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Tuesday, Jan 10, 2012

“I think he thinks, ‘Somewhere, I’m gonna get out of this.’” “He” is Billy the Kid, the legendary American criminal who is the subject of American Experience: Billy the Kid. Opening on a close-up of a noose hanging over a dusty (re-enacted) street, the show speculates repeatedly as to what the man born in New York City as William Henry McCarty might have been “thinking” at any given moment. He was “extremely intelligent,” says one expert. “Escaping was always on the agenda,” says another. Billy the Kid “came of age,” says narrator Michael Murphy, “at the moment the Wild West was forged, at a time when outlaws were made famous overnight in the pages of dime novels.” Because so little evidence remains (the only known tintype of Billy the Kid appear again and again here) and because much history is built on these fictions, it’s difficult now to piece together what did happen when. As Bill Richardson puts it, “He was made into a mythical character.” The show doesn’t question the myth so much as it presents it step by step, via historians and aficionados’’ testimonies, and , American Experience‘s familiar, richly mounted reenactments to fill in the gaps. Tight shots of boots and clinking spurs, shovels digging into dirt and rifles cocking, long shots of riders astride galloping horses and men shot dead, hitting the ground in slow motion. The imagined details can be evocative and even romantic (Billy is “blending into the darkness of the New Mexico night” or “framed by the moonlight”), as can the imagined motivations: he remained devoted to his girlfriend Paulita Maxwell, to the point of endangering his life. The natural and social environments were equally harsh, indicated by wind on the soundtrack and gavels banging. “The kid is a consistent rebel,” all the way,” say historian Paul Hutton. And such, he’s been absorbed into a national self-image.


Watch Billy the Kid preview on PBS. See more from American Experience.


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Wednesday, Jan 4, 2012

“We’re really not known for winning anything except sports, so we have to fight for everything we earn.” Lamar Jordan lives in Chicago. His sense of context, his self-awareness, is hard-won. A young man in process, Lamar introduces himself in Louder Than a Bomb using his nickname, “The Truth,” and then he tells it. “When I was growing up,” says this 19-year-old, “I was a bit of a troublemaker and I did some things I regret.” Now, in 2008, he’s a member of Steinmetz High School’s slam poetry team, in Chicago. And now he has a new truth to tell. Lamar’s story is one of several told in Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel’s film, which premieres on Oprah’s OWN Documentary Club on 5 January.


The film shows how hard the young poets work, their investments and their choices, their different roads to the slam called Louder Than a Bomb. It also shows that the contestants are well aware of the contradiction in what they do. Though poems are immeasurable, they are also subject to judgments: each performance earns points, like Olympic dives, cards held up by judges numbered one through 10. “It’s an outrageous thing, it’s a stupid thing, giving scores and numbers to poems,” admits Kevin Coval, LTAB’s co-founder. Slams are a means more than an end, a means of “learning about new people and understanding new people and really feeling inspired by people who are very different than you,” says Adam Gottlieb, from Northside College Prep. “I would like to say that that’s changing the world. And if not, it’s definitely coming much, much closer.”


See PopMattersreview.


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Thursday, Dec 15, 2011

“If you find a way to fix this thing right here, it’ll make you better. It’ll make you better in areas you didn’t think were related to horses.” Buck Brannaman’s students listen carefully when he speaks. They stand alongside their horses, hoping they’ll hear in his instructions a solution, whether their animal is fearful or fierce, stubborn or prickly. But clinics with Buck usually end up teaching them less about their horses than themselves. “A lot of times,” he says, “Rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems.” The inspiration for the book The Horse Whisperer and an advisor on Robert Redford’s movie set, Buck reveals he has his own issues—a severely abusive father when he was young and trained up to be a rodeo performer with his brother (who is not interviewed here), as well as a measurable loneliness now on the road, when he leaves his wife and children behind. While his clients (and he) extol his wisdom, Buck is also apt to chastise them for not being self-aware, as he’s been forced to be. When he chastises a woman for her carelessness with her horses, a carelessness that leads to a bad end for one of them, the film makes clear his stakes: he’s finding and saving victims, again and again. In so doing, he saves himself. Shortlisted for the 2012 Best Documentary Academy Award, the movie screens on 19 December as part of Stranger Than Fiction’s Pre-Winter Season Special, followed by a Q&A with director Cindy Meehl.


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Tuesday, Dec 13, 2011

When Bruce Ratner announced the Atlantic Yards development project in Brooklyn in 2003, he brought along noteworthy supporters, from architect Frank Gehry to New Jersey Nets minority owner Jay-Z to Mayor Mike Bloomberg. They all touted the arena as a way to create jobs, to improve the local economy, to bring new life. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, as documented in Battle for Brooklyn.


Troubles began when some residents of “the footprint” resisted being moved. Their resistance led to the corporation bringing in the state government, who cited “eminent domain” as a rubric for claiming the land, that is, the expropriation of private property for the public good. And oh yes, primary “public” beneficiary was to be Forest City Ratner Companies. Local resistance galvanized ROUND EXACTLY THAT APPARENT OVERSIGHT. Screening on 13 December as part of Stranger Than Fiction’s Pre-Winter Season Special—and followed by a Q&A with directors Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky—the film follows one resident in particular, Daniel Goldstein, a graphic designer who can’t imagine how his life will be changed by his commitment to the project. Goldstein and other residents resent the implication that they matter so little as to be considered “practically from scratch.” To be sure, not all residents feel this way: some believe the promises made by Ratner, Brooklyn Borough president Marty Markowitz, Mayor Bloomberg, and Senator Chuck Schumer, that the development will bring employment opportunities to Brooklyn and improve material and economic conditions going forward. (Senator Schumer’s misspeaking during a press conference may or may not be telling: “Basketball is great, but you know what enervates me about this? 10,000 jobs!”) As the Atlantic Yards project divides the community, it inspires a range of responses, from placards in residential and commercial windows and street protests to local organizing and full-on media campaigns.


See PopMattersreview.



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Monday, Dec 5, 2011

“The psychology of Ghanians, when it comes to governance or politics generally, has been influenced by our history,” notes Baffour Agyeman-Duah, an expert on governance.” While the aim is to construct “a stable democratic government, guided by the principles of good governance,” the route has been uneven. As he finishes speaking, scene cuts from his face to a close-up of a butcher at work: whomp goes his cleaver, splitting red meat. It’s a striking early image in Jarreth and Kenneth Merz’s An African Election, suggesting the high stakes during Ghana’s 2008 presidential elections. Currently at the Quad Cinema, the documentary considers that election (when Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling New Patriotic Party ran against John Atta Mills of the National Democratic Congress), history (the legacy of colonial rule, the decades of increasing corruption), and also points toward a kind of future, that is, the ways that elections have become—more and more, there and elsewhere (say, the US), contests over who can be loudest or least honest while appealing to broad bases. A smart, lively film—beautifully enhanced by a terrific percussive soundtrack—An African Election reveals how entrenched layers of trouble remain, despite and because of the cheering throngs, the advances in media technologies, the hopes for change. As journalist Kwesi Pratt puts it, “None of the parties is offering a paradigm shift. All of the parties will be doing the same thing, but some promise to do it better than the others.” How familiar does that sound? 



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