Artists of the Year

It was a pipe dream inflamed by the '90s stock market boom, my plan to turn the Twin Cities into the cultural capital of the United States. The state was engorged with budget surpluses back then and we had money to burn. Over at the 5,500-square-foot spread I call Rancho Tortorello, I was blowing my Jesse checks on call-out massages and first editions of Ayn Rand. I was blowing a lot of blow, too. In fact, it was some time just after I swore not to let Norm Coleman feed my dog another tablet of Viagra that I got to thinking that the only people who migrate to Minnesota come here to get sober.

That realization led me to ask a question: If merely not wanting to wake up hung over in a pool of one's own urine is enough to get people to move to our state, what could we achieve with a more powerful, cash incentive? What if we spent a billion dollars to pay artists to come live and work in Minnesota?

Museums already do it, with the Walker offering dancers like Bill T. Jones a fat chunk of change to pretend to choreograph here. (They call it a "residency.") What if we stretched out that program just a little, cutting the per diem rate while bumping up the total purse? Let's say we gave artists $1 million apiece to move to Minnesota. High-profile folks--your Daniel Day-Lewises and your Leonard Cohens--could sign on for four years at a $250K annual stipend. Lesser-known luminaries--your Mary Cleere Harans and Ivan Brunettis--would draw $100K for 10 years. For a cool billion, we'd be looking at an influx of 1,000 remarkable talents, creative giants who would invigorate our intellectual scene, geniuses we'd see every day sitting next to us at Augies, bona fide celebrities who would give poor C.J. a reason for living.

A billion dollars may sound like a lot of money to some of you cheapskates. But then our junior senator was telling me over fuzzy navels the other night at the 923 Club that he embezzled that much money from the City of St. Paul in order to buy ermine restraint cuffs for his senior campaign aides. (He's also showering them on the L.A. casting directors who right this very moment are making his ex-wife Laurie into a Hollywood screen star.)

Well, we all know the money is gone now. And so far I haven't been able to put together a deal to trade St. Paul, Rochester, and St. Cloud to Canada in exchange for Winnipeg, $4 billion, and the Montreal Expos' Vladimir Guerrero. Now that the Jesse checks are history, I've come to the sober conclusion that Minnesota isn't going to be the global cultural powerhouse I'd dreamed of while I was watching Norm Coleman swaddle three Minnesota Lynx bench players in pashmina diapers.

But then, as that downtown moral philosopher Debbie Harry once wrote, dreaming is free. And so I'm proud to present City Pages' 11th annual Artists of the Year feature. Here, our staffers, contributors, and special guests have paid tribute to the artists whose work defined the year. (Lacking the budget to give away ermine restraint cuffs like so much Halloween candy, we'll have to hope our writers will settle for our heartfelt thanks.) Think of these aoy honorees as the start of a short list for my fantasy residency recruitment drive. As usual, we lead off our roll call with a local author, dancer, filmmaker, painter, and musician who already live among us. I regret to say that they won't receive millions of dollars to enrich our cultural lives. Like the rest of us, they'll have to settle for the pleasure of being represented by the man who I daresay is going to be the greatest senator--and amyl-nitrate enthusiast--in Minnesota history.

 

--Michael Tortorello
Illustrations by Scott Wright

Norah Labiner
BY PETER RITTER

MInneapolis author Norah Labiner's second novel, Miniatures, is set in a creaky old Irish manor full of dust and secrets. The mistress of the house, a Sylvia Plath-like writer, died some years earlier in murky circumstances; her husband, an equally infamous literary figure, brings his young second wife to live in the ruined place. Into all this steps Fern Jacobi, a young, hyperliterate expatriate American who takes a job as the couple's housekeeper and keeps an account of her experience that's part confession and part Gothic mystery novel. Simple enough, yes?

But so here's where things get tricky: Fern lies. At times, she tells us she's lying; at others, she tells the truth, but tells it slant; and sometimes she lies without knowing she's doing so. Fern's reliability as a narrator is so suspect that it throws the entire notion of narrative into disjoint. Which is precisely Labiner's m.o.: In Miniatures, she has written a fiction that questions, with obsessive energy and fearsome intelligence, why anyone ever bothers to write fiction.

Maybe that sounds intimidatingly academic. Admittedly, there is something a little daunting about being in the presence of a prodigious talent like Labiner: In Miniatures, she alternatively references and burlesques everything from Greek tragedy to Proust and a whole gaggle of Brontës. (This is not an artist who lacks for audacity: In her first novel, Our Sometime Sister, Labiner wrestled with the most formidable ghost of all, Shakespeare.) Labiner, like Fern, is often maddeningly allusive (not to mention elusive). But there's method here, too, and the author's command over form and language distances her from the pack of too-clever-by-half pomo tricksters. It's this, also, that makes reading Labiner such a dizzying pleasure.

Peter Ritter is a staff writer at City Pages.

 

Robert Skoro
BY ANDERS SMITH LINDALL

Yes, Robert Skoro was born during the Reagan administration. Yes, his band played exactly two gigs in 2002. And yes, he released his lone solo album less than a month ago. Now he's getting praised in this space. If you detect a faint rumble, that's the sound of a hundred battle-scarred vets of the local rock scene, grinding their molars.

But never mind them. This spot is Skoro's, above all, for Proof, the debut disc he dropped in December. It's a quiet, graceful collection of pop songs about falling in love (with girls, with the world) and trying to figure it all out. Lush in spots and spare in others, it's sweet enough to overcome the sourest of grapes. And, according to the liner notes, it's almost entirely "written, arranged, produced, and performed" by Skoro, from supple bass and humming synths to rolling keys and programmed percussion. And even though it was mostly tracked in Skoro's apartment, it's beautifully recorded--particularly his vocals, which come off clear and resolute.

Good as it is, though, Proof isn't the only reason to recognize Skoro now. As a bass player, backing vocalist, merch-selling sidekick, and road-dog comrade, he's long been a linchpin of Mason Jennings's success. His role in that respect is clearer than ever on this year's Century Spring, on which Skoro sings; plays bass, piano, and organ; and shares the producer's credit. "He really sculpted the actual sound of the record," Jennings told me last March. "It's such a valuable skill that gets overlooked, but Rob's a master of it."

