Dec. 27, 2002-Jan. 9, 2003
Arts in Review
Arion Berger, Mark Jenkins, Tricia Olzewski, and Joel E. Siegel on Film
Andrew Beaujon, Brent Burton, Sean Daly, Christopher Porter, and Joe Warminsky on Music
Bob Mondello on Theater
Louis Jacobson on Photography
As the sun went down on the third day of the biggest indie-rock festival in U.S. history, all the possibilities of non-corporate-sponsored music seemed to be blossoming into reality: 70,000 people were gathered in Manchester, Tenn., to hear bands that by and large put out their own records. A few years back, many of the performers had enjoyed brief dalliances with major labels during the signing bonanza that followed the overnight success of a couple of groups from their scene. Later, most of them had been dropped when the industry realigned itself around teen pop, hiphop lite, and rap-metal. Still, because these bands had been touring for years on a relatively small circuit, it wasn't too hard for them to dust themselves off, put out their own records, go out on the road, and make a fine living far from the gaze of Jim Mullen's Hot Sheet.
But then Trey Anastasio took the stage, and I was jolted back to reality. You see, though the majority of bands at June's Bonnaroo Music Festival were technically indie artists, they behaved like pampered rock stars anyway—they even had their own backstage Porta Pottis, guarded by event-staff goons who made sure no commoner waste mingled with that of the golden gods. And the audience was more than willing to play along. Widespread Panic's Dave Schools told me that he couldn't walk out among the festivalgoers, and I had more than one conversation with fans who claimed that God himself was speaking through the String Cheese Incident's guitar player. And Anastasio? Well, let's just say that if you liked five-minute flute solos, you were in luck.
The thing is, we're rapidly moving into a time when major labels don't merely not serve the needs of most serious music fans, they don't serve the needs of many musicians, either. It's a tacit arrangement that seems to be working: The Man gets the airwaves, and the bands that sell fewer than a million copies of each album get to make a living via other distribution channels: indie labels, Web sites, MTV2. Back in the '90s, we used to complain that there was no middle class in music, that you were either Pearl Jam or the Candy Machine. That's not really the case anymore. Jam bands are accomplished small businesses, with merchandising departments and sometimes, as in the case of the String Cheese Incident, their own charitable foundations. Emo rockers the Get Up Kids all own their homes, and, like many of their labelmates on the mega-indie Vagrant, tour in a bus, not a van.
More than likely, the crossover success of bands such as the White Stripes, the Strokes, and Dashboard Confessional (whose "Screaming Infidelities" was one of 2002's best singles) will lead to another major-label feeding frenzy. It'll be interesting to see what happens this time out—whether the indie bourgeoisie will circle its wagons or if the lure of the multinationals' lucre will prove irresistible. My guess is the latter, but there's no shortage of exemplars whose careers suggest that going it alone might be the smartest strategy in the long run.
Below are 10 outstanding records from the past year that evince the essence of indie, which is less a musical style than a deeply skeptical stance toward what the mainstream can realistically offer:
10. On a Wire, the Get Up Kids The Get Up Kids are the least cool band this side of Creed, if only because their career was heretofore based on the shameless repurposing of Superchunk's sound for middle-class 10th-graders starving for energetic rock. That those youngsters stayed away from this record in droves should pique your interest: On a Wire is a subtle, unapologetically blue-collar rock album that takes an unvarnished look at finding yourself on the wrong side of 30 staring in the face of fatherhood.
9. McLusky Do Dallas, McLusky Andy Falkous could scrape paint with his voice, and if whoever controls the Pixies' copyrights ever stumbles across McLusky's highly derivative but scabrously entertaining second album, he may have to develop that skill to make a living. Aside from fellow Brits Ikara Colt, no one currently rocks the quiet-loud verse/chorus/verse schtick as well as this bunch of lovable Welsh losers. And any singer who can spit lyrics such as "All of your friends are cunts/Your mother is a ballpoint-pen thief" deserves your undivided attention.
8. The Pupils, the Pupils Half of Baltimore's Lungfish, singer Daniel Higgs and guitarist Asa Osborne, used little more than a guitar, a drum machine, and Higgs' unnaturally affecting vocals to make the best two-man-band record since Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's Dazzle Ships—or, more relevant, Tall Dwarfs' Hello Cruel World.
7. The River Made No Sound, Pan-American It seems likely that Labradford, the self-proclaimed bad boys of New Age, have packed it in for good now that keyboardist Carter Brown has decamped from Richmond, Va., to the Philippines. Console yourself, devastated graduate student, with guitarist Mark Nelson's side project, which sees him pilot his iBook through the proverbial space between the notes, coffee cup in hand, bemused expression on his face. If there was a better low-key record released this year, I missed it, and I can't imagine Sunday mornings without the newspaper and this document.
