Like: The Social Network

October 2, 2010

What elevates a film?

What takes it from “good” to “pretty good”, or from that to “best of the year” status?

Does it start with having an interesting idea and resonate simply from that? Does it take the mere humble execution of excellent script? Is it how you imbue the most simplistic of scenes with tone and mood? Is it hanging your hat on a great performer? Is it maybe is simply having an engaging score? Is it…

Okay you get it.

Filmmaking is a lot of things coming together and somehow working in harmony. Those who doubt how difficult it is, should really try it one day. You’d be shocked by just how much is out of your control. You’d be shocked by how hard it is to see what a movie is going to be until your done editing it. Things you worried about actually flourish and things you thought you nailed can easily fall flat. Filmmaking is alchemy. It’s instinctual. You just hope for some good aspects to carry the piece through….

Luckily, THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a near-flawless amalgamation of  many excellent aspects:

1. The idea – The founding of Facebook is a great story and not because there’s anything particular “movie-like” about it.  In fact, the movie engages the kinds of things we rarely see represented in culture these days: the base forms of genesis, inspiration, evolution of ideas, and even the surprising nature of our recent history.  It is largely a story about ego and how ego combines with the fear of rejection to invigorate change (both personal and cultural).

2. Aaron Sorkin – I give the man a lot of crap.  He’s obviously all sorts of brilliant, but his delight with himself often just seeps off the screen. This is not the ravings of someone who says things like that. That usually my least favorite comment in the world. The problem is in Sorkin’s case it’s just so obvious (he even admits it) that the man’s just typing with one hand. Worse, the way his characters converse as if they know what the next line is going to be sometimes means intelligence can come off *gulp* as twee(*). That’s not a good thing. It can so easily scream “manufactured!” But when he’s on point, he can soar. What works in this film is wonderfully he’s able to get into the mind of a character who is similarly solipsistic to himself: Sorkin’s found the perfect vehicle in Mark Zuckerberg. The young man is brilliant person who is more interested in being right, than being good. And Sorkin can write the shit out of righteousness. Better yet he shows that he not only understands Zuckerberg, but every character in this movie (more on that later). Sorkin beautifully uses the dialogue to excel every single character motive and never launches an off-topic diatribe. Now there are diatribes of course but they are all so inherently focused on the story/action at hand that really there was no better person to write this script. It’s the most focused work we’ve seen from him.

3. Naturally, David Fincher helps with all of that. The man is yet another absurdly talented figure in this production.  I tend to waffle around on my feelings with Fincher and readily admit that FIGHT CLUB is  his most definitive work. It tapped into the zeitgeist in a way many thought impossible at the time. Heck you could argue that movie went on to define the zeitgiest. My only problem with it is that even with its mature “grow the fuck” endgame, the majority of the hardcore fanbase didn’t’ get the movie whatsover. It was stunningly counterproductive and I can outright blame it on Fincher’s romanticizing of nihilism. But nowadays I think my favorite work of Fincher is ZODIAC. The movie is such a careful examination of journalism and the nature of truth. I love it wholly. Everything else he did? Technically audacious but they all have major, major problems at script level. Well, we already talked about THE SOCIAL NETWORK’s script from Sorkin and I can think of no one more suited for executing it. The tweeness gives way to Fincher’s unblinking, dour reality. His dark atmospheres. His sense of irony. A line that may be just” smart,” comes off as brutal in his hands. He raises the stakes. He makes Sorkin’s work cut to the bone. I walked out of the film still having a litany of perfect lines rattling around my brain: “If you want to stand on my shoulders…”

4. Then there is the matter of the score. There was a lot of curiosity regarding the hire of Trent Reznor, meaning there was also a lot of suspicion too. I imagine that many of these doubters were worried about it sounding like Reznor’s more popular industrial Nine Inch Nails tracks. I doubt that many of them had heard his work from  “Still,” which features haunting, ethereal tones mixed with piano, classical instrumentation and subtle percussive rhythm. “Still” is actually one of my favorite albums, period. As such, I have been aching for Reznor to get a real shot at a film score. And his work in THE SOCIAL NETWORK is absolute homerun. While perhaps being rather overt in some sections, it knows exactly how to walk up to the line of not-overwhelming-the-narrative without actually going over. I think everyone can point to the first “facemash” sequence as the part that stands out.