Full disclosure demands I mention that I consider Skoro a friend. Among other things, we've bonded over a shared obsession with the sort of heartsick ork-pop practiced by Damien Jurado, Elliott Smith, and the Shins. Of course, while I was busy sending him e-mails about records to dig, he made as fine a disc as any of them.

Anders Smith Lindall is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

 

Liza Davitch
SHERYL MOUSLEY

What victory is being honored in Victory Square, in the city of Minsk, Belarus? Certainly this place was named in celebration of some important event. In the '50s, beautiful trees--cherry, walnut, oak--were planted by a famous actress, Galina Makarova, who lived there until her death. Now Makarova's apartment is the cramped home of her daughter Nadia and 22-year-old granddaughter Nastia: Their close-knit relationship is falling apart as each becomes romantically attached to a man whom the other despises.

This is the setting of Liza Davitch's documentary Victory Square, a film whose intertwining narratives are full of complications and misunderstandings as the parent/child roles keep switching. With all the intrigue of a carefully conceived drama, Davitch's film shows that a documentarian can be the storyteller of our times. Combining patient observation of the characters, images of Belarus landscapes, archival news footage, and scenes from Makarova's acting career, the movie and its tale of family feud reflect a world that's struggling to cope with the swirling changes brought on by the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Davitch was recognized in the mid-'90s by the Student Academy Awards for the short films she made while she was a student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. After graduation, and with the help of a Fulbright scholarship to study in Poland (along with grants from the Jerome Foundation and Minnesota Arts Board), Davitch made her way to Minsk. She spent half of each of the past five years there, dedicating herself to producing Victory Square. She finished the film in April of this year--just in time to screen it at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, where it won the hearts of the audience, and an award for Best Documentary. Now, after additional screenings in Montreal and Amsterdam, the film is continuing to tour the international festival circuit. The victory in all of this is that Davitch's perseverance, her tenacity in taking on a film of such complexity has resulted in a film that's simply beautiful.

Sheryl Mousley is associate curator of film/video at Walker Art Center.

 

The Scrimshaw Brothers
MAX SPARBER

Any longtime audience member for the Scrimshaw Brothers' long-running monthly comedy show/variety act Look Ma, No Pants knows that they can be a little off-putting sometimes. Although every show is guaranteed to offer a sketch that generates uncontrolled laughter, the brothers' scruffy, unrehearsed approach also ensures its share of misses. This is particularly true when the assembled comedians return, again and again, to comic tropes that have long since been tapped dry of any humorous potential. Honestly--Star Wars? And then there is the Scrimshaws' core audience, who, while undoubtedly splendid people in their own right, have an unfortunate habit of doing things like showing up dressed as Klingons. There is such unrestrained comic invention shared between the brothers that one cannot help thinking that were they to get away from the cheap-wine jokes, the semi-improvised structure, and, for heaven's sake, their own audience, these boys could really flourish.

This past year, they did. Josh, the older of the two, demonstrated his enviable knack for physical comedy in a Fringe offering titled Shut Your Joke Hole. One suspects his long relationship with wife/dancer/choreographer Adrienne English, who co-starred, has helped Josh sharpen his silent sketches, each of which were short masterpieces of bawdy comic timing. Josh is famous for his commitment to the physical action of a scene: When he appeared in the Theatre Gallery production of The Sunrise Café, Josh threw himself into the role with such an abandonment of basic self-preservation that he emerged from the experience bloodied and doubled over from back pain.

Joe Scrimshaw offered a production of his own for the Fringe, titled The Worst Show at the Fringe. Far from being the worst, it was an unusually sharp-tongued meditation on the relationship between critic and actor. The only dimwitted aspect of Joe's show was the author himself, appearing as a cloddish repo man. It was this character who offered the cruelest commentary on theater, suggesting that it is an insular world that only interests other theater people. Theater people, yes, but, as the brothers have demonstrated, also Klingons.

Max Sparber is a playwright and freelance writer who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.

 

Wynn Fricke
CAROLINE PALMER

Many performing artists are like bad poker players, so eager to impress that they betray their cards too soon. The purpose for their work is revealed in the first five minutes and the remaining time is devoted to expanding on a known, and ultimately tired, theme. Wynn Fricke, by contrast, possesses the sort of ineffable, unpredictable quality that card sharks have nightmares about. It has nothing to do with mystery or deceit.

Rather, Fricke allows the intentions behind her choreography to reveal themselves ever so slowly and often in surprising ways. Watching her work, you become acutely aware of both breath and body--your own and the dancers'. It's through these portals that the subtle brilliance of Fricke's work slides into consciousness and settles down for a while. The experience might not be felt fully until much later, but it leaves a mark on the inner eye.

Take "Voices from a Painted Cave," Fricke's most recent commission by Zenon Dance Company. Inspired by ancient images, the work is a solemn journey into prehistory, a time when communication relied more on the physical than the philosophical. The marvelous performers, many of whom also dance in Fricke's own Borrowed Bones Dance Theatre, allowed themselves to shed their modern identities for a less refined yet still highly evolved style. Even as they moved with urgency, the atmosphere in the theater remained strangely still, like the undisturbed air of a tomb. Later, as the lights faded for the last time, it felt as if spirits were rushing out of the room, back to the place Fricke had summoned them from.

Fricke also presented a new work this summer called "The Hungry Ghost," with original music by frequent collaborator Carl Witt. Inspired by the realms of human suffering depicted in a Buddhist mandala, the piece tells the story of a character who is never satisfied. Such complexity--created through movement, space, and time--is achieved against long odds. But one senses that Fricke, who continues to evolve as an artist, has only begun to up the ante.

Caroline Palmer is City Pages' dance critic and an attorney with the Minnesota AIDS Project.

