by Isaac Butler
In my graduate fiction seminar, we talked about beginnings quite a bit. This was, of course, a consequence of studying the short story with its limited real estate and need to make every word count. But it was also because we wanted to examine what promises we made as writers with our first sentence, or paragraph, or page. Often this set of promises gets called the Contract with the Reader, the legal metaphor undergirding that readers and texts make (sometimes unwitting) commitments to each other, and the more careful you are of the agreement you’re hammering out on the text side at the very top, the more permission you can give your writing to do what it wants, even if what it wants is to subvert the very expectations its setting up.
Beginnings make for fascinating study because of this, regardless of medium, particularly when the “text” in question is created by a consummate and intentional craftsman. I think for a moment of Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, which begins:
I first met Perkus Tooth in an office. Not an office where he worked, though I was confused about this at the time. (Which is itself hardly an uncommon situation, for me.)
These three short setnecnes set up the book’s major relationship (between the narrator and Perkus), one of its major themes (confusion/uncertainty) and its dominant tone (comic). The next paragraph is about obscure pop culture (which the book’s central twosome will pursue at all costs), in this case, a film called The City is a Maze, a title which is about as good a summation of Chronic City’s askew New York City as you’re likely to find.
Or, to pull at random from my shelf, Invisible Man which begins with an immediate goading of the reader’s assumptions (“I am an invisible man”) followed by a contradiction of these assumptions involving a sly pun on a slur for the protagonist’s race (“No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of those Hollywood-movie ectoplasms.”).
Here, for a third example, is the opener of Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins:
How could she not feed their daughter?
Little Edie Herzen, age five: not so little. Her mother had noticed this, how could she miss it? Her arms and legs, once peachy and soft, had blossomed into something that surpassed luscious. They were disarmingly solid. A child should be squeezable. She was a cement block of flesh. She breathed too heavy, like someone’s gassy old uncle after a meal. She hated taking the stairs; she begged to be carried up the four flights to their apartment, her mother uchhing, her back, the groceries, a bag of books from the library.
In these first two paragraphs, we get both the origin of Edie’s weight (“how could she not…”) and every other character’s fixation on it, alongside a panicked social anxiety about the difference between “should” and “is.” We also get an introduction to the book’s delightful, very Jewish voice, filled with inverted sentence structures and hilariously anguished rhetorical questions.
Thanks to baby feeding duties, my wife and I have been watching a lot more television and movies of late. Our latest project is the David Simon/Eric Overmyer television show Treme, which has a beginning of remarkable and rigorous contract-setting, particularly when contrasted with Simon’s earlier show, a little best-show-of-all-time you may have heard of called The Wire.
The Wire opens with the susurration of voices, the squawk of radios and a trail of blood on pavement reflecting the swirling lights of parked patrol cars. The camera lingers on the blood, tracking along it, until we cut to a gloved hand bagging shell casings, black kids looking on from a stoop, and a white cop. We’re in the familiar territory of the cop show here, a location confirmed when, twenty seven seconds in, Jimmy McNulty utters his first sentence.
We hear his voice before we see him—audio anticipating video is a favorite technique in Simon’s work—but very soon we see McNulty, sitting on a stoop, talking to a witness. Their conversation is about many things, but mainly it’s about fairness. McNulty laments that the departed’s nickname (Snot Boogie) doesn’t seem fair, since his “mother went to the trouble of Christening him” with a majestic name, to which the witness responds with one of the Wire’s main themes, “life just be that way, I guess.”
There’s a stylistic breaking-in happening here. The characters talk fast, the tone is world-weary, but the language is heightened and elevated, a poetic cadence brought to the argot of Baltimore’s streets. There’s specific slang (“we rolling bones”), but it’s also explained. After our witness explains the murder, McNulty explains it to him again in language the viewer is sure to understand, translating “rolling bones” to “playing craps” etc. For all the talk about the lack of exposition in The Wire, there’s actually exposition all over the place, it just happens fast, is well contextualized, and is usually never repeated.
We also learn all sorts of things about McNulty here. He’s charming. He’s down. Despite his being a white cop talking to a black witness, the witness seems almost relaxed with him. McNulty expertly works the witness, talking around the subject of the murder until it can’t be avoided anymore, letting the guy think he won’t call him as a witness without promising it, handsomely smiling his way into yet another closed case.
This colloquy over the murder ends with McNulty asking the witness why they let Snot Boogie play craps with them if they knew he would always rob them, to which the witness response “Got to. This America, man.” This mixture of political allegory, cynicism and epigrammatic humor is the key to The Wire’s writing style, and sets the stage for much of what will come.
