Artists of the Year
SONY VX1000, SONY PC7, CANON SL-1, ET AL.
by Rob Nelson
At the start of this decade, the intermittently visionary Francis Coppola peered into his crystal ball and saw the future of cinema--in the form of "some little fat girl in Ohio." More specifically, Coppola was imagining a new apparatus that might enable such a girl to get her "little" vision onto the screen. "To me, the great hope is that now these little 8mm video recorders have come around, and some [ordinary] people who normally wouldn't make movies are gonna be making them... And for once the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever, and it'll really become an art form."
In '91, Coppola's prophecy of cinematic democratization supplied the perfect ending to Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now (and the consequential unmaking of a certain professional filmmaker). But it wasn't until '98 that a sizable portion of this pro's prediction came to pass. For this year saw the release of The Cruise, The Last Broadcast, The Celebration, and The Saltmen of Tibet: four hugely original and innovative debut features that simply wouldn't exist were it not for the technology their makers used to shoot them. All four films employed lightweight, low-cost digital video camcorders whose "three-chip" design allowed for high-quality images even in low-light situations; and all four managed to play on big screens in commercial venues across the country. (Let me also mention that veteran doc-maker Albert Maysles came to Minneapolis last July with a jury-rigged Canon SL-1 in tow, cradling it like a newborn baby and dreaming out loud about the Mayslesian verities it might bring.)
Still, I know what you're thinking: Can a camera really be an artist, much less the Artist of the Year? Well, in a word, yes. After all, if it's the job of the artist to develop new means of expression, and the job of the great artist to inspire others less privileged to do likewise, then the $3,000 DV camcorder did more for the artistry of movies than any moviemaker in '98.
Consider the evidence: The inconspicuous mini-DV camera allowed Saltmen director Ulrike Koch to capture a nearly extinct Tibetan ritual to which she was denied official access by the Chinese government; the palm-sized Sony PC7 effectively gave The Celebration's Thomas Vinterberg one helluva Louma crane, the likes of which Orson Welles would have killed for; the Sony VX1000 helped the makers of The Last Broadcast complete their digitally transmitted mock-doc for a thrillingly measly $900; and the VX1000 also absolved Cruise director Bennett Miller of the need to seek funding for his perverse portrait of the artist as a young tour-bus guide--the heretofore unknown Timothy "Speed" Levitch.
One caveat: Miller, perhaps to attract or appease distributors of what could have been a truly radical movie, spent $100,000 to beautify his image (and sound) in advance of its transfer to 35mm--in effect delivering control of this affordable format to the money men. (Didn't the DV image look decent enough as it was? And who'd want a pro-quality portrait of a street poet anyway?) Conversely, the challenge to supporters of low-tech, grassroots cinema is to convince distributors that we don't particularly care what the image looks like if the story is sharp: I mean, did anyone complain about the picture quality of Hoop Dreams, shot on regular video in the days before DV?
Assuming other DV directors can resist the self-defeating urge to make their work look more "professional," and/or developments in Internet and satellite technology do away with the need for distributors altogether (one can dream, can't he?), I believe I have an early candidate for 1999's Artist of the Year: some little fat girl in Ohio.
Rob Nelson is film editor at City Pages.
by Robyne Robinson
Minnesota's ace card has always been its ability to metamorphose: Pop hybrids spring up here like hothouse orchids, and musicians experiment and cross-pollinate genres as often as they start new bands. While the national music scene stumbles in its search for the Next Big Thing, there are still artists in Minnesota creating music in provocative, forward-thinking collaborations. And this year offered amazing evidence of that--from Dynospectrum's art-hop and Jason Heinrich's award-winning drum-'n'-bass-influenced car ads to the national successes of NEXT and Semisonic.
While it's been a year of incredible bounty for many Minnesota artists, I still believe the Artist has had the most impact as a musician and a businessman. On daring and personal resourcefulness alone, the Artist has kept his rightful stature atop the local scene by determining his own musical and financial fate. The possibilities of marketing and distribution through the Internet are still new, and he has hit snags along the way (like the 5,000 lost orders of his online-only offering, the five-CD Crystal Ball set). But he has walked away from being someone else's organ grinder's monkey by putting out three releases in 1998 on his newly created New Power Generation records, a feat that recalls the marketing prowess of Berry Gordy. And he figuratively gave the finger to Warner Bros. by rereleasing seven new versions of his legendary hit "1999," the original of which remains in their catalog.
Although his constant referral to collecting the lion's share of the profits for his work could begin to sound miserly and obsessive, few of us know what it's like to feel creatively stifled and robbed. The Artist has laid a blueprint for Minnesota musicians, and should be hailed as Artist of the Year for that alone.
Robyne Robinson is co-anchor of KMSP's News at 9.
by Julie Caniglia
At the end of Schizopolis, Steven Soderbergh's 1996 freewheeling fuck-you to the film industry, a singer on the soundtrack croons repeatedly, "Are you gonna get with it?" It was easy to hear the writer-director-star talking to himself, given his acknowledged autobiographical bent (Schizopolis also featured the wife he was then divorcing and their daughter), and the fact that he hadn't lived up to the status foisted on him by his film sex, lies, and videotape in 1989. I thought Schizopolis was totally with it--an intellectual slapstick that also slapped the audience around--but others who bothered to weigh in on this scarcely distributed film saw Soderbergh going off the deep end, or camped out in Loserville.
