By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
Rumor has it that 2004 was the Year of the Angry Critic at City Pages. Okay, so our review of The Passion of the Christ kinda hinted that the mere existence of this Jew-hating, bodily-fluid-spewing, Bible-exploiting bomb is proof that God is dead. And in our feature about America's Sweetheart, we may have suggested that the next time Courtney Love warrants anyone's ink will be when the coroners fill out their autopsy reports over her fat, pharmaceutical-stuffed corpse. Still, I don't think it's fair for readers to say that we're a bunch of black-hearted scribes who spill bile all over our pages and then donate our entire salaries to the National Fund for Destroying Artists' Lives. I mean, this year, we only gave them 50 bucks.
Besides, over the past 12 months, I overheard every one of our writers rhapsodizing about the various filmmakers, musicians, stage actors, photographers, and novelists whose masterpieces have shaken them to their very souls--their words. This, from a group of people who some may have assumed either a) didn't believe in the soul or b) might sell theirs for an extended deadline and a Kit-Kat bar. So in the spirit of rave reviews everywhere, we present our annual Artist of the Year issue, in which we come together to admire--wholeheartedly, and without irony--the various right-brained geniuses who made the biggest impact on us in 2004. Beginning with the locals, we've devoted the bulk of this issue to gushing about our artistic heroes. Yes, that's what we said: heroes. We cynics are praising in earnest. You can't deny the transformative power of art.
by Jim Walsh
I need to see my city as it was, but also as it could be, and as anything other than what it is in the middle of February. Don Holzschuh's paintings do that. They recast Minneapolis as someplace fantastical, a land straight out of C.S. Lewis Carroll, where candy-coated cobblestones and yellow brick roads lead to the Mississippi River as Paris-on-the-Seine and Nicollet Avenue as mobster-era Chicago. But for all their wanderlust and trippy beauty, Don the Baptist's benedictions are wholly and instantly recognizable--White Castle, Shinders, Uptown, downtown--and populated by ordinary people turned extraordinary by the ferocity of one man's quiet adoration.
For 25 years, Holzschuh has been putting his brush to his beloved city, but you don't need me or a thesaurus to come up with "beloved": For a few weeks at the end of 2003 and the beginning of 2004, Holzschuh's work hung at Flanders Contemporary Art in downtown Minneapolis. Strolling through the exhibit was like walking hand in hand with an old friend you've never met before, but who obviously shares a passion for the nooks and crannies and secret hideouts of this uptight bohemia burg we call home.
A friend of mine's living room is ordained with a Holzschuh painting of the hardware store on the corner of 26th Street and Lyndale Avenue South. It is done from the vantage point of the storied apartment above Oarfolkjokeopus (now Treehouse) Records. Every time I see it, I imagine Holszchuh sitting on a window sill on a hot summer night, struck by the simplicity of that historic intersection's muted magic and burning to capture it, to throw color down on canvas, and make the rest of us behold what he beholds.
Jim Walsh is a staff writer at City Pages.
by Quinton Skinner
Claiming entire swaths of Minneapolis as their stage, Skewed Visions put together astonishingly vivid site-specific works this year with an artistic impact inversely proportional to the necessarily limited size of their audiences. Company members Charles Campbell, Gulgun Kayim, and Sean Kelley-Pegg assembled a triad of works and tagged it The City Itself. The result was a genre-busting meditation on alienation and intimacy, memory and pain. While assaying heavy material, the shows also exhibited a distinctive brand of outright weirdness that charged their performances with a streak of hardy fun winding through harrowing and off-kilter intensity.
In The Car, a remount of a 2000 Fringe Festival favorite, audience members rode in the backseat of three different autos with the action taking place in the front. The production was as mesmerizing as it was discomfiting, a night out with psychos, a hooker and john, and a psychotically depressed taxi driver. The actors thrived in such an unorthodox setting, with Sherri Macht's regretful lover and Xavier Rice's tittering drag queen etching themselves into the audience's memory.
For The House, the company rented a two-story home in south Minneapolis and converted it into an ornate set in which small crowds were led from room to room. The place was populated by a barking mad cast of four spectral crazies; in The Car, audiences felt like ghostly voyeurs looking through a window into the lives of others, but in this latter show it was the actors who seemed like yearning, disembodied spirits. Nathan Christopher's performance as a man slowly fading from life on a lonely mattress invoked a powerful sense of existential dread to match a monologue by Vera Mariner about wallpaper and the madness domestic space can inspire.
One had to love The City Itself for its relentless creativity, staunch standard of quality, and deranged ambition in the service of necessarily single-digit audiences (the third work in the triad, Side Walk, was a sound installation leading pedestrians through the Lyn-Lake neighborhood). The eponymous house set, for instance, was so rich in detail that transitions to the next space were accompanied by a sense of panic that one hadn't sufficiently examined the room one was leaving, and that near-infinite details had yet to emerge. Crucially, Skewed Visions located the precise line between thrilling an adventuresome audience and gratuitously rattling or titillating it. Space, the final frontier, belonged to them.
Quinton Skinner is the theater critic at City Pages and the author of several books. His next novel, 14 Degrees Below Zero, will be released next year. He is also working on the authorized biography of Tupac Shakur.
by Lindsey Thomas
When Ryan Olcott screams, I want to scream right along with him. That's saying something, because I'm generally the passive-aggressive type--someone who'd rather just spit in your coffee when I'm mad. When I was a teenager, angst was never part of my vocabulary, especially since my parents listened to the same music I did and didn't mind if I came home from concerts at 2:00 a.m. But Olcott's scream isn't that of some frustrated high school kid getting back at Dad. It's the intelligent noise of a man who studied music as much as he studied sound. If not for his rock-star dreams, Olcott would have gone to college to become a symphonic percussionist. Instead, he applied his knowledge to practice spaces, creating an orchestra out of synthesizers, guitars, and his own rebel yell.
When Olcott's band 12 Rods called it quits last August, I realized just how sympathetic I was to that voice. In the mid-'90s, talent scouts flew halfway across the country to see this buzz band play in crappy Midwestern bars. The group signed with up-and-coming indie label V2, which promised them music videos, radio airplay, and big-name record producers. But according to Olcott, the label couldn't pigeonhole their music and soon gave up on trying to market it. They were dropped. By the time I moved to Minneapolis five years ago, I got no response from telling people that my favorite local band was 12 Rods.