5. But even with all these stalwart aspects, the weight of the film ultimately rests on the shoulders of Jesse Eisenberg.  In some ways he’s the perfect mouthpiece for Sorkin: dry, matter of fact, fast-tongued. But what makes it him so much better than that is that Eisenberg has this wonderful ability to take Zuckerberg’s deeply introverted nature and make it appropriately ranged and functional. The Zuckerberg of the film is a terse young man, someone who constantly just have to frustratingly explain his own (and far more advanced) thought process. The frustration of being that bright makes him an inherently solitary creature. Eisenberg conveys it beautifully. He’s someone who barely wants to waste his words on things that aren’t worthy or interesting. Yes, he sympathizes and emotes with others, but often he’s speaking another language. What is amazing is how Eisenberg imbues that static detachment with a subtle emotional range. He uses the slightest change in inflection to show guilt (think of his hollow first attempt at apology to Erika in the opening scene), or to show enamor (his quiet delight when cool kid Sean Parker seconds his opinions).  It is not only a joy to watch, but I can’t wait to watch the performance a second time. It’s the work of the year so far.

6. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that every other actor in the film is a delight. Andrew Garfield plays his partner Eduardo as that guy who is at once the voice of reason and yet out of his league.  It’s heartbreaking and the emotional arc of the movie depends on his ability to be wounded and weary. Thankfully he nails it. Joseph Mazello continues his foray into older roles (check out his work in The Pacific) and he is a subtle joy in this film as the “I’m lucky to be here” guy. The biggest surprise is undoubtedly Justin Timberlake. What at first seems like obtuse casting is ultimately perfect; Sean Parker is the celebrity of their programming world and their revering of him completely works with Timberlake’s celebrity status. Beyond that, Timberlake really does play the role with such a great mix of nerdy-but-earned bravado, fear, and deeply rooted insecurity. I loved him and honestly believe this will change his career.   I also think it’s safe to say that the Winklevoss Twins are going to be a lot of people’s favorite part of the movie. They are hilarious, both intentionally and unintentionally. As for the interest in the actors who play them, I won’t necessarily spoil it, but let’s just say that Armie Hammer has big things in his future. Lastly, I have to mention Rooney Mara’s brief portrayal of Erika, which works as a convincing lynch pin of the film.

So…

THE SOCIAL NETWORK is not a flawless film. It runs out of steam before sweeping in with a poignant stopping point, but it never outright collapses either.

What really is important about the film is how it really manages to define a decade that has seen it’s society flock to the internet and recreate an idealized social representation of their own life.  It never goes into any of this as outright discussion of course. But it’s all there. It’s in details and moments that we extrapolate into a bigger meaning about why people drive to go on the internet. We look at Zuckerberg’s long, lonesome walks on the wintery campus. His dissatisfied contempt of social structures and people who “have it easy.” His belief in his own ability. His concern for what is right over what is kind (Okay, fuck being kind, he’s more concerned with being right than not being a total asshole). His jealousy of friends. His secrecy and duplicity. His desire to show who are and what we want right on our sleeves. To penetrate the difficulties of real society. These are all things we all deal with, but admittedly it is the plight of some more than others. The internet makes it easier to both engage and retreat. For the tepid person in all of us it is a revelation. One that will inexorably change us forever. But we can never forget that it has also made even the nicest of us be callous jerks (ahem.. i may have once right a feature about 5 people I’d like to punch). We iunwittingly become like Zuckerman just as he has unwittingly became the voice of the internet.

We are all Zuckerman.

And we are legion.

Endnote.

* Old timey movies are written like this, but I tend to be more accepting. In fact I often love sharp, unrealistic dialogue. The key is just to have characters who don’t seem to be aware they’re engaging in witty reparte. It’s what makes the first Ocean’s movie work. It’s what makes Sorkin’s CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR work. And it’s what makes THE SOCIAL NETWORK work.

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Like: TREME Episode 3 “Right Place, Wrong Time” … and the effects Malcolm Gladwell framework from “The Tipping Point”

April 28, 2010

On the plane to New Orleans this past week I finally got around to reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” I’ve been meaning to read it for years and so when I saw the paperback in the airport bookstore I bought it as an impulse purchase. This moment I consider to be a bit serendipitous.  It ended up providing a fascinating sociological framework with which to approach my visit to N’awlins.  For those who haven’t read it (like me, last week) the basic conceit of the book is that little, seemingly trivial details can push huge trends and epidemics in the community wildly in one direction or another.  Of course it’s a lot more nuanced than that, but this specifically applies to the idea that context and environments play a huge role in terms of our actual behaviors, far more than we previously believed. One example he explores in great detail is the dramatic turnaround of crime prevention in New York City largely being a matter of physically cleaning up trash and graffiti on the subway. The idea: an environment that accepts simple lawlessness and petty crimes will therefore accept/encourage harsher crimes. So they changed the physical environment and crime plummeted. Context rules.

