Now I’ve finished “Homicide” and the “The Wire” and have begun “Treme,” which is pronounced Tree-May. It includes some of the actors from “The Wire”, Melissa Leo from “Homicide” and John Goodman because he lives in New Orleans and this is a movie about New Orleans -- more specifically about New Orleans music (this generation thinks with music more easily than with words) which is framed (loosely) with the Katrina disaster: the storm, the failures of the engineering, and the failures of the people. At least three plots wind along, in and out, like a parade in the street.
The central concept is the performance societies called “Indians” which have little to do with Indians and much to do with community that is so committed to its members that they speak of their songs as “sacred.” The model is what they think of as Native American tribes, but under that -- barely consciously -- are African tribes. The main plot line is that Clarke Peters is a “Big Chief” of one of these societies which dress up in outfits more extraordinary than real Native American competitive fancy dancing contestants and dance as a group during Mardi Gras. What makes this portrait of a Chief both possible and remarkable is that Peters, who was a revered character on “The Wire,” is actually and truly a stage song-and-dance man with moves like a leopard. His fight to gather and renew his “tribe” is the counterpoint to government empty talk.
Interrupting my “Treme” disc delivery was a movie I had ordered almost a year ago when I was watching a lot of Indies. It’s Derek Jarman’s “The Tempest”. Jarman is GBLT, unlike the “het” but edgy New Orleans mainstream, but that is no kind of indicator of his unique work. It’s just that his fantastical and visionary view of the world is totally unlike the gritty reality of the "Treme" crew. "The Tempest”, if you’ve forgotten, involves a terrible sea storm that lands a ship on an isolated island where a magician is surviving with his daughter and two spirits. In this version Ariel is a slender man in a white jumpsuit, white face makeup and white gloves like an art gallery curator. Caliban is a Beckett character as interpreted by Charles Adams. Miranda, the daughter, has a hairdo that is a cross between dreadlocks and dew drops, with jewels hanging from the tips of corkscrews of hair. She’s like a child who’s gotten into the dress-ups box. Prospero, the magician, is not so extraordinary, simply bushy-headed.
The cast and crew, with typical dedication, camped out in a huge Paladian ruined abbey with tall doors and massive fireplaces. “For exteriors, [Jarman] chose Bamburgh Castle, which for centuries has towered over the Northumberland Sea, rising above the barren sand flats in aloof splendor. Interiors were shot at the labyrinthine Stoneleigh Abbey, near Coventry, Warwickshire in England. It is a rambling, fire-gutted Paladian mansion with corridors which seem to stretch to infinity, and rooms opening out of rooms like Chinese puzzle boxes.” (http://jclarkmedia.com/jarman/jarman03tempest.html) Everything indoors is gilt furniture with threadbare upholstery, piles of straw, and crystal chandeliers -- that mix of decayed luxury that strikes us as so romantic. The choices throughout seem aimed at portraying England as a failing nation. (This was filmed in 1979.)
The first episode of “Treme” ends with outdoor darkness. Something almost science fiction emerges from the night, unfolding into an extraordinary explosion of yellow maribou and rhinestones inhabited more than worn by Clarke Peters in his role as a “Chief.” Stately, startling, absolutely controlled, this vision barely gives us time to realize who he is before he speaks his piece to a member of the group reluctant to re-enter that Mardi Gras world, given the destruction and despair of Katrina, such a terrifying storm. He is persuasive. Then he fades back into the dark, as though returning to another planet.
So how does the movie “Tempest ” -- also about a storm connected to a criminal government (murderous kings) -- end? It breaks open to become a stage show! This time the black performer is a woman in an extraordinary yellow costume, Elizabeth Welch (she posted this to YouTube) sings “Stormy Weather” backed by a chorus line of sailors from the stranded ship who are all young, handsome and talented. She looks enough like Clarke Peters to be his sister. The grand and forgiving larger world is evoked as harmony is restored.
The smashed, fungal remnants of New Orleans illustrate the incompetence and corruption (once again) of our formally civilized world, which can only be redeemed by determination, organic connections of family and friends, and a strong sense of justice. The nudity that shocked some in “Tempest” is taken-for-granted in “Treme.” The innocent daughter figure who provides contrast is now much younger, taking piano lessons, and Prospero is John Goodman, vast and roaring English professor, speaking the speech on YouTube with Falstaffian force but language that is cursing.
Let’s see -- the DJ, Steve Zahn, as Ariel? Or is he Caliban? Depends on your point of view, I guess. We can take this stuff too far. But after the first five episodes I’m not spotting bad guys who are not politicians or lawmen. Clearly bad guys exist and we see the damage they’ve wrought, but they have no faces yet. Instead we’re being educated about a performance culture where parades are meant to be joined instead of watched and funerals are ornate, high-stepping events. Shakespeare would have loved it.
Many, but not all, show biz folks who make money will then risk it to do something close to their hearts. Derek Jarman managed his hat trick by falling back to Super 8 to reduce costs. (How he would have loved video!) Those who are constantly going on about the crash of full-scale culture, the good old days, are not taking into consideration that Jarman managed to stage a respectable Ziegfield Follies number in a ruin. Those who have insisted that sex and explosions are the only way to make a movie are having to admit “Treme,” more of a concert than a cop show, is no less absorbing.
Comparing these two, one a series and one a classic play, was an accident. The common message I get from thinking about them, both the content and the creation, is the human value of a group that works together as repertory, both the actors and the characters they portray. Society, miserable as it can be, is vital, but it is the tribal performance group that is the source of human expression and achievement. This has been true through time on every continent. Consider Mardi Gras!