But in 1998 the famously versatile filmmaker got with it, sort of, in the broader scope of things, turning out a perfect mainstream studio movie. Out of Sight even conjured the year's most romantic couple from two unlikely stars: George Clooney, whose "appeal is hair-based," said his own balding director (in jealousy, perhaps); and Jennifer Lopez, hitherto known mostly for decorative performances. To some, the film was irresistibly seductive. One friend saw it three times at full price, which is funny, considering Soderbergh begged audiences to do just that in a prologue to Schizopolis. Still, while it was hardly a flop, the relatively big-budget Out of Sight was ignored almost in proportion to Schizopolis.
It's tempting to say that Out of Sight couldn't have been made without Schizopolis. Soderbergh injected his latest film with the infectious energy of the earlier, undeniably bizarre one, and both unfold in fits and starts, to very different ends. Both also screened in the Twin Cities this year, highlighting the relationship between "selling out" and wigging out (and recalling Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, which also screened this year to much critical fanfare).
So here's to artistic triumphs, and the supposed failures on which they're built.
Julie Caniglia is a New York writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
by Randy Adamsick
Sure, Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan has some of the same black humor, brooding tone, and love of the macabre as his Darkman (1990) and The Evil Dead (1982). But it's also Raimi's best work by a wide margin: a thrilling and uncommonly humane movie that appears headed for all the accolades and awards it deserves.
As it happens, Raimi was almost never given the chance to make it. But luckily, from Mike Nichols's initial act of taking an option on Scott Smith's book, to the succession of other talents associated with the project (including actors Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, and Sissy Spacek, and directors Ben Stiller, John Dahl, and John Boorman), two funny things happened: Plans to film Smith's script in Minnesota were aborted in the winters of '95 and '97; and, in the course of these delays, the movie actually got better. Each subsequent version of the script, all penned by Smith, became sharper and more focused, while each new director seemed to embrace rather than reject the vision of his predecessor.
Raimi finally came to the project a mere month before shooting began in January, and circumstances forced him not only to use all of Boorman's Minnesota locations from the previous year but to work with his smallest budget since the first two Evil Deads. Yet he certainly made the most of what he had, fashioning a brilliantly spare visual design with production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein; eliciting an offbeat score from Danny Elfman; and allowing the power of the story and the indelible performances by Billy Bob Thornton and Bill Paxton to do the rest.
The main characters in A Simple Plan may not speak "Minnesotan," but the film still has the look, the ambience, and the sensibility of Fargo (albeit with less humor!), reflecting Raimi's longtime affection for the Coens (with whom he collaborated on their film The Hudsucker Proxy, and his own Crimewave). Through an unusual twist of fate that suits A Simple Plan's own story, Sam Raimi shot a masterpiece--and he didn't have to point the camera through a bullet hole to do it.
Randy Adamsick is executive director of the Minnesota Film Board.
by Jim Walsh
At the opening of the second act of Ballet of the Dolls' Nutcracker?! Part Deux, the mighty, mighty Dolls purled onto the Loring Playhouse stage in the guise of the wild cats that haunt Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. With feline power and ghostly grace, they fluttered to some delicious goth sounds and crept to the edge of the stage to get in our face, stare us down, toy with us, and generally charge the room with a sensuality so rich, it felt like hot chocolate dripping from the ceiling.
All of which helped reconfirm two impressions for me. One, that there is nothing quite so beautiful as a body given up to music. And two, that a professional dancer's life is a difficult one. Myron Johnson is 45 years old, which translates to dead in dancer years. He has been at the helm of Ballet of the Dolls for 13 years, and his genius can be measured in how loyal all the Dolls--past and present, and of all ages and body sizes--are to their waifish guru. He is constantly working, providing choreography for the Dolls, Children's Theater, or Dayton's Fash Bash, but his work never takes on the harried stench of a workaholic. He is the epitome of the great artist--risky, funny, passionate, a sponge for the influences that surround him--and it is apparent to anyone who has ever seen him dance that he does so because he has no choice, because that is how he connects and communicates with the world.
Of course, he could have been artist of the year most any year before this--or in 1999, when he'll stage a retrospective of his solo dances. But this night he and the Dolls were fresh: His face beamed, with those black diamond eyes poking out from his white pancake makeup, and pursed lips stuck on permagrin. He kept his cape and feet twinkling, looking for all the world like Nosfera-tutu. As the cats lolled about him, he rolled his shoulders, swayed his hips, and, with tickling fingers, beckoned, flirtatiously, to an offstage partner--us. In that single movement, Myron Johnson melted me, and wordlessly said what every memorable musical moment I had this year managed to say: C'mere.
Jim Walsh is pop music columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
by Will Hermes
Aside from the Mother's Best Flour radio recordings, still snared in a familiarly evil web of industry litigation, the most glaring omission from this year's landmark Complete Hank Williams 10-CD box is the art of U.K.-to-Chicago transplant and country-punk true believer Jon Langford. Perhaps Mercury Nashville felt that, among the homey images chosen for the box's folk-art postcard collection, Langford's vision of Williams as a bare-chested, arrow-impaled St. Sebastian would have struck a discordant note. That memorable image (as well as other Williams studies) did make it to Music City, though. This August it appeared in an exhibit of Langford's visual art called "The Death of Country Music" at Nashville's American Pop Culture Gallery--chiseled into a 135-pound granite headstone.