But what about more specific community traits? For example, Fist-Fighting in Boston is a largely tolerated cultural; two knuckleheads would beat each other up, the cops would show up and ask who started it, and then they’d go to the can for a night and be released. No one would sue anyone else. This happened all the time. The first thing I noticed when I moved to Los Angeles is “where are all the dudes fighting each other in front of bars?” There weren’t any. And if they did, someone for sure was getting sued. Same laws. Same country. It’s just that one place is more culturally tolerant of a behavior and the other is not. But Los Angeles is a city five times the size of Boston and bars are everywhere, so how does this happen? Maybe it’s the kind of people who live here. Maybe it’s the nice weather putting everyone in a better mood. Maybe it’s because people are wearing less clothes. Maybe it’s because people are afraid that the other person is gang affiliated or something and maybe carrying a gun (the violence situation south of the 10, and east of the 5 is far different after all). Either way, I’ve seen hundreds of fist fights in four years in Boston and none in five years in Los Angeles. The difference is the environment, and therefore the context. And context rules.

So what if the difference is about positive behavior? What if a city had a context of joy and indomitable spirit? Would the context of that that spirit really hold sway over the city’s constituents? Over the tourists? Can the overwhelming joy and kindness of a city be as contagious as Gladwell argues? My conclusion was yes. After all, context rules.

By the way, that city is New Orleans. I spent the last four days there and, prompted by the Gladwell read, I spent the entire time being fascinated by the context/environment. Every single person I met was relentless positive, affable, and engaging. Not just the cab drivers, bartenders, hotel managers and assorted folks whose jobs it was to be cheerful and welcoming. And not just the citizens of New Orleans, who always seemed to manage to say a friendly hello as they walked to work, or strike up a conversation as they stood in the doorways to beat the sweltering sun. But what contagiousness argues for best, is to look at your fellow visitors. What mood do the Tourists and the Party Folks take upon their visit? By all accounts, they were likewise celebratory, kind, affectionate. People who you couldn’t imagine dancing on the street would do just that. One wonders how so much (relative) good behavior happens with so much alcohol involved, but it’s a function of the environment. People are there to drink, enjoy music, and have a great time. It’s a kind of debauchery that lacks the animosity that seems to characterize much youthful partying these days (think woodstock 99, etc).  Especially after the storm, where it seems the desire to embrace and reignite the things that make New Orleans special have become priority #1. The environment is now one of healing and pride. And it’s frickin’ contagious.

After all, Context Rules.

So upon arriving home, I watched TREME episode 3, with a sense of… is there a word for “immediate nostalgia?” So as far as cinematics goes, here’s the good and the bad…

Good:

-Wendell Pierce plays the best drunk ever. This is inarguable.

-The episode struck me as funnier than the previous two.

-Khandi Alexander is poised to win some serious awards. Maybe? She’s putting on a clinic.

-I remembered that John Goodman can do subtlety. We’re always wrapped up in his usual gravitas and Walter Sobcheckian-yelling that we forget just how acute he can be too. The scene on the porch between him and Zahn is priceless, “Just piano lessons.”

-Melissa Leo, high marks all around. She’s perfectly cast.

-Zahn. Not as manic as the first episode. A bit more manic then the second. But still finding balance and had some real nice moments. Even his doucheyness is starting to be charming, which seems to be the point. He mostly works as a great foil for Kim Dickens.

Bad:

-Meanwhile, Sonny is the douchiest douche in douchetown. How are we supposed to feel about him again? Are we supposed to like this guy? Because he’s giving hipsters and even badder name. Drinking his girlfriend’s birthday present because she got a surprise big-deal-gig and just happened to be busy for a little bit? And Sonny got to go to the gig too?! What is he, fucking five? Shut up Sonny you whiny little brat. For the record, I find most complaints of hipsterism and/or emo to be inane, simplistic, and often just plain irrelevant, but dear lord Sonny. Come on man. You’re actually justifying all of those diminutions. And yet, because this is David Simon, I will wait patiently. Maybe we’re suppose to hate this douchebag in the long run. My guess though is that his seemingly pretentious stories of saving people in his boat (the ones that people can’t seem corroborate) will actually end up being true. And really he’s just working out his shit or some other backstory. I dunno.

