Artists of the Year

Iraq. SARS. Jay Leno, Still on television practically every night. Yeah, 2003 was about as much fun as a social disease.

Freud is a great novelist. But instead of merely telling us a tale, he shows us how our routine human experiences are as laden with meaning as the most laboriously constructed bildungsroman. Our unconscious condenses, extrapolates, juxtaposes, and constructs metaphors just like a writer does, and for the same reason--to get at the truth. "There is nothing arbitrary or undetermined in the psychic life," Freud says. Our lives are character-driven books where everything happens for a reason. And whether or not that's scientifically demonstrable, it makes for a damn good story.

Alison Bechdel creates the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. She lives in Vermont.

 

Aaron Horkey

Ricky Gervais
BY MICHAEL TORTORELLO

The room is small and filled with toys. Floppy dolls with pigtails and beanbag caterpillars and kitten puppets and square blocks with bunnies and geese painted on the sides. My four-year-old niece J. and I are building a Boogietorium for this happy cast of characters, laying down the boogie floor and the stage and the hot-tub VIP after-hours room. We're sparing no expense: It's going to be a velvet-rope, valet-park-the-Maybach, Sean Jean-is-so-2003 joint all the way. And then J.'s three-year-old sister M. totters into the room, carrying a small plastic bowl.

If you have kids, you probably know where this uncute little anecdote is going. Later on, after the caterwauling had ended and the highest judge in the land, Mommy, had heard appeals from each party in the dispute, I would count 129 implements of fun on the floor of that room. It was the bowl, of course--not even a proper toy--that both of them wanted.

A lot has been written about the truths of the modern workplace contained in the brutally funny BBC comedy The Office. Not only are the jobs we do banal and demeaning and fundamentally pointless--but we're terrified to lose them. Yet on some level The Office is no more about an office than Cheers was about a barroom. What co-writer and star Ricky Gervais has actually created is a character study in envy.

And so we see the cloying and abusive David Brent, the world's worst boss, strutting past the receptionist in the same brown leather coat that his newly promoted manager wore the previous day. There David is during a company goof-off session, waiting greedily for a drunken subordinate to finish a kissing line of male coworkers and plant one on him. There he is, not getting kissed. David's competitive craving for attention reaches its excruciating nadir/zenith when he follows his superior's slick disco routine during a company fundraiser with his own convulsive-ostrich funk dance.

We desperately crave notice, affection, respect. Yet the nakedly covetous way we go about getting what we want makes us shabby and unworthy of it. From the playroom to the boardroom, our lives are filled with boundless humiliations. Isn't it hilarious?

Michael Tortorello is a senior editor at City Pages.

 

Richard Linklater
BY ROB NELSON

This year I taught a college class called "The Film Critic." I think I may have been the wrong person for the job. I began by giving each student a two-inch thick packet of reviews--some by the greats (e.g., Andrew Sarris, Manny Farber, Amy Taubin, Georgia Brown), some by the not-so-greats (myself, Harry Knowles, the anonymous reviewer who wondered in 1904 whether the bad guy who falls off his horse in The Great Train Robbery was actually a mannequin). To make a long story short: I couldn't manage to get the students all that excited about reading the reviews. What they did feel excited to do was to talk about movies and write about them--which is what I eventually encouraged, but only after squandering half the semester on telling rather than showing. The lesson wasn't lost on the instructor: If it's true that those who can't do often teach, then it's even more true that those who can't learn aren't often taught to do.

Shame that I hadn't yet seen The School of Rock, in which Jack Black's comparatively prodigious, outrageously motivational substitute teacher Dewey Finn takes no time flat getting his students' fingers on the instruments. Following his hero's instructional model, the movie's director Richard Linklater doesn't hesitate to play the whole thing for broad comedy even while revealing what his ostensibly frivolous farce has on its mind: the value of progressive pedagogy in the era of Bush's backward promise to leave no child behind. Much as The School of Rock resembles The Bad News Bears, Linklater (who's from Texas, just like Dubya) understands that it isn't 1976 anymore. Indeed, where the blitzed Bicentennial grads of his Dazed and Confused didn't need a teacher to know "Dream On" by heart, the kids on day one of Dewey's pop-appreciation class would rather sell their souls to the honor roll than to rock 'n' roll. The predator in this 21st-century blackboard jungle isn't just "the Man," but the kids' unconditional deference to his authority--which we've taught them very well, very possibly at our peril.

Small wonder that the consensus among prepubescent critics (according to my schoolteacher sweetheart) has Linklater's film earning low points on the authenticity scale, in part for his vision of a curriculum that would place Trout Mask Replica alongside James and the Giant Peach. But perhaps those reviews are less a sign of the movie's failure than of its reason for being. Delivering the real-world corollary to his Waking Life, Linklater is posing another philosophical question here: Do the rigid institutions of grade school and Hollywood cinema allow any room to dream? Even the fifth-grade pragmatists among us would take a look at Rock's $80 million gross and agree that the latter half of the question has been answered in the affirmative. As for the former, it's elementary. As one scholarly gent by the name of Steven Tyler already taught us: Dream until your dreams come true.

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