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Books for insight into American Soceity

 
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Originally posted by Thomas Paul:
A very interesting book with a very controversial theory about cycles in history.


But regardless of whether you concur with their theory, the book still is a terrific compendium of American society for the alst 400 years.
Joe
 
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"Whatever you think you know about Americans is wrong. And right. Whatever you learn about America by reading novels is wrong. And right. America is a big country full of contradictions. If you think you understand America then you are wrong. I don't understand America and I was born here."
Tom is my hero!
Tintin, do you really want to *un-der-stand* "Americans"? There are many other verbs you can use, "understand" just doesn't fit, it seems...
 
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Now we are talking.
Thanks for the Suggestions and Keep them coming. We have a long weekend here in the UK starting tomorrow and I will be in the BookStores trying out your Suggestions.
And Mapraputa , you are right. Understand is not exactly the right word I was looking for . "Learning more about the people and their way of life" is more like it.
Thanks Again folks.
Shaz
 
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If you're reading Salinger as a way to get "insight into the life of the common people," I think you may be a little off base.
One think to keep in mind about Salinger is that he's largely concerned with a very narrow slice of society (wealthy east coasters) at a specific time period (immediate postwar).
Not that there's anything wrong with reading Salinger, but balance it with some other specifics to triangulate a more general.
My current favorite book to recommend is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. American dream and immigrant experience through the rise and fall of the comic book industry, set in wartime and postwar US.
How about some stuff by Tom Wolfe --
The Right Stuff -- cold war optimism through the eyes of test pilots in the early days of the US space program
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test -- 60s drug culture. Ken Kesey, the Grateful Dead, Hell's Angels...
The Bonfire of the Vanities -- classic potrayal of 80s New York yuppiedom (yes, I know yuppies were so 80s)
Anything by Studs Terkel?
Movies -- got to second two of Eugene Kononov's recommendations: Once Upon a Time in America (friendship and loyalty among immigrant gangsters through rise and decline of organized crime in New York) and American Beauty (banality of modern American suburban life, whose hidden and subtle beauties you can only appreciate after you're dead).
Say Anything -- the definitive work that captures much of what "Generation X" was about (yes, I know Gen X was so 90s).
Heathers -- Wicked satire on peer pressure, social groups, and suicide in US high schools.
Anything more specific you're interested in? As other posters pointed out "insight into American society" is a bit vast.
 
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Classics ,not yet outdated , I think. If Catcher in the Rye grabs you ,these might also... Sorry about the travel books I posted earlier. Didn't understand your question at first glance.

The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck, ???
The novel describes the migration of a dispossessed family from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California and critiques their subsequent exploitation by a ruthless system of agricultural economics.
The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby, who uses his vast (and implicitly ill-gotten) fortune to buy his way into Long Island society. Most of all, Gatsby wants to win back the love of socialite Daisy Buchanan, now married to "old money" Tom Buchanan

You seem to have gotten a lot of contemporary reads offered, some of which I may be looking to get.
regards
[ August 21, 2003: Message edited by: HS Thomas ]
 
Joe Pluta
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If you want to know about MY town, I suggest a couple of books:
Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, by Mike Royko. This is simply one of the most phenomenal books on local politics ever written. Royko had one of the keenest and most critical wits in Chicago reporting, and he applied all of it to the tenure of a man who at one time was arguably the second most powerful man in America. You want to know how American politics REALLY works? Read this book.
A fascinating book on American business is Well Made in America, the story of Harley Davidson. An excellent study of how hubris can ruin a company and how hard work can bring it back from the brink.
And finally, to get a lighter side of American culture, I'd suggest any books by Dave Barry. Some are compendiums of his humor column, others are complete books about some of his adventures. And while some of his stuff is a little formulaic (it's hard to write 30 or 40 books without some repetition), it's very much a slice of middle American life. While Dave is not exactly a "typical" American, he isn't that far removed from one. And especially in his earlier books, before he became a very wealthy author, his insights into American suburban living are right on the money, and often laugh-out-loud funny. Warning: much of his humor is VERY American, so you might miss some of it (for example, in one column you need to know what a Kellogg's Pop-Tart is). At the same time, if you DO miss it, you might want to ask someone about it - just that effort may give you more insight into America than any of the other books we've mentioned .
Joe
 
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JP: Dave Barry
Dave Barry's portrait of Miami in Big Trouble is hysterical.
 