-His girlfriend Annie is far more tolerable, except she makes a face when playing fiddle that looks like she’s passing stones.

-There’s a fine line in film/tv between something that feels real and something that feels forced. This seems obvious, but authenticity is such a rarity in entertainment that we’ve learned to embrace the ridiculous as an alternative. Meanwhile, Simon’s shows (Homicide, The Corner, The Wire) have built a reputation on being authentic above all else. So in regards to the scene in episode 3 where the cops suddenly go ape-shit on Antoine for, like, no reason… well, it immediately set off my bullshit detector. Which is odd, because I’ve seen that exact same kind of horror go down in real life multiple times. But if it is something that’s painfully real, what’s the problem? The problem is the “how” of course. Since DO THE RIGHT THING(1), we’ve seen the no-reason-police-beating many, many times in our cinematic experience, and many of these immitations are often done for contrived/imitative/knee-jerk reasons. Unfortunately, we can’t help but bring all those negative connotations with it. This scene in episode 3, however, builds up beautifully; Antoine drunkenly sings with Annie and Sonny as the police car slides carefully into the backround. They finish their song. He starts to drunkenly walk forward. You slowly feel it coming. It’s perfect film-making. Then the second his horn taps the cop car, the police are instantly on top of him and within a second are beating the shit out of him, spewing the kind of dialogue we see in “evil cop” movies. Even the style of the scene changes, as it ultra-edited and with multiple angles to accentuate the violence.(2) You sense the filmmakers wanted to show how quickly things can turn and how impacting real police violence can be, but in doing so they’ve created a scene that achieves in the exact antithesis of what it was achieving when it started. In this culture of stylistic violence you need to be doubly careful. Even the shaky cam has a action-movie connotation now. You need the same kind of unblinking de-stylization that made the action of The Wire so heartbreaking.

Anywho it’s just something to look out for in future episodes, as it’s the crux of what makes a David Simon show work.

And I swear I’m going to have have another “It’s not just who but when” post up this week, it’s almost done.

(1) – It goes back further of course, but the scene of Radio Raheem remains the last major touchstone for a lot of us.

(2) – In comparison to the normal Simon standards, not, like, Michael Bay.


Like: TREME, Episode 2: “Meet Da Boys on the Battlefront”… and the luxury of semantics.

April 20, 2010

So the second episode of TREME was even better than the first.

Let’s tackle this numerically:

1. This tends to happen in David Simon shows as the first episode usually is saddled with the task of introducing a bevy of characters and plotlines. Now that we have some idea as to the nature of our characters, the show can proceed. Typically one would say “go” instead of proceed, but that implies some sort of action-y 24-like pacing, which could not be more inappropriate for TREME. David Simon shows sort of just “happen” in front of your eyes, as if we were just lucky enough to witness the events of real life.(1) Their pace could be considered languid by today’s standards, but I’d argue “deliberate” is better choice of words.

2. This is due to the exquisite care in the storytelling. Nothing is haphazard here. The slightest indulgence is often worth it; usually in the form of a stirring sample of jazz or blues.

3. I love the direction of the prisoner aftermath plot-line. It was the most compelling part of the pilot and the brief parts we got in the second episode were great as well (Slim Charles sighting!)

4. They toned down the Steve Zahn character in a major way. His abrasiveness is largely absent in this go round and we were treated to the better side of his deadpan acting sensibility. His work was my biggest complaint with a performance in the first episode and this was a complete 180, while still somehow being true to the original characterization.