A few weeks before their final show, I sat with the band as they traded stories about their time together, from the night they trashed a hotel room to the shows they played for clueless high schoolers. Eventually the conversation changed from what the band was to what it could have been. Years of trying to beat the label execs had taken their toll on Olcott: Soon he was near tears, so upset about the band's failures that he questioned whether he should have become a rock musician in the first place. The rest of the band watched as a man they greatly admired broke down. It was like watching him finally release a dream that started fading a long time ago.
But sometimes that's the best thing a musician can do. When Olcott walked away from the music industry, he moved on with his life. By starting new projects, he may be letting go of 12 Rods. But something tells me I'll hear him scream again.
Lindsey Thomas is a writer and listings coordinator at City Pages.
The funny thing about Louise Erdrich's novels is they don't always behave like novels. Characters drift in, scarcely announced, from previous books. Things happen off the page. Narrators change voices, change skins, sometimes vanish. Stories unfold in an antic tumble only to trail off into indeterminacy. Ancillary subplots bloom into books. What I mean to say is: Erdrich's novels wander.
Never more so than in this year's Four Souls, Erdrich's 10th novel. The setting is again the Little No Horse reservation, which is by now as familiar to Erdrich's readers as Red Cloud is to Willa Cather's or Macondo to Gabriel García Márquez's. This is, for Erdrich's sprawling multigenerational family of characters, a place half-remembered and half-dreamed: Memory lingers in the landscape as destiny courses through the blood. For Fleur Pillager, the mysterious woman warrior whose story is the heart of Four Souls, the loss of this land threatens to sever all ties to the past. As she plots an elaborate revenge on the white landowner who stole it, she inexorably becomes a mirror image of her enemy. For Nanapush, the Rabelaisian clown who becomes Fleur's biographer, the land also holds the possibility of her restoration.
In Ojibwe legend, Nanapush is the trickster who names the world's plants and animals. The power and potential danger of naming is also central to Erdrich's tale. "Names acquire their own life and drag a person on their own path for their own reasons, which we can't know. There are names that gutter out and die and then spring back, distinguished. Names that go on through time and trouble, names to hold on your tongue for luck. Names to fear."
Four Souls doesn't feel like a capstone to or a culmination of the big interconnected story cycle that Erdrich's novels have become. So: an in-between story for a somberly in-between year. Perhaps we could do worse than to end 2004 thinking about the emptiness of revenge and the inevitability of renewal.
Peter Ritter is a Minneapolis-based writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
Performances about the awkward experiences associated with growing up in the suburbs are plenty common, so it takes a unique point of view to transform the familiar boy-becomes-man tale from mere sitcom to something more meaningful. Stuart Pimsler Dance and Theater's You've Got to Be Kidding!, presented by the Southern Theater in April, achieved this tricky goal by combining the company's new and repertory works (including Joy or Portrait of the Artist as a Young Jew and The Men from the Boys) into a comprehensive examination of personal and artistic maturity, as well as the family ties that bind, sometimes a little too tight.
Pimsler, along with creative and life partner Suzanne Costello, centered the action on his childhood in a seemingly idyllic Long Island neighborhood, where the mores of 1950s society played out in competitive and often hilarious ways. Swimsuit-clad dancers struggled to recline on Astroturf squares and then, dressed in their finest, negotiated backbiting cocktail party politics. Pimsler recalled the influence of his father, who had a stage name even though his act was limited to the basement; and he sparred with the spirit of Aunt Gertie, who continually haunts the choreographer with doubts about his decision to abandon a legal career for the arts. Family photos embellished the storytelling, as did Costello's childhood memories of growing up Catholic in St. Paul; the couple's children and the company members' relatives appeared in small roles, reinforcing the cycle-of-life themes.
Pimsler is often compared to Woody Allen, which is fair. But the proximity of live performance renders this artist's recollections something more immediate and believable than those of his filmic counterpart. Supported by Costello and some of the best dancers in town, Pimsler proved once again with You've Got to Be Kidding! that family may provide some of the best material, but it takes a certain skill to fashion all the facts and foibles of one's own life into a work that rings true with many.
Caroline Palmer is a Minneapolis-based lawyer and writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.
Particularly when you consider that Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has an African American Historical Museum (Cedar Rapids!), the North Star State would seem to give insufficient recognition to the history of black Minnesotans. There have been some recent admirable efforts, including the well-publicized Duluth memorial for the three African American men who were apprehended by a mob and lynched there in 1920. But, surprising or not, it was left to public television to offer a new vision of how to tell the stories of black folks who broke social barriers and challenged racist institutions--this at a time when a true civil rights movement was unimaginable.
North Star: Minnesota's Black Pioneers, which premiered on Twin Cities Public Television in September (and will be rebroadcast in January), follows the likes of George Bonga, an influential black Ojibwe fur trader and liaison, and Lena O. Smith, Minnesota's first black female lawyer and a political powerhouse in her own right. In addition to honoring the lives of these and many other pioneers, Daniel Bergin's two-part documentary never fails to confront the state's racist roots or to examine historical divisions within African American communities. And it's no Ken Burns-style documentary by the numbers, either. Bergin, a longtime TPT producer, and his colleagues focus more on narrative than on chronology per se, linking modern-day struggles and figures with those of the past. The story of a turn-of-the-century black community in Fergus Falls leads to the mention of current Sudanese and Somali immigrants up in Otter Tail County. The legacy of Gordon Parks is connected to the story of an earlier St. Paul maverick, black photographer Harry Shepherd.
That Bergin's film can and should be used as an effective educational tool is just one of many reasons why it's the most important local film of the year--and it was a banner year for local film, including local African American film. If the documentary North Star encourages black history to shine on, the fictional Justice (now airing on the STARZ! network) envisions a Twin Cities in which grassroots activism has its day over a corrupt, racist criminal justice system. What a year for black film in Minnesota!
Jeremy O'Kasick is a Minneapolis-based writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.
Ridicule makes a fearsome weapon, and in political theater a pie fight is as good as a firefight; witness this year's attempted Cool Whip ambush of Ann Coulter. But that's not why so many people told me the only news source they trusted anymore was Comedy Central's The Daily Show. The news itself was not the issue: Information was pimped and peddled this year on every satellite-linked street corner. No, what people craved was the sight of someone calling bullshit on flagrant lying and misrepresentation, whichever side was spouting it.
