.



Have to go, there's "always more to do to be most pretty." Until season two, here are some items up for discussion:

How vacuous was the "Hi, I'm Paige" scene? Even the "nice tats" comment did not redeem that mess. As an addendum, the season started with Steve Zahn's naked rear and ends with Michiel Huisman's. A backend bookend?

Wendell Pierce as Antoine was consistently splendid, holding his own with a myriad of musical meta-stars.

Love the flashback to Janette back in Huntsville, actress Kim Dickens' real birthplace: Janette looks so much like her actress mother. Janette and Delmond sat next to each, waiting for their plane, heading to New York, an appealing moment. Now if only Jacques had come and sat down between them. That would have made for a perfect scene: chef and sous chef. Together, into the sunset.

And speaking of New York, was Treme at all for us New Yorkers? or Chicagoans? Or any of the other of the U.S.'s great cities? Or its great open spaces? If we can't truly appreciate what New Orleans went through, can we still enjoy a television series devoted to and written for the Crescent City? Musical and cultural learning curves were steep! But I did recognize Trombone Shorty without a prompt, so I am getting there, thank you Mr. Simon.

How wrong was I about Creighton's demise? Didn't think it would really happen. But then again, I thought Omar wasn't really dead either. Creighton's suicide made my Spalding Gray analogy that much more, unfortunately, spot on. Maybe the Moviegoer did Creighton in.

Was post-Katrina New Orleans conveyed more starkly, more effectively in Spike Lee's devastating When the Levees Broke? Perhaps, but I would argue the two works are complementary. An introduction to the culture of the Indians was certainly an asset to Treme.

Season one: It was a great start with a beautiful, vérité ending. Season Two? You must start all over again.

One more thing: we do take naps in New York. Wake me up in time for dinner.


Originally published on blogcritics.org

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Treme: Wish Someone Would Care


“Hi, my name is Davis. Will you come to my party?”

Dear writers of Sunday’s Treme episode, "Wish Someone Would Care," thanks to you, I had to dig up all my old college notes on Kate Chopin. After rereading and reflecting, I regret to inform that Ms. Chopin’s heroines are still coming to bitter ends despite what Professor Creighton Bernette proclaims. Now I’m late filing this review AND I’m depressed. Just like Creighton’s student.

David Simon and George Pelecanos finally put Creighton Bernette into an appropriate forum for his speechifying - at work in front of the classroom! Here, as a teacher, Creighton gets to listen to cliches (“will this be on the test?”) and spout them (“Edna’s journey...she’s looking for truth.”) It was a relief to see Creighton doing something constructive, but the relief was short-lived. He assigns his class The Awakening, Louisiana native Kate Chopin's most famous novel. Chopin's main character, the unhappy Edna Pontellier, hovers over the episode, an episode framed by water, a story darkened so only the lights of the Abita Beer sign illuminate.

Edna serves as temptation for Creighton to succumb to his depression. It is a wonderfully ironic moment for the professor to dismiss his student’s depressed reaction to The Awakening (a perfectly justified reaction, by the way) when he too is despondent over the fate of his beloved New Orleans.

Depression, or variations on its theme: post-traumatic stress syndrome and post-Mardi Gras disorder, is a poignant motif for Treme’s penultimate episode, the ninth in a ten episode season, exceptionally short even in the contemporary truncated television schedule. In a discussion on Chopin themes, I would also pile on earlier work, e.g. a short story which appeared in Vogue magazine, 1893, called "The Father of Desiree’s Baby" or now it is simply "Desiree’s Baby." No relation to Antoine's girlfriend, Desiree, (or is it?)

On its surface, the story is a potboiler with a nifty little twist at the end, but underneath, it deals succinctly and effectively with issues of feminism and race relations. The Awakening may speak to Creighton, to his students’ bewilderment (or was that simply boredom?), but "Desiree’s Baby" supports Toni’s reproof to Creighton about his tolerance for the pointy hoods of the Night Parade: “That’s because you’re not from here. When you grow up with it, it has a whole other meaning.” That meaning is what causes the tension between Big Chief Albert and Lt. Colson in later scenes.

Edna’s dash for freedom from her 19th century conventional marriage is also manifested in characters other than Creighton. Thankfully, Annie makes a break for it, (and to the writers' credit, simple and unlikable Sonny becomes suddenly human and likable - suddenly Sonny); like Edna, Annie does not have a full grasp of her societal boundaries. In Annie’s case, her society consists of musicians and their cultural codes. She innocently thinks that asking Sonny for a musical separation will have no impact on their romantic relationship. Sax-playing Aurora Nealand, who has a temporary sofa for Annie to sleep on, sets her straight: Sonny has a point; a stupid one, but it’s still a point. If Annie and Sonny don't play music together, they aren’t together.