5. They’ve seemingly shifted much the douchey-white-guy quotient that Zahn had in the pilot onto the new hipstery muscian guy named “Sonny.” It was a smart move, as it allowed us to get closer to Zahn’s character while still maintaining the nice racial meta-commentary concerning the white characters of TREME (being that-they-are-well-intentioned-but-ultimately-having-the-kind-of-low-stakes-that-let-you-talk-about-problems-of-the-system-at-large-instead-of-actually-dealing-with-them). Which brings me to:

Blog Post Thesis: I think TREME might partially be about what I’ll call “The Luxury of Semantics.” I’ve already referenced the fact that only characters who seem to be issuing impassioned (and somewhat cliched) rhetoric about Katrina/N.O. wheter it be: the failure of the government’s response, the injustice of the storm in general, and the amazing perseverance of the culture, all tend to be white people that were relatively unaffected or affected merely as a matter of choice. As such, these characters can afford the luxury of talking about hardship in the abstract. Now, this does not render their points any less accurate or diminish the validity of their care, just to say that it is inherently distant. Conversely all those who truly lost the most in Katrina, most of whom belong to the African-American population of the city, don’t seem to be too quick to sue the federal government or blame much of anyone. They’re too busy “doing” for a lack of a better word, usually physically rebuilding their house or business. The difference is clearly intentional. But like all things great, Simon is not dealing in black and white, even on the literal subject of black and white. Many problems with the physical reconstruction stem from the fact that theft has become commonplace. And Simon himself is a master analyzer of semantics (part of what makes him a great writer), so this pointed criticism is just as much self-directed; he even acknowledges frequently how much of an “admiring outsider” of New Orleans he is even though his affiliation with the city goes back decades. The criticism is likewise directed at someone like me, a young white male 2000 miles from the storm, exhibiting all the misplaced compassion I can muster. So yes, indulging yourself in the luxury of semantics is inherently inane(2), but it’s valuable tool in developing an idea of what exactly you want to commit yourself when it comes to the whole “doing” part of the equation. There are varying degrees of “usefulness”, but TREME is ultimately a show about responding to crisis, not in the “of the moment” heroic sense, but the long term nature of resolve.

And quite frankly, how far apart can we really be when there’s so much wonderful music to enjoy?

1- Take the amazing cinematography for THE WIRE, which was beautiful but lacked any kind of kinetic movement or omniscience. Simon once said something like [we never wanted the camera to be smarter than any of the characters in the scene]. It’s a perfect way of describing how the camera behaved in that show.

2 – Heck, I’ve printed hundreds of thousands of words in this blog on the basic matter of nonsense semantics. Mission accomplished!


Love: Treme

April 13, 2010

“Won’t Bow. Don’t Know How.”

On the suface, we understand the meaning immediately. It is an unrelenting decree. A manta for city defined by an impassioned will to continue, despite having a litany of reasons to simply stop.

It is not just a tag-line. The words are uttered by Albert Lambreaux (played by the magnificent Clarke Peters A.K.A. Lester Freeman from THE WIRE) as he stands fully clad in his Mardie Gras Chief outfit: decadent, impeccable, absurd. No, Albert is not marching in Mardi Gras, but instead arriving at the door of a friend three months after the day their city drowned. This friend happens to a hauling business, and Albert dances and chants in his magnificent get up asking proudly if this friend will help clear the debris of a bar down the way. Albert’s reason is not practical; he needs a place to practice his Indian Chief routine in anticipation of the next Mardi Gras. His home has been destroyed and there is nowhere else to do so but his old abandoned stomping grounds. The debris just needs to be moved…  The friend has no reason to help. He’d spend that time earning desperately needed money clearing  for FEMA and more significantly, he swears his oath to another Mardi Gras chief.  It would seem to be a sacrilegious act.

Albert: “Won’t Bow. Don’t Know How.”

And with that, the friend consents. After all, these aren’t ordinary times in New Orleans.

This is TREME (and writing in general) at it’s best. It’s a scene steeped in a culture we barely know, but we are made familiar by a sense of osmosis. And yet those familiar with the culture can assure the authenticity: It’s researched. It’s cerebral. It’s cinematic. It’s deeply affecting. Better yet it is wholly analogous to the thematic mission statement of the show. It’s this kind of multi-dynamic that allows moments in TREME to soar. One might counter that there are a few weird moments in the show where we are treated to somewhat banal, cliche-ridden speeches on the unrelenting spirit of the people of New Orleans, but slyly these speeches are often come from the white upper class folks of the city. They love their city dearly all teh same, but simply lack the “real stakes” of devastation.  The kind of poor where you don’t have time to give two shits about semantics. So it’s reasonably understandable when the upper class falls back on these basic platitudes of decency and hardship: it’s in their nature and comes from a place of love. And it’s the kind of observation of meta-semantics that reminds you that you’re in the hands of a writing genius.

