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Northern Light is a Stellar Doc of Real American Beauty

What do you do when there’s nothing left for folks like you? Work has mostly dried up for the hardscrabble Yoopers of Northern Light, Nick Bentgen’s gorgeous observational documentary about two families of snowmobile racers in Michigan’s ice-packed Upper Peninsula. Without regular jobs to shape their existence or senses of self, these men and women go all in on hobbies, keeping up a regional way of life that endures even as the U.P. offers little in the way of livelihood.

Bentgen introduces us to Walt Komarnizki, a trucker who isn’t getting runs like he used to, but who won’t let cash-flow problems keep him from leading a team in the annual I-500 race in Sault Ste. Marie, even if the expense means his wife has to put off a crucial dental visit. Bentgen captures several painful conversations about money between Mr. and Mrs. Komarnizki, the heads of a large, raucous family. She reminds him that the state offers “emergency funding for electric”; late in the film, they resort to borrowing money from her mother. Meanwhile, their charming home shakes with life: Sons laugh and wrestle, a young girl they’ve taken in bounces through the short summer on a trampoline, and a teen daughter marvels to Walt at the baby kicking inside her. The family behaves as if the cameras aren’t there, and the Komarnizkis start to feel, as the film wears on, not like the subjects of a documentary but like cousins or in-laws we check in on a couple times a year. Rather than high drama, these are moments of plain being, a rare immersion into the everyday lives of strangers.

Those moments, mostly brief, are shot with a rigorous, revelatory beauty by Bentgen, even the on-the-fly chats caught in the houses. He bisects his frames with partitions and refrigerators, his people gently crammed into their homes — not unpleasantly, but just enough so we feel with them the wide-open thrill of the frozen lakes they escape to.

Northern Light skims over the months between two I-500 races but takes a good hour to do so. Often, the film feels like watching someone else page through a world-class book of photography, as images you might want to linger over slip past. Witness Walt hosing down some ducks, or the family watching a summer storm roll in, or the furrows the snowmobiles have carved into the expansive white snow. A star field, densely riddled with lights, is echoed by two later shots of snow spitting down at street lamps. As the title suggests, Bentgen is especially interested in the light in this darkest corner of the lower 48. He studies its play in the snow dust kicked up by racers, in lake mist and tufts of breath, in smoke from bonfires and the sputtering exhaust of stock cars.

There is drama, too, especially in the face of Emily Wolfgang, a young woman married to Isaac, an I-500 racer with a serious shot at winning the race. (Komarnizki tends to wind up in the middle of the pack.) High school sweethearts now in their twenties, the Wolfgangs appear to be a model couple: comely, buff, deeply supportive of each other. Isaac lives for his racing, but Emily, driven and promising, seems nerved up and uncertain about what she wants: We see her cleaning her home with anxious zeal, and apparently on the verge of tears while grinding through her epic gym workouts. “I had four employers in that time period, 18 months,” she tells someone as she powers up a stair machine. Then, with a sigh and a shake of her head: “This sucks!”

But she keeps going.

As the film wraps up, the Wolfgangs and the Komarnizkis gather for their year’s biggest event, that wickedly dangerous 500-mile snowmobile race. Bentgen isn’t especially committed to following the sports drama, although the race does prove to be a nail-biter, with injuries and late reversals of fortune. (The prize is $10,000, not even enough to buy a good new snowmobile.) Instead, even this lengthy sequence of Northern Light focuses on its people and the light they live in. Emily wipes down the face shield of Isaac’s helmet as his partner takes over the racing for some laps, and Walt’s teen daughter works the snack bar while a friend keeps joking, uncomfortably, that it would be hilarious if her baby turned out to be black.

In the end, nobody’s lives seem much changed by the race. Everyone soldiers on, discussing the finer points of unemployment and disability, of getting by in a place without opportunity. Hearteningly, Emily discovers a life-shaping hobby of her own: In the final scenes, the U.P.’s most dedicated exerciser enters a bikini contest for fitness buffs, which is certainly no less ridiculous than competitive snowmobiling. I won’t say whether she wins or loses, just that her moment backstage, afterward, with her racer husband, is as beautiful as everything else in this strange, singular heartbreaker of a film about life still flourishing in the most inhospitable conditions.

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Mario Batali’s Restaurant Recommendations — In Northern Michigan

Apparently, Mario Batali spends his summers in Leelanau County. That must be in the Finger Lakes or in the Adirondacks, right? Wrong! It’s a rather obscure part of northwestern Michigan. Not in the UP (Upper Peninsula) either, but right across Lake Michigan from Green Bay, Wisconsin – to help you football fans get a bead on the location.