 

Carolyn Swiszcz
MICHAEL FALLON

Year after year, Carolyn Swiszcz's artwork continues to have bite. This is because she is preoccupied with certain, unchanging, bleak places--the landscape of the fringes, the panorama of urban decay. Who isn't grossed out, yet fascinated, by the parkinglotization of our local vistas? Who isn't struck dumb by all the bright plastic signage that fills our lines of vision?

Swiszcz is Minnesota's own contemporary, one-woman Ashcan school. Her work is a running commentary on the vacuum that fills the cities and the souls around us today. Her paintings (in acrylic) are dry tone poems about alienation, stagnation, nullity. They are quickly rendered things, toss-offs on paper tacked to the wall, or sketchbook pages stuck together with masking tape. They are bedecked with banal found scraps, with snippets of meaningless text, with empty swaths of color broken only by the occasional rendering of a bleak Dairy Queen or a lonely phone booth or a still-life Dixie Cup. As with most soothsayers, Swiszcz doesn't have to elaborate too much--though in these increasingly unappetizing times she has seemed particularly inspired, exhibiting an ever-expanding repertoire of imagery that reminds us of the places that surround us.

Since 2000, she has displayed work in major shows at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, and the New York Drawing Center. Next year she mounts further offensives: at galleries in New Bedford, Massachusetts; Madison, Wisconsin; Miami, Florida; East Islip, New York; and at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Maybe, thanks to Swiszcz, the right people will take notice of what's gone wrong in America. Then again, maybe they won't.

Michael Fallon is City Pages' art critic.

 

Ivan Brunetti
DANIEL RAEBURN

Every so often, and i do mean "often," an artist has a bad year. Not bad in terms of his art, with which he continues to bravely wrangle, but bad in terms of his life. He has a bad day job, he has bad luck, he meets a bad person. 2002 was a bad year for Ivan Brunetti, the Chicago cartoonist and self-proclaimed "Funniest Living American." So was 2001, as well as every year prior to that, but you already know this if you've read Brunetti's autobiographical comic book, Schizo.

Brunetti, who says his last name is Italian for "shit-brown little man," sat for more than 2,000 hours at his desk job, bathed in the radiation emitted by his computer. At night he soldiered home on the el back to his dim walk-up, where he ingested a low-cal potpie and jerked off "2.5 times exactly" before facing the drawing board. It was there, alone, that he made his mark as an artist. He put the final touches on his lengthy appreciation of the New Yorker's blind cartoonist, James Thurber--a project four years in the doing--just as the L.A. magazine that had commissioned the strip folded quietly. He drew a strip for Schizo entitled "How to Draw a Comic Strip" and generously allowed a startup art-and-design magazine to print it, free of charge. After the editors published the strip, they called Brunetti and told him that he should no longer plan on running it in Schizo or anywhere else; as a matter of policy, they had decided, all their content had to be "exclusive." An East Coast publisher came to Brunetti's rescue and purchased the electronic rights to six of his full-page, full-color strips--each of which had taken him a month of evenings and weekends to complete--for $25 apiece. The check for $150 arrived last week, just in time for Christmas. It bounced.

In years like this, surviving is enough to merit critical recognition. In 2003 Brunetti will publish the next issue of Schizo as well as his wordless, 700-page graphic novel, The Frenchman's Lament. Survival is what being a real artist is all about, so here's to Ivan and to every artist with no agent, no patron, no grant, and no logical reason for pressing forward.

Daniel Raeburn is the Chicago-based writer and publisher of The Imp, an irregular series of booklets about comics.

 

Ron Albertson
PAT NOECKER

True artists value their art more than anything. They do not settle for convention. And they persist because they believe in their gift. My friend Ron Albertson is a living and breathing example of a true artist.

Since the day I met Ron back in 1992 when we were smoking pot in my car outside the Big Red Rock-O-Rama in Lincoln, Nebraska, he's drawn a lot of things as well as played in bands like 13 Nightmares and Mercy Rule, both of which totally rocked. Three years ago he moved from Lincoln to join the rest of us Nebraskans out in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, after Mercy Rule called it quits. He slept on our janky, back-breaking couch for weeks until our friend Rich moved out. Meanwhile, he had to come up with $1,050 bucks to pay Rich for his deposit and last month's rent. Ron had no trust fund to pull from. He couldn't fall back on Mom and Dad either; after all, he is 41 and father of a 17-year-old. And the thought of getting an "agent" or "courting galleries" didn't (and never will) jibe with his humble, self-made ethos.

So he got a crap job in SoHo screening T-shirts, which got the cash flow started. At night and on weekends, he trudged miles around the streets of New York and Brooklyn, tediously crafting line drawings of buildings, trees, street people, lampposts, whatever caught his eye. Using his eyes, hands, and pocket-sized sketchbook, he transferred a feeling through these drawings. Ordinary objects and people became something profound.

After he completed the drawings, he silk-screened them onto canvases in his bedroom/makeshift studio. Weekend after weekend he packed them up in a small box and sold them on street corners in Manhattan and Brooklyn for $30 apiece. In hot weather, he wore his cowboy hat. In rainy weather, the blue poncho. Over and over, he would lug that "little box of paintings that could" out the door. Finally, after a few laborious months of printing and selling, he had Rich completely paid off! Not to mention the fact that his paintings were scattered all over Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the U.S., and Europe. No agents. No galleries. Totally awesome.

Three years later, Ron continues to sell on the streets when he's not on tour with his current band (and my band) Liars, and he still sketches every club as he did when he was in the Nightmares and Mercy Rule. And he rocks harder than ever. Ron solves his problems through innovation. He doesn't sell out. He doesn't give up. And he always counts on his art. A true artist.

Pat Noecker plays bass in the Brooklyn-based band Liars.