6. Concubine Rice, Lone Pigeon If the Beta Band is the low-rent Pink Floyd, it makes sense that former member Gordon Anderson, aka Lone Pigeon, should be its low-rent Syd Barrett. The conditions under which Anderson left the Betas are murky (usually summed up as "illness"), though the hundreds of quirky, hummable songs he records at home in Fife, Scotland, each month seem to indicate he had better things to do with his time. This strange little no-fi record gets better the closer it gets to the end—a perverse trick guaranteed to weed out even sympathetic listeners. Stick with it, though, and its pleasures will sneak up to you, knock over your beer, and run off laughing oddly.
5. Free Beer Tomorrow, James Luther Dickinson "World Boogie Is Coming," Dickinson proclaims in the liner notes. That seems a less valid prediction than this one: At most, 50 people will buy this album. The thoroughly wacked-out Memphis producer (Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers) and session pianist (Dylan's Time Out of Mind) barrels through 10 bluesy, torchy covers of songs nobody with a real job's ever heard. Buy this; the recent reissue of Dickinson's long-out-of-print 1972 LP, Dixie Fried; and two bottles of Knob Creek. You'll be single and unemployed within a week, but man, will you understand the funk.
4. You Don't Need Darkness to Do What You Think Is Right, Various Artists Stephen Pastel's Geographic label somehow finds a unifying sensibility that encompasses both echt twee-popsters International Airport and major-label also-rans Telstar Ponies, whose contribution here is a song in search of a Dawson's episode. I'd venture it has something to do with both bands' being Glaswegian, but then again, German Barbara Morgenstern fits right in with her icy "Kleiner Ausschnitt." My favorite track is Future Pilot AKA's "Remember Fun (Like We Was Young)," probably because I get a kick out of typing the words "righteous Scottish reggae."
3. Trust, Low It would have been easy for Duluth, Minn.'s, finest to ride out the rest of its going-on-10-year career without messing with the icy, Galaxie 500–derived groove that has made it a favorite of the black-turtlenecks-and-thick-glasses set. But over its last couple of records, Low has shown an impressive willingness to stretch, both music- and production-wise, dropping pop numbers such as "Canada" and "La La La Song" among cryptic faith-based initiatives such as "I Am the Lamb." The album was mixed by Tchad Blake, who arranged a very successful introduction between the band and the tintinnabulation of the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells.
2. Read Music/Speak Spanish, Desaparecidos In 30-odd minutes, Omaha, Neb.'s, Conor Oberst and his distortion-pedal-crazed Cornhusker posse lash out at chain stores, housing developments, and the poor quality of life out in the paved-over amber waves of grain. Despite being only 22, Oberst never condescends to the people who move to the exurbs in search of a better life; his bile is reserved for the empty promises that lure them there. Ryan Adams rocks this hard only in his dreams.
1. Lifted: Or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, Bright Eyes Despite a preponderance of precious gimmickry such as fake interviews and sound collages, this batty emo masterpiece by Conor Oberst (yes, again) squeezes every drop of meaning out of a year in the life of a reluctant indie-rock heartthrob. As with the details of Eminem's life, it's not important whether Oberst's brother's DUI or his own attempted suicide really happened: The wobbly way he dissects both events, fully orchestrated by an all-star revue of Nebraska rock royalty, leaves you wanting to know more, even as Oberst questions his own motives for sharing. Nothing short of a flyover-states Eminem Show. CP
It was a good year for the movie studios, but it was a very good year for audiences. Film fans have had products of virtually every tier to enjoy, and nothing was too horribly disappointing, except for the rictus-wearing Barry Sonnenfeld Fun Machine and almost every romantic comedy. (Sweet Home Alabama is the exception to the exception, but I won't defend my love for it because people start rolling their eyes.)
The standard big-opening myths—summer, Thanksgiving—were challenged as never before. Ever since The Mummy†proved single-handedly that audiences were ready for air-conditioned mindless fun as early as the first weekend in May—or even since Titanic remained in the beauty parlor getting fluffed up and powdered until Christmas—studios have been wondering if maybe it's a film's quality that attracts viewers, not the Pavlovian call of a certain date. This year, they held back their plums until, oh, last weekish, inducing a frenzy of screening-attendance among local film critics trying to stuff in every last Long Awaited Title for lists such as these in between whatever personal holiday madness was already scheduled. (That means for a certain critic wşo should probably take her job more seriously and quit whining about how busy she is, some purported great filmmaking is going to fall through the cracks—near-certain Top-10ers such as About Schmidt, Adaptation, Chicago, and Talk to Her. Sorry.)