Thus a half-hour of fake news became the rallying point this year for people who watched the real news with mouths agape, their minds connected by a single thought: "Can you believe this crap?" And their hero was a fortyish ringmaster who confronted the day's affronts to truth and common sense with bad puns, open disbelief, a collegiate variation on borscht-belt shtick, and, best of all, evidence. Suddenly thrust into doing a real newsman's work (okay, maybe not when he was interviewing Billy Crudup), Jon Stewart used his bizarre position as the anchor of a fake newscast to ask questions the networks didn't dare. Pity the hapless Republican apparatchik who parroted that dubious stat about John Kerry as the Senate's most liberal voter, only to have Stewart pick the claim and its sources apart in a thrilling on-air evisceration.
Any mention of Stewart should include his brilliant second bananas Samantha Bee, Lewis Black, Rob Corddry, Ed Helms, and Stephen Colbert, whose parodies of journalese doubletalk this year scaled heights worthy of Joseph Heller if not Lewis Carroll. But Stewart's greatest performance wasn't even on his own show. It came last October on the CNN gabfest Crossfire. Invited for easy laughs ("I'm not going to be your monkey," he said), a visibly aggrieved Stewart instead rebuked mouthpieces Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson for reducing serious debate to a carnival. Rent-a-pundit Carlson, plainly hurt, complained that Stewart wasn't doing any better. Stewart countered that he wasn't the one on CNN: His lead-in show featured puppets making crank calls.
And there you have the sad truth of the media in 2004: A comic took his public responsibility more seriously than the "real" newscasters and commentators around him. Meanwhile, the opinion whores on Spin Alley could be seen talking straight-faced policy wonkage to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Just be thankful the sanest voice in current events remains easily found: nightly, after Crank Yankers.
Jim Ridley is a staff writer at the Nashville Scene and frequent contributor to City Pages.
In his constant attacks on the Bush regime, Howard Stern did more this year for the cause of democracy than all the liberals at Air America combined. In fact, he managed to do the seemingly impossible: to make liberal politics sexy--which, by all rights, they should be. (Can you imagine the panic the Bushites must have felt knowing their most public enemy was a virtual god to millions of white males?)
But let me back up: In case you didn't tune in, 2004 was the year Stern made his conversion from pro-Bush hawk to outraged freedom fighter. Not only that: His transformation came about after reading Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Al Franken, someone he had never liked in the past. By admitting that he had been wrong about Bush, and that Franken had blown his mind, Stern showed he had a supple brain and a genuinely healthy ego, and provided a role model for millions of dudes, a lesson in the art of changing one's mind. Stern's disdain for FCC censorship isn't merely self-serving; it's the only appropriate reaction, and his Viacom boss Mel Karmazin deserves extra credit for standing up to both Congress and the FCC in the face of ridiculous obscenity fines.
It'll be a great loss for radio when Stern switches to satellite (I'm betting it won't last), but even this move is admirably ballsy. I really don't care about strippers and pinheads, but if that's the price of free speech, bring on the lesbian porn stars.
Kate Sullivan is a Los Angeles-based writer and broadcaster and frequent contributor to City Pages.
I have seen the future, and it isn't wearing a bra. Twenty-one-year-old Yolanda Pérez is just one of the stars of the new hybrid Latinate musics: She reps the urban regional set, but reggaetón broke huge this year and Cuban piano lines are popping up everywhere and laptop emo might as well be bossa nova at this point and it's all up in the air and thrilling and glory be to God for dappled things, etc.
Urban regional, a genre that adds big fat hip-hop beats to norteño and banda and cumbia and other Mexican and Central American styles, is blowing up for verdad: Akwid and David Rolas over in Cali; DJ Kane and Frankie J and the other Kumbia Kids down in Tejas, plus the amazing Chingo Bling; Milwaukee's Kinto Sol, featuring DJ Payback Garcia. One could argue that I should pick Pepe Garza, the Svengalisto behind Yolanda and a lot of this music, instead of the delivery system. But no way, José--Yolanda is the definitive article, and Aqui Me Tienes is one of the best pop records of the year. She's the best singer of the lot, with a high, clear, thin, expressive voice. She's the best rapper (listen to how she schools Shorty Loco on "Juran y Juran"). Also, she's the hottest.
All you need to hear is the full-scale onslaught of brass banditry (the way they play it down in Zacatecas) on "Desde Que Llegaste Tú," speeding up and slowing down, with Yolanda riding the wave. No, scratch that: All you need to hear is the one where she makes her dad have a heart attack because she spends "all his moneys." No, actually, try the title song, which she wrote by herself, the sexiest slow jam of the year. People, I'm telling you: Urban regional has found its Elvis.
Matt Cibula is a Madison-based writer.
Middle-aged rock critic Robert Christgau describes Jenny Lewis as "a wet dream for indie boys," which, as someone just a few years younger than Christgau, makes my admiration for her feel a little weird. But in what has been without question the most depressing political year of my long lifetime, Lewis, as a member of the band Rilo Kiley, sung and co-wrote the perfect pop song, and two or three others that are nearly so. Wet dreams haven't ensued, but dozens of times now I've come away from those tunes tingling with that delicious blend of enrichment and inspiration.
The perfect tune is "Portions for Foxes" from Rilo Kiley's More Adventurous. The emotional breadth of its narrative is like a sonic novella, told in layers of such idiosyncratically precise yet ambivalent passion that you know the singer is also the lyricist. The chorus, a repetitive "I'm bad news, bad news," is by turns celebratory, self-loathing, and accepting. When her man cheats on her, Lewis unfurls a tangle of jealousy and anger that dawns into understanding and empathy without a loss of fervor, and climaxes, despite the warnings from friends that her boyfriend is also "bad news," with her triumphant commitment to this flawed but genuine and honest relationship.
"Does He Love You?" is another cogently messy, five-minute melodrama in which Lewis nails the emotional brew of envy and contempt for the domestic choices of her longtime friend. Set to string music redolent of doilies and minuets, it concludes as a searing love triangle, a surprising twist that throws everything before it into greater relief. And "I Never" is another gem about toppling for love against the odds of better judgment, a song that could have been the perfect vehicle for anyone from Aretha Franklin to Patsy Cline to Faith Hill, although Lewis sings with blue-eyed soul akin to Dusty Springfield.