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Here's a good one to round out some impressions of America:
Travels with Lizbeth by Lars Eighner. Exteremely intelligent and literate man writes about his experience being homeless for several years.
(For a very alternative view (you have been warned!) of Texas (never been to Texas myself) -- try Eighner's Pawn to Queen Four.)
[ August 21, 2003: Message edited by: Michael Matola ]
 
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The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test -- 60s drug culture. Ken Kesey, the Grateful Dead, Hell's Angels...
!!!
I read the book when I was in Russia, (found it in a Moscow's bookstore and bought because it was about America) and... well, maybe my mistake was I read it the same time I was reading [won't tell you which book because it will tell you nothing anyway] a book written by a Russian author, but I just did not get it. I was reading and thinking that I am probably missing all the clues that were prepared for an American reader. Guys are so brave that they take drugs --- very cool. I mean... Yeah, how cool is it to be on drags? Probably very cool, but people around me did not think so, and we all are a product of our environment. Then the guy appeared at the court, and he lied to save his ass, and it also was supposed to be Very Cool... Ok, but I cannot drink So Much, sorry.
Movies -- got to second two of Eugene Kononov's recommendations: Once Upon a Time in America (friendship and loyalty among immigrant gangsters through rise and decline of organized crime in New York) and American Beauty
Watched both. What on the Earth do they tell about America?
[ August 21, 2003: Message edited by: Mapraputa Is ]
 
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Keep in mind that the US is larger the most countries and has very distinct regions. New York City, Florida, California, Texas, and Montana could very will be different countries (Texas actually was for a while).
The movies and TV shows are hyperbolied slices of Americana. If you watch enough, you'll get it, but that would take years.
The only book I know of on this topic is I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away. One review on Amazon say that this was publishe delsewhere as "Notes from a Big Country" and is better as that version.
--Mark
 
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man, you are sooo uncool...
No need to learn more about american soceity, just wait a while. Lock your doors. Keep your women inside. The Great evil American Satan will corrupt your society... the Great evil American Satan will corrupt YOU -- the great american hegemony. He will force you too learn English (the US kind - not the Britian kind:-). He will force you to drink Coca Cola (or a rebranded palestinian kind) and wear jeans - damn jeans. He will make you read "so called facts" about your society and disparge it... OOOooh, I feel pity for you all. It is no use the monster is too strong. My fate is sealed but save yourselves... The horror... the horror...
-Eleison
ps. :-) yea, I was bored :-) And people don't ever lose your culture. When people go abroad, they don't want to feel that they're still back in their own country...

Originally posted by Mapraputa Is:
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test -- 60s drug culture. Ken Kesey, the Grateful Dead, Hell's Angels...
!!!
I read the book when I was in Russia, (found it in a Moscow's bookstore and bought because it was about America) and... well, maybe my mistake was I read it the same time I was reading [won't tell you which book because it will tell you nothing anyway] a book written by a Russian author, but I just did not get it. I was reading and thinking that I am probably missing all the clues that were prepared for an American reader. Guys are so brave that they take drugs --- very cool. I mean... Yeah, how cool is it to be on drags? Probably very cool, but people around me did not think so, and we all are a product of our environment. Then the guy appeared at the court, and he lied to save his ass, and it also was supposed to be Very Cool... Ok, but I cannot drink So Much, sorry.
Movies -- got to second two of Eugene Kononov's recommendations: Once Upon a Time in America (friendship and loyalty among immigrant gangsters through rise and decline of organized crime in New York) and American Beauty
Watched both. What on the Earth do they tell about America?
[ August 21, 2003: Message edited by: Mapraputa Is ]