 

John Darnielle
LAURA SINAGRA

Ranter, critic, nurse, death-metal-lurgist, classics scholar, and indie troubadour, John Darnielle was blogging back when it was still called having a zine. He spent his '90s recording hundreds of little cassette-hissing, brainstem-to-boombox missives under the moniker Mountain Goats. On this year's studio-recorded 4AD debut, Tallahassee, he catches up with some recurring characters, known to longtime fans as Alpha Couple: down-and-out Californians now dealing with depression and disintegration by lighting out East. Not just East, but South. It's the backward collapse after the frontier push, as Darnielle song-cycles through an abject emotional landscape more familiar than anyone would want to admit.

When "bad luck comes in from Tampa," and the moon "stutters in the sky like film stuck in a projector," the lover admits, "I speak in smoke signals and you answer in code." It's post-"I hope you die" and pre-crisis hotline. It's haggard and husky and ain't we got booze. It's a thin line between humor and rue. Drunken kisses are "lighter than air," but tear-weary eyes double as "searchlights in the parking lots of hell."

In this Floribama of the mind, current events mix it up with historical allusion. "International Small Arms Traffic Blues" likens the Alphas' love to "the border between Greece and Albania/Trucks filled with weapons crossing every night." And when, in "Idylls of the King," Darnielle hears the "shrieking of innumerable gibbons," there's more than a wink toward the fall of Rome. By all accounts happily and collaboratively married, Darnielle still knows what a dead end would say if it could talk, and howl, and sing.

Laura Sinagra is an associate editor at the Village Voice.

 

Rubén Blades
BRITT ROBSON

In this depressing, belligerent, paranoid political year, I needed an artist who could stand for peace with passion and eloquence, a world citizen with visionary ambition and a relatively modest ego, who honored mercy and cherished lyricism and humor; a veteran humanitarian whose muse was whetted, not reincarnated, by the fallout from 9/11.

I didn't know how much I needed those things until I heard Mundo, the masterpiece among the multifaceted accomplishments of Rubén Blades. The 54-year-old musician-actor-political activist has won four Grammys, been nominated for two Emmys, founded the Papa Egora party, and finished third in the 1994 campaign for president in his native Panama. As a singer-songwriter with Willie Colón in 1978, he composed "Pedro Navaja," which became the best-selling salsa tune in history.

But Mundo (or World) is something else again; a well-timed, nearly perfectly conceived and executed statement of global music fellowship. Afro-Cuban bata drums and other polyrhythmic percussion nestle alongside ethereal Irish pipes, buoyant Latin American clave, and sinuous Middle Eastern rhythms. Singing in Spanish, Blades declares, on "Estampa," "The planet does not belong to a group of people/It is created for all of us to walk on it." Later, on "Parao," he sings, "I never mortgaged my soul!/Bury me standing up/I live my life standing up/And paid the price...."

At the Pantages Theatre this fall, Blades filled the stage with dozens of musicians, and spoke to the audience between songs. "You know, it wouldn't be a bad idea to learn another language," he told the crowd, first in English, then in Spanish, one of the few occasions when he didn't deftly conflate the two tongues. The set list allowed the spotlight to fall on his many guests, including the Brazilian vocal quartet Boca Livre and the Irish piper Eric Rigler. There were panoramic excerpts from Mundo and rollicking salsa numbers that had fans waving Panamanian and Puerto Rican flags, while swivel-hipped dancers bobbed, swung, and hugged each other in the aisles. The best revenge.

Britt Robson is a senior editor at City Pages.

 

Orchestra Baobab
PETER S. SCHOLTES

How differently would orchestra Baobab be received if they looked like the White Stripes and spoke enough English to ask directions to P. Diddy's afterparty? I pose the question to measure my own prejudices as well as anyone else's, for it's easy to get caught up in a quaint band's reunion, or mistake the jubilation of old guys feeling great for the transcendence of old guys being great. There was a little from column A and column B in this year's revival of the only Senegalese rumba band that really mattered. When tenor-sax minimalist Issa Cissokho strutted for dancing college kids at Baobab's July concert on Northrop Plaza, the joy of discovery seemed to radiate from both sides. (Anyone who saw the Suburbs, the E Street Band, or Andrew Hill for the first time this year will know what I mean.)

Baobab offered that rare thing in 2002: a new sound. Though it was really an old sound you'd never heard before. Having peaked in the 1970s and retired in the 1980s, the musicians reunited last year at the prodding of World Circuit impresario Nick Gold, who asked Youssou N'Dour to play the Ry Cooder role. The resulting Specialist in All Styles (World Circuit/Nonesuch) is a more assured version of Baobab's classic polyglot: Havana-on-the-Savannah hypno-grooves spiked by the spooky surf runs of guitarist Barthélémy Attisso.

No band cool enough for MTV could have dreamed up this music--a product of a passé pan-African optimism that mingled across ethnic, religious, and national lines. N'Dour's militantly Wolof mbalax long ago made Baobab's cosmopolitan cocktail outré even in Dakar. So when N'Dour joins Cuban "Uncle" Ibrahim Ferrer to sing with Wolof vocalist Rudy Gomis on Specialist, it's a tribute to the old African social club's open-door policy. The tune also happens to be Gomis's anthem of respect for residents of the Casamance region, who have been embroiled in civil war since the song appeared on 1982's Pirates Choice. The passé, in other words, turns out to have been prophetic.

Elsewhere on Specialist, Wolof praise-singer N'Dioga Dieng dusts off his old call for peaceful reconciliation between generations, "Bul ma Miin." But then that wish may have already been fulfilled by Dakar hip-hoppers Positive Black Soul, who covered the galloping song amid drum-machine clacks and DMX-like shouts on the recent Africa Raps. Maybe Baobab will make P. Diddy's afterparty after all.

Peter S. Scholtes is a staff writer at City Pages.

 

Earth
T.D. MISCHKE

It's been featured in recent months in an art exhibit in Washington, D.C., though it also continues to be featured right outside the kitchen window. As art, it intersects with the lives of us all, whether we appreciate the aesthetics or not. It's Earth.