In 2004, Jenny Lewis and her bandmates made indie pop that rightfully recognized that irony has become a trifling banality. She wasn't afraid to gaze into her navel for the keys to her heart, knowing that the devil of her perverse nature is in the details. The angels, too.
Britt Robson is a senior editor at City Pages.
by Mark Peranson
It takes an artist to make a masterpiece, and sometimes it takes an artist to make sure that you and I can see it. I've been to Buenos Aires in each of the past four years to support the efforts of magazine editor-turned-film programmer Quintín, who, with his partner Flavia de la Fuente, ran the Buenos Aires Independent Film Festival (BAFICI) until a month ago. Part of my interest in the BAFICI has been due to its films: Ever since the economic collapse of Argentina, the power of that nation's independent cinema has been undeniable. Another reason is Quintín himself, an activist critic who believes that film still has the potential not only to lift the spirit, but to change hearts and minds. Irascible and avuncular, Quintín always speaks frankly--even if his viewpoints are not entirely consistent with one another. His curatorial vision is as unique as it is provocative. The only problem is that, whether you're in the United States, Canada, or Argentina, honesty eventually catches up to you (unless you're in power, in which case dishonesty gets you rewarded).
So it behooves me to express my outrage over the fact that Flavia and Quintín (who contributes to my magazine Cinema Scope) have been dubiously sacked from one of the world's great cinephile events, supposedly because of their involvement in another festival in Mar del Plata. I was not at all shocked by the news, as I had heard numerous stories about the incompatibility of Quintín and the city government, which funds the BAFICI. In Argentina, the firing has made headlines--a clear sign that cinephilia is alive and well somewhere in the world. The reaction in the international film community has been equally bold: A petition in protest of the move will appear in the January issue of Cahiers du cinéma, signed by numerous filmmakers, critics, and programmers.
The impact of the BAFICI on Buenos Aires and the film festival world has been significant, stemming from the fact that Quintín has seen himself as an activist first and a programmer second. The BAFICI has offered an unparalleled contemporary survey of alternative world cinema--a radical and refreshing thing at a time when the vast majority of programmers are obsessed with packing audiences into theaters for premieres of work that's guaranteed to play in mainstream movie theaters within months or weeks or days. Quintín has always cut through the bullshit that comes with the most expensive of artistic mediums. The lesson that he and his recent firing provide to us is one of which he would approve: that cinema is political and always will be.
Mark Peranson is the Toronto-based editor of Cinema Scope.
Maybe it was because one more E! story about "Bennifer" would've resulted in armed revolution. Maybe it was because Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez had parted ways by the time it was released. Or maybe we just weren't ready for a Kevin Smith movie sans Jay and Silent Bob. Whatever the case, Jersey Girl failed at the box office in March--yet Smith remains my choice for the most influential artist of 2004.
After seeing Smith's debut movie Clerks in 1994, I knew I could be a filmmaker. It was the film that put within reach the career I had only dreamed about. Though my own first flick would be a documentary, I couldn't resist paying homage in it to the guy who made me believe it was possible. (Fans of Smith's Mallrats will know the moment when they see it.)
My generation needed a voice (the baby boomers had Dylan), and Smith was the foul mouth we had been searching for. Through his unique observations about everything from Star Wars to blow jobs, from the nature of God to the difficulty of deep and powerful relationships--including those between father and child--Smith has been my guide to growing up. He has synthesized what's on the minds of Generation X and delivered it in hilarious fashion.
But in 2004, Kevin Smith influenced me for reasons that have little to do with filmmaking. Though Jersey Girl was a bomb, I connected with it in a profound way. As the father of a young girl, and as someone who, at times over the past year, found myself placing my career above more important things, I took from the saccharine, John Hughes-style ending of Smith's film the bit of hope that I needed. As Affleck's Oliver Trinke says after having a similar realization about his disordered priorities, "I'm gonna be the best daddy in the world."
Sometimes it takes a good movie to remind us what we really want to be.
Michael Wilson is the Minnesota-based director of Michael Moore Hates America.
Sure, Vol. 2 was disappointing. But Quentin Tarantino left a more lasting impression on me than any other artist this year. Not because he personally walked the brilliant South Korean director Park Chan-wook's Old Boy to the Cannes winners' circle; not because he left another mark in the history books by defiantly trumpeting Fahrenheit 9/11 at the same fest finale; not even because of his jaw-dropping Laura Antonelli impersonation in Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession.
No, what I realized this year is that Tarantino--who's just a filmmaker after all--has left a deeper imprint on my mind as a critic than anyone since Pauline Kael and Manny Farber. "I find the diamonds in the dustbin," QT said in an interview--and, indeed, there's no one in film criticism who finds more poetry in twisted, debased, furiously artless genres: Italian giallos and spaghetti Westerns, teen pom-pom comedies and '60s Bond knockoffs, sweaty pseudo-snuff and yakuza smackdowns. Tarantino has turned me on not only to entire canons of discredited cinema, but to an aesthetic that sees the unspoken lyric in gutter-born sleaze. (He has similarly excited two of the most inspired people writing about movies today: Film Comment's Chuck Stephens and the Nashville Scene's Jim Ridley.)
If the charm of Tarantino's junk-food taste eludes you, I recommend that you buy the DVD of Jack Hill's Switchblade Sisters, which features the following priceless example of what Harold Bloom calls the "triumph of strong misreading."
QT: So Jack, heh-heh. Like, that scene where the fat guy trips on a banana peel and goes flying through that plasterboard wall and lands in the teachers' lounge and you see that little picture of Nixon in the corner? That's meant to be, like, heh-heh, satire, right?
Jack Hill [after long, long pause]: That was Nixon?
Matthew Wilder is a Los Angeles-based writer and director and frequent contributor to City Pages.
"What about the Democrats?" I asked.
"Son, don't ask me about the Democrats. I'm angry enough as it is."
