Artists of the Year

Framed, penned, screened, danced, sung, shot, delivered: City Pages lauds the artistic creations of 1999

 

Amy Taubin is a film critic at the Village Voice.

 

ALAN BALL

by Casey Stangl

My vote for artist of the year goes to Alan Ball: for sheer artistry in the form of his screenplay for American Beauty; and prolific bulk, as he's also executive producer and head writer for the new ABC sitcom Oh Grow Up. I admit I'm biased: My theater company produced some of Ball's early work--hilarious one-acts called Your Mother's Butt and Power Lunch, which remain among our biggest hits--when he was still an aspiring playwright living in Brooklyn and writing copy for an ad agency. Ball is one of those rare, talented nice guys who really deserves fame and fortune.

Ball's work is always good--clever, witty, sharp, sometimes glib--but with American Beauty he achieves depth and compassion, two qualities in short supply in our millennial moment of cynicism. The night I saw the movie, I waited in line--in the first cold rain of the season--with about 200 Edina suburbanites looking for fun. I wondered if they knew the movie was about them, and it struck me how curious it is that people crave seeing themselves reflected, even in unflattering lights. I knew I would like the movie--after all it was Ball, some great actors, and a cool British director, Sam Mendes. But I was hoping to love it and fearful I wouldn't. God knows we've seen plenty of suburban angst/let's-laugh-at-their-expense films.

When I watched the scene with the plastic bag blowing in the wind and listened to the wonder in that lonely boy's voice describing its beauty, I cried. And watching Annette Bening chant "I will sell this house today" and then scream and hit herself when she didn't eerily recalled my workaholic self. My fellow audience members, who upon closer inspection were a more diverse group than I had first thought, were also riveted, and we shared that fantastic communal experience of witnessing Art. And Beauty. Without sentiment or sensationalism, we watched something brave and insightful and had a good time doing it. When the movie ended, my husband and I turned to each other and said, "Wow. Right on, Alan."

 

Casey Stangl is artistic director of Eye of the Storm.

 

MICHAEL GLAWOGGER

by Michael Tortorello

Michael Glawogger's documentary Megacities is practically nothing but trouble--starting with the projection itself. When this Austrian-made chronicle of the urban wastelands of the world screened as part of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival in April, the projectionist showed the reels in the wrong order. Yet it must be said that Glawogger's film almost begs to be jumbled, being a kind of episodic, unguided travelogue through the hells of Bombay, Moscow, Mexico City, and New York. Is one vast and infected field of rubbish, one cramped shantytown different from any other?

This bruising and problematic film is evidence that every infernal slum is, in fact, unique, and it is the accomplishment of Megacities to animate these universes with frighteningly vivid detail. And so in Mexico City we visit with a plump mother of two in her small apartment over breakfast, then follow her into a dim theater where she crawls naked across the stage. There men paw, grab, and suck her without interference (and without leaving money). The event seems to occur in slow motion, excruciating motion, the woman rolling like a punch-drunk boxer at the edge of a battle royal, absorbing the blows with her whole body, then moving into the grasp of the next opponent.

Later (or is that earlier?), we follow a Mexican garbage hauler riding in a horse-drawn wooden box through a dump that stretches endlessly in the distance--a place that makes our own Fresh Kills look like Yosemite. He rumbles down the rutted streets like a Roman charioteer--the Mexican Ben-Hur--collecting pesos for each pickup, and moving higher above his mount as the garbage accumulates beneath his feet.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, a rigid team of policemen strap single, defeated-looking men down to beds in a detox unit. There, the men plead, wheedle, threaten, beg, cajole--anything to avoid a night in the clink. And when that fails--and it apparently always does--they howl as if they were being vivisected without anesthetic.

Survival in these scenes is both a competitive sport and a ceremony of squalor, a theme that carries over into the segments set in Bombay. In one sequence, an assembly line of young butchers in a dirty room cut the heads off squawking chickens, then toss their frantic and fluttering bodies into a metal drum--the spray of blood everywhere, the drum thumping with spurts of life.

Megacities is a nature film, a highly staged and manipulated documentary that has been made to reveal the ghastly beauty of the species' adaptability. There is something complicated and offensive in the relationship between the viewer, the camera, and the subjects--as is the case with many powerful movies.

Yet ultimately, the documentary is not dehumanizing. The filmmaker repeatedly finds the ravaged metropolitans looking for fraternity, for sport, for art. The sanitation charioteer plays soccer in a stiff rain with his jersey-clad coworkers. An older Mexican couple leaves their tortilla stand and dances close together to the urgent merriment of trumpets and an accordion. And in a somewhat eerie reverie, an Indian busker shows children ten-second film loops through the aperture of a battered machine he totes on his back from slum to slum. It's a gleeful moment of Bollywood magic: The traveling projectionist thrilling the kids with snippets of our world, Glawogger's camera drawing us ineluctably into theirs.

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