Movies »Harlan County USA

harlan county usaIf you think you have it rough with your job just watch Harlan County, USA and, trust me, you'll realize that you've never worked a hard day in your life. In 1972, coal miners in Kentucky, living in shanties without running water or plumbing, facing the possibility of deadly explosions, slow death from black lung, and a shocking lack of safety and benefits began a thirteen month, bitter and deadly strike. The daring documentarian Barbara Kopple and her crew suffered beatings and guns fired at them to capture the turmoil and drama.

You are unlikely to witness?areal life situation so wrought with tension, (even with the incredible Gimme Shelter and the less incredible house wives tables flipping out there). From murder within the union to murder on the picket lines, these hard working individuals are literally willing to die for their rights and, sadly, do. It's the women, the wives and daughters of the miners who are particularly resilient and fight the most visible battles against the gun wielding strike breakers and scabs.

With images that are both horrific and beautiful and a soundtrack of harrowing local blue grass, often sung by the people on screen, the academy award winning film is more than a political drama about unions, it's a piece of art that makes you question how far you could go and how much you could endure and fight if put in the same situation.

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Posted on June 29, 2009

Recipes »Homemade Kettle Corn

homemade kettle cornYum yum kettle corn! This sweet/salty treat has been praised by me before, but this was my first foray into making popcorn without a microwave. Popcorn is one of those rare foods that has it's root in America, or at least the continent before it was invaded. According to this article:

“In 1519, Cortes got his first sight of popcorn when he invaded Mexico and came into contact with the Aztecs. Popcorn was an important food for the Aztec Indians, who also used popcorn as decoration for ceremonial headdresses, necklaces and ornaments on statues of their gods, including Tlaloc, the god of rain and fertility.”

Who knew that between human sacrifices, the Aztecs were making the same kind of popcorn-based jewelry many of us did in kindergarten?

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Posted on June 29, 2009

Books »Random Family

random familyRandom Family is an astonishing, eye opening, heartbreaking and completely engrossing saga – and all the more so because it's true. Author Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent decades with two families in the heart of the most notorious neighborhoods in the Bronx through considerable hardships: drugs, prison, abuse and triumphs: romance, children, small victories.

The tough streets have long been a topic of movies and books, but rarely is the focus on the women. Coco and Jessica are sadly typical of their upbringing, one has five kids before she's reached thirty, the other lands in jail after getting unwittingly involved in her boyfriend's drug trade, but both are compelling, if flawed characters who deal with situations most people I?know would not have the strength to.

The world they live in, with both the dazzling thug culture and the prevailing hopelessness is not glamorized, judged, or played up for our sympathies. LeBlanc is exceptionally even and fair with her depictions and wisely keeps herself out of the story. For better or worse, the story of their lives are told with honesty by the people who lived it.

Much like the tenement photographs “How the other half lives” by Jacob Riis,?Random Family offers a glimpse of the often ignored and misunderstood parts of our country.

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Posted on June 29, 2009

Style Icons: Female »Farrah Fawcett

farrah fawcettIt was a rough day for American icons and those of us that grew up with them. Farrah Fawcett, who epitomized blonde, American, smiling sexuality with her ubiquitous pin up poster and role on Charlie's Angels lost her long battle with cancer just before news of the surprise death of fellow superstar Michael Jackson hit the internet.

Giving the world the feathered haircut and agreeing with me and most teenage boys on the sexiness of ditching the bra, there were few women that had more influence on the popular culture of the 1970's than she did.

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Posted on June 29, 2009

Songs »Living in America

james brown living in americaI remember going with a big group of older girls to see Rocky IV in the theater for my sister's birthday. James Brown opens the drama with an over the top showgirl extravaganza to stick it to the Russians (aka Dolph Lundgren and Brigitte Nielsen). But then Dolph ends up killing Apollo Creed in the match and Rocky has to train in the snow and get revenge in Moscow (sans showgirls). He beats Dolph bloody, but decides not to kill him, rather to give a rousing speech instead that ends the cold war.

I posted some rousing stills over at RC.

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Posted on June 29, 2009

Albums »Shotgun Willie

willie nelson shotgn willieI'm kind of alone among most of my friends in my love for Willie Nelson, but as a fan of classic country, it's hard not to be swayed by his impressive career. Shotgun Willie is among his best. It features many of his own compositions rather than covers that later made him more famous.

From songs about drowning in a whiskey river, to the dance floor perfection of Stay all Night (Stay a Little Longer), from the lamenting romances of Sad Songs and Waltzes and She's Not For You, this album plays like a wonderfully beery night Donn's Depot in Austin.

Recorded with Atlantic after an opressive relationship with RCA, Nelson seems to be giving his all here on his own terms, and with that independent self expression, he defined a new sound in country.

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Posted on June 29, 2009

Hunks »James Dean

james deanIt's hard to add anything new to the dialogue about James Dean as an American icon. But on a personal note, when Stand by Me helped usher in a period obsession with the 50's back when I was in elementary school, my sister and I both got cardboard stand-ups of Dean and Marilyn Monroe from our local novelty and sticker shop, CJ Kard.

Beyond the good looks that still stop hearts (really, has there been anyone quite like him since?), he had an undeniably impressive (but sadly brief) film career. He was a true rebel, not only on screen but with his daringly ambivalent sexuality, angst ridden method acting, and his literal live fast/die young attitude.

He also most best represented some of America's best fashion statements: white tees, denim, cowboy hat, fisherman's sweaters, bomber jackets, chinos and trenches.