In The Plot Against America, wherein celebrity aviator and anti-Semitic isolationist Charles Lindbergh soundly defeats FDR in the 1940 presidential election, Philip Roth lifts 28 months out of the 20th century and drops them in the cauldron of home-cooked nightmare. The Roths of Newark and their fellow Jewish neighbors look on in horror as Lindbergh, who invites Nazis to the White House, promises to keep his voters safe from all harm. When trouble stirs, the plain-talking president dons suave "Lone Eagle flying gear" and gives a soothing 41-word speech. His reps repeat lies only enough times to make them not false. He scapegoats powerless minorities. Ludicrous conspiracy theories turn out to be true, and the Bill of Rights enters the shredder. Constituents contemplate flight to Canada.
But the immediate nightmare, the one in the backyard, does eventually end. The country wakes up, blinks away blurry flashbacks to the violent thrashing, the night sweats, the sleepwalking bouts in which America rolled like a blundering tank over its own people and principles. They don't march to the polls and ask for more.
Arriving during the brilliant last act of Karl Rove's own dark plottings, Roth's novel continues the stunning and unrivaled autumnal flowering of his prodigious career. It delivers a clear-eyed, enormously moving tribute to a heroically resourceful working-class American couple, Herman and Bess Roth, resilient in their civic ideals and neighborly interdependence in the face of terrifying external and internal onslaughts. And it traces how a prosperous industrialized nation goes about losing its mind, then how it's nursed back to a tenuous mental health: by the perseverance of proactive dissent, but also--and here's the catch--by no small dose of sheer blind luck. We'll need it.
Jessica Winter is a London-based writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.
Does an Artist of the Year defy the dominant culture or epitomize it? I think most of us who read City Pages--which generally aims to be oppositional (and sometimes succeeds)--would wish to argue the former. But this was a different sort of year. This year, from The Passion of the Christ in February to the Rebirth of the Bush in November, the dominant culture so dominated the others, so whipped those others into submission, that seemingly the only oppositional thing to do was crank the volume on its vulgarities and hope they caused the listener's ears to itch and bleed and beg for another frequency. (We go to war with the army we have.... You're suspended without pay for attending that concert after work.... I earned capital in this election--political capital--and I intend to spend it....)
So, in the spirit of the times, my Artist of the Year is "Hollywood's new hard-on"--his words. He got a fully erect deal with Miramax, fucked over his friends in the course of creating a movie so foul that it gagged even Chocolat's confectioners, and spewed his bilious worldview in Overnight, a darkly comedic documentary that makes him look like a total pig, a consummate vulgarian, the crowned king of unearned arrogance. This young auteur's "cesspool of creativity" (his words) might appear to stretch no further than his potty mouth--but, in the spirit of the times, that's more than enough to make him stink, to make him a star.
Put it this way: Troy Duffy, goddammit, is the fucking face of American cinema. No, fuck that: He's the fucking face of America, bitch. He's a 10-ton SUV of fucking filmmaking force. Better buy his DVD on amazon.com, you pussy. Autographed screenplay for $25 at theboondocksaints.com/store; click on "Hot deals" and get the fuckin' Brothers Rosary Package for $79--or $67 each if you fuckin' buy two or more. Now fuck off and die while I go spend my capital.
Rob Nelson is film editor at City Pages.
Kindly put down what you're doing. Look at the second hand on your watch. If you don't have a watch with a second hand, I would urge you to consider getting one. When I prompt you, please start speaking for one minute without hesitation, repetition, or deviation. Allow me, please, to elaborate. Talk aloud for 60 seconds without pausing or umming, without using any single word twice, and without departing from the assigned topic.
The topic you will be speaking on is, How to Avoid Bad News. You have 60 seconds...starting now.
How did it go, gentle reader? Did you make it to 30 seconds? No? How about 15? Did anyone make it past 5? I didn't think so.
Now, if you would, imagine that you just attempted that exercise on a live stage, with three other players waiting to hit a buzzer whenever you faltered. Or whenever you repeated the word "mammary" or "kumquat" or maybe just "yes." Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the same culture that gave us caning, blood pudding, and colonialism has turned this quirky form of torture into public sport.
For 37 years now, British actors, comedians, and other silver-tongued souls have taken their turn at the stopwatch on the BBC 4 radio show Just a Minute. When the contestants run out of things to say, they frequently find a ready target right in front of their eyes--the show's chair (or host) Nicholas Parsons. He's a consummate dart-catcher. Or to turn the analogy around, Parsons is the guy lobbing the ball into the plate during a home-run derby. For having played the straight man for 780 episodes--he has never missed a second of Just a Minute--Parsons was knighted last January. A new coat of arms for the designated stuffed shirt.
Babbling extemporaneously, it turns out, doesn't lead people to solve the humanitarian crisis in the Congo or to invent new cures for drug-resistant tuberculosis. Which is all right because what I realized in 2004 is that at our precise moment in American history, no one is going to do anything about any of those things anyway. What 60 seconds of logorrhea is good for is clever improvisation, inspired tomfoolery, and structured anarchy.
While you wait to listen to Just a Minute--a new series of shows begins in January at BBC Radio--perhaps you'd like to take another turn at the stopwatch. Without hesitation, repetition, or deviation, talk about Frivolous and Witty Pleasures that Bring Great Mirth to a Debased World for 60 seconds...starting now.
Michael Tortorello is managing editor at City Pages.
Two of my leading runners-up for Artist of the Year work, by necessity, outside the law. DJ Danger Mouse could never have secured the rights to the Beatles material he reconfigured for The Grey Album; clearing the innumerable samples in Strictly Kev's astounding collage "Raiding the 20th Century--a History of the Cutup" is an equally inconceivable feat. Big whoop, shrug partisans on both sides of the copyright war.
Cyber-anarchists who trumpet absolute freedom of information deem legalities irrelevant, while corporate shills--set on monopolizing intellectual property--invariably place profit above creativity.
But my winner, Lawrence Lessig, works within the law, reasoning subtly against both extremes. Lessig's Free Culture, a plainspoken defense of the ever-shrinking public domain in Bush's "ownership society," should be read by anyone who's affected by the way that our access to information is regulated. (Pssst--that means you.) Picking up where his excellent book The Future of Ideas left off, Lessig stresses the pragmatic nature of intellectual property law; the U.S. Constitution offers limited protection to artists and inventors less out of inalienable right, after all, than as an incentive to create.