Right now, at the Library of Congress, more than three dozen extraordinary photographs of this planet appear as abstract works of genius. The graceful swirling shapes of mountains, deserts, clouds, and fjords have been flashed down to the planet from satellites 440 miles deep in space. These photos were intended for the use of the U.S. Geological Survey, to keep tabs on crops and minerals. But their striking beauty stopped scientists in their tracks and an exhibit was planned. From 400,000 satellite images, 41 were chosen based on artistic appeal. Appeal some can still find at a distance of 25 feet.

It's arguable that more than anything presented to the human eye over the eons, it is earth itself that has remained the most breathtaking. Astounding in scope, depth, shape, intensity, and variety, it's the one indisputable masterpiece.

No distance in perspective has lessened its appeal. The late choreographer Bob Fosse was driven by a desire to duplicate, in human movement, the beauty of a single rose. He admitted to a jealousy of God himself. And the astronauts who first orbited the planet said, after staring back in awestruck wonder, that they could never view home the same way again.

Today, as we look around at what's being done to this planet, and what's occurring upon it, we come face to face with art's greatest nemesis: mechanized mindless efficiency. Cruel, callous, high-tech efficiency, and the carnage it leaves bleeding in its wake.

Yet step back, as far back in this case as the darkness of space, and there she is again, seemingly pristine, so brilliant against the blackness, wondrous, suitable for framing. No artist has yet matched it in presentation, in emotion, that evocative mix of strength and fragility. After all these years, Earth still wins my vote.

Artist of the year? Artist for the ages.

T.D. Mischke is the host of the Mischke Broadcast on KSTP-AM (1500).

 

Richard Flanagan
MICHAEL TORTORELLO

Having invited two brothers, Helgi and Finnbogi, to join her in an expedition to Vinland, Freydis Eiriksdottir spills what might be the first European blood in the Americas. The time is near the turn of the first millennium; the story will be put to vellum 200 years later in "The Saga of the Greenlanders." First Freydis expels the brothers and their party from some shelters near shore (the continent's first real-estate dispute). Later, apparently in a foul mood, she has them murdered along with their men. Finding no one willing to execute the party's womenfolk, she slaughters the lot of them herself.

Believing there might be money to be made in capturing a wild native and dragging him back to Britain as a public attraction, leather peddler Richard Hore sails to the Americas in 1536. Years later, one of the surviving seamen, Thomas Buts, will tell the story to Richard Hakluyt, who will put it in a book called Principall Navigations. Over many months, the expedition sights but a single group of "savages," off the coast of Labrador. The Indians rudely decline to be taken captive as a carnival act, and instead race away in canoes. Poorly provisioned for such strenuous exploration, Hore's men begin killing each other and broiling the corpses for food.

This is how we got here. Welcome to the New World.

Richard Flanagan's brilliant novel Gould's Book of Fish follows in the bloody spirit of founding myths like these, but it finds fossils of comedy buried amid the bones. Sentenced for forgery to Van Diemen's Land--present-day Tasmania--London low life William Buelow Gould follows misfortune and misdeed to the penal colony called Sarah's Island. There he becomes a painter indentured to a man of science whose quest for academic recognition leads him to do business in the bones of massacred aboriginals. (The "Surgeon," after losing his penis in a domestic accident, will be consumed by a giant, belligerent pig.) The deranged despot of the island is the Commandant, a megalomaniac who dreams of attracting Javanese traders by forcing his slave labor to build a Great Mah-Jong Hall. None of these follies appear in the official record kept by the deposed King of Iceland, Jorgen Jorgenson. "The world, as described by Jorgen Jorgenson...was at war with the reality in which we lived," Gould writes in his own journals. "The bad news is that the reality was losing."

Reality loses many skirmishes in Gould's Book of Fish. But art--not artifice--is the victor here. This is a tall tale about tall tales. It's a poetic picaresque of the horrors of antipodean colonialism (come for the crime; stay for the genocide!). It's a story that, in its ingenuity, cannot be explained about human behavior that, in its grotesquery, cannot be believed. When Gould wanders into the wild with a sled of Jorgenson's bound deceptions in tow, we see a witness trying to hold history to account. Gould fails. Flanagan does not.

Michael Tortorello is a senior editor at City Pages.

 

Daniel Day-Lewis
LUC SANTE

Let me get the full disclosure out of the way: I was a technical advisor on Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. But I don't get points, and I had nothing to do with Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as Bill "The Butcher" Cutting, paramount chieftain of the native-born gangsters on the Lower East Side of New York City in the mid-19th century. The only special advantage I can claim is to have witnessed on set one of the damnedest jobs of acting you're ever likely to see. I was there for only one week of the shoot, so what I mostly noted was the walk, a stiff-jointed, slightly stooped lope that recalls an animated skeleton in a Ray Harryhausen fantasy, as well as the accent, which sounds like the Noo Yawk dialect in the process of being born. "Would you like me to festoon my boudoir with your entrails?"--try saying that while protruding your lips. Day-Lewis and Scorsese worked up the sound from a recording of Walt Whitman.

It wasn't until I saw the picture that I became fully aware of just how astonishing a performance he constructed. Bill Cutting is ruler of all he surveys, and he is 47 years old--ancient for the time. He is supremely self-possessed, wearily amused, and grimly aware of the price of everything in life. He is one of those grand villains you don't hiss because they are so much fun to watch, and also because in some way you can't name they reveal the soul inside the bogey--think of Erich von Stroheim in Grand Illusion. It is a knowing work of vaudeville melodrama--down to the mustache that conceals his mouth so that you don't know if he is grinning or seething when his eyes are glittering slits. And yet it is classical in its complexity. It is outsized in a way you never see anymore, that makes me reach back for comparison to such titans as von Stroheim and Orson Welles, actors who understood both the grandeur and the cost of villainy. If Day-Lewis doesn't get an Oscar for this, there is no justice--which probably means they'll give the award to some schmo who cried onscreen.

Luc Sante is the writer of Low Life and The Factory of Facts. He lives in Ulster County, New York.

