Artists of the Year

 

BILL HILLSMAN AND THE "VENTURA FOR GOVERNOR" CREATIVE TEAM

by Christina Schmitt

With one week to go before election day and the race for Minnesota governor too close to call, the Ventura for Governor campaign prescribed a media blitz. Problem was, Jesse Ventura was the Six Million Dollar Man with only a $300,000 budget.

"We couldn't take Jesse off the campaign trail to shoot a commercial," says Bill Hillsman, the campaign's creative director and media consultant. So instead of filming Iron Range supporters with outrageous Minnesota accents, or pinning down the Body for some studio time, Hillsman and the campaign's creative team made an unprecedented move. Their solution: A "surrogate Jesse" in the guise of a doll--a sort of cross between a white Action Jackson and G.I. Joe just returned from the front. In the commercials, one boy has the Body's homunculus rebuff Evil Special Interest Man: "I don't want your stupid money." Ventura came off as righteous and bad-ass. He could--as the saying now goes--beat up your governor.

If Ventura didn't appear born for the political ring, no one could deny that he was ready-made for caricature: the bald head, the mustache, the massive 250-pound Body wrapped in a suit. It's anyone's guess how much Hillsman's ads contributed to Ventura's surprise victory, but they did provide a different image from the seemingly impotent Humphrey and the glad-handing Coleman.

"Jesse understands popular culture," says Hillsman, a campaign veteran who worked on Sen. Paul Wellstone's maverick 1990 campaign. Ventura, he says, waited only two seconds after first viewing the commercials before slapping the table in approval.

And to the victor go the spoils--or to the victor's transition team, at least if Minnesotans for Ventura Inc. can ever get the doll ready to sell on market. Between the biography and the movie offers, perhaps the Body will soon be spread too thin. That said, I wish the transition office the best of luck in trying to use the capitalist's spirit to enrich the populist's coffers.

 

Christina Schmitt is A List editor at City Pages.

 

JOHN GOODMAN

by Britt Robson

Goodman's mastery at grounding broad comedies with resonant basslines has never been put to better purpose than in his portrayal of Walter, the dim-witted Vietnam vet in the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski. By any measure, Goodman's Walter is a violent, stupid man, a guy who spends most of the film telling one of his two best friends to "shut the fuck up"--this, when he isn't demolishing an auto with a tire iron or pulling a gun on a bowling opponent during an argument over a foot fault on the lanes. It's Goodman's gift that Walter remains one of the year's most lovable characters, and certainly the most hilarious. This ample actor makes us believe in the good intentions behind his character's careening passion, and in the internal integrity of his skewed moral code; he humanizes the Coen Brothers' caricature so deftly that it darkens and deepens Lebowski's comedic clout.

Walter is merely the best of Goodman's empathetic and memorable blue-collar portraits. The actor's brusque, manic energy is always near the surface because of the agility of his outsized girth. At the same time, though, Goodman brings emotional nuance to play in his face and gestures. Watching reruns of Roseanne this year, one notices how much responsibility Goodman owns for establishing that sitcom's vaunted social realism; again, his presence is a soulful anchor that lends credence to those around him. And when he does choose to go over the top, the results can be devastatingly cruel, as in his indelible parody of a binge-eating Linda Tripp talking with Monica on a Saturday Night Live skit.

John Goodman is not the sort of artist who will ever change your life, but it's pretty much assured that he'll improve your mood whenever you catch his act. In a year bereft of visionaries, his consummate craftmanship and yeoman's devotion to the average Joe deserves to be noticed.

 

Britt Robson is a Minneapolis writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.

 

OUTKAST AND TAYLOR BRANCH

by Peter S. Scholtes

To Outkast's roughly half-black, half-white audience at First Avenue, the "Everybody move to the back of the bus" refrain might have sounded like a call for white America to integrate into African America, for North to go South. But this ambiguous chorus of the song "Rosa Parks" isn't all that links the hip-hop duo to civil rights historian and fellow Atlanta native Taylor Branch, whose second volume of America in the King Years, Pillar of Fire, came out early this year.

Like Lauryn Hill, rappers Big Boi and Andre Benjamin take an emotional page from Nina Simone's "Young, Gifted, and Black," where the singer was "haunted" by her past. Simone was probably thinking about a childhood in segregated North Carolina, but the MCs find just as many ghosts in modern Atlanta, and they chase them not to solve the mystery of themselves but to figure out what went wrong in their hometown. Like good historians, Outkast are bracing in their sureness of craft, and their album Aquemini is a vivid picture of Southern living--and dying--as fresh as it is disturbing. In one typically spacey mix of funk and reggae, Benjamin remembers looking at the stars with a lover who never made it out of the ghetto alive, and later considers the meaning of the word "trap," lamenting a generation lost in a cloud of "Billy Clint."

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