Theft and piracy are strong words, far more resonant than copyright infringement--which is why extremists get all the press. Lessig remains calm even when his arguments point to potential cataclysm. But he's so fluid a writer that by the time you remember how much all this legal crap bores you, you're already alongside him, nudging intellectual property theory forward, hoping the law catches up with advances in art and technology before the big media oligarchs do.
Keith Harris is a Philadelphia-based writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.
Silliness and architecture generally don't mix: Big round glasses and liver spots hardly project the image of jollity. On its own very material terms, architecture is cast as heavy, dense, immobile--the stuff of sincerity and presence. No one likes to think of his or her buildings as disposable or temporal. Taking inspiration from the Greeks, most architects secretly long to see their work last into ruin; indeed, architecture is the only art form in which active decrepitude is a form of greatness.
Which is why, with each successive building, book, or article he creates, Dutch iconoclast Rem Koolhaas only furthers the scope of his genius. Is there an artist at work today who's more heedlessly optimistic than Koolhaas? With the Seattle Public Library--his most visible American building, which opened last spring even as the SPL's spiritual offspring, the China Central Television Tower, began to rise brashly skyward--Koolhaas has finally seen his pop theories achieve velocity across the west/east arc of the northern hemisphere. Throw in Koolhaas's crackpot compendium Content ("dense, cheap, disposable," he calls it)--as well as Koolhaas/Lagos, a documentary on the architect's seduction by urbanity's most haggard whore--and we find the artist giddily hitting a stride unmatched by any modern architect since...well, ever.
All of this would amount to mere random mewlings were it not for the fact that Koolhaas, for all his pointy-headed ramblings and theoretical flights of fancy, remains a fundamentally silly architect. And I do mean silly. We may reserve the fuzzy honorific of playful for such fundamentally obtuse architects as Frank Gehry or Norman Foster; Koolhaas is silly. One look at his manic apocalypso of a library--a building akin to the large intestine, digesting the whole of bibliophilia in some sort of sci-fi bowel movement--is enough to see that Koolhaas's lofty ideas are never more than a leaping-off point for Future's most slap-happy intellectual sybarite and celebrant, a man for whom Dancing About Architecture is an unironic reality.
Bonus points: At the start of 2005, Koolhaas is still the only architect to publicly criticize the World Trade Center memorial, having called it a "massive representation of hurt that projects only the overbearing self-pity of the powerful." And a local angle: One need only look at Koolhaas's wonderful Guggenheim Hermitage museum addition in Las Vegas to realize the full-scale disaster of the bloated, leaden, self-aggrandizing addition to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Kenzo Tange, you may now decapitate Michael Graves.
Jamie Hook is executive director of Minnesota Film Arts.
by Chuck Olsen
I'm one of those geeks who gets most of his news from the internet, which bestows upon me a mystical power over mainstream media's trite conventions and obvious biases. Our government puts up a smoke screen, our media reports it: Indeed, there appears to be hot vapor emanating from the White House. I like to think I can see through all that and ask, Where's the fire?
But I have an embarrassing admission: I got duped. If anyone was reporting on the real fire--the unpleasant consequences of our actions in Iraq--it was Al Jazeera. Donald Rumsfeld called Al Jazeera "Osama bin Laden's mouthpiece." I tend to distrust anything that sputters out of Rumsfeld's wiry mouth, but somehow this idea penetrated my critical radar. Enemy propaganda. Not to be trusted.
Arab American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim presents a far more complex reality in her documentary Control Room. Noujaim gained access to both Al Jazeera headquarters and the U.S. military's Central Command offices in Qatar. Though only 20 miles separate the two, their perceptions of the U.S. presence in Iraq are light years apart. Noujaim (unlike you-know-who) wisely avoids pandering to either worldview, instead placing her loyalty with her captivating characters, including burly and genial Al Jazeera reporter Hassan Ibrahim and Lt. Josh Rushing, the disarmingly honest and charming press officer from CENTCOM. Rushing starts out parroting administration talking points, but his sincere and candid conversations with Ibrahim give rise to cognitive dissonance; you can almost see the bridge of understanding being forged in their eyes.
Noujaim's camera shows us perhaps the most important conversation of our time. Different channels, different truths--and these days, we need all the truths we can get.
Chuck Olsen is a Minneapolis-based blogger and the director of Blogumentary.
by T.D. Mischke
Okay, I'm in the radio business and thus would love to see this art form recognized. But even if you view radio as a tad pedestrian, you have to make an exception for Garrison Keillor. This past year our Wobegon Wonder has been on a flat-out roll.
Of late, Prairie Home Companion has been displaying a new life that it hasn't known in years. The sharp, darker humor has resurfaced, as well as edgy political material that Jon Stewart could envy. Radio humor is handicapped by the absence of the visual--the place where most communication actually occurs. This makes Keillor's stuff all the more impressive. If your medium offers only the auditory, words rapidly become diamonds. And Keillor is the master miner.
Working another vein, the Ramsey Hill resident found himself unable to hold back some deep political passions. The result was the eloquent, earnest tome Homegrown Democrat, his answer to the likes of Ann Coulter and her special brand of toxic defecation. This slender volume laid out the logic for the decency in Midwest populism. No East Coast egghead think-tank speak here, just the simple allure of occasionally giving a damn about one's neighbor.
An insightful book and revitalized radio show weren't all that made 2004 Keillor's year. Director Robert Altman rolled into town to begin work on a film of Prairie Home Companion, with Keillor himself handling the script. Looking at all of it, I'm hard-pressed to find another artist successfully working in as many artistic genres. Just when you think Keillor has been taking a lunch hour off, there he is, penning clever pieces for Salon.com, or hosting the National Book Awards, where the stuffing was eviscerated from the stuffy. It seems the Northland's modern-day Twain may be peaking while most men his age are busy planning retirement or honing their golf swing.
T.D. Mischke hosts The Mischke Broadcast on KSTP-AM (1500).
The phone rings off the hook with urgent offers of vacation. E-mails pile up promising housewife sex. You can't go five minutes without feeling like you're being sold something. Which is why people take comfort in the idea of a street culture--something you have to seek out, something that never comes to you.