 

Julianne Moore
ANDERSON JONES

I haven't always been a fan of Julianne Moore. Sure, I enjoyed her work in Boogie Nights, and I appreciated her bravery in Robert Altman's films. You'll recall that in Altman's Short Cuts she delivered a monologue without the benefit of clothing below the waist, and believably lost her mind in the director's Cookie's Fortune. In fact, Moore has proven particularly adept at playing women on the verge--a half-step away from being completely unhinged. Witness her brief but terrifying turn in Bart Freundlich's World Traveler: She can be spooky. Freundlich just so happens to be Moore's husband, and if you've ever taken a good look at the man, you know that she has got good taste, too.

I once classified Moore as one of those character actors, like Kathy Bates, who's a reliably solid performer, but not a movie star. To be fair, most movie stars don't act--they don't have to. And that's why Julianne Moore is perhaps the finest movie star of our generation: She can walk both lines; she's both luminous and a gifted thespian. I realized this watching her in Todd Haynes's film Far from Heaven. As the very model of a '50s housewife caught between a sense of duty and being true to her heart, Moore is a vision--and she breaks your heart into a million pieces. She makes me cry--sob, really, because I just want her to be happy. Haynes knew this before the rest of us, anointing her as his muse while the rest of us were scratching our heads over Hannibal--a movie for which Moore has redeemed herself and then some. She is the actress to beat at the Oscars this year, and in fact Hollywood should be put on notice every time she chooses to step before the camera. This is Moore's moment. How lucky we are that we get to watch.

Anderson Jones is editor of E! Online Plus.

 

Douglas Sirk
MARK PERANSON

Episode 2002: Attack Of The Clones. The usual array of I Spys aside, autumn was the season of odd film remakes: The Ring, The Truth About Charlie, Red Dragon, Solaris, Swept Away. (You may have missed that last one.) The year's runaway critical hit, Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven, is also a remake--of sorts. Although Douglas Sirk died in 1987, 2002 saw the academic revival of his once-dismissed Hollywood melodramas crossing over into full-blown cinematic reanimation. Intimations of Sirk have been present in stylized films by directors as diverse as Fassbinder, Scorsese, Almodóvar, and François Ozon (whose Sirkian genetics experiment gone wrong, 8 Women, was released this year). But no director has been as dedicated to elaborate pastiche as Haynes, the former semiotics major at Brown University. More than merely grafting Sirk's All That Heaven Allows onto Fassbinder's own Heaven Allows remake Fear Eats the Soul, Haynes uses Sirk's cinematic syntax and Julianne Moore's sublime face to sculpt a supremely strange object that's unimaginable without at least a cursory reading of Sirk on Sirk; his is a film whose artificiality is the very key to its emotional depth. Sirk's estate could easily demand a co-director credit.

Abetting the Sirk craze are the Criterion Collection's dazzlingly remastered DVDs of Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind: real treasures for cineastes who aren't lucky enough to have been alive during the greatest decade for American sound and color. Though it manages, with the frisson provided by a well-placed cussword, to be contemporary, Haynes's re-creation of '50s cinema is truly bigger than life: a compendium of impeccable set decoration, to-die-for costumes, detached camera angles, and, most of all, color.

As for Ozon's homage? If Sirk were alive, he'd sue for character defamation.

Mark Peranson is a Toronto-based writer and the editor of Cinema Scope

 

Mike Skinner
KEITH HARRIS

Mike Skinner is the first genuinely British MC in the same way Johnny Rotten was the first genuinely British rock singer. Recording as the Streets, Skinner has arranged a dense, sprawling introduction to his world, Original Pirate Material (Locked On). His love of language, which expresses itself less through acrobatic wordplay than through the pithy bloke-ism, would get him heard regardless of his subject. (The most quoted tag from the most quotable album of the year: "Sex, drugs, and on the dole.") His subject matter alone--the sort of working-class culture that American MCs generally disdain in their pursuit of self-advancement--would make him worth hearing. But his commitment to swallowing consonants and drawing out vowels, to letting his words drip in between the bump and twitter of his garage beats with a definitively working class Brit cadence--that's what makes him a trailblazer.

But that's not all. Because, skill and wit aside, what makes Original Pirate Material powerful, rather than merely important, is that Mike Skinner sounds like a good guy. Now, the lack of basic human decency in pop music is hardly a cause for concern: Lust, greed, even murder...these things generally make for better art than a caring sensibility. Always have. Free-floating bitterness has fired up rock and rap and every genre in between quite well over the years, thank you very much, while decency can sidle all too easily over into gentility, serve as a mask for manipulative seduction, or provide a trampoline for a musician to vault up to self-importance.

Still, Skinner, with his laddish taste for weed and PlayStation, couldn't pass for genteel if he tried; his libido is so near dormant that his politeness to the ladies ("We say 'birds' not 'bitches'") seems purely matter-of-fact; and he's aggressively humble. But when he rhymes, he overflows with a profound sense of empathy that few artists can muster.

Keith Harris is the music editor of the Chicago Reader.

 

DJ Hell
LARRY TEE

Munich has always had a tremendous influence on the evolution of electronic music. In the late '70s, Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, both Munich residents, were experimenting with what has come to be called "electro," creating equipment that would make loops of electronic riffs. When I asked Florian Schneider, one of the founding members of Kraftwerk, how he came upon such revolutionary ideas, he explained, "It was in the air....if I hadn't developed these ideas, they would have inevitably happened anyway." These comments are, of course, uncharacteristically modest, especially with the current growth in all music forms électroniques.

Now we skip forward to the year 2002, when there are so many labels producing electronic music internationally that it is impossible to keep track of it all. The nu-electro revival section of record stores--or "electroclash," as the media oftentimes refer to it--has expanded more this year than that of any other dance genre. With this explosion has come much interest in Munich's International DeeJay Gigolos label, and the man who runs it, DJ Hell. Since 1997, the label has released many of the seminal electro-punk and electro-revival artists, as well as techno-electro hybrids that have invigorated dance music for much of the year. This invasion has gotten attention for bringing lyrics in to replace basslines as the focus of the dance floor. Owing in part to Hell's label, acts such as Fischerspooner, Miss Kittin, Mount Sims, Vitalic, Crossover, David Carretta, Tiga, and many others have brought a banquet of new ideas to DJs internationally. Hell has also generated new interest in artists who were marginalized in the past decade, like Marc Almond from Soft Cell, Tuxedomoon, Dominatrix, and Bobby Konders.