 
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MM: and American Beauty
MI: Watched both. What on the Earth do they tell about America
Oh, my. I'll take American Beauty the first I guess.
To my mind, asking what on earth does American Beauty tell about America is like asking what on earth does Malenkaia Vera tell about the dullness of life in a provincial Russian city.
American Beauty a consummate portrait of life in American suburbs. Have you spent much time in the US suburbs, Map? I know you've rattled around the Pacific northwest, but I don't know how much else of the US you've seen. I'm not talking large cities, small cities, small towns, the country, or anything else. I'm talking US suburbs. The promised-land of postwar American-dream expansion. Subsequently, the destination of white flight. The homogenized bands of sameness that ring our cities. (Go see Edward Scissorhands, for pete's sake.) Now, a deadening force of sameness refered to as the United States of Generica, full of McMansions.
American Beauty captures the flavor, characters, and attitudes of US suburbs spot on, and it is for that reason that I'm recommending it.
Do other societies have unfaithful social-climbing wives, weak Walter Mitty-esque husbands going through midlife crises, despondent housewives, slutty teen girls, and abusive military types wracked by latent homosexuality?
Yes, I'm sure.
But do they have this all in combination and in great abundance? AB captures the specific American flavors of all of this, and shows all the strangeness going on underneath a seemingly normal surface, and makes that strangeness seem as normal and typical as the surface.
Why is it that the only two (living) characters capable of perceiving beauty in life -- the daughter and the drug-dealing neighbor kid -- want to flee the "bliss" of the suburbs? (Ok, it's not just the suburbs they want to flee, but their families, school, etc. But I'm wrapping all that up together as the suburban experience.)
Let's take the mother character (something Burnham, played by Annette Benning). Just look at how she's developed.
She's a modern superwoman of sorts with it all together. She has her own business and keeps a fine home. Something many US women aspire to. But look at what she's become. We know from some later flashbacks that she was an adventurous fun-loving young woman. What is she now? Largely unresponsive to and unconcerned about her husband. Vaguely abusive to her daughter. Power-seeking, adulterous, turned on by gunfire, and at least capable of toying with the idea of shooting her husband.
What are the specific American aspects of all of this?
Take the scene where she's introduced. It's morning before work and she's pruning her roses (the variety is American Beauty, in case you didn't notice). (Next to a white picket fence, I think -- this is the American dream!) What is the voice-over from her husband? Take notice of her pruning shears and something else I can't remember (rake? gardening shoes?) -- they match, and that's intentional.
Do people around the world garden? Yes. But do they do it in the morning before hauling off to work in their SUV, with coordinated gardening wear/tools engaging in a hobby (possibly a Martha Stewart-driven notion) that is really just more work? Do they do it chatting to the couple of openly gay professionals who live next door? Do they procede to engage in abusive-supportive banter with their children "If you goal was to make yourself look as bad as possible, you've succeeded admirably"?
Take one of the dinners she serves her family. Did you notice that Lester helps himself to asparagus on the serving tray using asparagus tongs? Where else but the American suburbs would you find social-class aspirants still concerned about using such task-specific serving utensils for a family dinner at home?
Take the scene where there's an attempt at sexual reconciliation between husband and wife. What stops that? Her concern that he might spill some beer on her silk couch. Map, are you even remotely familiar with the concern that upper middle class suburbanites have with their furniture? Not that people round the world don't like owning fine things. But it just seems so American to me that this woman would thwart her husband's sexual advances over concern for her couch.
Take the whole scene starting with the pep-talk mantra "I will sell this house today!" continuing through unclothed housecleaning until the ultimate slapping herself in the face for crying because she didn't get the sale. Tell me that that sequence of events could have taken place anywhere else in the world but an American suburb.
Would anyone but an American woman rebuke her supposedly ungrateful daughter with "At your age I lived in a duplex"?
And so on. Have I succeeded in making any point, or not really?
 
HS Thomas
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man, you are sooo uncool...


One of nice bit of Americanism. Careful, you could get to be more American than the American.
regards
 
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Originally posted by Michael Matola:
Oh, my. I'll take American Beauty the first I guess.
Have I succeeded in making any point, or not really?