In the new issue of Traverse, a glossy monthly mag – call it the Northern Michigan version of New York magazine – Batali gives his favorite eight things to eat within easy driving distance of his vacation home. You could probably triangulate the actual location if you mapped out the recommendations.

Anyway, read the snippet on the magazine’s blog for yourself, but here are a couple of highlights:

He likes the pulled pork sliders at The Garage in Northport, of which he notes: “As if eating in a garage were not cool enough already.”

He’s also fond of the pastrami omelet at a place called Frenchies Famous in Traverse City, and some unexpected lunch enchiladas via someone named Miguel at the deli counter of Hansen Foods in Suttons Bay. Of the enchiladas, the orange-clogged chef notes, rather tersely: “Sassy enchilada sauce. Muy bueno.”

Batali makes you want to run up there and eat all these things right away. But it’s probably best to wait till the waist-high snow melts.

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Andrew W.K.

Best known for a single “Party Hard” that also summarizes his creative ethos, Andrew W.K. is a hard rocker who got his start in the cradle of Michigan’s punk scene. Once claiming he wanted his music to sound like freedom, W.K. writes anthemic rock songs with pounding piano, brash guitar, and repeated mantras about drinking and partying. Appropriately, his songs have ended up on everything from frat party playlists to beer commercials and Jackass. Now with six studio albums and a handful of EPs out, he’s got quite the repertoire of simplistic but wildly catchy rock songs.

Wed., March 6, 8 p.m., 2013

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Delloyd Hill, Alleged Doctor Impostor, Possibly Carried Out Similar Schemes in Multiple States

It could be a coincidence — but it probably isn’t.

Delloyd Thomas Hill was arraigned yesterday in Queens criminal court on charges relating to a signature forgery scheme that netted him at least $415,000 in medical equipment loans. Hill’s alleged crimes are awfully similar to the Delloyd T. Hill who orchestrated a similar scam in Michigan nearly 12 years ago — but the Queens District Attorney’s Office won’t confirm or deny whether it’s the same guy.

Regardless, he is the same man with a warrant out for his arrest for a criminal case in Newport News, Va., according to a release from the Queens District Attorney’s Office.

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Pretending to be a Harvard doctor with plans of opening his own medical facility, the 50-year-old Hill allegedly opened up three lines of credit with a medical equipment financing company called TCF Equipment Finance Inc.

He allegedly convinced his landlord and another individual to invest $35,000 and $30,000 respectively in his “medical facility.” He is accused of stealing the identity of six doctors who interviewed with Hill in hopes of working at the faux-facility.

Hill allegedly signed-off on the loans using the identities of those eight individuals — one line of credit for $215,000, the other for $200,000 and a third line of credit for an undisclosed amount.

As we mentioned, a man named Delloyd T. Hill was implicated in civil suit filed in the Michigan Court of Appeals. The Hill in this case was said to have defrauded a credit corporation out of more than $158,000 in 1997.

Can you guess how he did it? No?

Well, He set up two fictional medical operations — called Pyramid Medical and Metropolitan Medical and Diagnostic Services — applied for a loan with a credit corporation to purchase the medical equipment and then signed-off on the loan by forging the signatures of four doctors.

The details of the criminal case in Virginia are unclear.

If convicted on yesterday’s charges, Hill, who is being held without bail, faces up to 15 years in prison.

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SOUL SURVIVOR

Michigan native Mayer Hawthorne executes his throwback r&b with so much period precision that a casual observer might assume the stuff was rescued from the vaults at motown. Listen closely, though, and Hawthorne starts distinguishing himself: “From the moment that I met you, I thought you were fine,” he sings over an easygoing groove in “The Walk” from last year’s How Do You Do. “But your shitty fuckin’ attitude has got me changing my mind.” Tonight, Hawthorne launches a North American tour with his backing band, the County, which will keep him on the road through July.

Mon., April 16, 9 p.m., 2012

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

In light of Michigan’s storied, mounting miseries, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s immersive, florid pop registers as something of a non sequitur. There’s a comforting, psychedelic-lite head rush to what Josh Epstein and Daniel Zott accomplish with their unmistakeable combination of vocal harmonies, soft-shoe synths, and a beach-chair vibe. Debut It’s A Corporate World even begs a timely question: Who needs chillwave when this duo supplies that genre’s fuzzy contact highs with smart, defined melodies as backbones? If nothing else, Epstein and Zott are producing a soundtrack to their home state’s recovery, one florid good vibration at a time.