Yet the truth is that spray-paint graffiti anticipated the invasiveness of modern advertising by 30 years--it originated as a personal exercise in "branding." Now the moron who tagged the tree outside my house has as much right to call himself "hip hop" as the artist who painted the untitled aerosol-on-canvas hanging in my living room. The difference is that art, unlike advertising, invites a second glance: In Ernest Arthur Bryant III's almost abstract jigsaw shapes, I see disembodied eyes and African-looking noses painted in colors so gentle and warm they could be oils. Then I notice telltale spray-can dribble beneath one of the eyes, a touch that suggests a watery stare.
In music, MF Doom is that watery stare. His moist and resigned voice delivers a rhapsody in blue. And at some basic level, he does not "scan." Doom is too weird a rapper to be processed by the culture machine, which this year is really saying something. On Madvillainy, the best of his three major 2004 albums, the Atlanta-based MC boasts that he's "got enough styles to start three fads." But what would those fads be? Wearing a metal mask onstage? Never writing choruses? Releasing every record under a different name? (Madvillain is the handle he uses for his collaboration with L.A. producer Madlib.) Fans love Doom precisely because, like the Cartoon Network's Aqua Teen Hunger Force, he represents the only Dada that makes any sense in the communications age--the kind that makes no sense at all, and communicates nothing.
Lord Scotch, the graffiti artist who designed Doom's faceplate, has said, "Hip hop has never been recorded." He meant that the product is a ghostly echo of something real, a shell of a living culture. But Doom himself is a ghost: His music is never an advertisement for himself. (What self?) And his voice expresses only sadness, with lyrics drawing on Marvel Comics lore to invent new characters, usually riffing on Fantastic Four archenemy Doctor Doom. He is the ultimate escapist, which is why his best references are to real villains who get away. Only Doom would name-drop Saudi arms merchant Adnan Khashoggi, the Kevin Bacon of espionage scandal. On MM... Food? (which Doom released through the Minneapolis label Rhymesayers), our hero finds his perfect counterpart in a 1971 skyjacker who jumped out of a 727 over the state of Washington with $200,000, never to be heard from again. "Average MCs is like a TV blooper," Doom raps. "MF Doom, he's like D.B. Cooper."
No, he will not be right back after these important messages. You get the sense that if Doom had his way, he would not be back at all.
Peter S. Scholtes is a staff writer at City Pages.
In 2004 Kanye West was omnipresent, like his boy Jesus' dad is said to be. Or at least he was nearly omnipresent, like cars and shirts ("Everywhere you look," my crazy uncle used to say, "there's a shirt"). Hit after hit he made--some his own, some his productions--and his album The College Dropout has more in reserve. In a month or so that album will win the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop critics poll, unless Brian Wilson robs West of his moment. Because I'm better than everyone else (kidding!), I don't normally like to be so consensual, but this year I'm happily running with the pack. What larks we have, this pack and I.
Right now my favorite song is "Family Reunion." Do you know that tingle? Not the famous spinal one, the one that runs down your chest, into your stomach, almost makes you feel queasy, sweetly queasy? The piano chords on "Family Reunion" do that to me (most every time). Plaintive, they are. The chorus goes, "All that glitters is not gold." You've heard that before. Perhaps you haven't heard it conveyed so meaningfully, with such unsentimental appreciation for the matte-finish gold of extended family.
Which brings up a more general thing I like about The College Dropout: Each song--or maybe all but one or two--is about something. A lyricist friend of mine says that stringing cool-sounding, ambiguous words and phrases together is the road to mysterious, poetic bliss, or maybe he says it's the last resort of hacks too dumb and lazy for coherence, I forget which. For argument's sake, let's say that in pop music, it's frequently the latter (the last resort thing). The College Dropout stands with tradition in its commitment to meaning and clarity. It's about sex and God and capitalism and family and insecurity and race and ambition and failure and how defeating and intoxicating materialism is. Like anyone who enjoys thinking, West is confused. Cognitive dissonance is part of his shtick--"first nigga with a Benz and backpack," he raps in an oft-quoted line. He probably isn't even the first Afro-centric gospel comedian to wear one of those teddy bear sweaters that Ralph Lauren sells at Christmastime. But there's something new about him. Or maybe it's that there's something old about him. He's trying to explain what it's like to be alive and trying to make the explanation beautiful. Odd that a proud college dropout should be such a fine professor of liberal-arts ideals.
Dylan Hicks is associate arts editor at City Pages.
Since the obscure 1988 masterpiece Wittgenstein's Mistress, David Markson's work has been breaking up (and down), fragmenting to the point where he now produces what one of his narrators has called "seminonfictional semifiction."
That, I realize, sounds dauntingly postmodern, but don't let it throw you. Markson, a 77-year-old New Yorker, is unconventional, but he's also a genuinely entertaining character, capable of all sorts of real pathos and laugh-out-loud surprises. His last three books have been thematically obsessive and basically plotless collections of fragments, anecdotes, and befuddled authorial intrusions--or, in Markson's own words, novels "of intellectual reference and allusion...minus much of the novel." Every one of them, I would however argue, ultimately does add up to something more than merely an assemblage of the curious or the inscrutable.
The latest, this year's Vanishing Point (Shoemaker & Hoard), is a consistently engrossing and haunting exercise in cultural archaeology, with the whiff of mortality hanging over the whole thing. Ostensibly the work of an aging narrator who is attempting to cobble together a novel from shoeboxes crammed with notes scribbled on index cards, Vanishing Point seems preoccupied with failure, insanity, obscurity, indignity, and mortality (more or less).
Dip into a copy of Vanishing Point and you'll run across lines like these (and then I dare you to try to put the book down):
T.S. Eliot was afraid of cows.
Karl Marx never in his life saw the inside of a factory.
At the age of eight or nine, Richard Brautigan once returned home from school and found that his entire family had moved away without a word.
Not long after Scott Fitzgerald's death, Scribner's letThe Great Gatsby go out of print.
As he grew older, W.H. Auden was known for living in extraordinary filth. His own brother acknowledged that he frequently urinated in his kitchen sink.
How many Cy Young Awards would Cy Young have won?
Brad Zellar is a contributing editor at City Pages.
