People Like Us: Hollywood Looks at Middle America in Nebraska, August: Osage County, and Dallas Buyers Club


Hollywood has always had trouble with “flyover country.”  The movie industry had its roots in New York, particularly Manhattan and Queens, early in the twentieth century, before aspiring auteurs and entrepeneurs set their sights on the lower costs, 365-day sunshine, and lack of organized labor in Southern California.  While states like North Carolina and Georgia have since made significant inroads into the film business through a cunning use of tax incentives, the TV/film/entertainment complex remains rooted in the coastal capitals of New York and Los Angeles. More important than any business strategies or tax incentives, though, has been the cultural domination of Eastern elites and … [Read more...]

Building Nostalgia: Disney, Legoland, and Southern California

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[Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the Intersections column for the KCET Departures website on Nov. 29, 2012] In his review of Disney's  hit movie Wreck it Ralph (2012), New York Times critic A.O. Scott notes that its creators smartly appealed to the power of nostalgia. Based on the 8-bit 1980s video games of now aging Generation X -- Q-Bert, Donkey Kong, and others -- the movie appealed to "the affection parents feel for games that evoke their childhoods." The success of Ralph serves as a reminder of Disney's centrality in American post WWII life, while Disneyland itself has cast a long twentieth century shadow, repeatedly influencing suburban and urban planners as well … [Read more...]

Frank Costanza and the War on Christmas


Bill O’Reilly recently thought he had liberals pinned in their remorseless war on Christmas: the namby-pamby secular humanists who insist on saying “Happy holidays” so as not to offend people of other faiths had no ground to stand on this year. Hanukkah coincided with Thanksgiving in 2013, meaning “There are no other holidays between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year,” O’Reilly snorted.  Thus, there are no grounds to say “Happy Holidays” in December.  There is only one holiday, the mac-daddy of all holidays, the reigning champ—Christmas—and every right-thinking American has to say “Merry Christmas,” or else. Elsewhere on Fox News, Sarah Palin was squawking about how much she loves the … [Read more...]

The Motor City at War: Mobilization, Wartime Housing, and Reshaping Metropolitan Detroit


“New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. But there are other cities. Detroit. Poughkeepsie,” commented former Punk rock queen Patti Smith in recent weeks. “New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: Find a new city."  Today, Detroit usually receives attention for all the wrong reasons: industrial decline, corrupt mayoral administrations, and racial tension to name only a few issues assailing the city.  Add the seemingly ubiquitous spread of ruin porn – photography that tends to capture Detroit as if it were nothing but municipal ruin and squatters – and Detroit’s main attraction seems to be, at the moment, its desperation. Desperate New York of the … [Read more...]

The Discreet Charm of the Gizmosie


For some reason, our piece on Gremlins and the myth of the model minority has caught on in a big way in the last few months.  We first put together the piece nearly two years ago, as ToM sought a suitable candidate for our yearly treatment of some artifact of holiday pop culture.  Gremlins, the much-loved 1984 comedy-horror film, hardly seemed like a Christmas classic on a par with A Christmas Story or Community's delectable stop-motion send-up of Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer, both of which we'd covered in the past.  Indeed, Gremlins seemed more of a piece with the postmodern popcorn hits of the early-to-mid 1980s -- films like The Goonies (1985), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and Back to … [Read more...]

Making Sense of JFK 50 Years Later

JFK sailing

In a previous post earlier this week, I lamented the mediocrity yielded by the manic rush of TV specials, movies, books and blogs about John F. Kennedy and the golden anniversary of his assassination.  Needless to say, the flood waters have continued rising.  Living presidents are in on the act.  At this point, having barely kept my head above water, I find meaning in small things.  Something important about JFK, his assassination, and how we might think about all of that in the aftermath of this anniversary comes to mind in looking at a couple of this week’s nuggets from The New Yorker and The Daily Beast. Though self-referential, “John F. Kennedy in The New Yorker” is worth a read.  It … [Read more...]

Mania and Melancholy in JFK’s Golden Anniversary

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“You’re using this conspiracy theory as an excuse to avoid having sex with me.” Allison to Alvy Singer in Annie Hall If a comic line from Woody Allen’s classic 1977 film is any indication, the waning days of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy will witness mounting sexual frustration.  How can Americans addled with conspiracy theories about the president’s death in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 get any sleep, let alone sex, while their televisions vibrate amidst a broadcast blitzkrieg of anniversary specials – documentaries, made-for-TV movies, “investigations” and nostalgic commemorations?  Of course, not everyone shares Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s … [Read more...]

Only Some May Follow: Southern California, Asian Americans, and Housing during the Cold War

Japanese Internment - Not America's greatest moment

“Years of media abetted conditioning to the possibility of war, invasion, and conquest by waves and waves of fanatic emperor worshiping yellow men,” the late writer Michi Nishiura Weglyn pointed out, “invariably aided by harmless seeming Japanese gardeners and fisherfolk who were really spies and saboteurs in disguise – had invoked latent paranoia as the news from the Pacific in the early weeks of the war brought only reports of cataclysmic Allied defeats.”[1]  Indeed, even before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and internment, the U.S. government questioned the loyalty of its Japanese citizens. The F.B.I. and Naval intelligence had performed exhaustive surveillance of the Japanese minority and … [Read more...]

Eyes Wide Shut and the Paranoid Style in American Pop Culture

eyes wide shut masks

What is it about Stanley Kubrick that makes people crazy? I was truly excited about the release of last year’s film Room 237—as a historian and Kubrick fan, the idea of an hour or two of deep interpretation of the themes and symbolism of his 1980 horror classic The Shining sounded delightful.  It would be like taking a cultural history or film studies class where all the insights of a semester’s discussions were distilled into one megacut. As it turned out, though, the film was more like a documentary about a cult or conspiracy theory, or simply the adherents of a weird fetish or hobby (say, a King of Kong for ersatz anthropologists).  Fairly ludicrous and elaborate inferences about … [Read more...]

Reading Racecraft in Atlanta

asiatic folk

There’s a joke that everyone in New York who’s reading a book in public is just doing it to be seen reading that book.  This is not true in Atlanta, though, because no one here reads.  Part of it may be down to the dearth of public transportation; reading while driving is not an option, unless you want to put your life at even greater risk than you already have by the mere fact of getting behind the wheel in this city (and, of course, there is the matter of texting, as Werner Herzog reminded us). If Atlantans do read, it must be in secret, and most likely the Bible. But I have occasionally cracked a book in a bar in Atlanta, typically when I'm alone in the city and footloose, in the hope … [Read more...]


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