Thursday, December 8, 2011

800 Words: 35 Favorite 'Cultural Stuffs' in 2011. #'s 25 & 24

25. Treme

(I think this is one of the great finales I’ve ever seen on TV. Nothing happens and yet...)

I like the The Wire. I just don’t think it was the greatest TV show ever made. It’s a Washingtonian’s view of Baltimore - if it can’t show up on a police blotter or in the Sun’s front page, it’s not interesting to the writers. Two of the the show’s three main writers (David Simon and George Pellecanos) grew up in Washington, and it’s at least clear to me that there are certain views of Baltimore that they’ve missed. In The Wire, Baltimore is not Baltimore, Baltimore is a metaphor for the dysfunction of American cities. Granted, I have not seen the whole show (probably I’ve seen about 18 episodes), but it’s clear that there are views of Baltimore which The Wire is plainly not interested in seeing - particularly the history of White Flight and how it contributed to creating today’s Baltimore. The Wire is interested in showing the inner workings of today’s city, but not particularly interested in how the city became what it is. It is interested in the types of people who populate the city, but not particularly interested in what makes the people individual and three-dimensional. And it’s certainly interested in decrying people whose morals are lax, but less interested in portraying the inner conflicts within them.
I can certainly concede that The Wire, in its way, is a great TV show. But it’s great TV in the same way that Emile Zola is great literature - both are examples of kind of naturalism that strives to capture the realities of people’s lives without feeling the need to portray the reality of people. The huge acclaim given The Wire was in part due to people rightly celebrating a show that gives much-needed attention to life in the projects, and partially due to prurient interest and liberal self-congratulation. There is certainly an important place for shows like The Wire, but my inner monologue tends to go apoplectic when people suggest The Wire is the best thing to come out of television. Nobody mistakes Germinal for War and Peace, yet in so many people’s estimation The Wire is a greater show than The Sopranos.
And so I’m going to make a controversial claim (or a claim that would be controversial if anybody important said it): David Simon’s next show, Treme, is better than The Wire. The reception of Treme has been decidedly mixed, and there are lots of people view the show as a terrible letdown after the The Wire’s gritty naturalism. But I personally think it’s a step forward. David Simon knows what works on television better than he did before, and the result is in many ways more interesting.
It’s not like Treme is at all missing The Wire’s grit, but the grit is no longer omnipresent. After a while, the unremitting drabness of Baltimore lives as The Wire depicts them becomes exhausting. But the bright colors of New Orleans come to us screaming with life. Yes, there is still all the murder, and loss, and depravity that you’d expect from New Orleans. But not for a moment are we allowed to forget about the New Orleans of the living. The show gives us a sense of New Orleans through its music, its art, its fashion, its cuisine - you turn the TV off craving Jambalaya. This being a show about New Orleans, it was obvious that Treme would have to delve far more deeply into local history, culture, and customs than The Wire ever did. And so we watch characters whose personalities are far more illuminated than The Wire’s characters ever got the chance to be.
Treme is far from a perfect show. It still retains all of the The Wire’s preachiness, and all its melodramatic caricatures of evil businessmen, power-mad bureaucrats, corrupt politicians, etc. Even so, the very fact that TV now has a showrunner like Simon, so willing to talk about the problems of the underclass is a great start - but it’s only a start. And now he’s making a show in large part about what makes the lives of poor people worth still living. But why couldn’t the poor of Baltimore get this kind of treatment?

24. Hitchens and Ebert - Lions in Winter

I wrote this up last year for a similar list that I never finished. All I can say is that I agree with everything I wrote last year, and I’m glad they’re still around.

