David Simon

TV Features David Simon
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A New Orleans documentarian talks to the city’s new storyteller

David Simon is cranky. Not rude, mind you. Not even ungracious. Just spent and exhausted and cranky. For the first few questions, he doesn’t make much eye contact, speaks in a low voice, smiles thinly and gives a de rigeur “Thank you” to compliments. Of course, it’s understandable at the end of a long day spent wrestling another season of his brilliant HBO show Treme out of nothingness.

Simon perks up, though, when the conversation turns to a mutual love of ours—New Orleans. Regardless of its flaws, it’s a place for which our passion is deep and abiding. “It’s a dystopic city,” Simon shrugs. “It’s one of the worst governed, worst managed cities I know of. I’m speaking in American terms right now, not Third World. But it begins to approximate an American Third World in its refusal to fix its own problems, to reform itself, to achieve a certain degree of progress. I’ve been to Detroit and it, in many ways, has ceased to be a city. It’s a post-city, in a weird way. But New Orleans is certainly right up there, especially for a city with the assets it has. It’s extremely poorly run. It’s poorly policed. The school system was a wreck before [Hurricane Katrina]. And yet, people feel an allegiance to this place that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, anywhere else in the country.” He leans back in his chair. “It’s poetic.”

That contradiction has always been part of the draw of New Orleans. It’s a beautiful mess, constantly on the precipice of shocking inhumanity or astounding beauty. Ray Cannata, the subject of my upcoming documentary The Man Who Ate New Orleans, says, “It’s the best picture of heaven on Earth that I know. It’s also the best picture of hell.”

Simon attributes this to the city’s stubborn refusal to change: “It’s part of the city’s problem that it resists change, and it’s part of the city’s glory that it resists change. It’s the same reason they’ve never been able to get rid of the endemic corruption or the really dramatic differences between affluence and poverty that you see here. It’s the same reason they haven’t gotten rid of the Second Line, or the recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation, or families that keep producing generations of musicians. Traditions cut both ways.”

It’s a staggeringly consistent culture, says Simon. “ Seventy-seven percent of the people who were here before the storm were born here. So in as transient a place like 21st century America, where we move and move again, and places are steamrolled and then rebuilt and then steamrolled again, New Orleans stands as this paragon of tradition and ritual and idiosyncrasy that is unrivaled.

“There’s something down here that’s not American,” he adds. “It’s Third World, it’s European, it’s French, it’s Spanish, it’s Caribbean, it’s not American. And yet, it is American. So there’s something fascinating about the city.”

This uniqueness leads to both triumphs and failures greater in magnitude than in other places, argues Simon. “A lot of people here will say, ‘Would you rather have a functional school system or would you rather have Mardi Gras?’ That’s a little simplified, and it’s not a good argument for not having a good school system, but there is something about the fact that all of this ethereal, mythic, party-town logic that drives New Orleans and that motivates people here is a little bit rooted in death. It’s rooted in a place that—going back to its origins—every 30 years they’d have a yellow-fever epidemic that would kill 25 to 40 percent of the population. ‘Just a little while to stay here,’ really means that. There’s something capricious and wonderful and juvenile about the way life is approached here that has to do with death. And so it’s a weird question to ask, but if New Orleans became civically functional, and, even more than that, civically worthy of what a city in an affluent society should be, would it produce its own magic realism any more, or in the same way? I don’t know the answer to that. It’s not a reason not to try to make the school system better, or reform the police department, or a reason to throw up your hands in despair. But I’m just saying there’s something connected to how the city plays and how it doesn’t quite work. The city doesn’t quite work, down here. But boy, does it play.”

New Orleans residents notoriously take this dysfunction and turn it into art. “People in their daily lives have to try to make sense of that if they want to stay here,” Simon says. “It’s tricky. But once it gets in your blood, there’s no place in America like this. It’s what we’re capable of as Americans, in terms of living our lives as living, organic American art. And the greatest American art comes from New Orleans, which is to say African-American music. And a lot of other art comes from here too, but that alone, which has traveled the world and been our great cultural gift to the world, comes from here. And it continues to come from here; it’s not a museum piece. It’s organic.”