Treme’s pre-credit opener is nothing like this. It opens with two title cards revealing the place (“New Orleans, Louisiana”) and the time (“Three Months After”). But—and this is vital—the title card does not tell you what event we are three months beyond. The answer is obvious (Hurricane Katrina) but it still requires just a little bit of work or the part of your subconscious, and subtly signals that you’re either down for that work or you ain’t.
The beginning of The Wire is all calmly composed, slow shots. Treme is made up of swiftly glimpsed hyper-real fragments. It’s not antic, however. What's remarkable is how confident it is in its fragmentation and montage. We see a mouth wetting a reed, images of preparation and process, feathers, hands grabbing beer, hands smoking cigarettes, hands adjusting horns. Hands dominate over faces, and context is heavily implied instead of revealed. Where are we ? What’s going on? Why is there a police officer there? Why is there an army officer (the first white face amidst all the black hands) there? Who are these people?
This accumulation of little details and pillow shots takes us into the show’s first discernable conversation. Whereas The Wire opens with a conversation about fairness and America involving the show’s protagonist, Treme opens with haggling over money, commerce and music involving characters we rarely ever see again, played by non-actors. Even here, the Hurricane cannot remain unmentioned for long, as one of the men asks another “how much water y’all get up here?” when trying to decide how much money to require for his services.
Those services turn out to be playing in the Rebirth Brass Band for a Second Line, which soon kicks up and gets going to full force. What a Second Line actually is remains unexplained, the show insisting on showing instead of telling over and over again. There’s no newcomer to Treme’s hermetically sealed world, the general device that shows (including The Wire with Prez) use to smuggle exposition in. Instead, the conversations happen between people with shared stories, life experiences and vocabulary who feel no need to explain themselves. What’s a Second Line? Well, it’s this thing you’re watching right now, what else do you need to know?
The show has made you wait over fifty seconds before you hear your first line of dialogue, and two and a half minutes before explicitly revealing what its first scene is even about. This is a lifetime in television, and sends another signal. This isn’t a show about the bang-bang. This is a show you hang out with, relax into, and watch carefully. The opening sequence then lingers for a very long time (again, by TV standards) on the Second Line itself, simply enjoying the music and the people and the show’s unique, specific world. Treme privileges milieu over almost all else at every turn, including in this openers joyous riot of umbrellas, dancing and grilled sausages. It has enough time to spend eight seconds on a man climbing on top of a car to casually dance with exquisite grace.
Treme trusts that these pleasures are enough to maintain interest, so much so that the first episode's near total lack of plot will come to seem a strength instead of a liability over its eighty minute running time. It’s almost four and a half minutes until a recognizable face graces our screen. That face belongs to Wendell Pierce, who (unlike The Wire’s Dominic West) is black. Unlike in most other television, this primarily black world will not be presented by a suitably familiar white ambassador.
Wendell Pierce plays Antoine Batiste, a down on his luck jazz musician, whom we first glimpse charming his way out of a full cab fare and then running to join the Second Line, blowing his trombone every now and then to let people know he’s arrived. We see physically staged the problem that will play itself out over the first few episodes of the first season: Batiste is being left behind. He is too upscale for the neighborhood crews, not prestigious enough to be booked at the big money gigs. He’s worried the Second Line will go on without him, but when he shows up, the other musicians are surprised to see him outside of the “uptown clubs” he regularly inhabits. (Batiste claims to be there representing the much more famous Trombone Shorty, but, as with all things Batiste says, it’s unclear how tall this particular tale is).
Batiste gets the last word of the pre-title sequence, exhorting his fellow musicians to “Play for that money, boys! Play for that mother fucking money!” a line as thematically important to Treme as The Wire’s This America, man.
These opening minutes tell us a lot about the show that is to come. Although stylized, it’s set in the real world, and populated by non-actors and real musicians (the real Trombone Shorty shows up, as do Kermit Ruffins, Dr. John, and Alain Toussaint, amongst others). Whereas The Wire famously stuck to the rule that Character Serves Story, in Treme, story (as television traditionally defines it, anyway), ranks very low on the priority list, after music, world, character and all sorts of other things. Narrative tension is so secondary to the show that one episode’s major plot incident is a character cooking food for an appreciative Tom Colicchio. It’s also a show that you absorb as much as watch, one that requires both careful attention and a relaxed attitude, much like the jazz grooves its characters frequently play.
The Wire tried to use familiar genre trappings and high narrative tension to get viewers invested in its knottier underbelly. Treme instead leans on charm. The music is magical and seductive. Every single major character is charming in one way or another. It’s frequently hilarious with a kind of warmth The Wire eschewed, yet it is just as angry, if not (somehow) even angrier than its predecessor. It also, like its opening sequence, gradually accumulates through seemingly disparate elements that slowly cohere into a grand social narrative about a unique American city clawing its way back to life.