Because of competition among all things electro, the modesty of the genre's pioneers has been replaced by a sneer generally associated with punk and rock 'n' roll. When asked what is next for Gigolo records, Hell once responded, "Mastercontrol will tell you when it's time to change." DJ Hell's punk attitude and characteristic difficultness actually helped define the differences between this emerging "electroclash" scene--a term that Hell only recently embraced--and the overpaid, understimulated DJs of the past. His slim, stylish obstinacy created an image that contrasted with the macho techno and house scene.

Actually, Hell's artists are a brave modern collective whose very existence is political. Women have a very strong voice within the community. It doesn't matter if you are gay or straight. You don't have to be young or beautiful to make a powerful statement. This makes up for any pretentious attitudes that have risen from the DJ Hell/Gigolo camp.

I hadn't spoken to the man for almost two years until recently, when we both were interviewed for a Fischerspooner documentary and "made up." Here's hoping that the American and European community can work together to see that the artists who make this exciting music--Peaches, Chicks on Speed, Detroit Grand Pubas, Ladytron, Swayzak, Felix Da Housecat, WIT, 2 many DJ's, Bis, Martini Brothers, Avenue d, My Robot Friend, Creme de Menthe, Spalding Rockwell, and so many others--can bring new options to the record shops across America.

Larry Tee is the New York-based CEO of Mogul Electro and Electroclash Festivals

 

Rhett Miller
CARSON KREITZER

The writer's life involves a lot of late nights. Alone. Rhett Miller helps to keep me sane. Whether I'm listening to any of my well-worn Old 97's CDs (the more country-inflected the further back you go), or his fantastic new solo album, The Instigator, Rhett manages to be both entertainer and great conversationalist. Pretty melodies, infectious hooks, wit, soul, profundity. Songs about girls. What more could you want?

Literate charmer, storyteller, colossal talent Rhett Miller has written many (many) of my favorite songs in the whole world. (Many of these are about girls. He is simply the unchallenged master of this genre.) His handlers have him all prettied up for this solo album, and I must say I miss the cute boy with floppy hair and glasses and a big smile. But I guess you can't be that boy forever. And if the shaggy haircut gets him more airplay, God bless the shaggy haircut. Because Rhett unexpectedly showing up in my car is one of the sweeter surprises the day might hold.

The Rhett Miller I'm talking about is, of course, not the same as the very nice young man I met once in Austin, Texas, who is every bit as charming, cute, sweet (I know guys hate being called that but I can't resist), smart, funny, and generally swell as one would expect. That one is married (I hear tell from the ever-informative First Avenue newsletter) and doesn't really have time to keep me company while I wrestle my demons into print. Maintaining this perspective allows me, when Rhett Miller is playing First Avenue on the very night I'm flying to New York, to realize that this is a cause for sadness, but not outright tears, the tearing of hair, or the canceling of a plane ticket. I know which Rhett is mine: the Rhett who, like Krishna, can be a thousand places at once. And one of them, very often, is my place.

We stay up late.

Carson Kreitzer is a playwright living in Minneapolis. Her work includes last year's SELF DEFENSE, or death of some salesmen and The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which opens locally in February.

 

Mary Cleere Haran
BRAD LEITHAUSER

It's an odd, heartening, and Paradoxical profession: the business of keeping deathless music alive. The great American popular song, as shaped by Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern and Cole Porter and a host of others, flourished in the first half of the 20th century; in the year 2002, many if not most of the songs we think of as "standards" were written by people born not in the previous century but in the last-but-one. These are not just old favorites but old favorites. Spry though they may be, these songs occasionally need to be led outside and given a little air.

This past spring, the cabaret singer Mary Cleere Haran took the songs of Rodgers and Hart for a brisk walk round the block. Her extended run at Manhattan's Algonquin Hotel was called "Falling in Love with Love." She had clearly rethought Rodgers's melodies and Hart's lyrics, and the result was a number of songs emerging with a new spring in their step.

The Rodgers and Hart collaboration may well be the richest in the annals of American popular song. Had they written only "My Funny Valentine" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "Blue Moon," they would have secured a permanent place for themselves among song devotees. But they also wrote "Thou Swell" and "This Can't Be Love" and "I Could Write a Book" and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" and "Ten Cents a Dance" and "It Never Entered My Mind." The list goes on and on.

Haran has a newish CD, Crazy Rhythm: Manhattan in the 20's, which presents a couple of Rodgers and Hart songs, as well as movingly understated renditions of Berlin's "What'll I Do" and Al Dubin and Harry Warren's "Lullaby of Broadway." But my favorite of her albums remains This Funny World, a collection of Rodgers and Hart songs first released in 1995. Wisely, Haran doesn't attempt to cover, even cursorily, the range of that incomparable team. She settles mostly for the intimate melodies with the wistful lyrics. Just the sort of delicate songs that should, with proper tending, endure for centuries.

Brad Leithauser occasionally writes about American popular song for The New York Review of Books. His novel in verse, Darlington's Fall, was published last spring. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

 

Kylie Minogue
MICHAELANGELO MATOS

The only false note struck on Kylie Minogue's Fever occurs early in the title track, when she mews, "There ain't a doctor in this town who is more qualified." Wha? You don't live in a town, Kylie. You live in an animatronic wonderland where you wear silver dresses and dance while staring into the camera, where the walls move around and there are backup dancers and the beats are big and luscious and your hair is flawless and you rule the goddamned world. "Town"? What, are you under the mistaken impression that you're some kind of, hahaha, "regular person"? Hello! No regular person makes singles as good as "Can't Get You Out of My Head" and (especially) "Love at First Sight"--duh!