Janette, too, thinks of finding some release: a release right out of the city. She finds herself once again at the mercy of severe weather, discovering there are limits to the guerilla chef gigs. Later, Davis argues for Janette to stay put: ("there are just so many beautiful moments...”) Janette walking away in the pouring rain, her Bacchanal gig ruined, is one of them. The camera shot is gorgeous in its stark misery. I wonder if the writers had a Chopinesque despair in mind as our heroine, Janette, walks away into the water.

It is a beautiful moment but it’s not a life, as Janette points out. Edna rejects her 19th century Louisiana life; Janette rejects her 21st century one. As an old English major, I’m a sucker for these motifs.

In other storylines, there is a gravitas showdown between Clarke Peters as Chief Albert and David Morse as Lt. Colson: a leader of one gang (the police) warns the leader of another gang (the Indians) to keep things cool. Imagine someone calling David Morse "son." We take Colson’s word for it that there has been tensions between the Indians and the police on St. Joseph’s Day. This is not common knowledge outside Louisiana, like so much on Treme, research, research, research is needed. For more on St. Joseph's night and especially the strain between the Indians and the NOPD, please check out this New Yorker article.

Ladonna, now that she has found her brother, struggles with what to do with his body. Toni argues for an autopsy. The family vault has been badly damaged by Katrina. Antoine offers to help financially, keeping that old romantic story strong.

Davis can’t hear someone knocking because he’s playing “I Hear You Knocking” too loudly. Davis can't hear anyone knocking at any time in any format.
The episode ends as it begins - on the water: Edna Pontellier’s watery grave. Is it Creighton’s too? “I believe I will fulfill my obligations for today,” he remarks to a student. For today, what about after today? I’ve avoided spoilers and trailers for the next episode, so I don’t know (but I doubt) if Creighton really throws himself off the ferry. As loving as his goodbyes were to his family and as fervently he argued for the positives in Edna’s suicide, Creighton may be back on Sunday for the season finale. So far this series has not been the “kill off the main character” sort.

The whole ferry scene was very difficult to watch, the most distressing event of the series so far (even if it is a non-event and Goodman returns) because it is so reminiscent of the Spalding Gray suicide. It’s not just in the manner of superficial resemblance; the brilliant monologuist threw himself off the Staten Island Ferry after years of depression, Creighton could possibly be viewing suicide as Gray may have, as Edna did: a work of art.

British journalist Gaby Wood, in a portrait of Spalding Gray, interviewed noted neurologist Oliver Sacks about his treatment of Gray’s depression. Wood theorizes: “It's possible that,


rather than simply having come to the end of what he had to say, Gray saw the taking of his own life as part of what he had to say. 'On several occasions he talked about what he called "a creative suicide",' Sacks tells me. 'On one occasion, when he was being interviewed, he thought that the interview might be culminated with a "dramatic and creative suicide." I was at pains to say that he would be much more creative alive than dead.'”

In other words, Creighton, you certainly can't finish that book if you're dead.

The thought of suicide as “dramatic and creative,” as an alternative to the book Creighton is working on or pretending to work on, is the real theme of "Wish Someone Would Care.” The trouble with that title, or actually the exquisite irony of the title, is that people do care, Toni and Sofia, Spalding Gray’s wife and children, and many, many fans, but the caring is not enough. I don’t know if this parallel was intentional by the writers, but if it was or wasn’t, it is still brilliant. Did I mention what Oliver Sacks is perhaps best known for? His book Awakenings.

I have to go, I have a four hour lunch to attend, but before I go, here are some other items up for discussion:

What are we to think of the Texan, coming back to fix Ladonna’s roof? Is his motivation just a matter of pride - to truly show that Texans have a work ethic where the native New Orleanians don’t? Speaking of Miss Ladonna, she has the best line of the evening, one I was tempted to open the review with, but it is not family friendly so I decided against it: “We’re in Lent now, the legs are closed.” Is that a Simon or a Pelecanos bon mot?

As much as I love the Treme title song, it can be jarring when the teaser is a serious one, in this case, Annie and Sonny announcing their separate ways. Actress Lucia Micarelli does sadness and confusion very well; hopefully the character gets to stretch to happiness and clarity next year. In a season where lots of fans expected her to die, isn't it a twist if she survives and Creighton throws himself out the airlock?