And David Simon is most certainly that. Fresh off of his run on the greatest show of all time, THE WIRE, one could say there are certain expectations. Being held in such high esteem could be daunting for some show runners, but David is could not seem to to care whatsoever about expectations. It’s actually that very disinterest which allows the politics of being “the show after” to handle itself nicely. TREME is not THE WIRE, nor is it ever really trying to be. It’s a bit more of an emotional piece. More about tone and character; less about systemic realities and institutions (though there certainly is shades of that). If we’re going to use a metaphor, imagine THE WIRE as an intricate diagram connecting you with human stories in the mire of institutional hell, while TREME instead tries to paint a portrait of personal stories in what might be a physical hell of post-katrina New Orleans. I’ve seen a few folks throwing around Altman comparisons (specifically NASHVILLE) and they are rather apt. But as is Simon’s nature, this is largely based on observation and documentation: an attempt to be honest about New Orleans. About music. About food. About class. About wealth. And about responsibility. And if we’re going to get all technical, this isn’t really Simon’s 2nd act to THE WIRE. That was already the astounding GENERATION KILL, though one might imply that since it was a mini-series it doesn’t count. But none the less we need to come to grips with what it is.

So do Mardi Gras Indians really matter that much? Truth be told, I only knew vaguely what they ever were before the premiere of “TREME” and certainly didn’t know what they were about. A little vague reading on the show beforehand lead to a little more reading, and to answer the question, yes they are important. They are superfluous. Their origins are obscured in hearsay. Their known history is mired in ugly racial tensions and perhaps criminal activity. Yet their real value is in the currency of deep cultural symbolism. They are now universally adored presences during the celebration, but their real lives are often secretive. No one has any real authority over them and each group,  referred to in TREME colloquially as “gangs,” works with a different chief perhaps helping with the amazingly decorative outfits and planning the rigorous planned performances. How does something so, again, superfluous gain such adoration? Because that’s the nature of these things. Silly traditions are often the most beloved because there’s no real reason to dislike them. The ugly side of tradition is often done away with in the name of pleasantries. And New Orleans has indeed had an ugly history. Places don’t become melting pots in the nicest of circumstances (Scorsese tried to tackle that less than flattering history in GANGS OF NEW YORK), but when a place has a strong sense of identity and pride those things can often melt away in the name of something better, usually something fun.

But Mardi Gras Indians are important enough to turn down FEMA dollars. This so much we learn.

“Do You Know What It Means?”

That is the title of the pilot and I can think of none more appropriate. Do you know about Treme (pronouced Truh-MAY), the neighborhood and titular inspiration for the show? Do you know about the Mardi Gras Indians? Do you know about beignets, and… Do you know? One gets the feeling that someone with thin skin would quickly counter that all this “do you know?” is nothing more than hipster bullshit. “I know about the real New Orleans. I got the cred,” and such and such. No. That could not be a more inane interpretation.

“Do You Know What It Means?” is really an invitation. We’re being asked if we would like to come along and discover what it all means. Simon’s loved the city for decades and acknowledges that it is become a part of him. He invited friends and natives of the city to help him create the show and share what “makes New Orleans” with people who may not know; to share it with us. It won’t be in an authoritarian way. They won’t beat you over the head with it. They won’t spoon-feed you. TREME opens with title card simply saying “New Orleans, Louisiana” and then “Three Months After” as even mentioning the subject of Katrina isn’t necessary. It’s redundant. We’re using a shorthand, but it’s a familiar one. It’s just another way of inviting from the very beginning. It’s always an invitation with David Simon. That’s why I will watch everything he ever does.

I may have never seen the Mardi Gras Indians, but I’ve seen New Orleans. I visited just a few months before Katrina struck and it was the highlight of my extended trip across the country. Beautiful. Honest. Gothic. Vibrant. Inspired. Food to die for and that’s from someone who probably loves food more than anything. And good god the music really is everywhere you look. I come from more of a blues background (my older brother is obsessed and I spent my entire childhood watching him develop into a rather good blue guitarist), but the roots of blue are everywhere too. I’ve been to hundreds of cities on this planet across four continents and even after a brief trip to New Orleans I can tell you with strict confidence that there is no other city I’ve seen with such a singular identity. It is the literal uncanny.