That show was only one line in the jam-packed, lager-stained datebook of rock 'n' roll's hardest-working prole artiste. Last year saw two releases by his honky-tonkin' mosh-pit crew, the Waco Brothers, as well as his sinfully overlooked solo debut, Skull Orchard, a Marxist punk-rock Moby Dick spewing Gertrude Stein verse and visions of the apocalypse. This year saw an all-star tribute to Bob Wills by Langford's classic-country cover band, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, and the limited-edition Gravestone EP, whose epic "Nashville Radio/Death of Country Music," by Jon Langford's Hillbilly Lovechild, was as poignant a Hank tribute as the Mercury box. There was also a freaky new LP by Langford's artistic homebase, the Mekons, the fully engorged Me. And last month saw Great Pop Things: The Real History of Rock and Roll from Elvis to Oasis, a volume of hilarious and highly principled comic-strip bullshitting by Colin B. Morton and his childhood pal Chuck Death, a.k.a. Jon Langford--a guy who evidently doesn't sleep much.
The pseudonym, however, is worth noting. Painting, penning, and playing himself pink in the face, attending to his audience and muse as opposed to the fickle demands of the culture industry, Langford's tireless, unbridled, grimly joyous and ever-true artmaking is a testament to what remains art's ultimate driving force--the desire to tell the Reaper to drop dead. It's a helluva job, but bless him for doing it so well, so long, and so loud.
Will Hermes is a Bay Area writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
AALIYAH AND TIMBALAND
by Jon Dolan Maybe it's a bit sanctimonious to stumble into the Gomorrah that was 1998 and point at something as self-consciously innocent as Aaliyah's "Are You that Somebody?" as a sign of life. But then again, consider the following scenario. You're dial-twisting: Rock 100.3 is airing sexist ads that make Tom Barnard's Asian-baiting over on KQ seem like a Fireside Chat. KSTP is hosting discussions on presidential scandals that read like rejected entries to Penthouse Forum. On Zone 105, Courtney Love is proving the road of excess leads to, well, more excess. And on KDWB T-T-T-T-Tone E. Fly is programming Will Smith's father-son two-man march, "Just the Two of Us" back-to-back with Lauryn Hill's disses of black women with "fake nails done by Koreans."
Set against that soundscape, the best radio hook of 1998 was a sample of an infant waking up, backed by a skip-hop beat, and beatboxed castanets. And then came the vocals of a "goodie goodie...naughty naughty" diva named Aaliyah, preying on a brother and praying for a lover with the timid query: "Are you res-pon-si-ble?" Your radio melted in her mouth, club owners hired full-time trainers to deal with Timbaland-related ankle injuries, and all the would-be No Limit goons and Wu-Tang soldiers posturing at the bar started looking for the door. As that newborn's mewling got prouder, fiercer, and almost weirdly spectral, the best song of 1998 morphed into the tensest, direst rendering of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" imaginable.
Jon Dolan is music editor of City Pages.
by Hans Eisenbeis
By now a book that uses the suicide of Kurt Cobain as a touchstone might seem hopelessly banal. But in his second novel, published last summer, Nick Hornby managed to do it without seeming either ingratiating or necrophilic. The result was About a Boy, a subtle work that manages to be hilarious despite the Nirvana subtext.
A British writer, Hornby first came to notice in this country for his debut novel, High Fidelity, a more-or-less autobiographical account of a thirtysomething London slacker who sees the world through the filter of his record collection. In a previous nonfiction title, Fever Pitch, Hornby trained the same kind of adolescent-male obsessiveness on the culture of British football. (That book has been turned into a film and released in Britain.)
In About a Boy, Hornby makes some refinements to another comically introspective male character, introducing him to the vagaries of adulthood deferred. Will, whose ability to thwart himself is impressive, decides his best bet in romance is to date single mothers. He puts that theory into practice by constructing a series of comic ruses--including the invention of an imaginary wife and son that credential him for membership in a parent support group loaded with hot young mothers. Instead of finding romance, though, Will finds Marcus, a freakish teenager, and the two form an unusual and unpredictable bond. Best of all, Hornby uses the common currency of one-dimensional icons like Cobain as a foil for the messy but genuine interaction of a mannish boy and a boyish man.
Hans Eisenbeis is the editor and producer of Request Magazine Online.
by Wendell Andersson
In a year when not one but two mega-event asteroid movies were released (what are the odds?!), Michael Bay, helming the $100-million-plus epic Armageddon, has arrived as the pre-eminent filmmaker of the short-attention-span generation. While I don't contend that Michael Bay is the sole offender in Hollywood's never-ending obsession to erase the lines between art and commerce, no filmmaker embodies the underbelly of Hollywood marketing more, uh, confidently than Bay.
Swinging his cinematic cock like a Louisville slugger, Bay took a softball pitch and knocked it into the cheap seats. Employing an arsenal of dewy, slo-mo hair flips and surround-sound detonations, Bay's film captured the imagination of America--for about a minute. Hollywood marketeers, momentarily puzzled by Godzilla's failure to perform despite all-but-ordering audiences into theaters at gunpoint, were relieved when Bay's film pulled in a healthy $200 mil domestic. All over L.A., relieved hucksters were heard to sigh, "and we didn't learn a thing."