Much-anticipated, oversize potential blockbusters generally lived up to the hype. Peter Jackson would have had to have had a brain seizure to screw up The Two Towers, the second installment of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. The jaw-dropping mess that is Gangs of New York brims with the heart's blood of poor exhausted Martin Scorsese. The director was so driven to make a movie out of Herbert Asbury's semihistorical 1928 potboiler that he obfuscated the stunning forest—the colorful, endlessly fascinating digressions on the interior workings of the Five Points neighborhood's nasties and cons—with the dull tree of a standard son's-revenge narrative. Still, art-direction geeks like me will cry bitter tears over the beauty of the ugliness onscreen; it's like nothing you've ever seen—which is a compliment. Steven Spielberg scaled back his ambitions—but not his running time, unfortunately—for the mostly delightful Catch Me If You Can, which almost succeeds in maintaining a tone of candy-colored effervesence for two-and-a-half hours. Spielberg's greatest achievement may be giving Leonardo DiCaprio the first role since Leo's days as a child actor in which he's completely comfortable and convincing—and acts his age. Not enough people saw White Oleander, or perhaps the wrong ones did—this complicated, troubling portrait of mother-daughter complexities was foolishly marketed as a chick flick, but Michelle Pfeiffer's vain, manipulative jailbird mom was the scariest screen monster of the year. Hugh Grant also let his inner asshole out to play in the unusual About a Boy, which may not have been faithful to Nick Hornby's charming book but stood up firmly in favor of off-putting eccentricity and the modern familial bosom of ill-at-ease misfits.
It was an excellent year for little movies—undersized, underseen American gems whose reach outspanned their grasp. Secretary, Punch-Drunk Love, Tadpole, Lovely and Amazing, and The Good Girlparlayed underdog hype into nothing much, but all were disquieting, audacious, and often moving slices of extraordinary life. They also introduced the world to new concepts—Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler as serious actors—and precious finds—Emily MortMmer, Aaron Stanford, Maggie Gyllenhaal. New-fashioned animation techniques (The Ice Age) aren't so much more impressive than the old-fashioned kind (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron), but kids have adapted with lightning speed to the strange 3-D mix of realism and fantasy in computer-generated animation, so 20th Century Fox's screamingly funny and touching feature beat the box-office crap out of DreamWorks' sweet, scary, enchanting horse movie.
Foreign films started behaving like foreign films again—difficult, intense, formally stunning, and expressive of a worldview that is not all that American. The stiff, costumed, airless gloss of Merchant-Ivory finally seems to have worn off—or at least tired out British, Australian, and European directors—and great films showed up from unlikely places. Canada released the movie of the year, The Fast Runner, which most of its potential audience missed out on thanks to limited distribution, and Alfonso Cuarón returned to Mexico to make the politically astute, sexually honest comic masterpiece Y Tu Mamá También.
Why publications dote so upon end-of-year best-ofs is a mystery to me. Reading them: (a) inspires either nodding agreement over movies you've seen and liked (or forgotten about) or mild surprise that some idiot liked that piece of garbage, or (b) serves as a groaning reminder of how disorganized you were this year—Yeah, yeah, I meant to see that. Maybe over New Year's. Perhaps they should all scuttle the bests and concentrate on the worsts. Not only would that strategy give the people what they really want, it would give us critics some small payoff for the misery of sitting through utter filth we've been duly warned away from. (Again, I somehow missed Pluto Nash—weird, huh?)
So, trying...trying to remember, sitting in theater, something something, bored, confused, not laughing, bored some more, stuff happening, not believing it, feeling sorry for pretty girl who can't act, so bored—Attack of the Clones! I knew it would come to me. Can't remember a moment of it, but I vividly recall that it blew. That's what you get when an Ego and a hundred Web sites will a film into being. When a marketing team creates a picture, you get Men in Black II: Back to the Bank of the Future—cynical, careless, and pandering, and (yay, America!) no one was buying this time around.
Weirdness abounded. Suddenly everyone started taking Adrian Lyne seriously—what's up with that? Not a moment of his gross little amorality tale, Unfaithful, was authentic, including "Ooh" and "Uunh." What woman in her right mind would cheat on an impossibly handsome, doing-his-best husband like Richard Gere for a greasy-haired cartoon Frenchman whose seduction techniques would be too clichéd for Pepe le Peí? And it turns out that what people liked about David Fincher all along was his worldview. That particular socially and sexually paranoid vision plunked into a by-the-numbers fem-jep plot (in the form of Panic Room) ruled the video rental charts for weeks. Was the money that good? Does he just not care? Why was it so ugly to look at? Did someone scoop his eyeballs out with a grapefruit spoon? Would someone? I can pay.
