Artists of the Year

 

Greil Marcus is the author ofInvisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes andThe Dustbin of History.

 

ZVI DOR-NER

by Phil Anderson

As executive producer of People's Century, a BBC/PBS documentary series spanning these 100 years, Dor-Ner marshaled a huge staff and a host of archives to explore history at the ground level--one year and one theme at a time, in 26 films. Our information-saturated century was the first to be witnessed end-to-end in moving pictures, which makes a documentarian's job easy; still, Dor-Ner's gift was not just to find the most telling pieces of evidence but to match them with ordinary folks--witnesses, participants--speaking on camera, from everywhere. How did the Depression hit Chile? What was it like when movies came to Calcutta? How did sports become a business instead of a pastime?

Each one-hour episode (more will follow in the spring of '99) doggedly hunts down a strong thread of analysis and finds more than enough wisdom in the vox populi--as opposed to Ken Burns's gaggle of remote experts in their cozy sweaters. The shape placed around these truths is equally compelling, from the music of Zbigniew Preisner (composer for Kieslowski's great "Three Colors" trilogy) to the credit sequence: 100 years shown as a straight road, interrupted by ruin and then blessed by calm.

While other media savants will make sweeping, millennium-oriented films and programs in the months to come, this one had the essential idea: History is drama, and people live it as much as leaders do.

 

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

 

TOM HANKS

by Terri Sutton

In a fleshy New Yorker feature this month, Tom Hanks talks about his preference for characters who transform over the course of a movie, who have some "mystery" to them. The actor hated playing Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities, he admits: "He was a pussy from the beginning, and he was a pussy all the way through. He was just a big fat pussy." The role of Joe Fox in You've Got Mail was more to his liking, we may assume; certainly, the character arc is vintage Hanks. Fox starts out a merciless chain bookstore owner with no qualms about wiping out quaint independent neighborhood stores, and he ends up a compassionate chain bookstore owner with no qualms about wiping out quaint independent neighborhood stores. Along the way, he woos and wins the ex-proprietor of one of those now-closed, formerly quaint stores.

This is the blueprint Hanks generally sticks to as an actor, and he's awesome at it: taking a character who's not entirely sympathetic--a privileged gay man with AIDS, a mental defective, a loyal soldier at a time when everyone knows war is hell--and revealing his inner, everyday good-guyness. The character doesn't suddenly stop doing what he's doing: He's still gay and dying of AIDS, or acting clueless, or obeying orders. But as the audience watches this man's interior self struggle with that exterior identity, we find him by turns tragic, winsome, heroic. The character's role in the world hasn't much changed, but our perception of it has. We don't care anymore that Joe is the owner of a bookstore chain that routinely bulldozes little indie stores, because, hey, he doesn't feel thatgreat about it. And maybe, out of his guilt, he'll ask his staff to know a bit more about their product.

I remember leaving Saving Private Ryan in a state of arousal. Part of that physical excitement, no doubt, was set up by some ancient biological script requiring strong and efficient warrior seed. Part of it comes from the equally primal thrill of witnessing shit get blown up really artfully. But no small chunk of it concerns Capt. Hanks, and the gentle beauty of his pain. Under his adult-male masks, he's still a conflicted boy, at once frightened by the stoical ruthlessness men are supposed to develop and enchanted by the toys--bombs, businesses, films, people--that he'll get to play with if he does. I adore that boyish ambivalence: The emotions are so tender and fierce and available. I don't want him to make a choice: A choice is impossible. He's stranded between an archaic, oppressive persona and one that doesn't yet exist in our popular culture: the straight man who gives away power so he can live more freely.

The truth is, of course, that the actor has already chosen. Like Kurt Cobain and David Foster Wallace, past masters of this game, Hanks will make a show of his most vulnerable dreams and doubts, but he's still making a show, clogging the airwaves, filling up the bookshelves. He'll espouse social or artistic rebellion, leave the old men looking rigid and manipulative with his visceral self-analysis, but he still won't share his toys. Hanks's is a wrenchingly honest portrait of the American postwar, postfeminist male; and I would be the first to applaud him if only his characters tried to discover some way out of their paradox besides the stiff salute through the tears. (I don't recommend Kurt's route.) Meanwhile, my resolution for '99: Stop falling for this Oscar-winning sucker punch.

Terri Sutton is a Minneapolis writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.

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