Sat., Sept. 24, 8:30 p.m., 2011

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Wall of Shame

There’s an old saying in journalism: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

It’s a facetious way of saying: Trust no one, verify everything.

Yet some of the biggest, most respected media outlets in the country failed to perform their due diligence when it came to the Schapiro study’s ridiculous claims about a nationwide child trafficking epidemic.

In an era defined by fast-paced blogging and doing more with less, reporters have precious little time to document the information they’re regurgitating. This leaves readers vulnerable to pseudoscience and quackery.

The following is an alphabetical list of news organizations that repeated the Schapiro study’s erroneous claims:

  • CNN, Online sex ads complicate crackdowns on teen trafficking, September 14, 2010
  • Dallas Morning News, Sex trafficking of young girls could soar, January 20, 2011
  • Detroit Free Press, Sex sites on the web exploit nearly 160 Michigan girls monthly, experts say, January 26, 2011
  • Detroit Free Press, Advocates work for tougher laws, November 7, 2010
  • Fort Worth Examiner, Sex trafficking, Texas children bought and sold online, January 25, 2011
  • Grand Rapids Press, Human trafficking, exploitation on the rise in Michigan, September 6, 2010
  • Houston Chronicle, Faith groups tackle sex trade surrounding super bowl, February 2, 2011
  • Miami Herald, Girls trapped in modern-day slave trade, January 30, 2011
  • Minneapolis Star Tribune, Teen prostitutes get new status, February 26, 2011; Sexually exploited kids are victims, March 6, 2011
  • Minnesota Public Radio, Sex trafficking on the rise in Minnesota, March 8, 2011
  • MsMagazine.com, Jailing girls for men’s crimes, December 8, 2010
  • Pegasus News, Dallas is hotspot for exploitation of adolescent girls, January 28, 2011
  • St. Paul Pioneer Press, Minnesota’s child sex profile rising, September 8, 2010
  • USA Today, New efforts target child sex trafficking; more groups and activists band together, September 30, 2010
  • WFAA, Study counts sexually exploited girls in Texas, January 19, 2011
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CLOWNIN’ AROUND

Oh, the Juggalo. That much-maligned grease-painted kid. The self-identified scrub who testifies to a familial connection with evil-harlequin rappers Insane Clown Posse and their homespun underground label, Psychopathic Records. The perpetually misunderstood outcast who’s been the subject of endless Internet jokes, a CSI episode, and even a Village Voice cover story. Brooklyn photographer Jason Shaltz considers himself a kindred spirit and, earlier this year, escaped New York for three weeks to follow ICP protégés Twiztid across 10 cities. On his self-propelled project, the Michigan native documented fellow Juggalos gathered outside the tour venues, before and after shows, and returned home with gorgeously empathetic portraits of the “most hated people in the world.” They’re on display at the Mishka store as The Juggalo, and for tonight’s show opening, there will be horrorcore DJ mixes, wicked-clown tributes, and Faygo mixed drinks.

Fri., Nov. 5, 7 p.m., 2010

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DETROIT ROCK CITY

When you think of the look and sound of ’80s hardcore, New York, D.C., Boston, and Southern California automatically come to mind. But Michigan? Yes, two new books look back at its underground: Why Be Something That You’re Not: Detroit Hardcore, 1979–1984 is an oral history by Tony Rettman that captures the bands (Negative Approach, the Meatmen, and Bored Youth, to name a few) and all the skaters and knuckleheads who revived the stagnant Detroit scene, and Touch and Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine, ’79–’83, by Tesco Vee and Dave Stimson, is a look back at the influential music zine, with essays by Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye. Tonight is a reading of both books with ’80s hardcore videos, signings, and drinks.

Tue., Aug. 24, 7 p.m., 2010

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The Verve Pipe

Not to be confused with the Verve, whom most of us Yanks know as one-hit wonders, this ’90s Michigan band is probably remembered as a two-hit wonder with “The Freshman” and “Photograph.” But could you really say that the later song stands up against the very different yet identically titled tracks from Ringo Starr or Def Leppard? If you’re enamored with emo-pop, then this reunion will seem pretty heartening. Then again, Jimmy Eats World and Weezer have much deeper, better catalogs.

Sat., July 10, 4 & 9 p.m., 2010