It's no surprise, then, that Bay, the thinking man's Renny Harlin, got his start directing TV commercials. Indeed, this modern maestro of the 30-second spot is the first megastar in a coming tidal wave of '90s ad-men-turned-auteurs. Call him a pioneer of sorts: At a time when studio films are often nothing more than cross-marketing vehicles for toy manufacturers or record companies, Bay offers a glimpse into the apocalyptic cinema of the future. Now--let's kick some ass!
Wendell Andersson is the writer-director of With or Without You.
by Jane Dark
It's not a sellout if nobody buys it. Celebrity Skin went pffft for a bunch of reasons, most obviously because folks needed to enshrine the importance of the old shit by barring the temple doors. And every new ear was stuffed with spectacle; Courtney herself is so coercive about being a culture star that of course the sanest response is resistance. What a tragedy.
Moreover, media stars are now required to do the work of folk heroes: The mythopoetic American unconscious needed Courtney to go down Orpheus-style with all the roses weeping, and bring beautiful Eurydice back to us. But she failed to play the resurrector. Instead she just made a record: the only one I spun more each month than the last and felt obsessive about and wanted to play for my friends over the phone when I was lost in the rain in Juarez and negativity wouldn't pull me through--a Django's handful of clinkers leaving a majestic, lovelorn, redemptive half hour. Listen, I'm sooo glad Lucinda's back, but I played Skin, like, 10 times more often. Beyond the big sound, I loved the way it banged its head against the Big Topics as if that were still possible, in an era when emotional minimalism is the only tender of sincerity we recognize.
The record is louder than Love: Whoever promised "in your endless summer night, I'll be on the other side" convinced me utterly--not the "me" who's Jane Dark writing this and feeling defensive, but the one who listened over and over. I was holding my head, I was pressing the 'phones into my ears to get it louder....
Jane Dark is a San Francisco-based writer.
by Leslie Dunlap
After all the ink that's been spilled on the First Intern's dress, hair, voice, motives, character, job performance, weight gain, sexual history, and future prospects, what's left to say?
According to assorted pundits, the "employee of the year" is: a pushy "dehumanized receptacle"; a needy material girl; a hearts-and-smiley-faces gift-bearing stalker; a shy thong-flasher; a twentysomething JonBenet Ramsey; a "retro would-be sexpot"; a fat "slattern"; a "classy Brentwood version of Paula Jones"; and a "professional virgin." And so forth, ad nauseam. Some commentators, acknowledging that one woman can't possibly embody all of the above, joke about Monica the media creation: "You can have her any way you want her and she's always a willing accomplice"; she "has become little more than a walking, talking blow-up doll" or "a post-Diana all-purpose feminine message board."
In light of Monica's juggernaut proportions, honoring her as artist of the year might seem facile, if not malicious--as it does when the New York Times' fluffy yet mean Maureen Dowd asks, "Who needs actors when we have Monica and [her] mom?" But Lewinsky's bid to represent herself--via missives to Bill, a Vanity Fair spread, or poised on Barbara Walters's couch--marks a notable moment in the post-'60s sex-culture wars. She's no frail flower (which part of "yes" don't you understand?), nor is she a feminist poster girl ("I don't care about pretty. I care about thin" is not exactly the kind of slogan we were looking for). She reminds her audience that sexual expression can be painful, messy, exciting, and superficial; and that courtship, with all its wardrobe choices, note-passing, eye-catching, rendezvous-planning, and strategy-crafting, is nothing if not performance art.
Leslie Dunlap is a Philadelphia writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
by Greil Marcus
My artist of the year is Anthony Lewis, the New York Times op-ed columnist who has so doggedly stayed on the heels of the con artist of the year, prosecutor Kenneth Starr. It was in 1998 that Starr, abandoning all pretense of a true-crime story, proved himself master of the long con (as opposed to the mere "Hey, that was a twenty I gave you, mister, not a ten" short con). He produced an elaborate, carefully set up and sustained story that preyed upon the mark's need to believe, on his sense of entitlement, most of all on his vanity. And in this case the mark was the most vain of all the nobles in the land: the Washington press corps.
Starr fed their fantasies that they too could be Woodward and Bernstein, that they too could bring down a president, and that they too could save the country--oh well, as Meat Loaf says, two out of three ain't bad. The deal was simple: Give Starr coverage, and he'll give you stories. Write with distance, write with skepticism, and the pipe is cut off. Thus the fantastic spectacle, as the year went on, of reporters soberly chronicling the scandal over Starr's illegal leaking of grand jury material as if it were an insoluble mystery--as if they had somehow forgotten just who it was who had leaked to them.