I have lived my entire life in the suburbs and I would say that American Beauty captures life in the suburbs of America as well as A Clockwork Orange captures life in England.
As far as Once Upon a Time in America why would a movie made by an Italian director about life in the 20's and 30's tell you anything about America?
 
Michael Matola
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TP: I have lived my entire life in the suburbs and I would say that American Beauty captures life in the suburbs of America as well as A Clockwork Orange captures life in England.
I'm having some difficulty understanding this comparison.
First, I didn't realize that A Clockwork Orange intended to capture life in England. Or at least in any way parallel to the way that AB attempts to capture life in the suburbs of America that would allow your comparison (and dismissal) to make sense to me.
I mean, I realize that AB and ACO both employ some exaggeration in telling their story. But ACO exaggerates to a far greater degree than AB does. Yes, I understand that a common device of science fiction (or negative utopian literature -- whatever you want to classify ACO as) is to use a setting remote in time or place to talk about the here and now. But I've always seen ACO as more an expansive and exploratory "this could happen if certain trends continue" rather than a descriptive "this is really what's going on right now but you can't see it so I have to show it to you by means of an extended comparison."
I've lived in the country/small town, small city, large cities, and the suburbs. I stand by my original statements about American Beauty.
The American suburbs are a pretty unusual form of human organization compared to the rest of the world. Is it something that would capture the interest of a first-time visitor from another country? Maybe.
TP: As far as Once Upon a Time in America why would a movie made by an Italian director about life in the 20's and 30's tell you anything about America?
The fact that the director is Italian is largely beside the point, in my mind. Are you suggesting that the only people who can provide insight into America are Americans themselves?
Yeah, I find I am having a hard time defending that as a movie that tells you something about America. Let me give it a try.
Yes, I realize that there have been many waves of immigration to the US. I guess three stick out in my mind: (1) original voyages of discover and colonization, (2) subsequent expansion where many immigrants went to the country, (3) early 20th century where many immigrants went to the city.
Now I'm sure in any country or time, a band of kids could find a way to exploit some situation, build and expand a business, make it to the top, and then essentially make a mistake leading to their ultimate downfall. I guess I was recommending it on the grounds of the "anything is possible in America, I can escape my lot in life" flavor during some of the young boys sequences. And additionally on the grounds of providing some flavor of early 20th century urban migration to the US.
I see now that that's pretty shaky ground.
I think what was really going on is that I hadn't thought of the movie for some time, then when Eugene mentioned it all these pleasant memories came to mind about what a brilliant move it is (despite a lot of the violence, which I'm sure I'm supressing some of). So I would say I recommended it on those grounds -- which was not what Tintin was asking about.
 
Thomas Paul
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Originally posted by Michael Matola:
I've lived in the country/small town, small city, large cities, and the suburbs. I stand by my original statements about American Beauty.

I have no idea what suburbs you are familiar with but nothing in AB was anything even remotely close to my own experiences.
 
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Originally posted by Thomas Paul:
I have no idea what suburbs you are familiar with but nothing in AB was anything even remotely close to my own experiences.
Are there wheels on your house?
 
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Originally posted by Eleison Zeitgeist:

-Eleison


Hahahaah Good one except He will make you read "so called facts" about your society and disparge it
 
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As Michael Matola pointed out, the nationality of the movie director is hardly an indication of how well he/she can reflect the American values and culture in a movie. In fact, I would venture to say that a foreign/immigrant director will be in a better position to evaluate the new setting/environment and to project it to the screen. When you are born and raised in a certain country, you become institutionalized by its standards and codes. What may seem completely ridiculuous or funny to a foregn observer, makes perfect sense to you. That's because your point of view on the the subject matter is already altered by that same subject matter as it is prevelant in your country. A sort of a negative feedback (or is it a positive feedback?).
"American Beauty" and "Once Upon A Time In America", regardless of the director, are the two films about the same very American values: pursuit of happiness (at all costs), competitiveness and financial success (at the cost of happiness), immediate gratification (at the cost of financial success), certain glory of violence (despite the tight laws), freedom and individuality (at the cost of mental disorders).
It's the agony of contradictions that makes America beatiful. A homosexual marine, a disfunctional "Real Estate King", an artist with a taste for blood and death, a cheerleader who needs a cheerleader, a gangster with high moral standards, a rape victim who felt she deserved to be raped. All looking for ever elusive happiness. Very American, indeed.
 