Dan Attias, director, is a veteran of David Simon and George Pelecanos-penned The Wire episodes as well as many other top television dramas, including The Sopranos, Deadwood, Lost, and Friday Night Lights. He directed my personal favorite Big Love episode - "Come, Ye Saints." So come all ye saints, see you at the season finale, "I'll Fly Away."

Originally published on blogcritics

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Treme: All On A Mardi Gras Day


"I heard you twice the first time." - Delmond


After a two-week hiatus, during which a real-time Gulf Coast catastrophe continues to dominate the news, Treme returned last night with “All On a Mardi Gras Day.” HBO offers a synopsis of each episode of Treme “in case you missed something.” Missed something? “All On a Mardi Gras Day” is such a spectacle of sight and sound, a veracious depiction of the real thing, not only does the viewer miss something, he or she misses most things. As you would were you a tourist standing on the corner of Canal and Basin.


Late in Treme’s previous episode, “Smoke My Peace Pipe,” the series took a turn toward the compelling storytelling we’ve come to expect from Team Simon and Overmyer. Toni and Ladonna drove into the complex of trailers that serve as makeshift morgues for the unburied, unclaimed casualties of Katrina, and from that moment on, Treme paid off its audience’s patience. Despite the title, there was no peace in the haunted stares of Ladonna contemplating her brother’s death, Toni witnessing Ladonna's pain and her own husband’s depression, and Creighton staring at his blank screen (a particularly disturbing scene for a writer). Even Davis, peering into the dark windows of his sometime lover’s failed restaurant, stops and suffers.


These emotional moments continue in "All On a Mardi Gras Day,” almost six months to the day from Katrina. It is an episode devoted to the exuberance of the parade, but still it finds moments of mournfulness. New Orleans is not the same since Katrina. Nor could it be.


Ladonna struggles to hold her composure while grieving for her brother. As big an admirer as I am of her work in Simon’s mini-series The Corner, it is truly remarkable what she is doing in Treme. Her asymmetric gaze looks into the abyss, but her body remains strong (for the most part, except when Antoine plays her like his musical instrument). She has responsibilities: her aging mother, her husband, her children, her business. She must stay determined, but how affecting were her bowed shoulders. With a lilt in my voice, I say "I feel an Emmy coming" for Ms. Alexander.


Creighton and Sofia stop by Lake Pontchartrain’s south coast to bear witness to the not-so-ancient ruins of the lake's venerable seafood restaurants. This has a poignancy that no one could have anticipated. The defeat of Jaeger’s, Fitzgerald’s, Bruning’s, and Sid-Mar’s has even more significance than when this episode was originally filmed. Sid-Mar’s reopened this past January in Metairie, a northern suburb of New Orleans, and now as we all know, Sid-Mar’s is facing yet another catastrophe - the ongoing BP disaster and the impact it will have on the Gulf seafood industry.


One of the reasons why Chef Janette and the struggles of her restaurant weigh in so heavily into Treme’s storyline is to illustrate the importance of food to the unique New Orleans culture. The oil spill looms large over the seafood in Janette’s guerilla cooking whether Janette knows it or not. The spill will affect oysters, shrimp, fish, all integral aspects to the New Orleans cuisine. And it is not just seafood. New Orleans was in such a delicate state of recovery as it stood. As Susan Spicer, a New Orleans chef and restaurateur who serves as a consultant and basis for the Janette character, says: “The normal little things that you take for granted were just that much harder. We still don't have enough grocery stores.”


Last night, Chief Albert’s Indians continued working on their costumes, but the Chief remains locked in after his punch-up with the NOPD. In the hands of other television writers, the Chief would have received a last-minute reprieve and been able to march on Mardi Gras. Not here in Simon’s world. This is what makes Simon and Overmyer such notable writers. No cliches or convention.


The Indian Chief remains behind bars and without drama. With his father absent, son Delmond has the opportunity, the freedom, to experience Mardi Gras without his father’s large shadow. Delmond's about face is set up rather obviously by his too-honest puzzlement: “Why not put all that time, energy, money into fixing up the place.” What Delmond manages to understand by the end of the episode, with the help of some sex and alcohol Mardi Gras style, is that time, energy, and money is being put into fixing up the place via the parades.


Toni, continuing her saintly ways, which now include knitting, (she is a domestic goddess as well as a civil rights deity,) gives us what I believe is the first indicator that Creighton is not a native New Orleanian whereas she is. In discussing the night parades, she shudders at the “antebellum” aspect of these particular parades: “masked riders on horseback with pointy hoods? HELLO!”