So when I watched on TV as an American City was sunk underwater, I knew we were on the verge of losing something much greater than some realized; something I barely had a taste of, but seemed know instinctively. I watched a days worth of horrible news footage when everything was still hazy; they were reporting on the horrible things perhaps occurring in the Superdome, not to mention the indignation of lacking government aid was so outrageous and the efforts put forth so nonsensical, that even Fox News Reporters were actively gnawing their teeth at the Bush administration. It was gut-churning in a way that was aesthetically different from say the complete and total shock of 9-11. It wore on me, but if you ask those around me I’m not the emotional type.  I tend to analyze rather than emote (e.g. 1500 words and counting on a single tv episode), but it really wore on me: the sight of a city destroyed. I took a car ride. It was a hot summers day in los angeles with golden sunshine and seemingly no reason to think about something over 2,000 miles away. At one point a black SUV pulled in front of me. I was looking down so I noticed the license plate first: “Louisiana.” Above it on the window, which had been covered in a fine layer of pollen, soot, someone had used their index finger to write just five simple words:

“Please God Help Our N’Awlins”

And right then I lost it. I cried in the kind of violent, uncontrollable fit that I hadn’t done since I was 7 years old. I’ve cried in movies, sure, but usually just a little eye watering. Nothing even close this. There were times I didn’t cry in moments of genuine personal tragedy. Thus I barely understood it. It was surreal. It was atypical. I sat there in traffic bawling for a minute and then finally got a hold of myself. I spent the ensuing months following it closely. A year went by and progress was still nowhere near where it deserved to be. It served as a critical humane juncture in the Bush Administration as his previous best quality was that he was thought to be “rescue/crisis handler” type of president, and his teams handling of New Orleans stands as one of the great monumental failures of American Government post WW2. Spike Lee handled much of it beautifully in his documentary “When The Levees Broke.” Today, all reports seem to indicate that things have taken a turn in the right direction. The uptick in tourism. The economy rebounding (though the economic crash was yet another roadblock for them). Even The Saints magnificent resurgence and eventual Superbowl run. In two weeks, I’ll find just how different it really is in varying degrees myself when I return to visit with some old friends. I can’t wait. We’re getting a chance to go jazz fest too. Yes, it’s the corporatization/bastardization of something normally so humble (something being the New Orleans jazz scene), but there are going to be A LOT of great acts all out and about around town. By all accounts it is definitely one of THE times to be there. It’s going to be wonderful.

So what does all of this have to do with the pilot again? What’s all this have to do with showing the country all the hardships in New Orleans “3 months after”?

We almost lost one of the best cities in the world. Maybe all that TREME is asking is do you really know what that means?


Don’t Like: Dealing With A Nuance In Beauracracy

October 23, 2009

There’s nothing more banal that complaining about bureaucracy. I admit this. It’s like a stand-up comedian bitching about lines at the DMV. It’s nothing but maturbatory self-aggrandizing. But lately I’ve been once again thrust into my yearly scenario of having to explain to justify to other human beings that my car is fully operational, clean-running, and fit for driving.

First off, I say this not, but because my car is a piece of crap that doesn’t pass the eyeball test. It totally does.  You would never think there’s a problem with it. It’s 1999 toyota camry that’s clean, runs great, and is excellent condition. On top of that it meets all the standards of Los Angeles emissions tests.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that the 1999 toyota camry has a well-documented problem of the check engine light coming on and reporting an “ERG” flow problem… only there is no problem, everything is in perfect working order. It took my mother and her mechanic back home a whole year to figure this out. They diagnosed the problem and she promptly searched the internet and discovered that many others have had the same problem. So she would take it to her mechanic at her convenience when the light would come on, he would check to be sure that that was the problem, and then shut the light off. It was great.

I have since bought the car from her and been using it here in Los Angeles. Thankfullly, I was hyper-aware of this problem already. So the time came where I had to take it to a shop for it’s due maintenence and repair and was not only promptly told I had an ERG flow problem, but that the car was undrivable without it being fixed. A massive discussion took place. The person was convinced there was an actual problem and I documented my case against it. He was positive that it wasn’t and gave me a whole list of reasons why I needed a set of repairs to A, B, C, and D. I took it to three other mechanics and they all said the same thing.

So I got the ERG flow system replaced for 1000 dollars. The day after the work was completed the light came back on. And yes, of coures the ERG flow was in the indicated problem. “Well that’s weird! Must be this other problem.” was his response. I typically do not yell. I can’t remember ever yelling at a service person before. There is just no need and there wasn’t even a need for it then. But here I yelled. I was angry because everyone refused to listen to me. I’m not a mechanic and I’m not a nave when it comes to cars either. Unfortunately the mechanic shop was part of a big chain and my feeble attempts to take them to small claims court was met with upstanding resistence, and would probably result with even more money out of my pocket. So why bother? I drove my car and the check engine light would come on and i’d routinely get it checked for any other problems, and refused service when someone said my ERG flow needed to be fixed.

