What Does Woodward’s Origins of the New South Have to Say to the Twenty-First Century Reader?

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Less than a decade after C. Vann Woodward’s epic tome, Origins of the New South (1951), had been published, the author was already lamenting the passing of the geographic/political/economic unit he had dedicated his life to studying. In “The Search for Southern Identity,” an article originally published in 1958 in the Virginia Quarterly Review and reprinted in The Burden of Southern History, Woodward explained that every identifiable marker of southern distinctiveness—“the one-horse farmer, one-crop agriculture, one-party politics, the sharecropper, the poll tax, the white primary, the Jim Crow car, the lynching bee”—had been either destroyed or were “on their way towards vanishing.” A … [Read more...]

The Shifting Cultures of Multiracial Boyle Heights

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In a critical scene from the 1997 neo-noir "L.A. Confidential," the ambitious and overzealous Detective Ed Exley (Guy Pierce) escorts rape survivor Inez Soto (Marisol Padilla Sanchez) through the tumult of press coverage upon her discharge from the hospital. Soto's testimony proved vital in convicting four black men of murder at the famous Night Owl diner massacre; a case that led to Exley's promotion and subsequent municipal fame. However, in a brief exchange, Soto reveals that while guilty of sexual assault, the four men never stepped foot in the notorious Night Owl. "I don't know what time they left me, I wanted them dead," she tells Exley in a private moment. "Would anyone care that they … [Read more...]

Reading Piketty at the Grand Budapest Hotel

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Wes Anderson has always had a penchant for the past.  Ever since The Royal Tenenbaums, his movies have increasingly drifted into a historical aesthetic, from the shabby (The Tenenbaums’ vaguely 70s-esque New York) to the quaint (the warm agrarian hues of 1960s New England in Moonrise Kingdom).  Few critics have missed the fact that his newest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, amps up all things Anderson to the extreme.  It is cute, fussily pristine, ornately detailed, and even more deeply wedded to a time and place—a screwball comedy in the made-up European nation of Zubrowka, a seeming nod to Freedonia in the 1933 Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup.  Indeed, Grand Budapest harks back to a … [Read more...]

Working to Play, Playing to Work: Mexican American Baseball and Labor in Southern California

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"I remember traveling to Lake Elsinore, which was a long way in those days," reminisced Zeke Mejia in 1996. "But the only ride we could get was from a friend who hauled fertilizer in his truck, so all the guys crawled inside ... and tried not to breath during the ride. By the time we arrived to play well we all smelled like fertilized fields. We did it because we loved the game." 1 For Mejia and thousands of other Mexican Americans laboring in Southern California during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, baseball served as a means to at once demonstrate belonging in the United States, while simultaneously asserting their own identity. In Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside counties, Mexican … [Read more...]

Home on the California Range: Ranch Housing in Postwar America

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[Editor's note: This is the second of ToM's two part series on vernacular housing. The first, on the Pre-WWII rise of the bungalow can be found here. This article originally ran on December 3, 2013 under the Intersections column for KCET Departures.] "Machines for living," declared modern architecture's most devout practitioners. 1 Indeed, by the 1950s, modernist impulses -- favoring functionality -- and increasingly popular prefabrication techniques, had transformed the home into a commoditized living space. The accoutrements of mid-century suburbia -- new appliances and technologies -- came to define the home as much as the structure itself. The bohemian "Arts and Craft" aesthetic that … [Read more...]

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

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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...]

The Lego Movie and the Gospel of the Creative Class

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Any parent who has ever stepped on one of the wonderful Danish bricks known as Legos might find their faith in karma reaffirmed by The Lego Movie. Indeed, a reasonable observer could not be blamed for doubting that a film adaptation of a toy could be hailed by critics as “the first fantastic movie of 2014,” or as “wickedly smart” with “a joyous wit.”  Yet this is what the Lego company—and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller—have given us as payback for all those hurt feet: a fresh, dizzying, and audacious animated film about interlocking blocks and anonymous minifigurines. Of course, Michael Bay’s Transformers movies gave us plenty of reason to doubt the premise of toy-as-movie, … [Read more...]

Letting Go Never Seemed So Hard: Frances Ha, Blue Jasmine, and Colliding with the Realities of Life

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ToM Best of 2013 Watching people unravel, whether in film or life, can be a shocking experience. In America, we like to see people hit rock bottom, repent, dust themselves off, and climb back to respectability. Such stories offer a clear narrative arc that at this point seems scorched into our serpentine subconscious. In real life, the fall, the brushing of dirt off one's shoulders, and rising again hardly seems so clear. Sometimes you don't even realize you’re falling, or that what you are holding onto—a moment, a person, or relationship—no longer exists.  This past year witnessed two films that documented the fall of two very different, yet very similar women in Frances Ha and Blue … [Read more...]

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

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“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...]

Eyes Wide Shut and the Paranoid Style in American Pop Culture

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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...]

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