Yes, hello, Creighton. You have a writer’s studio on a professor’s salary. What do you have to be depressed about?! But I digress. Writer's block is no joking matter. Creighton defends the old line carnival stuff. Toni responds in one of the most telling dialogues of the episode, that the parades, even in their carpe diem fun, are emblematic of something much more complicated: “That’s because you’re not from here. When you grow up with it, it has a whole other meaning.” It would be a fascinating turn of events for Toni, the native daughter of New Orleans, to have to nurse her husband through his breakdown over the breakdown of his adopted city. Toni knits on.


In an episode where the characters are supposedly putting their lives on hold for the parade, there is plenty of development. Creighton slips further into ennui. In contrast, Annie begins to wake up to how crippling her relationship with Sonny is. Her platonic hook-up with Davis for the day was perfectly charming. Well, it was more Jean Lafitte than Prince Charming, but it does Davis good to play a different role. The mask suits him. Notice the interesting parallelism of Davis not realizing the slave trader history of Lafitte and Creighton not acknowledging that some of the old school carnivals, particularly the night parades in Toni's opinion, have a similar inglorious background.


Wednesday's hangover must now be faced. Lenten suffering commences. Thank God for St. Joseph's Day.


I have to go. I have to mix up some Jameson and Cokes, but before I leave, here are some items up for discussion:


Why does Toni continually insist on feeding Creighton to offset his depression? It’s understandable, but not in his best interest. Lots of media moments have been made of John Goodman’s girth, including some great roles, but the last thing he needs is gumbo. There were moments in “All On a Mardi Gras Day” when I thought that Creighton was suffering from a heart attack, or at least an severe episode of gout, rather than depression.


A further installment in the campaign for Jacques the sous chef here. It’s not professional, but my informal campaign to expand Jacques’ character continues, if not for the actor’s incredible performance, then for the singular viewpoint of a recent immigrant into the depleted city. When Davis asks Janette if she needs him for Mardi Gras, and she responds no, that she has Jacques, we cheer.


The love for a city: the distant camera shots of New Orleans at dawn Mardi Gras day are reminiscent of season two of The Wire’s Baltimore seen from its port waters. Beautiful and affecting cinematography by Ivan Strasburg. And speaking of The Wire, as I must every week, isn’t Antoine living Bunk’s dream life?


We’re less than two months away from the season premiere of Mad Men, time to point out that the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park was built in the late 1920s, near the site of the Milneburg entertainment district, by the family of Bryan Batt, Mad Men's Sal Romano. Here's hoping he returns for season four.


As always, I recommend reading Dave Walker’s “Treme Explained” for everything that cannot be taken in on one viewing of Treme. One pleasant fact I learned from Mr. Walker's column: the French Quarter apartment where Janette begins her Mardi Gras partying and does such a great Elvis impersonation belongs to director Anthony Hemingway. How fun is that? Thank you. Thank you very much.



Originally published on blogcritics.org


Sunday, June 6, 2010

Lost's Finale: Monday Mourning


How do you plan to do that?" — Smokey

"It’s a surprise." — Jack

Lost ended its six year run last night, and as I predicted last Tuesday, it ended with a whimper, not a bang. That was me, whimpering.

I have not been a huge fan of the Jack Shephard character. Over the last six years, I’ve found him whiny and at the same time inexplicably headstrong, but that didn’t keep me from crying like a baby during the final scenes of last night’s episode. A good thing that I didn’t attend any last Lost parties; I would have embarrassed myself. Not that I was invited, mind you.

Now that the tears have cleared, and the writers have skipped town, what do we have left? What was that?

The “End,” making little narrative sense, went for the emotional jugular. In a sleight of hand, distracting viewers from thematic and unanswered questions of “what was the island?” and “why were the castaways part of a larger plan?” the episode concentrated on the alternate or sideways stories, a recent plot device for this season.

Mysterious Scot Desmond Hume, set up since season two to be a big player in the island’s arc, proved to be surprisingly ineffectual on Finale Island, just a pawn between two competitors. In Sideways World, Desmond gathered all our castaways together in an enigmatic Messenger of Heaven function; he was the unexpected harbinger of the end for Doc Shephard and his not-so-motley crew of castaways.

Co-creator J.J. Abrams and writers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have been swearing up and down for years that the island was not Purgatory, but what about the Sideways World? "Not Purgatory" may have been a lie of omission. Last night, the alternate reality proved to be not a reality at all but more an Occurrence at Eloise Hawking’s Church: an instant 'could-have-been' life that flashes before Jack’s eyes as he lays dying in the bamboo field.

