By Lolis Eric Elie
In making ‘Treme,’ we try to re-examine many of the “givens” of how a television show should look and move. That approach even applies to the opening credit sequence. The city of New Orleans is one of the main characters in the show and the only one of our characters to appear in the opening. Though there are some differences between this and last season’s sequences, they are similar in their ambitions.
“They really are documentaries; they are not traditional main title sequences,” said Karen Thorson, who worked with David Simon and Nina Noble on the openings for both ‘Treme’ and ‘The Wire.’ “A more traditional film title sequence tends to run over the introduction of the story. Ours are more abstract and raw presentations, but still grounded in actual events. We don’t use any images from the show. We haven’t yet anyway. It’s all curated outside from other sources. I don’t know that I’ve seen a main title sequence quite like this before.”
Two themes stick out in this year’s opening: We are trying to show glimpses of what was happening in the period covered in our second season, fall of 2006 to spring of 2007. And we are trying to give viewers a sense of what has been lost in New Orleans culturally as a result of the passage of time in general and as a result of the 2005 failures of the federal levees, in particular.
The black and white footage of an old-time funeral procession is both an example of how these ceremonies looked in days past and a moment of mourning for what has been lost. The black and white footage of second line parades, and even some of the decades-old color footage, reminds us of the way those events used to look. The steps-to-nowhere photo that appears under Chester Kaczenski’s credit was taken by Johanna Raphael and is a reminder both of the raised construction of older New Orleans houses and the devastation in places like Plaquemines Parish where the fierce winds of Hurricane Katrina often left nothing of a house but its steps.
As for events that reflect our second season, we see a scene of public housing residents protesting the closing of the buildings where they lived and a scene of residents trying to return home during a January 4, 2007 protest. Many residents had only started rebuilding their homes by the fall of 2006, when our season starts. The gutted house with the new electrical wires tells much of their story.
“Of course we are still set to the John Boutte piece, ‘Treme Song,’” Thorson said. “I have to give credit to John Chimples, who is credited as the co-designer this year. His contribution was about timing and using the music and bringing the names to life.”
“The music seems to contrast with the gravity of the images. I think that was especially true last year with the additional storm footage that we had in there,” Chimples said. “I really like the tension between the mood of the song and how John sings it, and the strength of the images.”
Moldy walls form the backdrop for much of the sequence for reasons both practical and symbolic.
“The mold imagery became this great opportunity for us in the show because it presents these clear open fields that are perfect for the placement of names,” Thorson said. “No one wanted to put names on the top of the old images. By using the mold photos, you are relieved of any of the overt negative baggage from photos directly related to the hurricane.”
In addition to his role as co-designer, Chimples is one of several still photographers whose work appears in the opening. His photograph of the corner of an old crypt appears behind Alexa L. Fogel’s credit. Lewis Watts took the photograph of the Harrison family in Mardi Gras Indian garb. The casual viewer can’t tell Deborah Luster’s black and white cityscapes are actually crime scene photos of murder sites.
There were several outside sources Thorson used in putting together the opening. Luisa Dantas, whose documentary Land of Opportunity examines the conflicting efforts to rebuild New Orleans, provided scenes of the public housing protests, among others. We also got footage from Richard Barber, whose upcoming film The Whole Gritty City documents the place of marching bands in the New Orleans music scene. Tim Watson, whose company Ariel Montage has helped produce many New Orleans documentaries, contributed footage from the 2007 crime march.
Most of the older archival footage came from the archive of the late Jules Cahn at the Historic New Orleans Collection. Cahn owned Dixie Mill, a machine tool company founded by his father. But what he really enjoyed doing was photographing second line processions and jazz funerals.
“It was his passion. It wasn’t a casual hobby. He was never considered a professional photographer. He was just out there recording,” said Jana Napoli, a New Orleans artist and friend of Cahn.
Ironically, Cahn was tone deaf. But “he could hear the beat,” Napoli said. “He could feel it.”
For years, Jules Cahn’s footage lay at the Collection, virtually unseen by outsiders. Years ago, when I was working with Dawn Logsdon on the documentary Faubourg Treme: the Untold Story of Black New Orleans, we secured a relatively small amount of the Cahn footage, and lamented the fact that more of it hadn’t been digitized.
That situation has improved greatly and, thanks to some new revenue, it will soon get better still. “We have about 24 hours of material that has already been transferred to a format that is readable in our reading room, either on DVD or VHS,” said Daniel Hammer, who is in charge of reader services at the Historic New Orleans Collection’s Williams Research Center. “The amount of material available in the reading room is going up by a lot, in the near future,” Hammer said.