Artists of the Year

Matthew Wilder is a visiting professor of acting at Cal Arts in Los Angeles. This spring he will direct Don DeLillo's Valparaiso at Sledgehammer Theatre in San Diego.

 

The Coen Brothers
By Godfrey Cheshire

 

Every screenwriting class contains an unbreakable commandment: Avoid the passive hero. By that measure, the central conceit of The Man Who Wasn't There--the main character is a blank or zero, a kind of human Zen koan--represents a nervy defiance of convention. Yet the reason the Coen Brothers' dare turns out to be so disarming has less to do with their foresight or skill than with the latest twist of the Zeitgeist. Making their chilly, poetic, late-Forties-set blend of classic noir and pulp fiction last year, the Coens had no way of knowing that America in the autumn of 2001 would be haunted by an emptiness in its civic heart, a bereft space formerly pulsing with human life. What perhaps began as a technical challenge became, on September 11, a dizzying metaphor.

Oddly, the Coens almost seem to have anticipated the change. The film's first line of dialogue, spoken by the protagonist's barber boss as he scans a newspaper, is, "Says here the Russians exploded an A-bomb and there's not a damn thing we can do about it." In looking back at these first moments of the Cold War from the onset of another era, with its new forms of dread, we can't help but feel that we're peering into a distant mirror (to borrow historian Barbara Tuchman's phrase)--and seeing a reflection of our own unease.

"I thought about what an undertaker had told me once," says the film's head-clipping criminal cypher (Billy Bob Thornton), "that your hair keeps growing, for a while anyway, after you die. And then it stops. I thought, 'What keeps it growing? Is it like a plant in soil? What goes out of the soil? The soul?'" Focused as it is on the hole in the American doughnut, The Man Who Wasn't There ultimately invites us to contemplate this mysterious growth: the intangible in any human life, no matter how delimited by banality or doomed by history. There are few things more worth pondering in this death-haunted season.

Godfrey Cheshire is a New York-based writer whose film criticism appears in the Independent Weekly. He is currently writing a book about the New Iranian Cinema for Faber & Faber.

 

Josie and the Pussycats
By Keith Harris

 

Forget Gorillaz. The cartoon band of the year wasn't some high-concept, high-minded sideline amalgam of artsy innovators. No, the soundtrack to the worst retro-kiddie 'toon cash-in since The Jetsons was the ultimate testament to the unexpected wonders of corporate groupthink. Credited to this nonexistent kittie-chick band are ten knockout examples of the well-crafted power pop we were led to believe would succeed grunge, before Fred Durst decided otherwise. Ladies and gentlemen...the best pop rock album of 1996!

Small wonder it sounds that way--the song credits read like a veritable Who's Who Cares of semi-retired Nineties ministars. Adam Duritz of Counting Crows! Jason Falkner of Jellyfish! Biff Naked! True, worthies like Matthew Sweet and the fabulous Anna Waronker (of the late, lamented That Dog) lend some gravitas (or its pop equivalent), and Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne) knows his way around a chord progression. But no one named in the liner notes (including "Executive Music Producer" Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds) has ever made an album this consistent. Or fun.

So figure that these artists thrive behind the mask of anonymity. Freed from their own egos and personae, they can unleash a hooky wallop and make dumb jokes and, you know, rock! without compunction. "Come On," for instance, lists ten writers--though I do have trouble picturing Babyface, Jane Wiedlin, and eight other accomplices huddled around a piano. So who deserves the big back pat? Well, in typical corporate fashion, everyone. Which means, no one. Not Schlesinger or Sweet or Edmonds, nor "Soundtrack Executive Producers" Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, nor even Kay "Josie" Hanley herself.

Ah yes, you might remember Hanley from her stint imitating a stillborn Blake Baby on the mic of Boston never-was-es Letters to Cleo. But here she growls like Joan Jett's bratty kid sis, a suburban chick who thinks donning kitty ears and telling mean boys to buzz off makes her "a punk-rock prom queen," as one lyric has it. If Hanley can make this big a noise by betraying her muse, just think what honorable craftsfolk might benefit from participating on the soundtrack for an imagined straight-to-video flop Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space. Evan Dando? Lisa Loeb? Dan Wilson?

Keith Harris is a Minneapolis-based writer who has contributed to Spin, Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice. He's a frequent contributor to City Pages.

 

Manoel de Oliveira
By Mark Peranson

 

A year of doubles, befores, and afters, 2001 found prolific provocateurs striving to be the next Soderbergh. Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl/Brief Crossing), the Farrelly Brothers (Osmosis Jones/Shallow Hal), Richard Linklater (Waking Life/Tape), and David Lynch (Mulholland Drive/Evird Dnallohlum) each devised daring pairs of works that, when taken in tandem, reverberate rather than synthesize. But the sublime double bill of Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira, who dashed off the refined feature I'm Going Home and its cousin, Oporto of My Childhood, is something else. Call it, if you wish, artistry. In these two seemingly effortless films, not a single shot is wasted: Both find the 93-year-old looking back at his life not in anger, but with curious resolution. While I certainly don't mean to give Oliveira a lifetime achievement award here, I can't imagine being more agitated than I was when a fellow Canadian critic remarked, after seeing I'm Going Home at Cannes, "He should die already."

Oliveira has directed about 40 films, and I haven't seen most of them; hell, I even walked

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