Watching 12 Monkeys in a Post-9/11 World

Chris Marker’s groundbreaking short film La Jetée doubles, incredibly, as one of the most lyrical meditations on two time-honored themes: the end of the world, and time travel.  These tropes have been recycled again and again in film, fiction, and television, of course.  The Terminator is sent back in time to kill young John Connor, with the aim of neutralizing the future Skynet’s foe, the leader of the human resistance; later, the same robot is sent back to save the messianic John and his Mother Mary. Rian Johnson’s Looper features a similar seeing-yourself-die scenario as La Jetee, along with the same kind of lapidary plot. In this way, Marker’s film is almost the ur-text for apocalyptic … [Read more...]

The Other Freestyle: Recovering 80s Latin Dance Music

I was wandering through a street fair off Canal Street a few years ago when I came across a stand selling bootleg CDs of hip-hop, rock, and many other genres.  The discs were mixes, rather than outright copies of already-released albums.  I had, of course, seen both in Manhattan, having picked up a $6 copy of Beck’s Guero on Varick Street and some amazing, educational anthologies of bossa nova and Americana near St. Mark’s Place in years past.  I did not know what I was in for when I visited this vendor, though. One CD was labeled Best of Freestyle.  Though I did not recognize the names – Nice N Wild, Sa Fire, Freeze – I assumed they must be old-school rappers of hip-hop’s golden age, … [Read more...]

The Paperclip and the Chain

Few cartoon characters are more hated than Clippy, the pesky “assistant” who prowled the mean streets of Microsoft Word in the 1990s.  (“You look like you’re writing a letter.” NO I’M NOT FUCK YOU DUDE.)  Clippy is like the Comic Sans of cartoons.  He’s like the primitive ancestor of Siri cross-bred with the Noid. (By the way, I apologize for gender-stereotyping, but I always assumed Clippy was a guy.  Why this is the case—and why iconic portrayals of later digital assistants like Siri or the operating system in the film Her were presented as female—is a subject for rich speculation.) Anyway, even if Clippy no longer haunts our lives, the paperclip remains part of the iconography of … [Read more...]

Black History Month Part IV: Compton as bellwether for urban America

Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance of “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright”, with its #BlackLivesMatter theme and political overtones, struck a chord with many viewers. In a night of standout performances including the Lady Gaga tribute to the late great David Bowie and the John Legend/Demi Lovato led multi-artist homage to the artistry of Lionel Richie, Lamar sent a clear message to viewers in an election year in which the African American electorate – both in the democratic primaries and general election – will exert a pronounced influence on the ultimate result. More so in regard to his second album, good kid, m.A.A.d.city, but to some extent his first, Section 80 as well, Lamar’s own … [Read more...]

Black History Month Part III: Race, Taxes and Schools in Compton, CA

“To be educated in my Baltimore mostly meant always packing an extra number 2 pencil and working quietly,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in his recent work, Between the World and Me. “Educated children walked in single file and on the right side of the hallway, raised their hands to use the lavatory, and carried the lavatory pass when en route. Educated children never offered excuses – certainly not childhood itself. The world had no time for the childhoods of black boys and girls. How could the schools?”[1] Coates’ work, amounts to a long rueful, cautionary love letter to his son, describing his own upbringing in West Baltimore, coming of age at The Mecca (aka Howard University in Washington, … [Read more...]

Privatizing the All Volunteer Army: Gender and Families in the 1990s and Early Aughts

[Editor's note: This is the final installment in ToM's three part series on social welfare policies in the All Volunteer Army using Jennifer Mittelstadt's new book The Rise of the Military Welfare State as our guide. Parts I and II can be read here and here.] In his assessment of post-1945 army housing, the late military historian William C. Baldwin pointed out that programs aimed at increasing housing stock for military households often followed trends in private sector. So when privatization and deregulation emerged as central themes in government run housing programs and elsewhere in the 1990s, the military soon followed. For our purposes and because we will return to it later, … [Read more...]

ToM’s Cultural Christmas Hits

Well, it’s that time of year again. If you’re Protestant or Catholic, you struggle with the stresses of finding presents and slogging time with that uncle/aunt that stalks your nightmares. “Please God, don’t let me have to discuss geopolitical politics with Uncle Lew.” For those of you outside the Christian faith, you get to endure endless commercialized ritual-as-holiday, hoping your kids don’t demand the latest version of Guitar Hero or the Star Wars BladeBuilders Jedi Master Lightsaber in emulation of their gentile peers. Conversely, you also get to listen to some folks blather on about the "War on Christmas," the most unlikely of figurative or literal conflicts known to Westerndom. No … [Read more...]

Confessions of a Middle-Aged Millennial

Occasionally, when I’m speaking to a class of 100 18-year-olds, I make the mistake of referring to them as millennials. Then it occurs to me: these people might not even be millennials at all. Their first memories are of 9/11, if even that. (It used to be that students’ first memories were of the OJ trial or the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics. Time passes). They weren’t old enough to vote when Barack Obama was first elected. In short, they are very far from the same age cohort I’m in. Of course, the peculiarly American obsession with generations is, as Henry Ford might have said, bunk. We obsess over generations the way we obsess over decades, as if either one was a self-evidently … [Read more...]

From South Gate to L.A. Live: Demographic Change, Homeowner Ethos and Redevelopment in Southeastern Los Angeles

When Becky Nicolaides chairs or comments on a panel, people show up. The author of the now seminal My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965 always draws a crowd. As her book has assumed a sort of Crabgrass Nation status, the suburb at the heart of it, South Gate, has become an ur-text for Southeast Los Angeles more broadly. Nicolaides ended her study in 1965 but in her epilogue noted that twenty-first-century South Gate now served as a predominantly working-class Latino American suburb, representative of larger structural shifts in economics, demographics, and perhaps even immigration (though commentator Philip Ethington might differ on this … [Read more...]

“That’s My Little Mexican Shortstop”: A Reflection on Race, Space, and the Origins of the Southern California Bombers Baseball Club, 1998-2002

We were good! We were 13 years-old and travelling to places as far as Arizona, New York, Colorado, and Texas just to play baseball. Some of our teammates even traveled to Cuba to play a Junior Olympics tournament as members of the US National Team. We were the first batch of kids to come up in the Southern California Bombers Baseball Club. We practiced together at Whittier Narrows Park in El Monte, where my parents would drive me from the Pomona Valley twice a week to train. It was 2002, and we had won both the Triple Crown and USABF World Series, the two most prestigious youth baseball tournaments in the world. We started off as a batch of kids out of West Covina Pony League. The team … [Read more...]