And finally, not that anyone cares except for the angry readers sharpening their pencils for a stiff retort, but look: There's nothing wrong with a Christian-themed movie. But anyone who thinks that Jesus had kinda good values should be appalled by the idea of a Christian teen-exploitation flick like Adam Shankman's hypocritical A Walk to Remember. We're supposed to admire a dying 16-year-old's selfish and incoherent "dream" of wearing her mother's wedding dress down the aisle, pity her poignant and well-deserved ascent into the arms of her creator, and get our secular jollies because she earns legal and moral rights to the world of boo-yah before her untimely death. Even the peckerwoods of Sweet Home Alabama waited until they had graduated high school to start behaving like adults. CP
Despite Ozzy’s strange ascension to water-cooler topic, 2002 found metal still plenty sneered at by the musical establishment. No big shock there. The eye-opener of the year? Turning on the tube and seeing guitar acts—read: the White Stripes and the Strokes—pulling patented indie-rock maneuvers in front of huge audiences. It took about a decade, but, yeah, the underground alternative to grunge (remember that?) finally assumed its place in the mainstream. Even indie icon Pavement, which was once about as ťnventive and clever as semipopular rock got, was treated to an archival double-disc reissue—treatment usually reserved for long-gone acts from the LP era.
This revolution or institutionalization or whatever you want to call it coincided with my personal search for guitar-based idiosyncrasies outside the indie/punk community. Because if one thing was clear about the music scene this past year, it was this: Outsider rock moved further outside. Never before have I listened to, and enjoyed, more heavy stuff—so much so that my girlfriend recently instituted a “no-double-bass-drum” policy whenever she’s within hearing range of the stereo. As far as 2002 goes, these metallic offerings provided the year’s only reminders of what “indie” really means to me:
1. Sons of Northern Darkness, Immortal File under classic: Ten months after its release, this sublime merger of thrash and black metal still lives in the CD player. And in a year when Lord of the Rings raked in millions and W. spieled about the Axis of Evil, the arctic-kingdoms-and-frost-demon lyrics make about as much sense as anything.
2. Remission, Mastodon The only thing more insane than the vocalist-bassist’s facial hair is the band’s shape-shifting machinery of riffage and polyrhythm. While classic dual-ax harmonies keep things grounded, the drummer speeds around his kit the way Faulkner writes, never opting for a simple phrase when a complex one works even better.
3. Monumension, Enslaved The Hammer of the Gods drives these wannabe Vikings to new lands: Dig the unforced fusion of corrosive black metal, arena-ready stupid-rock, analog-era psych, and misty-morning folk. The OK Computer of Nordic heaviness. (And so what if it came out in 2001? Only Web-dwelling nerds managed to pick up this late-in-the-year French import before February.)
4. Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope, Agoraphobic Nosebleed Programming ridiculously fast blast-beats only a robot could play, Bethesda, Md.’s, Scott Hull uses a drum machine not as a surrogate for a flesh-and-blood rhythmist, but for its superhuman capabilities. It’s a stroke of grindcore genius well-matched to thick, sticky guitars and a bevy of Hull pals growling juvenile (but not unfunny) satire.
5. Wages of Sin, Arch Enemy Although embarrassingly slick at times (dig the Tubular Bells intro), the Swedish quintet’s fourth studio disc transcends its low points with some of the most triumphant, fist-pumping morbidity this side of guitarist Michael Amott’s old band Carcass. That new singer Angela Gossow could’ve been a Blue Crush extra is nothing but a plus.
6. 2nd 18/04 Norildivoth Crallos-Lomrixth Urthiln, Orthrelm In a good-to-great year of hard rockin’ art-tweakage (see: Flying Luttenbachers, Fucking Champs, Ruins, etc.), Orthrelm earns the top-10 nod for having the least comprehensible worldview. The D.C. instrumental duo’s oeuvre all but defenestrates pop tradition in favor of constantly shifting streams of simultaneous guitar and drum solos.
7. Kylesa, Kylesa Not much in the way of orthodoxy here: These Georgian punks populate their kind-of-sloppy-yet-technical debut with dulcimer, samples, and femme vox. If that doesn’t sound headbangin’ enough, the skeletons ’n’ spears Pushead cover art should put your doubts to rest.
8. An Anthology of Dead Ends, Botch These guys always gave better than they got, excelling at speedy, barbaric math rock that truly slays. Their low-stakes aesthetic—too indie to be metal, too metal to be indie—no doubt contributed to the posthumousness of this release.
9. Deliverance, Opeth Determined to drag death metal out of One-Idea Land, these Swedes offer up two: godlike riffage and mellowed-out art-rock. Often a bit sissy for these ears, Opeth nonetheless wins this year’s Sam Peckinpah Award for reviving an old genre (in this case prog) and giving it some teeth.