For years, Lewis has exposed the disregard for civil liberties that has marked the Clinton administration: the instinct for censorship, the craven sellouts of habeas corpus and myriad other citizens' protections for a few polling points. The problem, Lewis once wrote, was that Clinton has no bottom line: no position on the Constitution from which, finally, he won't retreat. But Lewis had never gambled on anyone like Starr, a man prepared to destroy the Constitution in order to destroy a president he plainly sees as the embodiment of evil, of chaos, of that dread and floating idea, "The Sixties"--a man Starr knows in his bones is the Antichrist and, what is worse, what is really important, a man whose very existence Starr takes as a deeply personal affront. Thus Lewis has written carefully, without screaming, like a good crime reporter, stripping away the euphemisms of the press, cutting through the bland and obfuscating reportage of his own newspaper. And, like a linguist, like an epistemologist, he has turned the facts in the public record over and over until they fell into place and spoke a real language; he kept at it until he cracked the case.
He did it on December 1, in a piece called "The Starr Trap." He boiled the case down to the we-didn't-have-sex affidavit that Monica Lewinsky had sworn out as a deposition in the Paula Jones case--but which, when Starr's men descended on Lewinsky as Linda Tripp set her up in Pentagon City, had yet to be filed. Swearing a false affidavit is not a crime; filing one is. Lewis: "This is why [Starr's] deputies worked so hard to keep Ms. Lewinsky from calling [her lawyer] Frank Carter. If he knew what was happening, they realized, he would not file it. And they wanted a crime."
Thus Bill Clinton, another vain noble, another true mark, went forward with testimony that, had he known what was happening, would never have been given. It was the first trap of many and, as an article in Lewis's own paper would put it a few weeks before Lewis cracked the case, something that no longer mattered. All that mattered was this really cool story that the paper got to publish every day.
They will be forgotten, all the breathless dispatches from D.C., all the weighty, considered, serious, pompous Times editorials on decency and responsibility, on leadership and obligation, the thousands and thousands of heavy words overseen by editorial page editor Howell Raines, like Bill Clinton a white Southerner in his 50s, who every day must ask himself one question, one question on which his oversight of the Republic rests: How come that schmuck's President and I'm not? What's he got that I don't have?
This does not seem to be a question that has ever occurred to Anthony Lewis, who, working with what was hiding in plain sight, rewrote the daily news as a detective story that may be read with gasps of shock long after he and everyone else mentioned above is dead.
Greil Marcus is the author of Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes and The Dustbin of History.
by Phil Anderson
As executive producer of People's Century, a BBC/PBS documentary series spanning these 100 years, Dor-Ner marshaled a huge staff and a host of archives to explore history at the ground level--one year and one theme at a time, in 26 films. Our information-saturated century was the first to be witnessed end-to-end in moving pictures, which makes a documentarian's job easy; still, Dor-Ner's gift was not just to find the most telling pieces of evidence but to match them with ordinary folks--witnesses, participants--speaking on camera, from everywhere. How did the Depression hit Chile? What was it like when movies came to Calcutta? How did sports become a business instead of a pastime?
Each one-hour episode (more will follow in the spring of '99) doggedly hunts down a strong thread of analysis and finds more than enough wisdom in the vox populi--as opposed to Ken Burns's gaggle of remote experts in their cozy sweaters. The shape placed around these truths is equally compelling, from the music of Zbigniew Preisner (composer for Kieslowski's great "Three Colors" trilogy) to the credit sequence: 100 years shown as a straight road, interrupted by ruin and then blessed by calm.
While other media savants will make sweeping, millennium-oriented films and programs in the months to come, this one had the essential idea: History is drama, and people live it as much as leaders do.
Phil Anderson is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.
by Terri Sutton
In a fleshy New Yorker feature this month, Tom Hanks talks about his preference for characters who transform over the course of a movie, who have some "mystery" to them. The actor hated playing Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities, he admits: "He was a pussy from the beginning, and he was a pussy all the way through. He was just a big fat pussy." The role of Joe Fox in You've Got Mail was more to his liking, we may assume; certainly, the character arc is vintage Hanks. Fox starts out a merciless chain bookstore owner with no qualms about wiping out quaint independent neighborhood stores, and he ends up a compassionate chain bookstore owner with no qualms about wiping out quaint independent neighborhood stores. Along the way, he woos and wins the ex-proprietor of one of those now-closed, formerly quaint stores.
This is the blueprint Hanks generally sticks to as an actor, and he's awesome at it: taking a character who's not entirely sympathetic--a privileged gay man with AIDS, a mental defective, a loyal soldier at a time when everyone knows war is hell--and revealing his inner, everyday good-guyness. The character doesn't suddenly stop doing what he's doing: He's still gay and dying of AIDS, or acting clueless, or obeying orders. But as the audience watches this man's interior self struggle with that exterior identity, we find him by turns tragic, winsome, heroic. The character's role in the world hasn't much changed, but our perception of it has. We don't care anymore that Joe is the owner of a bookstore chain that routinely bulldozes little indie stores, because, hey, he doesn't feel that great about it. And maybe, out of his guilt, he'll ask his staff to know a bit more about their product.
I remember leaving Saving Private Ryan in a state of arousal. Part of that physical excitement, no doubt, was set up by some ancient biological script requiring strong and efficient warrior seed. Part of it comes from the equally primal thrill of witnessing shit get blown up really artfully. But no small chunk of it concerns Capt. Hanks, and the gentle beauty of his pain. Under his adult-male masks, he's still a conflicted boy, at once frightened by the stoical ruthlessness men are supposed to develop and enchanted by the toys--bombs, businesses, films, people--that he'll get to play with if he does. I adore that boyish ambivalence: The emotions are so tender and fierce and available. I don't want him to make a choice: A choice is impossible. He's stranded between an archaic, oppressive persona and one that doesn't yet exist in our popular culture: the straight man who gives away power so he can live more freely.