No, I'm not talking about Ozzy Osbourne's dead speed-demon guitarist. But keep those devil horns raised, 'cause in 2004, this lefty radio-babe unleashed incendiary anti-W riffs and shredding drive-time solos that made her an honorary rock star. Sandwiched in between marquee celebs Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo on the fledgling Air America, Rhodes quickly demonstrated how her Florida broadcast had bested Rush Limbaugh's in local ratings. (Could this have been the pain that sent him scrambling for that hot oxy?)
Rhodes can be as funny (and paranoid) as Howard Stern, as stern as Limbaugh, and as wonkish as your favorite blogger. And she's not shy about using her hard-knocked history to disarm opponents who might imagine she's some East Coast fancy-pants. Rhodes came from a broken home in Queens, dropped out of community college, served in the Air Force, drove a truck, divorced an abusive spouse, adopted the child of her gay sister (who died of breast cancer), jocked for a rock station, suffered through a crushing second marital split, fought Clear Channel tooth and nail to syndicate, then left hard-won sunbelt comfort to help launch the shoestring Air America in NYC. This makes her different from Harvard grad Franken (and Garofalo, whose oil-exec dad would call to argue Bush's merits). Rhodes's show provided a call-in counterpoint that pulsed with street-level momentum. When online listeners from red states gushed, "I love you!" she zapped, "I love you more!"
Sure, Randi's not for everyone: She has been known to wear a button reading "NPR is nice--I'm not." But her scorching outrage at Abu Ghraib, her swift kicks to the Swifties, and her passionate indictments of media consolidation staked out territory that NPR is all but mandated to avoid. Her cut-the-shit wit ("You are never going to have a beer with your president") and rhetorical prowess (she had Pat Buchanan jumping sides during her RNC interview) bolstered confidence in the notion that real "moral values" would carry the day. Rhodes, convinced the election was stolen, still believes they did.
Laura Sinagra is a New York-based writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.
It was in New York, in early December, at a multi-artist revue celebrating the American ballad, that Oren Bloedow took the stage to reel off a version of Jan and Dean's 1964 drag-race classic "Dead Man's Curve." Bloedow is a downtown guitarist-bassist-pianist-and-more who currently works with the singer Jennifer Charles under the name Elysian Fields; his occasional non-singer's vocals on their albums gave no hint as to what he was up to this night.
Dressed in a dark suit, his head shaved and eyes gleaming, Bloedow--pronounced "Blowdown" without the n--picked up the mic and bent his body into a crouch. He crashed into the song as if it were one of those weird-cats-on-the-street musical monologues that dot the soundtracks for David Lynch movies--"The Black Dog Runs at Night" from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, say--but less than a minute into the performance, a David Lynch movie was exactly what the song had turned into. Made as it was for Jan Berry's flat, non-singing voice, the song is nearly unsingable, so Bloedow chanted it like a '50s jazz poet with a trio vamping behind him in some San Francisco nightclub, going off about the consumer society or lobotomy or the tyranny of suits and ties, as if "Dead Man's Curve" was actually about some great affront.
The passion seemed misplaced, but with horns and piano behind him, Bloedow picked up speed, adding to the lyrics, throwing in Sepulveda and Pico on top of Crescent and changing La Brea to the Tar Pits. The excitement and terror of the XKE chasing the Stingray came across; you held your breath. Somewhere Bloedow pulled in the end of Bob Seger's "Night Moves," but hysterically, like Kevin McCarthy staring at the loads of giant seed pods in the trucks on the highway at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers--in other words, trying to convince whoever's listening of something he knows they'll never believe: I remember, I remember!
And then the killer: "Well, the last thing I remember, Doc, the exit polls said that we were ahead/So I went to bed and woke up dead/The provisional ballots couldn't meet our needs/And at two o'clock we went on the news to concede...." The Shangri-Las flew in: "LOOK OUT LOOK OUT LOOK OUT LOOK OUT!" "I know I'll never forget that horrible night," the song ends: "I guess I found out that everyone was right/Won't come back from..."
Suddenly, it was the whole nation that had plowed into Dead Man's Curve and wasn't coming back. The reality was one thing; the performance was shocking. Watching, you weren't sure if what seemed to have happened had happened at all: onstage, or offstage.
John Cassavetes haunts my life. His name came up in conversation three times last weekend. I won an argument I really wanted to win just by uttering his name. This year the Criterion Collection released a DVD box set of five Cassavetes films; it's sitting on the shelf above me right now. Ever since I got a DVD player, I've been waiting for Criterion to release Cassavetes's 1970 film Husbands. Somehow they must have known that, because it's not in the box set. They know how to squeeze the money out of me, those DVD reissuers.
There's a poetic justice in that denial: They're taunting me just as the memory of Cassavetes has taunted me consistently ever since the day I found out he had died. Cassavetes was the filmmaker most responsible for my wanting to make films. The first film I made that was any good was called The Boys, and it was a pretty direct rip-off of Husbands. I met him once. Okay--that's an exaggeration. He shook my hand, though.
I don't want to waste my word count on telling the whole story, but suffice it to say that if I did tell the story, you'd probably think it sounded more like a dream. And I wouldn't blame you. He shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and said to me, not with words, but his expression: "Go forth and make the kind of films I've inspired you to make."
I'm not sure if it was a blessing or a curse. A bit of both, I guess. I've tried to honor him, but as far as I can tell, there's very little evidence of it in my work. I can talk about him, though, and mention his name and win arguments with it. This most recent one was something about whether or not fiction films can remind you of real life or whether they even should. I'm tired of that argument, so I mentioned Cassavetes and it was all over.
Alan Zweig is the Toronto-based director of I, Curmudgeon.
Bored with a succession of software-engineering jobs, Shane Carruth taught himself everything he needed to know about filmmaking in three years. Then he wrote, directed, edited, scored, and co-starred in Primer, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and garnered reviews ranging from ecstatic to testy when it opened a couple of months ago.
Primer involves two engineers who attempt to break out of their tedious jobs by building a time machine in their garage. Since film itself is essentially a time machine, Primer's premise is not only somewhat autobiographical; it's also a metaphor for the film's own making, all the more so because Carruth's method of production mirrors the DIY ingenuity of the characters onscreen. The 32-year-old filmmaker got his debut feature in the can for a frugal $7,000--remarkable because he didn't shoot on digital video, but on old-fashioned Super 16. Blown up to 35mm, the image is dense and mysterious--even when it depicts the