Faculty Research: Dr. Randy Lewis featured in ‘Life and Letters’ Magazine for documentary film

Sicilians and Sicilian-Texans exchange memories of the town poet.

Sicilians and Sicilian-Texans exchange memories of the town poet.

Last spring, we posted a dispatch from Dr. Randy Lewis about his travels to Sicily, Italy to screen an ethnographic documentary called Texas Tavola that he directed and produced with Dr. Circe Sturm. We’re pleased to also share with you a brand new piece in the College of Liberal Arts’s Life and Letters magazine featuring the duo’s work on this film, as well as Dr. Lewis’s and Dr. Sturm’s broader concerns with public scholarship.

“From Bryan to Sicily: Public Scholars Join Academy to Community” can be read in its entirety here, and here is a quick excerpt:

Sturm and Lewis both come from non-academic families, and this background is a big driver of their passion for public scholarship.

“Randy and I have always tried to create work that has an impact as scholarship and is also accessible to broader publics,” Sturm says. “Even with book writing, we’re both committed to writing about complex ideas in such a way that anyone can read it and that the communities that we write about will want to read it and engage with it.”

Public scholarship is intellectual work done with a non-academic audience in mind. It can take many forms, from digital humanities and online journals to books and documentary films created for a general public.

“Public scholarship is a broader thing that’s trying to transcend this inwardlooking model of higher education and really connect with different kinds of publics and communities out there,” Lewis says. “How do you convert or translate [your academic research] into something that resonates with the people who are actually paying for the University of Texas?”

AMS department members speak about The End of Austin at UT Chancellor’s Council Annual Meeting

Exciting news: earlier this May, three members of the American Studies department were asked to speak at the UT Chancellor’s Council Annual Meeting, held at the Frank Erwin Center. Dr. Randy Lewis, editor and founder of the project, and two of its editorial board members Carrie Andersen and Sean Cashbaugh discussed the website and engaged in a Q&A after their talk.

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See Dr. Lewis’s recap here:

Last week, Sean, Carrie and I had a remarkable opportunity to share our work on EndofAustin.com with the Chancellor’s Council, several hundred of the most generous donors to the UT system. We spoke for an hour about the website, describing how it grew out of an American Studies graduate seminar to become a digital humanities project with almost 50,000 page views for its first four issues. We celebrated TEOA as an example of doing more with less: as resources shrink at UT, faculty and grad students have scrambled to create low-cost, high impact projects that reach beyond the confines of the campus to engage a larger public. We had a great response from Chancellor’s Council, in part because so many people in the audience have the same hopes and fears about Austin that Sean and Carrie presented so effectively. It was great exposure for our project, the American Studies Department, and COLA generally, and we’re hopeful that it will lead to greater support for our project, which has so far existed with an annual budget of $100.

Faculty Research: Dr. Randy Lewis on Texas Tavola in the Old Country

Today we have a special treat for you: Dr. Randy Lewis has penned this fascinating account of a recent trip he took to Sicily to screen a documentary about Sicilians in East Texas. Enjoy his words and his photos – all the photographs are by him!

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I had a remarkable experience over spring break. Along with my partner, the anthropologist Circe Sturm, I headed to Sicily to screen an ethnographic film that we co-produced several years ago. Texas Tavola: A Taste of Sicily in the Lone Star State traces the migration of food, religion, and identity from Sicily to Texas, with a focus on the elaborate rituals associated with the tavola di San Giuseppe (the St. Joseph’s altar). The altar is not just a complex expression of religious devotion and folk creativity by women who prepare dozens of sculptural breads and desserts. It is also a holy banquet to feed the poor, a vegetarian feast for a crowd that can swell into the hundreds in Sicily and East Texas alike.

Bringing the film to Sicily was a long time coming. Although it had appeared at academic conferences and a number of universities in the US, a lack of subtitles had kept the film out of wide circulation in Italy. We were lucky that a graduate student at the University of Sienna, Maria Grazia Candido, decided to subtitle the film for her MA project, suddenly allowing it to find a new life in Italy. Would Sicilians recognize Sicilian-Americans as their own? Would they get past the Texas accents and oversized belt buckles to care about distant relatives they had never met? Would they be interested at all? That’s what we were here to discover.

Taking us hundreds of miles around the island, the screenings brought us to urban universities in wonderfully grand ballrooms, smaller cities filled with baroque architecture, and rural villages in the western countryside. I’m writing at greater length about this experience elsewhere, so for now I’ll simply describe the final screening in the western Sicilian town of Poggioreale.