10. I Get Wet, Andrew W.K. This ex–Bulb Records party animal ain’t exactly underground anymore. But the extreme beats-per-minute of his full-length Bat Out of Hell impersonation and his unhinged live presence almost make up for those Expedia.com and Coors Light commercials. Besides, this is without a doubt the loudest disc of the year. CP
Ryan Adams called me an asshole this year. In response to a stink-bomb review I gave his phony Demolition album, the y'alternative newt-boy left a whiny rant on my voice mail, in which he said that he had also phoned my editor to complain. That's right: Adams told on me. Later that same night, he potshotted me from the 9:30 Club stage. I wasn't in the crowd, though. I was doing something more constructive with my time: watching Wild On on E!. Or maybe Showtime.
Now, I certainly don't feel special because of the attention. Adams made the news quite a bit in 2002 for his infantile reactions to his quickly fading star power, belittling journalists from New York to Nashville. But I must say that I do feel enlightened: Adams unwittingly reminded me of my own recent bit of boneheaded posturing and thus has freed me to provide, here and now, the most unabashedly honest best-of-pop list you'll ever read (or at least skim for stuff you like, too).
Here's the deal: Last year, like so many other lemmingesque critics, I put Adams' Gold album on my top 10. I was a sucker for the hype. I weakened and got caught up in the steady stream of media-fueled rah-rah horseshit. Gold's not a terrible disc, mind you; it's just that I haven't listened to it since then. If I had to do it all over again, the album wouldn't even get a mention—asshole comment or not. Same goes for Radiohead's high-ranking Amnesiac; I dig critical darlings Thom Yorke & Co. very much, but let's just say I'm still stuck in The Bends.
So this time, I'm listing only albums and songs from mostly major labels that have repeatedly made me and my CD player very happy—and will no doubt do so in the future. Screw trying to look cool or in the know. I'm not—case closed. Basically, this is a collection of the stuff I couldn't stop listening to—without all the stuff people told me I should have been listening to. The White Stripes? I couldn't care less. The Vines? Couldn't name a song. Barry Manilow's remastered hits? Sweet music to my ears. You get the point.
This year is the perfect time for this gotta-be-me moment, too: Since I've been writing about music—basically, six years of searching for synonyms for "catchy"—I don't think there's been a better year for pop. Although there were some major disappointments (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' The Last DJ, for instance), great new voices (N.E.R.D., Sahara Hotnights, Doves) and old stalwarts (Foo Fighters, Chris Isaak, George Harrison) nevertheless provided musical bliss on a regular basis.
So without further ado, let's get to the goods. Herewith, from the bottom of my honesty-swelled heart, the 10 best albums of 2002:
A Rush of Blood to the Head, Coldplay Frontman Chris Martin—until recently, a pathetic, love-starved virgin who mined his paramourless life for musical inspiration—is currently dating Gwyneth Paltrow. So blame the sunny starlet when Coldplay never sounds this pretty and pained again. Blondes suck.
In Search Of..., N.E.R.D. Who wants a "Lapdance"? All of the Neptunes' big, bad, jazz-band-in-a-nudie-joint beats can be found in this one convenient place. And you know Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo are saving some sublimely nastee shit for Album No. 2.
The Last Broadcast, Doves Dig that after-school-special-circa-'77 intro on the lushly sun-warped "There Goes the Fear." Pure Britpop bliss—no matter what my jaded, Joy Division–loving editor might say.
In Our Gun, Gomez Psych-poppy jam-banders with a big Beatles crush, these Liverpudlians rework the last madcap minute of "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" and stretch it out over 13 tracks. Plus, Ben Ottewell just might have the most flutterly gorgeous vox in pop.
Always Got Tonight, Chris Isaak Have you seen The Chris Isaak Show on Showtime? I think it comes on between Lady Chatterly's Stories and Red Shoe Diaries. Anyway, it provides pretty good (or sad) insight into how this near-50 tsunami-haired troubadour has been able to do one thing—croon about his creaky heart—so well for so long.
Brainwashed, George Harrison The dearly departed Dark Horse doesn't fear the reaper on his final musical foray. Indeed, he practically makes the Bescythed One an honorary Wilbury for this upbeat goodbye bash of shimmering and spiritual pop lovelies.
One by One, Foo Fighters Love stinks—and burns and scratches and roars. Dave Grohl doesn't take getting dumped well. Lucky for us.
Home, Dixie Chicks Natalie, Martie, and Emily proved that they can look lovely and throw a pickin'-frenzied bluegrass shindig without the shiny pop-country hooks. A correction: Blondes rule!
Jennie Bomb, Sahara Hotnights Someday I'll give up all the dirt on my naughty exchange-student adventures in Scandinavia. (Chapter 1: "Mama, no!") For now, allow these Swedish Go-Go's to remind you that it always stays hot 'n' heavy in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
Maladroit, Weezer Rivers Cuomo told Rolling Stone that he now enjoys paying for sex. So relish these sugar-smacked bursts of Mötley Crüe–meets–ELO pop while you can—then pull up a couch: He's beelining for Pinkerton again.
