Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
It’s hard to believe we’re nearly halfway through 2023 already, and, as evidenced by the great work of my colleagues, it’s been a busy year for rural stories in entertainment and pop culture. For the first time since January, we didn’t have an immediate notion for what we wanted to spotlight here this time around.
That’s not a bad place to be though, as it gives us an opportunity for an overdue roundup. Keep reading below for my latest curated batch of recommendations. Per usual, it’s our pleasure to bring you some suggestions for things you might have overlooked or not necessarily considered in this rural context.
Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands
The comics artist Kate Beaton is perhaps best known for her work on “Hark! A Vagrant,” a popular webcomic that, along with some contemporaries, marked a distinct era in internet humor. Whether you’ve consciously read any “Hark!” comics or not, you are almost certain to have seen its characters and comedic charms spreading across the online discourse, via social media, in email chains, or on a T-shirt or coffee mug.
Beaton’s latest work, from 2022, is her graphic memoir, “Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands.” As you might gather from the format and the title, it’s a much heavier and more personal work, charting Beaton’s choice to leave the small town she loves and go work in the oil sands of Alberta in order to pay off her student loans.
It’s a powerful piece of documentary work, with themes and personal stakes that are likely to resonate with any regular reader of the Daily Yonder. Beaton’s style of illustration is simple but effective; she captures a workplace that is at once familiar and mundane but also uniquely oppressive and dangerous. The toll of the work is obvious but not presented in a heavy-handed way, and she provides nuanced portraits of her colleagues, even as they toil in an environment that erodes their humanity at every turn.
“Ducks” is not necessarily a searing takedown of Canada’s oil industry or even a commentary on economic interests versus environmental destruction. It’s simply a personal story about the prices Beaton paid to pursue her passions; that makes it all the more resonant as a reflection on the world that sets and extracts those prices.
You can read Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands in print or ebook format via your local library or wherever books are sold.
Drifting Off with Joe Pera
If you, like me, are still mourning the loss of “Joe Pera Talks with You” from the world of TV and streaming, you might find some consolation in Pera’s new podcast. It’s a smaller project and a decidedly less rural one, often recorded from the basement of Pera’s New York City apartment, but the show retains a similar spirit to the cancelled sitcom set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Take, for example, episodes that get into the rural roots of Gaelic language, our relationship with wide open spaces — as mediated through the video game Western “Red Dead Redemption” during pandemic era lockdowns — and the comforts of homemade soup. One could consider Pera the pop culture equivalent of a rural expat, and that’ll keep me watching and listening for whatever comes next — and hoping for a potential homecoming to his small-town exploits, one day perhaps.
Star Wars: Visions
I can’t fault anyone who has become disenchanted by the volume of Star Wars content being churned out in recent years. It can be hard to keep up with what’s new and worth watching and quite easy to simply tune out or take a break. If you face such a conundrum, “Star Wars: Visions” is a fun, low-commitment way to get a quick fix and carry on. It also has the benefit of being definitively in the “good Star Wars” column, alongside last year’s “Andor” (which I will continue to recommend at every opportunity).
“Visions” is an animated anthology, a format I’m thrilled to see gaining more traction in the streaming age. A fresh batch of these animated shorts released less than a month ago, in observance of “May the Fourth,” 2023. While last year’s initial iteration was made up entirely of works from Japanese animation studios, this second round brings in animation teams from all across the world, with a diverse mix of artistic styles to match. There are shorts made with stop-motion, including one from Aardman Studios of “Wallace and Gromit” fame. Cartoon Saloon of Kilkenny, Ireland offers a short in their crisp and colorful hand-drawn style. There’s no dearth of more traditional computer-generated animation here either, but whatever the style, the mix of studios represent a variety of different cultures and locales from Chile to Spain, and South Africa to South Korea.
It’s a refreshing sight, and it’s fair to say you’ve never seen Star Wars like this, as cliche as that may sound. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, there’s a rural spirit at the center of Star Wars, and “Visions” is a really cool case study in how giving new voices a chance to play in that sandbox can yield stellar results.
You can watch Star Wars: Visions on Disney Plus.
Speaking of Japanese animation studios, it’s fair to say that their medium, anime, has reached new levels of mainstream popularity, breaking through in a variety of venues, from TikTok to the Target aisle. You could be forgiven for still considering anime a bit of a niche concern, but in either case, I’d argue there have always been exemplars of the form that have garnered notice and acclaim beyond enthusiast circles.
There’s the work of Studio Ghibli of course, and much could be said about the rural themes in their iconic works, from “My Neighbor Totoro” to “Princess Mononoke.”
Recently staking a claim among their ranks is Makoto Shinkai, whose latest film, “Suzume” released in the U.S. in April. While not entirely alike in their approach, one thing Ghibli and Shinkai films share in common is immaculate renderings of Japanese countryside and day-to-day life in these spaces (making enough of an impression to spur real-world tourist activity).
Shinkai has talked about how “Suzume” was inspired by Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, and his first breakthrough feature, “Your Name,” similarly follows a small town confronting calamity. For the unfamiliar, that short description undersells the tender and silly earnestness that also exists in these films, and the only way to square it all and appreciate their unique appeal is to give them a look yourself.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.