Artists of the Year

All of which seemed to mean, well, something in the immediate aftermath of the WTC. It's strange and idiosyncratic and personal, made by a band of immigrants and first-generation natives who take "freedom of speech" at face value. As John Cougar Mellencamp once asked, Ain't that America?

Jesse Berrett lives in San Francisco and is the TV critic for City Pages.

 

Todd Field
By Rob Nelson

 

Let's imagine "the unimaginable." Suppose you lost the person you love most in this world--to illness, to opportunity, to bad timing, to what one leading authority defined as "senseless acts of violence." How will you deal with it? Will you move away? Rush back to normal? Keep the loved one alive in your memory? Destroy all familiar traces of him or her (or yourself)? Dull your pain through work or alcohol or television? Find those responsible and bring them to justice?

Addressing the terrible inadequacy of all such choices in the face of grief, In the Bedroom is a film that shattered those who saw it at Sundance in January, but which has accumulated even more power in light of what has happened since. After all, grief may be universal, but when you're the one dealing with grief, it's all about the circumstances. The movie is about a middle-aged, middle-class couple in small-town Maine whose college-bound son has fallen madly, deeply in love with a young, working-class woman, newly separated from her violent husband. Adapting the film from an Andre Dubus short story called "Killings" (a simple title whose plurality makes it profound), director Todd Field initially concerns himself with how these particulars conspire to cause tragedy. Then he turns to how the additional details that the couple have repressed during their marriage determine their very different responses.

Contrary to that leading authority, there's no such thing as a senseless act. Contrary to Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, there's no guarantee that one's grief will be resolved in five stages. And contrary to the three-act structure of conventional drama, there's no catharsis in Field's film; there's just more ache. Among the first-time director's many remarkable achievements--right up there with eliciting appropriately raw performances from Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson--is having somehow convinced Miramax's Harvey Scissorhands that a movie about the interminable nature of grief deserves to take its time. In other words, Field managed--perhaps only through luck--to succeed where so many of us this year failed: He kept his loved one safe from harm.

Rob Nelson is the film editor at City Pages.

 

Naomi Watts
By Greil Marcus

 

"The people must be put in terror of themselves in order to give them courage," Karl Marx wrote in 1843-44: "Of themselves" is the crucial phrase, and it falls to artists to hold up the mirror, to make it give up sounds, images, hints, and curses that politics conspires to hide. Who are we? What do we want? What do we fear? How far will we go to get what we want, or escape what we fear?

In the past year the artist who truly held up the terrorizing mirror was, in her work, the most terrorized: Naomi Watts as the cute blonde arriving in Hollywood to make it in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. One shock after another strips her identity from her, or, in the scene in the Club Silencio--where every speaker or singer is lip-synching, where the real is only an illusion of the false--shakes it out of her. As an actor, Watts rises to the challenge of extremist art: Moment to moment, again and again, you understand that only she can go further than she has already gone. Further than the heart-stopping sexual tease she essays in the course of an audition played with a bored, middle-aged actor. Further than the masturbation scene where her face becomes a landscape of pain and self-hatred so harsh it's almost unbearable to look at. Further than the moment when she steps out of LAX and into the sun, her eyes so full of anticipation they're like stars exploding. Further than the Hollywood coffee shop where after weeks or months her skin, like her jeans and t-shirt, seems already covered by a film of junkie dirt.

No pretty woman in her early 30s could look more ordinary, less movie-star blessed than Watts at her best. And without her ordinariness Watts could never put those who watch her in terror of themselves. We are, we can, we must, we will, we are told again and again, day by day--and maybe it will turn out that way. But those who speak that language will never put those who listen in terror of themselves, and what if there is no other way to find the courage to do what you think is right? How dangerous that is, how sometimes there is no turning back, is what Naomi Watts's performance is about.

Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces. The theatrical adaptation, by the Rude Mechs of Austin, Texas, will be at the Southern Theater January 17-19.

 

Heddy Honigmann
By Michael Tortorello

 

One day Klazien Van Brandwijk goes for a walk along the Mekong in Cambodia. She's a big woman wearing camo, a Dutch humanitarian worker in a peacekeeping operation, and she's frequently surrounded by kids. Sometimes, people try to prostitute these children to foreigners. "You could buy a child for $5," Van Brandwijk recalls. It's years later when the peacekeeper is telling this story. She sits in a cushioned chair wearing a short-sleeved floral-print shirt--a civilian again, in the sanctuary of her home. Once, she says, a young boy brought his infant sibling to her. The baby was too young to walk--a year or 18 months old. But the baby was making this obscene gesture with its mouth. A lewd, sucking motion. The baby was for sale. Van Brandwijk retreated to her hotel, where she would listen to Pergolesi's liturgical song "Stabat Mater." The music swells in the background as she recounts her story, back at home. She says that she couldn't view Cambodian children again after that episode. They didn't look the same. The voices on the recording tremble. Her hands cover her face. "No," she whispers. "No."

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