The truth is, of course, that the actor has already chosen. Like Kurt Cobain and David Foster Wallace, past masters of this game, Hanks will make a show of his most vulnerable dreams and doubts, but he's still making a show, clogging the airwaves, filling up the bookshelves. He'll espouse social or artistic rebellion, leave the old men looking rigid and manipulative with his visceral self-analysis, but he still won't share his toys. Hanks's is a wrenchingly honest portrait of the American postwar, postfeminist male; and I would be the first to applaud him if only his characters tried to discover some way out of their paradox besides the stiff salute through the tears. (I don't recommend Kurt's route.) Meanwhile, my resolution for '99: Stop falling for this Oscar-winning sucker punch.
Terri Sutton is a Minneapolis writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
BILL HILLSMAN AND THE "VENTURA FOR GOVERNOR" CREATIVE TEAM
by Christina Schmitt
With one week to go before election day and the race for Minnesota governor too close to call, the Ventura for Governor campaign prescribed a media blitz. Problem was, Jesse Ventura was the Six Million Dollar Man with only a $300,000 budget.
"We couldn't take Jesse off the campaign trail to shoot a commercial," says Bill Hillsman, the campaign's creative director and media consultant. So instead of filming Iron Range supporters with outrageous Minnesota accents, or pinning down the Body for some studio time, Hillsman and the campaign's creative team made an unprecedented move. Their solution: A "surrogate Jesse" in the guise of a doll--a sort of cross between a white Action Jackson and G.I. Joe just returned from the front. In the commercials, one boy has the Body's homunculus rebuff Evil Special Interest Man: "I don't want your stupid money." Ventura came off as righteous and bad-ass. He could--as the saying now goes--beat up your governor.
If Ventura didn't appear born for the political ring, no one could deny that he was ready-made for caricature: the bald head, the mustache, the massive 250-pound Body wrapped in a suit. It's anyone's guess how much Hillsman's ads contributed to Ventura's surprise victory, but they did provide a different image from the seemingly impotent Humphrey and the glad-handing Coleman.
"Jesse understands popular culture," says Hillsman, a campaign veteran who worked on Sen. Paul Wellstone's maverick 1990 campaign. Ventura, he says, waited only two seconds after first viewing the commercials before slapping the table in approval.
And to the victor go the spoils--or to the victor's transition team, at least if Minnesotans for Ventura Inc. can ever get the doll ready to sell on market. Between the biography and the movie offers, perhaps the Body will soon be spread too thin. That said, I wish the transition office the best of luck in trying to use the capitalist's spirit to enrich the populist's coffers.
Christina Schmitt is A List editor at City Pages.
by Britt Robson
Goodman's mastery at grounding broad comedies with resonant basslines has never been put to better purpose than in his portrayal of Walter, the dim-witted Vietnam vet in the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski. By any measure, Goodman's Walter is a violent, stupid man, a guy who spends most of the film telling one of his two best friends to "shut the fuck up"--this, when he isn't demolishing an auto with a tire iron or pulling a gun on a bowling opponent during an argument over a foot fault on the lanes. It's Goodman's gift that Walter remains one of the year's most lovable characters, and certainly the most hilarious. This ample actor makes us believe in the good intentions behind his character's careening passion, and in the internal integrity of his skewed moral code; he humanizes the Coen Brothers' caricature so deftly that it darkens and deepens Lebowski's comedic clout.
Walter is merely the best of Goodman's empathetic and memorable blue-collar portraits. The actor's brusque, manic energy is always near the surface because of the agility of his outsized girth. At the same time, though, Goodman brings emotional nuance to play in his face and gestures. Watching reruns of Roseanne this year, one notices how much responsibility Goodman owns for establishing that sitcom's vaunted social realism; again, his presence is a soulful anchor that lends credence to those around him. And when he does choose to go over the top, the results can be devastatingly cruel, as in his indelible parody of a binge-eating Linda Tripp talking with Monica on a Saturday Night Live skit.
John Goodman is not the sort of artist who will ever change your life, but it's pretty much assured that he'll improve your mood whenever you catch his act. In a year bereft of visionaries, his consummate craftmanship and yeoman's devotion to the average Joe deserves to be noticed.
Britt Robson is a Minneapolis writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
OUTKAST AND TAYLOR BRANCH
by Peter S. Scholtes
To Outkast's roughly half-black, half-white audience at First Avenue, the "Everybody move to the back of the bus" refrain might have sounded like a call for white America to integrate into African America, for North to go South. But this ambiguous chorus of the song "Rosa Parks" isn't all that links the hip-hop duo to civil rights historian and fellow Atlanta native Taylor Branch, whose second volume of America in the King Years, Pillar of Fire, came out early this year.