So all of this came to back to rear it’s ugly head today, when I went to get my smog test so I could renew the registry on my vehicle. The man said he could not approve my vehicle because my check engine light was on. Now, I’m already at a disadvantage because it was my last day of registration and I had my appointment at a DMV in 15 minutes.

Which is my fault right? I waited too long. They’re not responsible. Well no matter how many times over the last four years I’ve told them to correct my address, no matter the fact that I had called 6 times in the last five weeks to get my registration sent to me at the correct address, they have continually failed to update the address and send me my information.  Why does this matter so much? Because the registration notice includes your “renewal ID Number” which is the only way you can renew your car without missing work and going to a DMV in person. And missing work is a last possible option for me. That’s right, you can’t call and obtain your number, you can’t email, you need it snail mailed for some absolute nonsense reason. So after 5 weeks of pleading with the DMV, I was out of options and scheduled the first possible appointment which would only make me a little late to work and that happened to be the last day of my registry.

Which brings us back to me getting the required smog test, which I didn’t realize was required of me. I thought it was every two years, but it’s every two years within renewel, which means my year and 1 month status counts as 2 years for the registration renewel purposes. But did you know that if it’s outside the 2 year window with a renewal purpose it’s technically expired? (Meaning if you get your smog test a few months before your renewal, you still need to get one in the last few months of the next two year window for it to be considered a legally drivable vehicle). Most people don’t know that and I don’t blame them because you know it’s the literal definiton of a double standard. FUN STUFF.

So I explain all of this and the smog test guy is nice and helpful and gives me a number of a “Refugee Service” that can vouch for a car that has a problem like mine. I leave and call to cancel my dmv appointment, then call the service once I’m at (and late) to work. they say “sorry we can’t serve you without a failed smog test notice.”

“But the guy recommended me to your service and wrote down the number?”

“We need a failed notice to go forward.”

“But that will cost me lots of money to get a test I know is going to be failed anyway and then you’ll charge me for the same smog check service?”

“Sorry it’s policy.”

Fine.  I’ll have to go back to the guy and pay for a failed smog test. I then go onto explain the problem to the Refugee service and she says, even with all my documentation: “This car isn’t on our list of cars. This will probably very hard to prove. You should probably just get it fixed.”

“But it doesn’t need to be fixed. That’s not how it works, I just explained it y-”

“If it’s not on the list you have a battle ahead of you. You should try to get it fixed.”

“Yeah. But even if I fix it, that won’t help. The light will still be on.”

“But that’s not my problem.”

“WHAT? That’s the definition of your problem, that’s what you guys do right?!?! You help people who have nonsense problems with their cars get passed the too rigid laws that don’t account for problems exactly like this one.”

“Yeah, but we’ve never seen this problem before.”

“But thousands of others have. I can show you. Wouldn’t I just be your first for this particular company then? I mean hasn’t this happened before? This doesn’t even make sense.”

“Um… [long silence except for the sound of gum chewing].”

“I’m going to look for another refugee service.”

“We’re the only approved ones in california”

“Well then let me come in to talk to your supervisor.”

“Just get that failed test notice first.”

I hang up. The girl was actually nice sounding, but just didn’t get what was going on. It’s that simple.

Look, we all know dealing with a bureaucracy is a pain in the butt. So what? everyone has to do deal with. And everyone’s situation is unique to them and everyone has a specific problem. But dealing with a nuance like this is just death. What do you do? How do you convince people to help you? Everyone thinks I’m trying to pull one over on them. I feel like that scientist in that annoying blockbuster than knows the truth and everyone thinks he’s crazy. Bureaucracies are a big old fact of life and they’re annoying, but when you have a black and white case they still work. Which is what they’re supposed to do. And that’s still something.

But the second you get into any gray area, that’s where it gets complicated. They’re designed not to deal with gray areas. They’re meant to make it simple for them. To refuse. To make it black and white. And that’s not how life works. I have a situation of inherent nuance. And they’d rather I not.

So all I have to say is this, does anyone know a mechanic who would be willing to shut of my check engine light, for a nonsense reading, and pass me for a smog test?

Probably not.