But that's not all, folks. Here are 10 more gems that, although not as stellar as the previous batch, were just a few bumps and bruises away from an upgrade: Bramble Rose, Tift Merritt; The Blueprint2: The Gift & the Curse, Jay-Z; Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco; The Rising, Bruce Springsteen; Have You Fed the Fish?, Badly Drawn Boy; Rock Steady, No Doubt; Jerusalem, Steve Earle; By the Way, Red Hot Chili Peppers; Miss Fortune, Allison Moorer; Mali Music, Mali Music.
This year, I'm not even making any excuses for loving Barry Manilow. "Weekend in New England"? Tissue, please. And here's another no-longer-shameful little secret: Back in my bellboy days at a posh hotel in Columbia, Md. (OK: I was 24), I once chauffeured Mr. "Mandy" in the courtesy van from Merriweather Post Pavilion back to his digs. It got hellish, too: I was nearly mauled by 500 40-plus groupies encased in thinning 1978-vintage "I love Barry" concert T-shirts. I also had this weird fantasy of driving the van off a cliff—but the less said about that the better.
Anyway, here are my 10 favorite compilations of the year, starting, of course, with Ultimate Manilow, Barry Manilow; Greatest Hits, Run-DMC; Loud, Fast, Ramones: Their Toughest Hits, the Ramones; Aware Greatest Hits, Various Artists; The Muppet Show: The 25th Anniversary Collection—Music, Mayhem, and More, Various Muppets; Symptom of the Universe: The Original Black Sabbath, 1970–1978, Black Sabbath; Classics: Selected by Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys; The Very Best of Fleetwood Mac, Fleetwood Mac; 30 #1 Hits, Elvis Presley; and—perhaps my most listened-to disc of 2002—Getz Plays Jobim: The Girl From Ipanema, Stan Getz.
I didn't listen to a lot of radio this year—too much Showtime, if you know what I mean—but here's what sounded boardwalk-sweet (read: catchy!) on road trips: "Everybody Out of the Water," the Wallflowers; "Hate to Say I Told You So," the Hives; "Work It," Missy Elliott; "Like I Love You," Justin Timberlake; "I'm Gonna Getcha Good!," Shania Twain; "Pussycat," Wyclef Jean; "Stop Crying Your Heart Out," Oasis; "We Are All Made of Stars," Moby; "A Thousand Miles," Vanessa Carlton; and—in memory of my cousin John, who even bleached his hair to look more like Marshall—"Without Me," Eminem.
Wow: Thanks, Ryan—I feel so pure. In fact, in the interest of full disclosure, I should add that Manilow's tour manager tipped me $95 for my derring-do bellboy services way back when. To this day, it remains the most impressive money I've ever made for 20 minutes' work. Tissue, please. CP
A good number of the conversations I've had this year have begun in one of two ways: (a) "Have you seen the new show at Fusebox?" or (b) "What the hell's up with the Corcoran?"
I swear to God, half the time I didn't even bring up the latter subject, but perhaps sensing my receptivity, folks I knew or half-knew or even had just met would lay into D.C.'s biggest repository of untapped art-venue potential with a bat. They heaped scorn on a lame exhibition schedule, placed blame for the underfunding of a vital Visiting Artists Program, and proposed that the Gehry addition is a misguided and possibly doomed adventure. To be fair, I heard faculty complaining less often about the college than in the past, but students bitched about the departure of beloved profs and the ossification of taste among those who remained.
It's easy for safely tenured beard-strokers to get set in their ways and cease to keep up with the art mags, forgetting that everything's equally new to the young turks, a crew of whom made Fusebox, now just over a year old, the spot to watch. Derided in some quarters as an Ikea Art emporium (mainly by the old-timers and hacks who see nothing amiss over in Dupont), the 14th Street NW gallery has actually had a much more varied program than it received credit for. This year saw figurative sculpture and drawings by Kristofer Lee, performance by Jessica Buege, sound art by Richard Chartier, video by Susan Smith-Pinelo, documentary photography by Vesna Pavlovi´c, digitally manipulated images by Margi Geerlinks, politically minded information art by Siemon Allen,
and so forth. What may have thrown people was the consistent brand
identity established by the uniformly clean and tight presentations.
In a town where "emerging artist" is often code for some wet-behind-the-ears nobody whose output is indistinguishable from student work and who is unlikely to emerge into anything other than a life of 'zines and bartending, Fusebox put together a stable of local, national, and international names about whom we can gladly expect to hear more in the future. In addition to having the most civilized hours in town, friendly to people who work 9 to 5 as well as to those who sleep in 'til 3, Fusebox successfully forged a defining aesthetic both brainy and cool, immediately joining the slender ranks of local spaces for which "quality" isn't a dirty word.