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Posted on June 29, 2009

Style Icons: Male »Michael Jackson

michal jackson youngI think everyone was shocked and astonished by the sudden passing of arguably the most famous man on the planet. While Micheal Jackson may not have always represented the best about American pop culture, back in the day when I was growing up, he certainly seemed to… for a little while. I saw him perform with the Jacksons during 1984's Victory Tour (my brother, then a baby, slept through the whole thing) and it was exciting beyond belief.

From the iconic red jacket to the single white glove, from the pop perfection of Off the Wall to the thrill of seeing the Thriller music video for the first time, whatever one might think of the later years, it's hard not get sentimental about a man who could bring the world to its knees in joy with two seconds of dancing across the stage.

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Posted on June 29, 2009

Restaurants »Hill Country

hill countryHill Country is, and I say this with all my heart and kindly, just a fat assed restaurant. Everything (with the exception of the cheery waitresses) is big and loud: two warehouse sized stories holding huge communal style picnic tables, a seemingly 15 foot TV (blaring sports), a band upstairs shouting countrified 80's tunes (they were actually quite fun), drinks with vodka, tequila, and everything else (mine, the 8 layer dip, also had jalapenos and was rimmed with BBQ rub salt) and portions of meat like you have never seen.

I really did feel like I was back in Austin for an evening (I would have even more so if some of it were outside and the diners were more rockabilly than NYU), which was fun. But all this would mean nothing if the food's not great and I have to say, it's the best I've had in the city.

The jalapeno sausage and moist brisket were phenomenal! Sides also delivered with the cornbread and chipotle deviled eggs standing out to me (my friends all raved about the slaw too, though I am never a fan, so I'll have to take their word). The ordering process can seem confusing. You have a meal ticket that you bring to the meat counter where you tell butchers how big a portion you want. I recommend no more than one pork rib, while nice and meaty, they were the least impressive meat dish we had, lacking in flavorful flair, but better slathered in the sauce provided at the tables.

You will feel your indulgences soon after dining and find yourself longing for big bowls of salad for days, but it's worth it – particularly the sausage and brisket.

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Posted on June 29, 2009

Desserts »Apple Pie

mcdonalds apple pieYou can't get more American than (sort of) fresh apple pie from McDonald's. There's lots of online controversy about the rumor that the nearly seventy year old fast food chain uses potatoes flavored like apples rather than real apples; people cry foul play, but I say: what ingenuity! And what kind of genius can make a potato taste like an apple anyways?

I hadn't had one of these cinnamony desserts in years and years and I thank Jim for waiting patiently while he got cut in line by vicious girl teenagers over and over to get one for me.

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Posted on June 29, 2009

Spend a Couple Hours »The Quilts of Paula Nadelstern and the Treasures of Ulysses Davis

quilts folk art museumThe quilts of Paula Nadelstern make for a dazzling exhibit of exceptional craftsmanship at the American Folk Art Museum. You are greeted with a huge creation on the lobby level that boggles the mind. Upstairs, more vibrant quilts using different techniques are on display. The labor intensive art is even more impressive when you learn that Nadelstern, a Bronx native makes all her quilts in a small apartment as she says on her own site:

“Historians have suggested that the block-style method of quilt-making evolved in response to the cramped quarters of early American life. My family's living arrangement in an urban environment created similar considerations which, unwittingly, I resolved in much the same way. For over twenty years, my work space in our two bedroom apartment was the forty-inch round kitchen table”.

The most interesting look into the artist's craft is the segment along the hallway that shows the reverse side of the quilting, the literal toil to make such geometrically perfect images on the front. Be sure to peek into the kaleidoscopes by various artists too.

Upstairs is a much smaller, but equally fascinating, collection of hand carved wood sculptures by Southern barber Ulysses Davis. He not only captured historical and religious figures but created mythical creatures some of which would make Father Lankester Merrin tremble if he dug them up in Iraq.

Davis, who (like many folk and outsider artists) rarely sold his work,?never looked to his craft for financial gain. As he once said “They're my treasure. If I sold these, I'd be really poor.”

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Posted on June 29, 2009

Web Sites »Disfarmer

disfarmerI can't imagine it was easy to buck against your roots in Arkansas farm country in the early 20th century, but that's exactly what Mike Meyers, also known as Disfarmer, did. Having no interest in the livelihood of his family and peers he:

“Taught himself how to shoot and develop photographs, and he soon set up a studio on the back porch of his mother's house?and his belief in his own unique superiority as a photographer and as a human being made him somewhat of an oddity to others”.

Thank goodness for mavericks, because his career as a portrait photographer has left us with an astonishing visual history of the time. Limited prints are available for purchase for $800, but you can peruse the gallery for free and even send an email postcard to fellow fans of olde timey goodness.

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Posted on June 29, 2009

TV Shows »Frontier House

frontier houseIt's too bad PBS hasn't delved into the world of reality television more. Frontier House (inspired by a similarly conceived show about the 1900s over at the BBC) was a highly entertaining, insightful, and even educational. Three families were given acreage in Montana to live just as settlers did back in the 1880's. The goal was to be prepared for the coming winter by the end of the series – without cheating, Gordon Clune!

Like any good reality, there's a villain, and here Mr. Clune serves well, but in this relatively good-natured show, even the cheater finds himself better for growing closer to his family. Another family, the Glenns adapt to the harsh lifestyle easier, but their personal relationships are strained.

Available on DVD and Netflix, you'll find yourself more inthralled in the drama of making root cellars and cutting wood than you would ever expect. This is only second to Manor House in PBS's amazing series of historical reality shows.

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Posted on June 29, 2009