“I think you’re a little confused as to what I came here to do.” — Smokey

The last Lost recap: the island survivors outmaneuver Smokey (who was obviously not healed as I projected last week). The electromagnetic fields of the island are momentarily disrupted by Desmond; in that time, Smokey is sufficiently weakened so he can be gunned down by Kate. Jack, in a temp position as Jacob, restores the island’s powers but not before he hands off his Jacobean title to Hurley, fulfilling a prophecy I made at “The Lighthouse” that Hurley would emerge as the true leader (don’t worry, this is the last of the "I told you so’s"): "You were a great No. 1," Ben Linus tells Hurley in one of the best lines of the night. With cameos by beloved Rose and Bernard and Vincent, and a re-emergence of Frank Lapidus to a cheer from the house despite his awful lines, the island story was basically an experiment by both sides, Good Jack and Bad Locke, as to what would happen when they lowered Desmond into the ‘golden log flume’ as TV critic Alan Sepinwall calls it.

Changing the rules late in the game, Volunteer Jack doesn’t stop Smokey in his effort to destroy the island. In fact, he helps him along, betting that the ebbing of the island’s power will be Smokey’s loss. Desmond doesn’t put up too much of fight, willingly allowing himself to be a pawn in this new contest. Desmond’s speech to Jack before being thrown down yet another waterway was bewildering: “you can put me down there and I’ll just leave. Why don’t you come too?” That reminds me of the Robert Frost poem “The Pasture,” but I better save that for my forthcoming “Royal Pains” review.

There were lots of character questions in both worlds; why was Desmond trying to talk Jack out of confronting Smokey: “This doesn’t matter, you know. Him destroying the island. You destroying him.” Desmond seemed to be tempting Jack into abandoning his island responsibility. Jack stands strong and tells Desmond that “what happened, happened” and "all of this matters." Which may be true on the island but...

Meanwhile, back at Purgatory Ranch, Desmond and Hurley are busy rounding up the castaways, reintroducing them to their past lives and loves, and herding them all to Eloise Hawking’s Church. It is an obvious important location, being the portal between Limbo and Heaven, and so it is a puzzlement that Eloise was uncooperative. What is her place in all this? Hawking was missing from the final scenes of the show. Being the high priestess of the Church of Every Denomination So We Don’t Offend Anyone, she would seem to be more important to the closure of the show other than just the concerned mother of Daniel (it’s about time, though) at the concert.

Lost ended as it has existed all along, obfuscation disguised as complex narrative, but it was a good ride while it lasted. Great acting and even better music carried contrivance and cheesy dialogue. In a “don’t pay attention to all those unanswered questions behind the curtain, Jack Shephard is dying over here” finale, Lost writers left many questions unanswered. I wasn't too hung up on finding all the resolutions, in fact, in "Across the Sea," there was more information than I wanted, but last night we found out "what happens" rather than "what happened." Was the mystery solved? Were the numbers simply table settings at the concert?



Ultimately, the show may have made more sense if I hadn’t been so choked up, but I suspect the tears were, in part, for a loss of community rather than a reaction to what may be happening on screen. For the last six years, through stories about Jack’s tattoos and Nicky and Paolo, Lost viewers, brought together by the Internet, DVR, and DVD, made a imaginative and enthusiastic community that television had never seen before. The tears in our eyes, in the eyes of Jimmy Kimmel’s post-Lost audience, were tears for the end of the Lost collective, for ourselves at a certain point of time, not for Dr. Shephard.

Article originally published on Blogcritics

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Endgame for Lost


Part of the cottage industry known as Lost analyzers, the east coast edition, met at New York City’s Paley Center for Media Saturday to discuss the Lost television series and its final episode airing Sunday night on ABC. To a sold-out audience, forum panelists including writers from Time, New York Magazine, and Hitfix and moderated by Ryan McGee, gathered to discuss, dissect, and celebrate a television series on the eve of its finale.


The atmosphere of the forum had the fanaticism of a convention, and although there may not have been the fun of dressing up like your favorite Vulcan or hobbit, there were plenty of Dharma hoodies in the house. Fans, as in fanatics, were made obvious by the ready answers to arcane trivia in games leading up the panel conference. It was some fun before the seriousness of larger topics to be discussed such as just what does this television series mean, why does it warrant such enthusiasm, and, as Emily Nussbaum from New York Magazine pointed out, why do so many of the strong female characters end up as arm candy.


