Artists of the Year

The dingy video of Inland Empire is a world—and many millions of dollars—away from, say, the screensaver night skies of Miami Vice. What's "beautiful" here is the relative absence of barriers between the director's unconscious and what he puts on screen: No waiting around for money or even for the big picture to emerge. Just as the structure of Mulholland Drive—with its decisive fault line and eureka epiphanies—reflects its evolution from open-ended TV pilot to stand-alone feature, Inland Empire is also shaped by the conditions of its creation. An experience of total immersion and continual slippage, it feels like the product of a sustained, unedited brainstorm. For all its Lynchisms, there has never quite been a film—not even a Lynch film—like Inland Empire. A testament to the singular vision and the marketing genius of its maker, this self-distributed art-house hit shatters the complacency of its audience and ventures to the far shores of dissonance and abstraction. What it finds there is exactly what Lynch promised: beauty.

Dennis Lim is the editor of The Village Voice Film Guide.

Taylor Branch

Gary Taxali

BYBRITT ROBSON

Let's not mince words: Just as America was blessed to have the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. among us during the crucible of the Civil Rights Movement, King's legacy is blessed to have Taylor Branch as the biographer of that era. At Canaan's Edge, the third and final book in Branch's chronicle of America in the King years, came out earlier this year. Like the other two, it is a panorama of heroism and villainy rendered with all the detail of a RAW-format photo (and at 771 pages—plus 220 pages of notes and citations, and 11 pages of bibliography—there's no shortage of data). The sources for this project are legion: hundreds of interviews—many gleaned from once-skeptical principals won over by his reportage in the previous volumes—and thousands of once-classified government documents, in addition to an omnivorous review of all the other archival resources. Quietly but steadily, Branch thrills the curiosity of his readers with the sheer depth of his discovery.

At Canaan's Edge opens amid the rural violence of February 28, 1965, which initiated the pivotal march from Selma, Alabama, and it ends with King's assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. Along the way, the narrative ricochets from community schoolhouse meetings in Lowndes County, Alabama, to treacherous briefings by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to President Lyndon Johnson. While we see these figures acting individually, Branch also suggests the tidal pull exerted by the Black Power and antiwar movements.

For all the book's historical precision and painstaking rigor, Branch provides us with insights that resonate far beyond the days and months he's re-created here. One can't help but be struck, for instance, by the parallels between the debate that raged over the fiasco of Vietnam and the current talking points regarding the war in Iraq; or by the ongoing friction in the black community between those who advocate confrontation and those who advise reconciliation.

As I near the end of At Canaan's Edge, I feel like a junkie who knows his main connection has split town. Taylor Branch is reportedly working on a history of the Clinton presidency. Wish him godspeed.

Britt Robson is a senior editor at City Pages.

Banksy

BY MELISSA MAERZ

This should have been the year America laughed itself smart. But watching lefty audiences trade knowing I'm not a redneck! titters over Borat and The Colbert Report, I fear the opposite happened: Maybe we laughed ourselves smug. Absurdism—the art world's tool for cutting through an irrational, amoral worldview with a real sense of wonder about how it came to be—turned into an excuse not to question your own status quo. That is, until Banksy sent a blow-up doll to Disneyland.

Now, I don't know what the British graffiti artist was saying when he placed a life-sized replica of a hooded Guantánamo prisoner on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride. Or when he spray-painted a naked man outside the Brook Young People's Sexual Health Clinic in Bristol, England. Or when he decorated the Palestinian side of Israel's West Bank Barrier with portraits of ghostlike children playing across the wall. But works like the strange Krylon drawings he's done in London's poorest neighborhoods (a hitchhiker whose sign reads "Anywhere," a rat who's painted the slogan "I'm out of bed and dressed, what more do you want?") are proof that, even in the most dire times, comedy can be a magical, whimsical, bold alternative to easy, anti-everything ennui.

That idea's more powerful than you might think. In his manifesto, Banksy quotes Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin, one of the first British officers to help liberate a concentration camp in 1945. Gonin, who'd ordered basic necessities for the freed prisoners, received only a box of lipstick. Though initially outraged, he later sees the genius of the act. "Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips..." he writes. "I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm."

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