Artists of the Year

Chris Lehmann is deputy editor of the Washington Post's Book World and the author of the forthcoming pamphlet essay "Revolt of the Masscult."

 

Isabelle Huppert
GREIL MARCUS

Eminem's "lose yourself" feels like the most powerful single artistic statement of the year. Running under the closing credits of 8 Mile, it turns the good movie that preceded it into a lie: not enough. The song, as a friend said, may be itself a lie--you get only one chance in this life, etc. But the building fire in Eminem's voice--in his whole body, with the orchestration of voices that in each chorus seems to accuse the singer of falling short of his own demands on himself, on his art, on life, is itself those demands.

DJ Shadow's The Private Press is an infinitely deeper, more expansive version of the experiments carried out in 1996 on Endtroducing. This time Shadow maps not only the possibilities of his own cut-and-pasting, he maps the U.S.A., cast in the negative: as a story about death. Everything leads to death here, and away from it--as if confronting the death of yourself, of everyone around you, of your society, is the most thrilling and sobering way to understand the beauty of the world. It's a story. Is there a happy ending?

But everything pales against the mystery in The Piano Teacher: the mystery of Isabelle Huppert's performance. For more than 30 years she has played her blank face and her rigid, imprisoned body against society's demands that her characters come out of themselves, be themselves, find themselves, free themselves. And again and again she has taken her characters a step away from the liberation promised by therapy, consumption, sex, knowledge, or the audience's fantasy of what the blessed life of an actress must be. Here it's as if her middle-aged piano teacher--wedded through incest to her mother, to her profession by her own limits as a musician, to her own body through pornography and self-mutilation ("We cannot escape our lives in these fascist bodies," Camille Paglia wrote in Sexual Personae, and that is the drama here)--is carrying every role Huppert has ever played to a conclusion.

It's a conclusion that takes place offscreen. Just as, for the time being, what happens in the movie--the horrendous scene in the public restroom where Huppert's confused, terrified younger lover fucks her in the mouth (this is not "oral sex"; Huppert's character is completely passive, all body, no mind), the scene in her own bathroom where she carves away at her genitals with a razor as her mother calls her to dinner, her sticking a knife into her chest as she disappears from the story--can't be summed up, theorized, explained, or redeemed. The movie is a hole in the world.

Greil Marcus's most recent book, part of the British Film Institute's Film Classics series, is The Manchurian Candidate. He lives in Berkeley, California.

 

Richard Foreman
MATTHEW WILDER

Two ballerinas who look to have been recently crucified stare in horror (or vacuity?) as a third walks a toy airplane--death-headed baby doll aboard--smack into a window. Above the panes of glass lies a construction-paper inscription: "WHAT'S REAL." Elsewhere the trio straddles something like a giant oil pipeline while a chorus of dirty-faced nebbishes (Taliban sanitation engineers?) race onto high platforms and nervously shine their boots with scarves--a comic emanation of their desire to masturbate over this image of American Plenty.

When I asked Richard Foreman, writer-director of Maria del Bosco, whether he had been aware that he was creating an allegory of 9/11, he pleaded ignorance. Yet Foreman has captured the essence of our universal paradigm shift in a way that conventional playwrights have not. (As I write this, Neil LaBute is opening a play about a presumed casualty of the Trade Center attack who uses his missing-person status as an excuse to run away with his mistress. Will someone please revoke this prick's license to practice theater?) Foreman spreads his mastery over a large repertoire: right-angled movement, box compositions, baroque designs, mesmeric music loops, and a performance style that weds Robert Bresson to Turhan Bey. The result is a series of collisions--euphoric moments that make you feel as if you're levitating above your seat. In turn, these ecstasies abrade against the seemingly unconscious bits of content that the playwright allows to accrete on the stage like dandruff.

Foreman's three ballerinas in Maria del Bosco--beautiful, spoiled, stunned, baffled by shock, and prone to performing compulsive tasks related to buried traumas about which they have no clue--seemed to sum up the America of early 2002. Though Foreman's yearly works have long been greeted with the fondness that New Yorkers accord a familiar dinner in their favorite cozy, 20-seat Indian restaurant, his latest work rehabilitated the word shocking: Its dig into the unconscious excavated genuine horrors--and not the ones we might have expected. Simply put, Maria del Bosco is Foreman's best work in 15 years. And all praise to Julianna Francis as the title character: She's becoming the Dietrich to F

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