The afternoon's audience was a microcosm of a larger group of viewers that both feeds off the show's mythology, and, at the same time, provides the show with an enormously creative and responsive congregation — one that pressures the writers to think quickly on their feet. In 2005 at a similar Paley Center Panel, clips of which were rerun on Saturday, co-creator J.J. Abrams commented on a viewer’s theory that the island could really be Purgatory: “It isn’t literally what it is, but the fans of the show are so smart, and so sharp, and the things that we’ve read are so often in sync with what we are doing (which gets us very excited) or they are better!”

It is this give and take with its audience that places Lost in a unique position of being the first television show intrinsically part of the DVR/Internet/DVD age as explained by Dan Manu, site director of Television Without Pity. Because of its technological time and place, and because the show was able to take advantage of its community, it evolved from a mystery show about plane crash survivors to being the television event that it will be on Sunday.


The pilot episode, which the Paley Center replayed in an enhanced format, holds up well after six years. Although the two-part opening, the most expensive television pilot ever made, appears to be more Jurassic Park than the Lost we know now, with the Smoke Monster moving trees and having footsteps, the characterizations that ultimately engaged Lost's audience are instantly present. Now Kate appears to be wearing too much eye makeup after having been in a plane crash and Sawyer may be too much the Clint Eastwood persona, but as written and portrayed, they are roles that viewers immediately either like or like to dislike. Or love, judging by the sniffling in the theatre during the Jin and Sun scenes. The ultimate fates of the two Korean lovers were very much on the audience's mind.



It has been a groundbreaking television series, demanding much of its viewers ("television with footnotes" as
Time's James Poniewozik calls it), with an audience aspect that the networks have been trying to repeat with varying degrees of success: V, Fringe, and FlashForward, which has been recently canceled. Even Lost cannot duplicate the success of Lost. Although the viewership is expected to be high on Sunday, there is doubt it will reach the 23 million mark that the premiere of its second season enjoyed. Television itself has changed drastically in those four short years with on demand cable and especially Internet television cutting in those audience numbers.

The ultimate question now is: can this show be resolved in such a way that its fans don't storm the castle with pitchforks? The panelists disagreed in part about what they wanted to see resolved, but they were in consensus that they trusted the writers who have so far taken them for an enjoyable ride, as long, said TV critic Alan Sepinwall, "we find out what happened to the people. Abstract good and evil is fine, but we need to find out what happened to the people."


Originally published on blogcritics



As always, Studio 360 and Kurt Anderson have something vital to say about this cultural moment:

Saturday, May 22, 2010

What They Died For: Jack's Cup Runneth Over

“Come and sit down and I’ll tell you what they died for.”

Or maybe it can wait til Sunday.

Tuesday's "What They Died For" was the penultimate Lost episode. This is the penultimate Lost Cause. You should go get your friends. We are very close to the end.


To recap: The series of ignominious deaths continues. Richard ends up in the treetops: I guess Smokey doesn’t need him anymore. Charles Widmore challenges Ben: “You shoot me and your last chance for survival will be gone.” So of course, Ben shoots him - a stark contrast to Sideways Ben who continues to be the nicest guy in the world. Or “like the nicest guy in the word." Was that Ben’s last chance for survival?


Locke is urged by Dr. Ben Linus, indirectly by Desmond and his car, to "let go," echoing Jack’s urging two weeks ago, to let go.... and to go first. More on this in a bit.


Kate, James, Jack, and Hurley meet up with Jacob by the fire. Jacob promises to tell them everything and then does not. In a twitter-theory (tweory?) yesterday, Daily Show writer Daniel Radosh describes this as “a ponzi scheme paying off investments of questions with new investments of questions. Collapse imminent.” If the truth didn’t hurt so much, I would laugh and laugh.


Jack volunteers to take Jacob’s place. Everyone else is relieved.

For further explanation on how Jack’s cup runneth over, let’s turn to Collective Soul, the band, not the island.


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I suspect, but I could be wrong, that the entire six years of
Lost may be based upon Ed Roland's "December" song. Here are some lyrics taken out of context:

Why drink the water from my hand?
Contagious as you think I am
Just tilt my sun toward your domain
Your cup runneth over again.

or

Why follow me to higher ground?
Lost as you swear I am.
Don't throw away your basic needs,
Ambiance and vanity.

Here's further proof:

December...

Promises you gave unto me
Whispers of treachery
Clouds are now covering me
Songs no longer I sing.

This last refrain refers more to the Lost writers than it does to the show itself. Don't agree? Fine. Just turn your head now, baby, and spit me out.


Finally, Desmond arranges for Sideways Kate, Sayid, and Hurley to meet, releasing Kate and Sayid from prison (with a priceless cameo by Ana Lucia) upon a promise to do something for him in the near future. Perhaps to attend the concert? That's a weighty promise. Desmond struck a rather malevolent pose during "What They Died For." The whole scenario reminded of promises to the devil rather than to our beloved "brother."