New Orleans’ music, of course, permeates Treme—more than a mere soundtrack, it’s the series’ soul. “It’s the only reason to do the show,” Simon says. “Every now and then someone says, ‘I can’t stand when they just stay on the musicians for a minute or two—enough already.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Waiter, there’s soup in my soup.’ It’s a show about musicians! You’re obviously just supposed to be watching something else.”

Just about everything in Treme, and New Orleans itself, is an art form. Especially the cuisine. “Certainly, on a per capita basis, the city is punching way above its weight class in terms of artistic creativity,” says Simon. “Yeah, we regard cuisine as an act of culture, and we regard dance and the Mardi Gras Indian tradition as an act of culture, second line as an act of culture. These things are defining of the city. The city’s only reason for being right now is that culture and, by extension, the tourism that comes from it. There’s no manufacturing base here anymore. It’s not a dot-com friendly environment. There’s a port, but the port facilities could move a hundred miles upstream, away from where the hurricanes hit. Why New Orleans? Does there have to be a city at the mouth of the Mississippi? Yeah, but it could be Baton Rouge. It’s here because of its history. And because people love it. And because it’s worthy of love. It’s a place where magic realism actually happens … usually by civic pratfall.”

Simon’s love for New Orleans inspires him to invite Treme’s viewers to enter into the life of New Orleans. “You know, you can go on the tour of Europe,” Simon says, “where they put you on the tour bus and they stop in front of a church and say, ‘This is the cathedral of Chartres, and it was built on this site in this year,’ and they lay it out for you, and you basically snap a picture and go on to the next thing. There’s that form of tourism. ... Then there’s the kind of trip where you go to these places and actually get off the bus and wander into a bar or a tavern or a bistro and sit in a corner, and sit there long enough to interact with the locals, and to experience life in these places as it actually is. I guarantee you won’t understand everything, particularly if the language is not your language. You won’t get everything when you need it, and you’ll be confused. But the next day you’ll come back and you’ll be a little less confused. And by about the third day certain patterns will start to reveal themselves as far as social interaction. And you stay there a month or two and the place gets in your blood. And now you’re starting to use some of the same vernacular. Maybe you’re even picking up the language. That’s a different form of tourism. And that’s much deeper and much more resonant. So in a way, if I want to make you feel New Orleans, I want to stand you next to New Orleanians and have them be as they are. And I can’t have them be sensitive to the fact that you’re an outsider. They have to talk about outsiders the way they talk about outsiders. They have to be who they are, warts and all. Their anger after the storm has to be there, their sense of entitlement, their passion for their city, their resentment at the way they’re misperceived, all that has to be there. In the same way that Recon marines need to be profane and talk about their officers in The Corps, or drug dealers in Baltimore need to speak honestly. That, to me, is more interesting than something sifted and reconstructed into a story and making an entrance that says, ‘Come on in, we’ll explain everything.’ You do that and pretty soon all the lame tropes of television begin to emerge. ”

Still, Simon is conscious of the limitations of his role as chief storyteller of the post-Katrina years: “[It] doesn’t mean we won’t graft our own narrative simplicities over complicated things, or that we won’t leave out certain people’s sensibility when it comes to post-Katrina events. That’s inevitable. All storytelling is reductive. But at least we’re thinking about these things. And since we have to cheat at points in order to have narrative cohesion, at least we’re thinking about where we’re cheating and where we’re not cheating. That’s important. In fiction, you make things up. But the question is: Are there things we won’t make up? Those are debates we have in the writers’ room. And if you don’t have the debates, or if you don’t even know you’re making stuff up that couldn’t have happened, that’s a problem. You’re stomping on everyone’s sense of what the city went through. And people are pretty passionate about it. All storytellers are interlopers in that way. So at Treme we try to be very conscious of it.”

Michael Dunaway is Paste’s film editor and the director of ‘The Man Who Ate New Orleans.’