Like Lauryn Hill, rappers Big Boi and Andre Benjamin take an emotional page from Nina Simone's "Young, Gifted, and Black," where the singer was "haunted" by her past. Simone was probably thinking about a childhood in segregated North Carolina, but the MCs find just as many ghosts in modern Atlanta, and they chase them not to solve the mystery of themselves but to figure out what went wrong in their hometown. Like good historians, Outkast are bracing in their sureness of craft, and their album Aquemini is a vivid picture of Southern living--and dying--as fresh as it is disturbing. In one typically spacey mix of funk and reggae, Benjamin remembers looking at the stars with a lover who never made it out of the ghetto alive, and later considers the meaning of the word "trap," lamenting a generation lost in a cloud of "Billy Clint."
As a white liberal who has written speeches for Clinton, Branch keeps himself remarkably honest while chronicling LBJ's own cloud of delusions. Branch wrings out all of the bloody laundry of the mid-'60s administrations, paralleling the Gulf of Tonkin incident with the discovery of the slain Freedom Summer volunteers in Mississippi. And he correctly cites Malcolm X as the first public figure to connect the dots between American violence abroad and at home.
But Branch also tells the story you never knew was the story: that Malcolm inspired a multiracial brand of American Islam that dwarfs Farrakhan's small yet vocal sect. That was what Malcolm died for--leading all Americans to the back of the bus. In a year when our pop culture felt trapped and starved, feeding on its own past almost obsessively, Branch and Outkast throw light and provide shade.
Peter S. Scholtes is a staff writer at City Pages.
by Eric Lorberer
Too many of our best poets and novelists seem to live in a bubble, at least according to the nonfiction books they publish: obsessive tomes that finger the worn worry-beads of craft and technique, petty catalogs of who is great and who is not. The "experimental" novelist and poet David Matlin has this year accomplished a more unique, and thus more impressive feat: He has written a powerful and highly politicized book that veers away from his more "artistic" pursuits while still using the narrative and lyrical skills those pursuits have honed. In so doing he has elevated the "creative writer" to thinker and statesman--common roles for authors outside U.S. borders, though all too foreign in our own society.
Matlin's outstanding work of nonfiction, Vernooykill Creek: The Crisis of Prisons in America, tackles the subject of the "correctional facility," a world that the author demonstrates is rapidly encroaching on our putatively free spaces. Having spent 10 years educating inmates in the maximum-security prisons of upstate New York, Matlin has had plenty of time to observe, to interact, and to reflect. The result is a book that weaves back and forth from personal stories of life behind bars to DeTocquevillean analyses of our postindustrial American culture, where corrections corporations carefully develop different levels of hell. That such sobering sociology can read with all the grace and passion of imaginative fiction is Matlin's great accomplishment. And the studied apocalyptic fervor alluded to in the book's subtitle might just get you--yes, you--motivated to heed this Jeremiah in our midst. With Hennepin County poised to plop a big ol' jail in the middle of downtown Minneapolis, Matlin's work is especially relevant now and here.
Eric Lorberer is co-editor of the Rain Taxi Review of Books.
by Brad Zellar
By the time Albert Ayler climbed onstage at New York's Village Vanguard in December 1966, he and his bandmates--including his brother Donald--were a Salvation Army unto themselves. Much of the music from that night would have sounded right at home among the reeling fiddles and ecstatic gospel squalls from last year's celebrated reissue of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. At his most inspired and visionary, Ayler spewed an incredible amalgam of American musics, wobbling and burping like a ragtag beer-hall brass band one moment and wailing and testifying like the most convincing spiritual eccentric the next. He could bleat with the best R&B honkers and bury a lovely little folk melody in a scrum of pure, exultant noise.
And yet you want a definition of toiling in obscurity? You want more convincing evidence that Ayler--who was found drowned (and some claim chained to a jukebox) in the East River in 1970--was jazz's Robert Johnson? Despite the fact that the Greenwich Village recordings are only a little over 30 years old, there is apparently nobody alive who can remember with any certainty who was playing piano behind Ayler on the set-closing tune "Angels."
From March 1965 through February 1967, Ayler played shows at a number of venues that were recorded and issued in odd installments and then consigned to obscurity. This year's Impulse reissue of all those tracks, Live in Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse Recordings, caps the long reassessment of Ayler's critical reputation that arguably began with experimental saxophonist David Murray's emergence in the late '70s. These recordings represent the most sustained and concentrated stretch of fever-drenched inspiration in Ayler's too-brief and often confusing career, and--all jazz-crit fakebook hooey aside--the real reason these discs almost never left my CD player all autumn is that on a pure, idiot, blood level, this music sounds like the way my body naturally jangles, the way my head assembles words, the way sound should be constructed. It sounds like soul music.
Brad Zellar is a Minneapolis writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
BILL T. JONES
by Caroline Palmer
Though choreographer Bill T. Jones has often trodden the unworn path in his life and work, his piece We Set Out Early...Visibility Was Poor represents a journey into terra incognita. There are no pat explanations or answers offered by this evening-length selection--which helps explain why it continues to resonate some three months after a performance at Northrop Auditorium. (The piece premiered in 1997.)
For an artist like Jones, who spent much of the '90s making vital works that were sometimes a bit too insistent in delivering their messages, this dance stakes a new position on the frontlines of the culture wars. Jones asks us to join him in contemplating a complex picture, one colored by the force of discovery and the depths of hatred that have distinguished the 20th century.
