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...]

Swimming in Dysfunction?: McCarren and the Long Perspective on Municipal Pools

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This is the third installment of our Summer 2013 pool series: Part I - A Dive into the Deep End: The Importance of Swimming Pools in Southern California - a cultural history of the pool in Socal (published at KCET Departures) Part II - Waters of Community, Waters of Hostility: The Messy History of Urban America and the Municipal Pool After reopening in summer of 2012 following decades of dormancy, Brooklyn’s Robert Moses era 1937 landmark, McCarren Pool, resumed operations for its second season in late June.  In New York, where media outlets from the New York Times to Curbed NY (writers enjoyed frequently  deploying the term “shit show” to describe it) to New York Magazine eagerly … [Read more...]

Chattanooga: Where Neoliberalism and Creative Commons Meet

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First, the basics: Chattanooga is a city of some 171,000 or so people, situated in the southeast corner of Tennessee, surrounded by the Appalachian mountains.  As a key railroad junction, Chattanooga once prospered through manufacturing and shipping, but the vast political and economic shifts of the late twentieth century took their toll on the city.  Deindustrialization drained the city of people and jobs, with local population only recently reattaining peak 1980 levels. More akin to cities in the ailing Rustbelt of the North and Midwest, the Tennessee metropolis faced an uncertain future in the 1980s and 1990s, while regional neighbors like Charlotte and Nashville boomed through … [Read more...]

Waters of Community, Waters of Hostility: The Messy History of Urban America and the Municipal Pool

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[Editor's Note: Just in time for summer heat waves, this is the first in a series of posts in the upcoming weeks on the swimming pool in American life.  For those interested in cultural history of the backyard pool, check out ToM's RR via @KCETDepartures - "A Dive into the Deep End: The Importance of the Swimming Pool in Southern California"] “Caddy Day,” read the Bushwood Country Club Swimming Pool sign in the 1980 comedy Caddyshack, “Caddies welcome 1:00 – 1:15.”    In the roughly five minute scene, the Bushwood Country Club grudgingly hosts its lowest rung of employee: the caddies.  As the motley crew of lower middle and working class white kids, the group’s ethnic population … [Read more...]

Working Poor in the Creative Economy

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Donald Trump just unveiled an exciting new start-up—a crowdfunding website called “Fund Anything." You can find your own way to the site if you care about such things. The heightened profile of crowdfunding—Amanda Palmer, the Veronica Mars film, and even Iron Sky—probably motivated Trump to dip his toes into this new variant of capitalization.[1] If Trump has a talent, it seems to be sniffing out opportunities to exploit, and the shift to crowdfunding now seems like such an exploitable moment. Whatever draws the ever-listening media to listen to him bloviate, he'll embrace it—lest we forget his all-important announcement about the conditions of the President's birth. But the means by … [Read more...]

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