Once a stately town with a concert hall, Poggioreale was destroyed by earthquake in 1968, languished in a corrupt rebuilding process for two decades, and finally rebuilt down the hill in a sad modernist parody of the original. The mayor had invited us to show our film in the modest town hall on the feast day of St. Joseph, when elaborate altars are set up in the towns of the surrounding valley. We were arriving at the same time as a group of Circe’s relatives who were visiting the Sicilian altars for the first time. Quite by accident, three generations of Sicilian-Texan women and one delightful fellow named Ross, most of whom had appeared in Texas Tavola, would be converging on their ancestral home while I shot a constant stream of video and photos.

We had a powerful screening in this final stop—for us as filmmakers and, I think, for our audience. What we had done was relatively simple: we had recorded the ancient rituals of a small town thriving in a faraway place. But for this small act of ethnographic attention to the improbable flow of global culture, the community was effusively grateful, presenting us bouquets of flowers, equally florid speeches, and a generous luncheon in a town with scant resources. The mayor spoke, the deputy mayor spoke, even the “baby mayor” spoke with impressive authority (he is a 12 year old who wears a tri-color sash to indicate his official role as a junior politician). The Sicilians marveled that Texans still constructed altars in the old ways, taking over an entire house to construct something that would last only a few days like some sort of mezzogiorno “Burning Man.” One bystander said what was happening in Texas was “like something from Sicily 200 years ago.” Old people cried and shook our hands like we had found a long lost relative, which, in a modest sense, we had.

Announcement: SXSW Film Picks

With SXSW looming over us, we’ve curated a list of films that are of interest to folks who live beneath the American Studies umbrella. If you have a moment during spring break and want to catch a flick, check these out! If you don’t have a badge or wristband, tickets will go on sale about 15 minutes prior to screening time if there is still seating available. The single admission ticket price is $10 for all screenings. Need more details? Check out SXSW’s official website.

“Film Screening,” by Andy.

The 78 Project Movie (documentary)

The 78 Project Movie is a road trip across America to make one-of-a-kind 78rpm records with musicians in their hometowns using a 1930s Presto direct-to-disc recorder. With one microphone. One blank disc. In one 3-minute take. Along the way, a kaleidoscope of technologists, historians and craftsmen from every facet of field recording – Grammy-winning producers, 78 collectors, curators from the Library of Congress and Smithsonian – provide insights and history. In Tennessee, Mississippi, California, Louisiana, the folk singers, punk rockers, Gospel and Cajun singers in the film share their lives through intimate performances, and find in that adventure a new connection to our cultural legacy.

Above All Else (documentary) 

One man will risk it all to stop the tar sands of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from crossing his land. Shot in the forests, pastures, and living rooms of rural East Texas, “Above All Else” follows David Daniel as he rallies neighbors and environmental activists to join him in a final act of brinkmanship: a tree-top blockade of the controversial pipeline. What begins as a stand against corporate bullying becomes a rallying cry for climate protesters nationwide.

As in his previous film, “Mississippi Chicken”, director John Fiege puts a human face on a complex case of social injustice, capturing the South in all its drama and contradiction.

All American High (documentary)

In 1984—before cell phones, the web, and reality TV, a young director set out to document a year in the life of a typical California high school. The result was “All American High”, an unusually honest and humorous look at 80’s teen life. The Hollywood Reporter found it “fascinating and insightful” and The Village Voice called it “a laugh out loud documentary”. Told through the eyes of a visiting foreign exchange student, the film presents an uncensored view of senior year in the era of big hair, punks and parachute pants. Thirty years after they lived it, some of the film’s original subjects return in new interviews, revisiting one of the most memorable chapters in their lives.

Born to Fly (documentary)

Elizabeth Streb is not just a choreographer; she is an extreme action architect. “Born to Fly” traces the evolution of Streb’s movement philosophy – she pushes herself and her company from the ground, to the wall, to the sky. The film asks: Why is one person’s circus another person’s dance? One dancer’s gorgeous flight another dancer’s stunt work? Why call it art? Why choreograph it? Why have a role in performing it?

How might a film inspire a broad audience, hungry for a more tactile and fierce existence in the world?

Cesar Chavez (feature)

Directed by Diego Luna, “Cesar Chávez” chronicles the birth of a modern American movement led by famed civil rights leader and labor organizer, Cesar Chavez. Torn between his duties as a husband and father and his commitment to bringing dignity and justice to others, Chavez embraced non-violence as he battled greed and prejudice in his struggle for the rights of farm workers. His triumphant journey is a remarkable testament to the power of one individual’s ability to change the system.

Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound (documentary)

“Deep City” is an inspirational story that explores the early days of soul music in Florida, the era’s pioneers and their lasting contributions to the broader American musical landscape.

During the mid-1960s, producers Willie Clarke and Johnny Pearsall masterminded Deep City Records. Both from the streets of Miami, they honed the business and musical skills learned in college and went on to change the face of soul music in Miami and eventually the country by creating the first black-owned record label in Florida.

“Deep City” delves into the life and times of these groundbreaking producers, their label, the artists they spawned and the remarkable era in which they accomplished it.

For No Good Reason (documentary) 

Johnny Depp pays a call on his friend and hero Ralph Steadman and we take off on a high-spirited, raging and kaleidoscopic journey discovering the life and works of one of the most distinctive radical artists of the last 50 years.

The Frontier (feature)

Sean, a retired literature professor and civic activist, writes a letter to his estranged son, Tennessee, a ranch hand. Tennessee is uncertain how to respond, but knowing he should see his aging father, he decides to go home. Tennessee arrives just as Nina, Sean’s personal trainer fresh off a bad breakup, accepts Sean’s offer to move in and help him write his memoirs. The tension between Sean and Tennessee is ever-present. As Sean and Nina work, Tennessee avoids his overbearing father with fix-up projects around the house. One evening after Nina has gone out, Sean and Tennessee find themselves alone in the house for the first time. No longer able to avoid each other, the two men must talk.

Joe (feature)

A gripping mix of friendship, violence and redemption erupts in the contemporary South in this adaptation of Larry Brown’s novel. Directed by David Gordon Green (“Prince Avalanche”, “Pineapple Express”) the film brings Academy Award® winner Nicolas Cage back to his indie roots in the title role as the hard-living, hot-tempered, ex-con Joe Ransom, as he meets a hard-luck kid, Tye Sheridan (“Mud”, “Tree of Life”) who awakens in him a fierce and tender-hearted protector. Joe and Gary forge an unlikely bond. When Gary finds himself facing a a great threat, he turns to Joe and sets off a chain of events that play out with the brutal inevitability of tragedy and the beauty of a last stab at salvation.

Ping Pong Summer (feature)

The year is 1985. Rad Miracle is a shy 13-year-old white kid who’s obsessed with two things: ping pong and hip hop. During his family’s annual summer vacation to Ocean City, Maryland, Rad makes a new best friend, experiences his first real crush, becomes the target of rich, racist local bullies, and finds an unexpected mentor in his outcast next-door neighbor. “Ping Pong Summer” is about that time in your life when you’re treated like an alien by everyone around you, even though you know deep down you’re as funky fresh as it gets.

Que Caramba es la Vida (documentary)

Mariachi is an essential part of Mexican culture. It’s more than just music; it’s a lifestyle that views the world from a macho perspective. The business is tough and women are seldom appreciated in this strictly male domain. Nevertheless, a handful of female musicians choose to be Mariachi. Against the backdrop of the folky ‘Día de los Muertes’ celebrations, director Doris Dörrie accompanies the musicians to their performances on the streets of Mexico and throughout their daily lives. When the Mariachi women sing about death, love and poverty, the heavy issues of everyday life in Mexico City appear slightly more bearable.

Road to Austin (documentary)

“Road To Austin” chronicles how Austin, Texas became the Live Music Capital of the World, dating from 1835 to present. The film highlights 1800s Austin, the psychedelic movement, Armadillo World Headquarters, and numerous iconic musical inflection points that shaped the American musical culture of today. Vintage photos, posters, and footage are presented to a soundtrack that truly inspires! The film story line weaves towards an all-star live performance featuring Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton, Eric Johnson, Ian McLagan, Joe Ely, and 40 other Artists led by Musical Director, Stephen Bruton. Kris Kristofferson dedicates this film to Stephen Bruton.

Take Me to the River (documentary)

“Take Me to the River” is a feature film celebrating the inter-generational and inter-racial musical influence of Memphis in the face of pervasive discrimination and segregation. The film brings multiple generations of award-winning Memphis and Mississippi Delta musicians together, following them through the creative process of recording a historic new album, to re-imagine the utopia of racial, gender and generational collaboration of Memphis in its heyday. Featuring Terrence Howard, William Bell, Snoop Dog, Mavis Staples, Otis Clay, Lil P-Nut, Charlie Musselwhite, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Yo Gotti, Bobby Rush, Frayser Boy, The North Mississippi All-Stars and many more.