With We Set Out Early, Jones conjures a place of absolute quiet obscured by the chaos of events past and the promise (or threat) of things to come. His dancers pass through this sanctuary before embarking on new journeys, ones that resemble everything from religious pilgrimages to individual vision quests and nocturnal club-crawls. Though the dancers may be unsure of their fates, they prepare for their inevitable departures by relying on an unidentified faith to guide their safe passage. In a world where the potential for violence seems to loom everywhere--from classrooms to city streets--these dancers are bold adventurers, surrogates for what we all hope to become.
Artists like Jones become such iconic forces through the accumulation of critical and promotional attention, and it is often too easy to take their gifts for granted. We Set Out Early offers a renewed opportunity to consider this particular choreographer and his important role in the continuing battle to make dance that matters.
Caroline Palmer is a Minneapolis writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
by Michael Tortorello
Let us attempt to enumerate the ways in which actors are funny. First the body. Actors move their eyes, their lips, and the skin on their foreheads into positions that are seemingly uncomfortable or just atypical, and that is funny. Actors also contract their facial musculature so as to draw attention to the contraction, which can also be funny. Actors trip, fall, or drop objects, or trip other people, or are themselves dropped, and the pain they inflict or appear to experience themselves is funny. Actors gesticulate in a manner that draws a unique level of attention to the movement, sometimes in the course of punctuating a thought or iteration, or sometimes punctuating someone else's thought or iteration, and punctuation like that is funny. Some actors walk funny.
Actors study the way other people move their eyes, their lips, and the skin on their foreheads, and also how the other people contract their facial muscles, and how they walk, and then the actors bring a certain instinctual intelligence to bear in order to imitate that other person's gestures and movements, and the verisimilitude is funny. Oftentimes, actors will employ their upper thighs, buttocks, lower abdominals, and hips to produce a gyrating or thrusting motion with the intention of simulating human coitus--which is an inherently funny act when you think about it, whether or not it's simulated.
It is not unheard of for an actor to move in an exaggeratedly hurried or lethargic manner, drawing attention to how fleeting time is, and also alluding in a subtle way to the fact we're all going to die, which isn't funny on the face of it, but in a really deep sense is probably funny. Just not laugh-out-loud funny.
And then there's speech. Some actors pronounce words in ways they are not commonly pronounced, and the novelty is funny. Actors also pronounce words in exactly the way they are often pronounced, sometimes seeming to be overdeliberate in the process, and the actors' precision can also be funny. The process of diverting the flow of air into the nasal cavity while speaking can produce an annoying timbre in the voice, and some actors divert that air to funny effect.
There are actors who emphasize the iambic syllables at the end of a sentence, thus introducing a certain tentative or conditional mood into their statements--making everything sound like a question?--and that implied indecision is funny. Sudden changes of volume for emphasis are funny. Keeping volume conspicuously unchanged at any level can also imply certain traits in the speaker--like timidity, mindlessness, or fury--and some of those traits are funny, unless you have them, and then it's only funny to other people.
A certain tonal slide either up or down in the vocal range can be performed within the course of a single word or a phrase, and as a result of that tonal slide the credibility of the word or phrase can be called into question, and the implication that the actor has lied, or has been something less than truthful (and, by implication, that maybe everyone is lying, or being something less than truthful)--this can all be very funny.
Phil Hartman started performing in the improv troupe the Groundlings and was a longtime performer on Saturday Night Live. More recently, he'd worked as voice talent on The Simpsons, and as a cast member on the wonderfully mordant sitcom NewsRadio. Until his murder last spring, Hartman performed all the acts listed above with great virtuosity. He also invented another thousand that have yet to be categorized, and these continue to exist in the vast afterworld of syndication. Cue laugh track.
Michael Tortorello is the arts editor at City Pages.
by Bart Schneider
Now in his 88th year, Czeslaw Milosz is a wily, Lithuanian-born Polish poet, whose deft book of short prose poems and aphorisms called Roadside Dog (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) was recently published. Milosz, who won the Nobel Prize in 1980 and divides his time between Berkeley and Kraków, has become something of a large-eyebrowed Buddha in a tweed sport coat, assuming his fame as just another Middle European absurdity. How refreshing to encounter a poet of such maturity and resolve, working in his later years as if to square a final ledger.
Witness the following two poems, printed in their entirety.
IS AWARENESS SUFFICIENT?
There was a time when it seemed to me that it would be
enough to be aware to avoid repetition; i.e., to avoid the fate
of other mortals. What nonsense. And yet the separation of the
body from consciousness, assigning a magic power to con-
sciousness--that it was enough to know and the spell would
be broken--that was not stupid.
To believe you are magnificent. And gradually to discover that
you are not magnificent. Enough labor for one human life.
Roadside Dog begins with the title poem, in which the poet reports on a ride he'd taken in a two-horse wagon, early in the century, through villages and past lakes and fields. Although Milosz recalls the people, now, at the end of the century, it is "the generations of dogs accompanying them in their everyday bustle" that interest him most.
Alert as a roadside dog, Milosz, as much as any poet, has witnessed the twisted and inexorable passing of our age. In this book he wrestles elegantly with his findings, and emerges, ultimately, to give thanks:
Cathedral of my enchantments, autumn wind,
I grew old giving thanks.
Would that it be true for the rest of us.
Bart Schneider is editor of The Hungry Mind Review and author of the novel Blue Bossa.
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