It amazes me how often we hear this same story: so many people of our generation didn’t come to reading Roger Ebert through developing a passion for movies. They developed a passion for movies through reading Roger Ebert. There was a period in the early-to-mid-90’s when every middle-class household seemed to have an Ebert movie guide. Soon thereafter, every one of his movie reviews and articles got posted on CompuServe, and soon after that he started his own website. For all those decades when Ebert was so omnipresent, it has been fashionable to rag on him for being too generous to mediocre movies and dumbing down criticism with the TV show "Siskel and Ebert" (would that most of today's TV critics could discuss movies on their level...). But what they (at times ‘we’) all missed was that Ebert’s zealous passion for all aspects of his job was clearly just a facet of his larger zeal for life: for food and drink (obviously), for books, for art, for women (and apparently they loved him right back..), for friends, for family, and anything else that enriched. But it was not until Ebert was so debilitated that he found a metier through which we could perceive his life for everything it is.
And with his Pulitzer for Criticism now thirty-five years in the past, Ebert may have only reached the peak of his influence in the past year. Horribly disfigured by thyroid cancer and left without the ability to eat, drink or speak, Ebert has taken to the age of blogging and twitter with a naturalness stunning for anyone in their late 60’s. But there’s simply no adjective to describe the stunning ease with which a person in his condition took to an entirely new technology. Perhaps he understands things about how to use the internet that younger, more fit people never could. Roger Ebert’s blog is simply like nothing else on the internet. Like clockwork, a fully formed essay arrives every week on topics ranging from loneliness to alcoholism to politics to illness. Ebert delves into the most personal crevasses of his experience, and perhaps for the first time in my experience of the blogosphere, the result is wisdom instead of TMI. Self revelation rarely results in deeper appreciation, but Ebert has a humanity that few people are capable of allowing themselves, and through his emotional generosity he’s created a community of ‘the neglected.’ The comments section is filled with posts from all sorts of people who for the first time in their lives feel confident that there is a place where they can share the most personal parts of their lives, openly and without judgement or prejudice. Go to any Ebert blogpost and you find hundreds of extraordinarily well-written essays in of themselves which seem to be written by a confluence of hundreds of articulate, lonely teenagers looking to find a place where people like them belong, unwell people who are desperate to remember how they functioned in their illness’s remission, unhappy people who never got the chance they should have for life to hear their voices. These are all people who thought the world was divided into those who are broken and those who are not, but through each other they all seem to have realize that there is no such division....Or at least there should never be..
It is through Ebert’s example that so many of them found the courage to tell stories of their own: lives torn apart by tragedy, by mental illness, by the unfairness of circumstance. And yet through Roger Ebert each of them has discovered that they have a story to tell and a public who will listen. Only a man of very deep good will could have created something so consoling, so unique and so unforseen that (I don’t use this word lightly) it has enriched the lives of so many whose lives desperately needed enrichment. Had Roger Ebert died on the operating table, life would have been far the poorer for what all these people would have lost.

Christopher Hitchens is, in so many ways, Ebert’s polar opposite: A professional quarreller who derives relish from mutual hatred, a stubbornly analog bibliophile in the Age of the Internet; a thinker with revulsion for doubt, and a contrarian who asks no corner in public debate because he gives none. And yet through all that bombast, he carries in tandem an elemental force of personality capable of convincing anyone of his beliefs simply by the gusto with which he argues. Abrasive as he is, his whole career as a political commentator is marked by an eagerness to face all challenges, stand by the tenets of his beliefs, and blithe unconcern with whom he alienates. Even if Hitch is wrong much of the time, his wrongness feels right. In France it used to be said "better right with Sartre than wrong with Raymond Aron." Sartre may have been a terribly sloppy thinker and a pernicious influence on all sorts of people (no doubt Hitchens agrees), but he defined 'engagement' in an era when so much of the world wanted to turn its back on all but the most narrow self-interests. When I was a wee college lad, I'm a little embarrassed to say that Hitchens became a personal role model - and thanks to him I styled myself a corduroy-jacket wearing, chain smoking booze hound. I had a column about various campus goings on at American University, and I put whatever gift for writing I have to writing about all sorts of people around the AU campus with the kind of hatchet job execution-style which I learned from reading the Hitch (it made at least a little more sense at the time). It was the most fun I've ever had writing, it also ruined whatever little career as a writer I could have had after college.
Political policy, in reality, should always be an extremely boring thing: full of endless meetings, charts and bar graphs. But most people come to politics through romantic notions and dreams of standing the world on its head. Even if people who believe so fervently are dangerous, they are absolutely necessary. Without developing a youthful passion for engagement and causes, there would be no one willing to carry on the endless, boring hurdles of affecting change.
I remember seeing Hitch earlier this year on Jon Stewart and thinking that he looked terrible. As it turned out, that was the very same day on which he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Within a matter of weeks, Hitch had written multiple essays on the experience of receiving the news, its development, and its metastasis. And all these were written in addition to the regular political columns and book reviews which he continued to provide. Hitch was never the loose canon everyone thought him to be, but in what may be his final illness, the world is finally discovering his human side. The barbs are still there, but for the first time in his writing life, Hitch seems to have some curiosity about and compassion for his opponents. His rage is no more temperate, but the illness seems to have given him more compassion about the people at which he rages.
If anyone doubts that in illness, Hitch is a more compassionate man. Read this essay. For the first time that I've read, he has nice things to say about his opponents. And maybe it's simply because they have nicer things to say about him than he thought were possible, but they've endowed him with the one literary gift Hitch always seemed to lack: empathy. But even as he softens, none of his other literary talents have weakened along with his body. Hitch may well be dying, but he seems determined to chronicle to chronicle his physical breakdown with all the foolhardy courage that he brought to every other endeavor. In the words of Andrew Sullivan, ‘cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against.’

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