Artists of the Year

SONY VX1000, SONY PC7, CANON SL-1, ET AL.

by Rob Nelson

At the start of this decade, the intermittently visionary Francis Coppola peered into his crystal ball and saw the future of cinema--in the form of "some little fat girl in Ohio." More specifically, Coppola was imagining a new apparatus that might enable such a girl to get her "little" vision onto the screen. "To me, the great hope is that now these little 8mm video recorders have come around, and some [ordinary] people who normally wouldn't make movies are gonna be making them... And for once the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever, and it'll really become an art form."

In '91, Coppola's prophecy of cinematic democratization supplied the perfect ending to Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now (and the consequential unmaking of a certain professional filmmaker). But it wasn't until '98 that a sizable portion of this pro's prediction came to pass. For this year saw the release of The Cruise, The Last Broadcast, The Celebration, and The Saltmen of Tibet: four hugely original and innovative debut features that simply wouldn't exist were it not for the technology their makers used to shoot them. All four films employed lightweight, low-cost digital video camcorders whose "three-chip" design allowed for high-quality images even in low-light situations; and all four managed to play on big screens in commercial venues across the country. (Let me also mention that veteran doc-maker Albert Maysles came to Minneapolis last July with a jury-rigged Canon SL-1 in tow, cradling it like a newborn baby and dreaming out loud about the Mayslesian verities it might bring.)

Still, I know what you're thinking: Can a camera really be an artist, much less the Artist of the Year? Well, in a word, yes. After all, if it's the job of the artist to develop new means of expression, and the job of the great artist to inspire others less privileged to do likewise, then the $3,000 DV camcorder did more for the artistry of movies than any moviemaker in '98.

Consider the evidence: The inconspicuous mini-DV camera allowed Saltmen director Ulrike Koch to capture a nearly extinct Tibetan ritual to which she was denied official access by the Chinese government; the palm-sized Sony PC7 effectively gave The Celebration's Thomas Vinterberg one helluva Louma crane, the likes of which Orson Welles would have killed for; the Sony VX1000 helped the makers of The Last Broadcast complete their digitally transmitted mock-doc for a thrillingly measly $900; and the VX1000 also absolved Cruise director Bennett Miller of the need to seek funding for his perverse portrait of the artist as a young tour-bus guide--the heretofore unknown Timothy "Speed" Levitch.

One caveat: Miller, perhaps to attract or appease distributors of what could have been a truly radical movie, spent $100,000 to beautify his image (and sound) in advance of its transfer to 35mm--in effect delivering control of this affordable format to the money men. (Didn't the DV image look decent enough as it was? And who'd want a pro-quality portrait of a street poet anyway?) Conversely, the challenge to supporters of low-tech, grassroots cinema is to convince distributors that we don't particularly care what the image looks like if the story is sharp: I mean, did anyone complain about the picture quality of Hoop Dreams, shot on regular video in the days before DV?

Assuming other DV directors can resist the self-defeating urge to make their work look more "professional," and/or developments in Internet and satellite technology do away with the need for distributors altogether (one can dream, can't he?), I believe I have an early candidate for 1999's Artist of the Year: some little fat girl in Ohio.

 

Rob Nelson is film editor at City Pages.

 

THE ARTIST

by Robyne Robinson

Minnesota's ace card has always been its ability to metamorphose: Pop hybrids spring up here like hothouse orchids, and musicians experiment and cross-pollinate genres as often as they start new bands. While the national music scene stumbles in its search for the Next Big Thing, there are still artists in Minnesota creating music in provocative, forward-thinking collaborations. And this year offered amazing evidence of that--from Dynospectrum's art-hop and Jason Heinrich's award-winning drum-'n'-bass-influenced car ads to the national successes of NEXT and Semisonic.

While it's been a year of incredible bounty for many Minnesota artists, I still believe the Artist has had the most impact as a musician and a businessman. On daring and personal resourcefulness alone, the Artist has kept his rightful stature atop the local scene by determining his own musical and financial fate. The possibilities of marketing and distribution through the Internet are still new, and he has hit snags along the way (like the 5,000 lost orders of his online-only offering, the five-CD Crystal Ball set). But he has walked away from being someone else's organ grinder's monkey by putting out three releases in 1998 on his newly created New Power Generation records, a feat that recalls the marketing prowess of Berry Gordy. And he figuratively gave the finger to Warner Bros. by rereleasing seven new versions of his legendary hit "1999," the original of which remains in their catalog.

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