But we'll let this chink in your armor go, because you've done the greatest thing any icon can do: You have submitted yourself to the will of the people. Not some paranoid isolated celebrity's idea of what the will of the people is, which is how we end up with Michael Jackson and he ends up without a nose. Nor do I mean the asinine "keeping it real" posturing that results in sad, sad enterprises like "Jenny from the Block." We didn't elect those people class president because they were normal; we did so because they were extraordinary, and they betray our trust when they pretend otherwise.

You, on the other hand, were elected Euroland's Super-National Goddess, and you honor that position shrewdly: You're the girl with the most cake, and Fever is all frosting. The li'l-girl voice you sing "Come into My World" with is so calculated it's almost cruel, but the rest of the time you lead us to the promised land and/or dance floor by being dazzlingly überhuman: the heart-stopping vocoders of "Burning Up," the way "Can't Get You Out of My Head" makes on-the-beat rigidity sound like divine rapture. "Love at First Sight" is dizzy with grace notes: that ba-baaaa at the top of the second chorus, the stark silence Kylie breaks to start verse two, the way the chorus ("Baby, when I heard you/For the first time, I knew/We were meant to be as one") conflates seeing and hearing the way a true MTV-age product oughta, the way its in-out dynamics work exactly the way you A) know they're going to; and B) absolutely need them to whenever the song is playing.

Besides which, you are the best white-girl dancer of all time. Disco is back!

Michaelangelo Matos is a freelance writer in New York and a frequent contributor to City Pages.

 

Charlie Kaufman
DAVID CROSS

My pick for artist of the year is Charlie Kaufman. You know him best as the screenwriter of Being John Malkovich; you are soon going to know him best as the screenwriter of Adaptation. Not only did Charlie have two movies released this year (the other being Human Nature) but Adaptation may be the smartest, funniest, and most subtle script ever written. That's right, I said EVER, bitch!

I am not going to spend this space giving you examples of HOW the script is great--that's not what this is for. You just have to take my word for it or see the movie and start understanding yourself. This is just an appreciation for something that is so unique and well-crafted that if it were a dessert it would be one of those annoyingly decadent two-story chocolate towers composed of sculpted dioramas of a cut-away view of the Globe theater during a production of Richard III all covered in flakes of real gold.

That's how good this script is.

It might be one of the highest forms of flattery (when lauding a script) to say, "Yeah, the movie's great. Smart direction, great acting. Yes. But I'm telling you, after you see the movie, get a copy of the script and read it. Just read it. You will understand how fucking genius it truly is." Isn't that strange? I'm asking you to just read the script. In fact, don't even see the movie. The movie actually gets in the way of how good the script is. Not to take anything away from director Spike Jonze, who did another great job. But, like Being John Malkovich, the story is the script.

The ideas here are unlike anything we've paid 10 motherfucking dollars to see, or, God forbid, have even thought of on our own. Any douchebag with half a pea brain can linearly think up the plot to the next Vin Diesel or Sandra Bullock piece of shit on his lunch break, but NONE of you will ever have the imagination and patience and discipline to think out, craft, write, and then rewrite the movie script that will be used as a model of innovation and expansion of the form for generations to come. Suck on that, people.

David Cross is one half of the duo Mr. Show; his album Shut Up You Fucking Baby came out this year.

 

Leonard Cohen
CHRIS LEHMANN

It's a stretch, i know, to nominate a sixtysomething songsmith as artist of the year, when he has given audiences no new product beyond a career retrospective, which is, in addition, the second such compilation on his CV. But the genius of Leonard Cohen is that in addition to the other accessories of the pop life he's sloughed off--a band, a touring life, a singing voice--he's quietly shown most notions of artistic novelty and authenticity to be shams of the first magnitude. As other troubadour-cum-prophets of the pop world yank decades-old tour tapes out of the attic (Bob Dylan's Live 1975) or push themselves into the front rank of 9/11 recovery therapy (e.g., the unfortunately tumescent-sounding Springsteen anthem "The Rising"), Cohen ranges way out on the periphery, worrying over unfashionable struggles of private conscience, rubbing the worn talismans of religious belief, puzzling over the desires that haunt him in spite of it all. And while other singer-songwriter types undertake evermore manic stabs at self-reinvention, Cohen has quietly assumed the mien and look of a Hollywood producer gone to seed. (He has always been a near-doppelgänger of Dustin Hoffman, and it's hard these days not to think of Hoffman's deal-maker-cum-regime-fixer in Wag the Dog when you see Cohen, resplendent in open-shirted Angeleno suits and tinted aviator shades.)

What's more, his October 2001 release, Ten New Songs, has stayed in the front rotation of my playlist far longer than any other pop offering of the past year. In a typical counter-commercial flourish, Cohen had followed up the release of his penultimate record, The Future, with a five-year hiatus from recording, most of which was spent as an acolyte at a Buddhist monastery. He emerged with much of the material for this record, which despite its occasional stylistic lurches into Eurocheese synth-and-drum-machine production values, does indeed retain the feel of a spiritual homecoming. But given the fugitive, wisecracking, self-narrating spirit of Cohen, it does not translate into pure and blissful repose. "I smile when I'm angry," he announces in the opening track, "In My Secret Life," and then with equal assurance he declares a few lines later, "I'd die for the truth."

At times, Cohen's love affair with the big paradoxes does get to be a little much: "May everyone live," he croaks in "Here It Is," "and may everyone die," to which, I suppose, we're encouraged to reply, "Hey, thanks." But the spare, expectant mood of Ten Songs--of Cohen, as he says, "confined by sex" and "in formless circumstance"--is entirely persuasive. And, completely by accident, several of the record's guiding metaphors--of war, gambling, leave-takings and abandonments--probe the condition of the nation with much more acuity than a thousand Boss anthems. "Don't really have the courage/To stand where I must stand/Don't really have the temperament/To lend a helping hand," he muses timidly in the album-closing "The Land of Plenty," and then concludes: "For the innermost decision/That we cannot but obey/For what's left of our religion/I lift my voice and pray/May the lights in the Land of Plenty/Shine on the truth some day." Amen.

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

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...