Back at 500 17th St. NW, though, the preference was for quantity—of paying customers. Come fall, I, for one, was wondering whether the façade ought not be engraved, "Corcoran Gallery of Rhinestone-Studded Purses and Jackie Kennedy Crap." Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, Los Angeles Timescritic Christopher Knight made a noteworthy assault on crowd-grabbing blockbusters, observing that they tend to alienate the core audience of serious art-heads, without which a museum doesn't mean a whole lot. I've got only the sole data point of my own experience, but many was the time this year that the Corcoran's show roster couldn't get me in the door. For ages, it hasn't been possible to scan the Contemporary Art in U.S. Museums page opposite the Absolut ad in the back of Artforum without giving a shudder at the Corcoran's lineup.
When someone rings me up asking me to change the way I write, I expect it to be my editor—it's part of the process. But several months ago, I got a call from the Corcoran public-affairs office suggesting that I might have more success swaying the museum–s board if I adopted more measured, less vulgar language. My response was that the board was hardly the audience I kept in mind when writing for the Washington City Paper and that because the current programming was doubtless the product of many civil discussions, that tack didn't seem to be working all that well.
It later occurred to me that this invitation to suck up must have seemed, on the other end of the line, like an appropriate way to conduct business. The reason, of course, is that pandering has become a lingua franca over at the Corcoran, a tongue slipped into with the casual assumption that anybody within earshot will be sure to understand. So when the aerial photography of Emmet Gowin rightfully lured me back to the museum, I discovered, in addition, shows in which the Corcoran was pandering to official Washington ("Fashioning Art: Handbags by Judith Leiber," part of a series of shows sponsored by Georgetown dowager Evelyn Stefansson Nef), to parents organizing family outings with young children ("The Shape of Color: Joan Miró's Painted Sculpture"), and, finally, to itself ("Picturing the Corcoran's Sculpture: Photographs by David Finn").
Unless the Corcoran's charter has changed since the last time I checked, the museum is still dedicated to "encouraging the American genius." The first part of that object is easy: You can't spit without hitting "American." The second part's more difficult. It's supposed to be. It should be quite obvious that ferreting out genius requires having standards and setting them on the high side, where Larry Rivers can't get to them.
Over the past couple of months, the question of standards, and thus of quality, has erupted anew around Art-O-Matic, an unjuried show that every few years fills vast stretches of disused District real estate with a great agglomeration of rubbish. With each new iteration, the exhibition's organizers get all belligerent about how good it is for you to submit yourself to this unfortunate spectacle, neatly factionalizing the city's gallerygoers. Among the show's most outspoken opponents this time around was Tyler Green, a Knight fan and Fusebox partisan who writes a blog called Modern Art Notes, and whose Dec. 1 letter to the Washington Post generated a considerable response both online and off-.
After dragging myself through Art-O-Matic the first year, I vowed I'd never repeat the experience. But I went again, largely because I felt a little guilty about warning Kojo Nnamdi Show listeners off it sight unseen (although I was upfront about not having visited the exhibition at that point). I needn't have been so scrupulous. If anything, Art-O-Matic, as a visual-art event, had gotten even worse, more sprawling and more amateurish.
Playing on public trepidation toward much contemporary art, events such as Art-O-Matic and the Party Animals extravaganza aimed low, perhaps working from the assumption that you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. But, as an acquaintance of mine told his mother when confronted with that old maxim, you can get still more of them with a pile of shit. Indeed, the success of either project should be assessed according to this qualification.
Washington taxpayers should be pleased to learn that they're going to end up footing the bill for up to $25,000 worth of Art-O-Matic detritus: The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities—also sponsor of the Party Animals—ponied up that sum to add several of the show's pieces to its Art Bank. It's worth noting that the commission's executive director is Tony Gittens, who is also director of Filmfest DC, which cites the DCCAH as a "major sponsor." Now, our annual local cinema binge is no Toronto or Sundance, but it's not a horrible embarrassment, either. If it were run like Art-O-Matic, Filmfest DC would consist almost exclusively of tedious and inept home videos.
Arts bureaucrats need to think of quality not as a philosophical or political consideration, but as a practical one. It is about establishing a threshold of interest. Ultimately, it concerns itself with what viewers do with their time. My question for those who think we can dispense with the notion that some things are more deserving of consideration than others is "How do you decide what you want to see?" On any odd week in the City Paper, there may be listings for more than 50 museums and more than 100 galleries, embassies, and alternative spaces. Even full-time critics can't visit them all. And what about the average person, who may have only an afternoon per week or per month free for such pursuits? I have yet to meet the artist who doesn't think his work is worth the time it takes to look at it, and yet in most cases, it isn't. If, when planning your outings, you try to remember which venues have betrayed you, which writers have misled you, and which artists have made you wish you were home watching TV, like it or not, you're dealing with the issue of quality.
