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.

Wright was raised by his mother and his aunt in what he describes as a working-middle-class black family in D.C. He majored in political science at Amherst, where his classmates, he says, were being trained as future masters of the universe. His experience of class and racial difference proved crucial to his development as an actor. Where most actors define their characters though the psychology of the individual, Wright's building blocks are socioeconomic and political. He conceives his characters in terms of power--the ways they accrue and deploy their own power and defend themselves against the power of others.

Among the characters to whom he has given body and soul: the young Martin Luther King Jr. in the HBO movie Boycott (probably his most brilliant performance); the fragile, self-destructive painter in the biopic Basquiat; the predatory Dominican drug dealer in Shaft; and the former card sharp in Suzan-Lori Parks's play Topdog/Underdog. Like Belize, these characters are visionaries, all with a tragic sense of how we live in "the land of the free and the home of the brave."

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor at Film Comment.

 

Liz Phair
BY KEITH HARRIS

In 2003 "older women" became genuine fetish objects. For frisky frat-packers like Ashton Kutcher, a more mature lady was as essential (and as media-mocked) an accessory as a trucker hat--why, most of the women Justin Timberlake dated were old enough to have been his camp counselors. Fountains of Wayne's video for "Stacy's Mom" cast Rachel Hunter as the imposing tower of flesh that haunts every straight boy's wet nightmares. And before P4ris Hi1t0n cornered the spam market, there were more MILFs propositioning my webmail than Asian schoolgirls and widows of deposed Congolese warlords put together. (Now there's an idea for a porn site.)

Note please that "older women" here refers to just about anyone old enough to rent a car or check the spelling on her IMs. And that as with most furtive fetishes, lust and disgust often comingle. Those dinks who looked up from their latest jerk-off session on Suicidegirls.com just long enough to whine about how foolish Liz Phair looked on her latest album cover, tarting it up like an understudy for Freaky Friday, proved the 36-year-old provocateur's point--the insistence on aging gracefully is the patriarchy's last best trick. The reaction it stirred isn't what made Liz Phair so very necessary--that'd be the hooks, some indeed bent into shape by that Avrilutionary production hivemind the Matrix, all catchier than any Broken Social Scene fan has any business denying. But Phair suggested that an intelligent adult woman has the right to act dumb when she wants, to fuck pretty little boys who ain't too bright, and to shift gears when her career feels like a rut.

In short, she demanded a woman's right to have a midlife crisis in public, and in doing so made today's guyvillains as defensive as their punk-puritan forebears had been a decade back. They'll never know what they're missing.

Keith Harris is editor-in-chief of Red Flag Media music publications in Philadelphia.

 

Deborah Keenan
BY KATHERINE LANPHER

True story: I was walking with poet Deborah Keenan one day on a well traveled avenue in St. Paul when a van pulled up beside us and a young man clambered out with a bouquet and handed the flowers to Deborah. She thanked him graciously and kept walking. He was a student of hers. That's the kind of devotion she attracts as a teacher.

This March, I went to the reading for her fifth collection of poetry, Good Heart, published by Milkweed Press. The auditorium held 500 people, but it wasn't big enough for everyone who came and there was a slight delay while they set up extra chairs on the stage. That's the kind of devotion she attracts as a poet and reader.

Deborah Keenan is generous in word and deed, pulling images from the everyday life around us. Two little girls form an imaginary country under a lilac bush, and the poem "Emerald" asks:

Why do girls with powerful
Tender hearts know to leave
Their homes, their parkways
and avenues and streets and
Swear allegiance to this new,
Green and growing government?

The poem "Garlic/Trees/Incest" tells us about the commonality of three nouns across all cultures:

Two nouns for protection, and one noun
That tree and garlic cannot guard, cannot cure
One noun not strong enough to stop
The meaning of itself from happening
In every culture of our world.

And there's humor. "When Men Poets You Admire and Respect Can Only Answer Sappho When Asked in Public Are There Any Women Poets You Admire" so delighted writer Erica Jong--who was touring for her novel based on the life of Sappho--that she snapped up my copy on the spot when I showed it to her. The rest of you, go out and buy your own copy. It'll do your heart good.

Katherine Lanpher is the host of Midmorning on Minnesota Public Radio.

 

Bill Murray
BY EMILY CONDON

In a year when Hollywood contrivance became indistinguishable from "real" life (Arnold kicks Kristanna Loken's ass in T3, molests women, is elected governor of California), one sought any shred of evidence to suggest that movie stars can still tell us something important. While prominent "actors" rapidly devolve into synthetic freaks (one need only look at Mike Myers on the poster for The Cat in the Hat to shudder at the very idea of going to the movies), Bill Murray turned in a performance that reminded us, simply and intensely, what it means to be human.

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