All the talk about "letting go" in the Sideways World appears to be directed more at Locke as Smokey and his constant (word chosen carefully) crusade for vengeance: is that SchLocke in the Sideways World off the island?


I offer here one of my last Lost theories (tear in eye or is that the onions?). In a parallel to Jack fixing Locke in the Sideways world, Jack will also fix Smokey on the Island. By fix, I don't mean kill. Jack and Jacob were sufficiently evasive when directed to kill Smokey by Kate and company. I do believe that Jack will heal Smokey, fulfilling his doctor/savior inclinations of the past six years. The island is then destroyed in that it ends up under water but not destroyed as in its source of "life" dries up.


In the end, "The End" could be a whimper, not a bang. We may not see a big showdown complete with huge explosions (like a hydrogen bomb) but a lot of small instances of redemption and forgiveness - of letting go past transgressions. Ilana's forgiveness of Ben, one of the best scenes in the series, was a small foreshadowing. Sawyer forgives Jack. Jack forgives himself. Jacob and MiB forgive each other and their crazy foster mom. We all forgive Kate Austin. Group hug. Or everyone dies.


I have to run. It’s coq au vin night, but before I go, here are a few items up for discussion:


If you get a chance, re-watch the pilot episode and notice the backgammon game and John Locke’s overall demeanor. Relying on everything you know now, speculate on what Locke knows immediately upon post-crash. He certainly has an omniscient gaze. I’ve been playing with theories that he, John Locke, in the pilot, already was Smokey, or maybe, because Locke does come face to face with Smokey later, could he be Jacob? Remember Jacob's touch at Locke's apparent death after being thrown out the window. If that theory doesn't fit, could Locke be the island itself at that point? Thank you Caroline and Patrick for the initial idea, and check out this great pencil drawing and ponder.


Do you believe Widmore when he said Jacob visited him and showed him the “errors of his ways?”


Was Jacob reading “Everything That Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor simply because of his own mommy issues? This is a disappointment.


Do the candidates really exercise free will when Jacob offers them the job? They have no idea what is truly asked of them. Nor do we. Without information, you cannot make a true decision.

There was a little tear in my eye during the Danielle/Ben dinner, and it was not the onions. It was more affecting than the Jin/Sun death scene. My favorite of the episode, maybe of the season.


Boy Jacob was a nasty piece of work.


Finally, I have a little (not so little) grudge list that I will carry into the series finale. It consists of people rather cavalierly tossed aside by Lost in a most smokey way: Charlie, Daniel, Danielle, Alex, Ilana, Lapidus, Libby, Richard, Richard, Richard: characters that we believed had more significance than their demises indicate. Do you have a grudge list? Share.


See you at the concert.


Article originally published on blogcritics.org


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Treme: Take the zzzzz train


This is going to a short review of Treme’s sixth episode, "Shallow Water, Oh Mama," because nothing much happened.

It has been a trend so far on Treme to bring on a local NOLA writer to do the episode’s teleplay. Last week’s "Shame, Shame, Shame" was written by Lolis Eric Elie who, amidst many other accomplishments, is a food writer and so we see lots of delicious restaurant scenes. This week on "Shallow Water," Tom Piazza shares the writing work with David Simon and Eric Overmyer and is credited with the teleplay. Piazza, like Elie, had no television writing experience. Bringing in local writing talent is adding authenticity, but there might be a problem, Houston.

Is Treme losing narrative pacing in its endeavor for authenticity?

I love the music, the locale, the characterizations (mostly), but I do not love these stories. These are stories of paralysis; for the most part, they are proving to be shallow stories, oh mama, and frankly it doesn’t make for great television. In other words, Treme is becoming more like the "Zzzzz" train to me.

I don’t need Smoke Monsters in all my television shows; I am perfectly happy to spend quiet time with an unhappy Annie and her cafe au lait and beignet in the Cafe du Monde, but it can’t all be like that. Depressed people — “ain’t we all,” commiserates Antoine — should be cared about and cared for, but a general despondency does not make for exciting storytelling. It may be authentic; it may be real, and viewers were warned, don’t come to Treme looking for The Wire. Fair enough, but we should be able to come to Treme expecting compelling television. Now, more than halfway through the first season’s ten episodes, the characters’ immobility is less than compelling.