Joe Pluta
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Originally posted by Eugene Kononov:
"American Beauty" and "Once Upon A Time In America", regardless of the director, are the two films about the same very American values: pursuit of happiness (at all costs), competitiveness and financial success (at the cost of happiness), immediate gratification (at the cost of financial success), certain glory of violence (despite the tight laws), freedom and individuality (at the cost of mental disorders).
It's the agony of contradictions that makes America beatiful. A homosexual marine, a disfunctional "Real Estate King", an artist with a taste for blood and death, a cheerleader who needs a cheerleader, a gangster with high moral standards, a rape victim who felt she deserved to be raped. All looking for ever elusive happiness. Very American, indeed.


Pshaw and balderdash, I say!
Seriously, the things pictured in those movies are simply overwrought hyperboles of the Jerry Springer segment of America. And at the same time, many of those hyperboles could just as well be in many other countries or societies. Gay gladiators? My God, that's a throwback to the ancient Greeks. Dysfunctional moguls? How about just about any European monarch? Artists with dark sides? That's hardly unique to America. High minded criminals abound in everything from Japanese literature to European tragedy. And the perpetual victim, the martyr, adorns drama throughout the ages.
The simple fact is that you rarely see the "real" America on TV or in the movies. Why not? Because it's too boring. Real America is parents trying to send their kids to school. Real America is tractor pulls and barn raisings. Real America is AIDS clinics and homeless shelters. Real America is a cop, a fireman, a clergyman, a grocery store clerk, a fry cook, a trucker, a farmer.
Those self-involved Bonfire of the Vanities charicatures that you see in the movies aren't the people who create the St. Jude's Children's Research Center, or the Special Olympics. Tony Montana doesn't work with Habitats for Humanity. Gordon Gecko doesn't work at the Lighthouse for the Blind. And while they exist, those people are that tiny minority who have far more than they could ever want, and never realize they have nothing they need. But it's that minority that people sometimes focus on as America.
Sure, there are people like that. Self-involved, delusional, sociopathic, and ultimately sad, lonely people. But by and large, folks, by and large, we are a society with big dreams and enormous hearts. Go to an inner city school someday and watch the teachers. These are people who battle against seemingly insurmountable odds, and many of whom pay a terrible price, yet they continue on. Visit a pediatric oncology unit, or a detox ward, or a nursing home, or a soup kitchen. You'll see the real America at work - the failures AND the successes.
You want a movie about America, the real America? The good and the bad, the pride and the prejudice? Rent Stand and Deliver. Edward James Olmos gives an incredible performance in a story based on a real teacher in a real barrio in LA.
Or if you want pure escapism, try What's Eating Gilbert Grape? There's a treasure trove there of human dignity and caring and family values and the things that make America great.
But I rant on, as I tend to do when I think about America, and what She means to me. I love my country, I love the people who make it great. I don't worship our excesses, nor bemoan our frailties. Instead, I embrace our diversity and exult in our passion, and I only hope that we can live up to our potential. We are a young country, and strong, and proud. At the same time, we can be petty and mean, but when called upon by history, we can do great things. We have in the past, and I hope we continue to do so in the future.
Joe
 
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Originally posted by Eugene Kononov:
What may seem completely ridiculuous or funny to a foregn observer, makes perfect sense to you.


Very true
 
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Originally posted by Joe Pluta:

I love my country, I love the people who make it great. I don't worship our excesses, nor bemoan our frailties. Instead, I embrace our diversity and exult in our passion, and I only hope that we can live up to our potential. We are a young country, and strong, and proud. At the same time, we can be petty and mean, but when called upon by history, we can do great things. We have in the past, and I hope we continue to do so in the future.
Joe


Great minds think alike
 
Thomas Paul
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Beautifully said, Joe! I have a child with Down syndrome and autism and I am connected into a community of families with similar issues. My neice is a college art major and volunteers to work with disabled kids. Her boyfriend is a phys ed major and he volunteers to teach sports to disabled kids. And truthfully we are a typical American family. My neighbor volunteers to coach Little League. Another neighbor volunteers at a local hospital. Anyone who thinks American Beauty represents anything more than a screen writer's vivid imagination needs to get a look at what life is really like in the real world.
 
