Artists of the Year

Makers who mattered in 1995

Howard Hampton writes for Film Comment.

BUSTER KEATON

by Phil Anderson

Was Buster Keaton--who would have turned 100 this year--the "silent Jim Carrey" or the Great American Loner? Should we know him as the guy who gave Woody Allen the basic gimmick in The Purple Rose of Cairo? Was he a quintessential victim of child abuse? Was he an inventor, artist, poet, and performer to rival Edison, Rube Goldberg, Sam Beckett, or Baryshnikov? Around Keaton's birthday (October 4), it got to the point where I was seeing him everywhere--not just in elegant little profiles in toney magazines, but even in a car-collector's magazine I found in a waiting room, which featured a memoir about him and his jazzy old roadster.

Maybe Keaton's Stone Face persona invited all this; he was, after all, a pretty basic guy. A pratfall perfectionist who didn't really go to school, he loved gadgets so much he saw the poetry in them. Eventually he was a betrayed drunk who escaped the bottle and lived to have a cozy and--just barely--distinguished retirement before his death in 1966. He was aware before he died that deep thinkers wanted to plug him into some slots he'd never heard of, and he had a ready opinion about "that genius bullshit."

But just look at one of his movies--even those humble little shorts, like One Week, The Electric House or The Playhouse. This stiff yet graceful little man is up against a building or a machine (including the projector itself), and what he does with it is mess with it like he's playing a tune or squeezing clay. Keaton's approach to big, mechanical things speaks volumes about a century almost ending, when machines (even ones with no visible moving parts) have taken such an enormous role in our lives. For Keaton, the constructed environment--even if it was a motorcycle passing a sedan, two convenient perches for a mid-street change in transportation--was a Goliath and he conquered it constantly.

He conquered it with his own hybrid movie structure, something between a flow chart and a choreographic diagram. Not speaking and not smiling, he made movement and interrelated movement his art form. (Speed had nothing on this guy.) Revealingly, in his retirement Keaton built a model train layout that was essentially his biography, each little stop a mini version of a place he had lived or worked. He expressed his thoughts with concrete things and acts. You can't get more American than that.

So why is a dead guy who never spoke worth celebrating when he didn't do anything this year? Because Buster Keaton still reigns as an exemplar; Costner and Schwarzenegger and Steve Martin and Van Damme and the kung fu specialists of John Woo or Jackie Chan owe him enormous debts. Keaton knew how to fuse action into comedy and even drama and still keep it gracefully casual, and he didn't telegraph his big. Maybe this is the year people finally figured out he was a permanent landmark, and a perpetual benchmark. So if our current action/comedy artists admit he came before, they're princes. If they ignore him they're the blunt, boring fools they seem to be.

Phil Anderson is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.

DAN COLE

by Jim Meyer

In a year when professional sports went berserk, local fans heard a voice of common sense from The Common Man, a.k.a. Dan Cole, KFAN's night shift host. From 6 to 9 p.m., Cole rallies the huddled masses not just by serving up the usual bash-and-trash claptrap, but some things that are far more subversive: brotherhood, and a welcome sense of perspective.

While bylined big shots like Dan Barreiro and Tom Powers whine for the Winnipeg Jets or analyze the Gophers-Badgers football score with the gravity of World War II generals, Cole calls a bore a bore and moves on to more interesting topics--usually himself, or his listeners. But whereas many other jock-talkers berate their callers to inflate their own low self-esteem (or to offset their lack of agility), the Common Man is also a compassionate man, and a humble guy to boot. "You're my guy," he tells outgoing callers; "I like the way you think," he says to a guy who suggests NFL underdogs should actually get additional points just to make the game more exciting.

See, Cole knows that real-life excitement is a far greater goal than cheering some meaningless touchdown and the camera-ready chicken dance that inevitably follows. And while most of the nation retreats to e-mail networks and shops for home security systems, Cole arranges golf foursomes and poker parties over the air with kind strangers and distant acquaintances. He'll even broadcast his voice-mail number if it means a cheap thrill in the near future, or two more bodies at his Monday Night Football tour of Ground Round restaurants in the metropolitan area, where common guys gather to laugh at Cole, at life, and at themselves.

Not only does Cole remember "it's just a game," but he understands instinctively that the same is said of life itself, and that the "players" Shakespeare refers to are the ones worth keeping track of. On KFAN, Cole creates a populist kind of power that's greater than the whole NFL put together. That's just one reason why he's my guy.

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