"Shallow Water, Oh Mama" is a Mardi Gras Indian chant. It briefly appeared at the end of episode two with only Big Chief Albert and George in attendance at practice. This time around, more people show for Albert's practice, and New Orleans seems in early physical restoration: the Musicians' Clinic, Big Chief’s bar, the Bernettes’ lovely front porch, the Carnivale Ball, and the Krewe du Vieux parade, but the characters stall in their individual journeys toward restoration and renewal.

Crey Bernette complains that he has moved from “serious novelist to cartoon” but we haven’t seen any of that. We’ve only seen the cartoon.

Delmond (Rob Brown, above) has been a cipher so far. The character’s story is in tension between the traditional and the progressive, between the world of his father, Big Chief Albert, and the world of New York City jazz, but the actor’s immobile face does not indicate any of this conflict. Or if it does, it may be too deep in the shadows to see. More complaints on this to follow.

Antoine looks for gigs. Antoinette looks for the missing Daymo Brooks while busy raising two children, daughter Sofia and husband Creighton.

Big Chief is occupied by building his Indian costume. He makes no progress in finding housing for his gang, but does manage to continually disappoint his children.

The usually vibrant Khandi Alexander was mostly M.I.A. (which could be part of the episode's problem). She has a short scene with her mother in a health clinic where, thematically consistent, they are helpless without their medical information, long gone in Katrina.

Annie is locked in a destructive relationship with Sonny, a relationship the audience recognized for what it was since episode one. This is what I mean by paralysis and non-narrative. We are not taking a journey with Annie. We were at the end of this, foresaw the end of this, from the beginning (but hopefully not copying the real-life end of that poor girl, Addie Hall).

Looking to another couple, Janette and Jacques have the most cogent plotline, but I fear it has come to an end. Janette fails to keep her restaurant going, and those scenes of defeat are among the most successful of the episode. In a poignant moment of realization that she cannot continue, Janette buries her face in her hands, and Jacques, her sous chef, makes a slight movement to comfort her. It was such a sweet, nuanced moment, and it makes me despair that the closing of Desautel’s will push these two characters to the borders of the story further. Packing up her knife, Janette takes a long last look at Desautel’s, perhaps realizing that blueberry mojitos are not a good idea, and leaves the building. I do hope she comes back, and I recognize my involvement in this particular story is contradictory to the argument at hand.

In the beginning of the series, I was afraid that the music would stall the momentum of the show. That fear was wholly unfounded; the music has absolutely contributed to each episode’s success, more so than any particular character's narrative arc. Case in point: when the sound is turned down on the televised city council forum and we can only hear Coco Robicheaux singing in the back of the bar. The attention to music and its detail has proven surprisingly absorbing within the framework of serialized drama. It is the story between the songs that needs some improvement.

I’m in this for the long road. I understand that the series is trying to recreate real people stuck in real situations, post-Katrina, but the television viewer in me hopes that there is more story to next week’s episode, "Smoke My Peace Pipe," than Desiree washing Antoine’s tuxedo.

I must leave; I need to reform the Napoleonic Code, but before I go, here are some items up for discussion:

Can the John Goodman character become any more insufferable? Creighton Bernette goes from whining that the publishing company will want its advance back on an overdue book to whining when the company asks for the book to become more contemporary. He then ridicules his agent for being interested in his YouTube rants: “I’m not trying to be the spokesman for the city.” What are these YouTube rants for then?

Notice the parallelism here between Crey Bernette not wanting to be a spokesman and Davis’s announcement that, if elected, he will not serve. Both characters want to be agents of change but also want to limit their personal responsibility — stasis!

It was delightful to see Talia Balsam as Carla the literary agent, all the way from 1963 New York City, and Elizabeth Ashley, a true Tennessee Williams actress, as Davis’s Aunt Mimi. Ashley was not recognizable behind the sunglasses, hair, and jewelry, but that voice was.

Melissa Leo has a nice Columbo moment to make headway on her case, but I fail to see why, by not getting the ADA to help her file a joint motion, she now no longer thinks it's offensive for her 15-year-old daughter to dress up as a sperm.

There are many moments where lighting indicates character instead of letting storytelling do it. Bands of light across Clarke Peters' eyes indicate rage. Shadows across Sonny’s face symbolize what... darkness, I guess. Bright sunlight on Davis’s campaign parade sanitizes the misguided attempt because “sunlight is the best antiseptic.”

Halfway through the series, I’m just hoping someone comes along and hits Davis again. Not Annie. Davis.

For an insight and explanation into Treme’s music, I insist you visit The Sound of Treme blog. The blogger is a Tulane music professor and knows of what he speaks!

Originally published on blogcritics.org