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Back to books...
Don't know if you meant Washington D.C. or Washington state... If you meant Washington state then add 'Sometimes a Great Notion' - Kesey
On second thought if you're going anywhere west of Nebraska add "Sometimes a Great Notion'
Actually, no matter where you're going read 'Sometimes a Great Notion'
(I'm kind of a fan of this book, and Kesey in general)
 
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MM: Have I succeeded in making any point, or not really?
Interesting. I missed a lot of clues you talked about, which probably means foreign audience will miss them also. I liked the movie, but I still cannot agree it represents "American society" in any meaningful way. I was thinking the word Joe used - "caricature", but it isn't even a caricature. Caricatures distort a picture, and this movie takes out some important parts, which constitutes a second-order distortion.
JP: The simple fact is that you rarely see the "real" America on TV or in the movies. Why not? Because it's too boring.
I am not sure if you are serious here, if you are, then I must disagree. In the Soviet era we had lots of great movies about real life and real people. Very well made, and not boring at all. Now they produce Hollywood-like gangster stories, this is what I call boring. :roll:
From an editorial review for Mark's book:
"... and strange American injuries such as those sustained from pillows and beds. "In the time it takes you to read this," he writes, "four of my fellow citizens will somehow manage to be wounded by their bedding."
I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away.
-- does anybody know what *this* is about? Is there something special about American Beds that makes them so dangerous?
 
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-- does anybody know what *this* is about? Is there something special about American Beds that makes them so dangerous?
My guess is that it is a reference to the American variety of matresses and pillows (soft, hard, pillow, water, etc) and the common belief that if not properly selected, they can somehow break your neck or spine while you are sleeping. But it may also be a reference to the obsessive pursuit of lawsuits by American consumers against the manufactures. The next lawsuit on the horizon is "The People Versus Big Food". McDonalds will be forced to pay for the plastic surgeries to remove the excess fat from the guts of its clientele.
[ August 22, 2003: Message edited by: Eugene Kononov ]
 
Joe Pluta
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JP: The simple fact is that you rarely see the "real" America on TV or in the movies. Why not? Because it's too boring.
Map: I am not sure if you are serious here, if you are, then I must disagree. In the Soviet era we had lots of great movies about real life and real people. Very well made, and not boring at all. Now they produce Hollywood-like gangster stories, this is what I call boring. :roll:
No, I think you understand what I tried to say. Real America is too "boring" for the producers of bang-bang shoot 'em up Hollywood adventure flicks, or the "see how low we can go" reality TV shows. But in reality, the real America is far more stirring and touching than anything those producers could ever come up with. But that doesn't sell cigarettes and booze and fast cars and expensive sneakers, which is what Hollywood is all about.
So, in order to see the real America, you either need to go there, or, once in a great while, you can stumble upon it on the screen, as in the movies I mentioned in my previous post. Usually these are independent films, and while a lot of independent films may be a little off the deep end, there are the occasional gems, and these are two of them.
I'm going to recommend one more flick. It's VERY quirky, but if you see it, you'll probably understand me a little better. The film is Out of Rosenheim, also known as Bagdad Cafe, and if you make it through the slow start, you'll be rewarded. I promise. Especially if you like Jack Palance.
And even that may not be enough to tell you about me. So I'll tell you what my VERY FAVORITE movie is. Well, no, I won't tell you. I'll give you a hint: Meega Na La Kweesta! The movie is set in Hawai'i, and of all the things we did right as a country, not totally destroying those islands and their culture was one of the greatest. But while the locale is a bit exotic, the movie is about values that are as American as you'll find (albeit in probably the most unusual circumstances imaginable).
And I think that's enough soul baring for one night .
Joe
 
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