Announcement: The End of Austin featured in June 2013 Austin Monthly

Austin Texas Lake Front

Hey folks! We hope that you’ve been enjoying your summer so far. This morning, we have a bit of good news to share: in the June 2013 issue of Austin Monthly, you can find a half-page feature on The End of Austin. The piece is part of the magazine’s 2013 Newcomer’s Guide, which includes a whole host of content and information about what newcomers to the city need to know upon arriving here. That’s a super important project given that Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation.

Neither the article nor the guide seem to be online, but we’ll be sure to share links with you if they’re published. In the meantime, check out the issue on local newsstands!

Alumni Voices: Bob Bednar, Chair of Communication Studies at Southwestern University

Bob Bednar, AZ-85 North, West of Tucson, Arizona, August 2006.

Bob Bednar, AZ-85 North, West of Tucson, Arizona, August 2006.

Today, we offer another post in our recurring “Alumni Voices” feature from Bob Bednar, who graduated with a Ph.D. from the department in 1997.

How is the work that you’re doing right now informed by the work that you did as a student in American Studies at UT?

In some ways, what I am doing now is totally different from what I did in my time at UT, but in other ways, I feel the continuity.  I am now Chair of Communication Studies at Southwestern University in Georgetown, where I teach critical media studies and work mostly in the interdisciplinary fields of visual culture, material culture studies, memory studies, trauma studies, and automobility studies.  My training at UT AMS was focused almost entirely on cultural history.  Even in grad school, I was always drawn to contemporary culture, and within that, to material, visual, and spatial cultures, so I focused my energies “outside” instead of in the archive.  I always felt supported by the faculty for this approach, but I also knew that each of my mentors focused on the archive, so it was up to me to figure out my methodology.  I sometimes complained back then about the lack of guidance, but ultimately, that process of having to figure it out on my own in a challenging and supportive scholarly community was the greatest gift the program gave me.  Just the other day a student working on an undergraduate CommStudies Capstone project who read a recent article of mine on roadside crash shrines asked me the question: “This article covers so much ground.  How do you know where to start when you are entering a new field of inquiry?” I had a ready answer, because it is something I have been doing since my time at UT.

I didn’t learn how to talk about this until several years after I was finished, but the most important thing I learned in the AMS PhD program at UT was to figure out my own way of balancing creativity with constraint.  The three classes I took my first semester became figures in this process that I still think about today.

I was required to take a core class in recent AMS scholarship taught by Bob Crunden. Crunden was a force to be reckoned with—someone who reveled in showing us how much he knew and how little we knew.  I reckoned with him the only way I knew how to deal with people like him while I was in my twenties: I butted heads with him and worked hard trying to show him he was wrong.  At one point it degenerated into Crunden and I trading charges of “You are an a–hole” across the seminar table, but we always buried the hatchet over pints in the Texas Tavern after class, and I couldn’t help feeling extremely attached the A I got in that class.

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Recent Grad Research: John Cline’s “Arterial America”

Our graduates do amazing things. Like this: recent Ph.D. John Cline is preparing to walk from New Orleans to Chicago for a project entitled “Arterial America.”  He is raising funds through Kickstarter to support the trip, and there are a mere 24 hours to go! Check out his description of the project:

The original idea behind Arterial America (www.arterialamerica.com) was simple enough: get from New Orleans to Chicago. As a music historian—I graduated with a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Texas last May—the pathway between those two cities is of enormous significance: it’s the distance between Louis Armstrong and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, or between Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. But as this project shifted from idle thought to actual plan, it became clear that the way north has historically consisted of many routes, exceeding the bounds of a “Blues Trail” or even of an African American “Great Migration.” They go back to before Columbus, when American Indians followed what we now call the “Natchez Trace” across the states of Mississippi and Tennessee. That same trail was followed by boatmen from before the time of Mark Twain, hoofing it back to their hometowns after floating a raft full of goods to the port of New Orleans, returning with what coin remained in their pockets after the temptations of the Crescent City. The way north consists, too, of railways and roadways, and, of course, boats. And so, the plan is to walk from New Orleans to Memphis, following the back roads and bits of the Trace and Highway 61, catch a towboat from Memphis to St. Louis, and finally hop a train from St. Louis to Chicago. At the same time, I cannot travel the routes that I’m traveling and expect to find the “last of the Mississippi bluesmen.” Rather, what’s important at the outset is to keep my ears and eyes open to contemporary life.

John has raised 72% of his goal and has until Tuesday, January 15, 12:54pm EST to reach 100%. Check out the Kickstarter here and follow John on his project blog here.