If being jealous of my time helps me decide what to bother with in the first place, it's envy that lets me know what I like. Call it base, unreasonable, and unfair, but envy doesn't lie. Looking at art is an exercise in trying on for size the minds, lives, and talents of other people, and the best shows fill my gut with a familiar gnawing. Here are the 10 of 2002 that most made me wish I were someone else:
1. "H.C. Westermann," at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Furious, tender, funny, and uncompromising, Westermann was as complete an artist as they come. He doted on his materials before staking them against the idiocy and horror of the America he loved, and they were rarely less than equal to the challenge.
2. The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes in "I...Dreaming: The Visionary Cinema of Stan Brakhage," at the National Gallery of Art. Standing out from a sprawling, uneven, and necessary retrospective, this half-hour of autopsy footage was an unflinching and almost unbearably sad elegy to lifelessness. There's no crossing over here—only a dead stop.
3. "Tony Feher," at Numark Gallery Working with the humblest of materials, Feher located unimagined sculptural barriers, then pushed past them.
4. "Steven Cushner: Recent Paintings," at the Art Gallery at the University of Maryland College Park Earthy experience met liquid memory in luminous glyphic abstractions.
5. "Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962–1972," at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Proving that competition, not cooperation, is the juice of a thriving art scene, the Poverists melded mind games with sensory pleasure to set the stage for the art world's next 30 years.
6. "Chromophilia," at Fusebox The rare text-inspired group show that not only cohered, but also threatened to outshine the individual artists gathered under its theme.
7. "Directions—Marina Abramovi´c," at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Surrendering to her conflated memories of father and country, the endurance-art pioneer carried a banner for everything (and everyone) that cannot be repaired.
8. "Thomas Downing: Origin of the Dot," at Conner Contemporary Art Twin shows at Catholic University and Conner attempted to re-establish the reputations of two second-string Washington Color Schoolers. Howard Mehring didn't hold up; Downing did.
9. "Leo Villareal: Digital Light Sculpture," at Conner Contemporary Art Doing right by the dazzle of mod-style light art with technology that could have only been dreamed of in 1967.
10. "Colby Caldwell: Songs," at Hemphill Fine Arts Here's wishing him more obstacles like the computer glitch that led to his lyrical, abstract grids.
Plus one ringer from New York:
"Robin Rose: Protocol—Recent Paintings," at Howard Scott Gallery Past works by this local encaustic master have been bigger and splashier, but with this show he brought his pictorial language to a new level of refinement. CP
The big boys are back—sort of. Largely absent from the photography game in recent years, Washington's major art institutions staged something of a comeback in 2002. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection, and the National Gallery of Art each presented at least one important photography exhibition this year—and most of their shows hit the mark, buoyed by big budgets, lots of gallery space, and assiduous curation.
Only a museum with the space and the resources of the Hirshhorn could have mounted D.C.'s best photography exhibition of the past year: "Open City: Street Photography Since 1950," an exhaustive show that featured 19 diverse artists, each represented by enough work to establish far-reaching resonances and give much more than a mere overview. Likewise, it required institutions as large and well-heeled as the Corcoran and the National Gallery to mount 30 years' worth of collaborative projects by Wendy Ewald and a retrospective of Alfred Stieglitz's long career.
As it happens, neither the Ewald nor the Stieglitz exhibition was among the best photography shows in Washington this year. "Secret Games: Wendy Ewald, Collaborative Works With Children, 1969–1999," at the Corcoran, featured several projects executed mostly with disadvantaged kids. But only some of these efforts were poignant and revealing; others were self-indulgent and didactic. "Alfred Stieglitz: Known and Unknown," at the National Gallery, was accompanied by a breathtakingly comprehensive 18-pound catalog that reproduces every finished print made by the master. It's unfortunate that the modest, haphazardly selected exhibition itself failed to live up to such high standards.
But these shows were big and bold enough to have substantial merits as well as deficiencies—something not always possible in smaller galleries. That said, however, the galleries still drove much of the photography scene in Washington in 2002, presenting everything from shots of building façades to personal travelogues to digitally altered quasi-landscapes. Here's one critic's opinion of the best local photographic shows of the past year:
1. "Open City: Street Photography Since 1950," at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Rarely has one exhibition embraced so many different artists with so much coherence and insight. Had the show featured merely the brilliant, trailblazing work of black-and-white street photographers Robert Frank, William Klein, and Garry Winogrand, it would have been a success. But the curators added a sampling of contemporary artists who have tweaked the old genre enough to have given it new life: Beat Streuli, with his voyeuristic long-distance photographs of pedestrians; Jeff Wall, with his painstakingly constructed fictitious street scenes; Nikki S. Lee, with her performance-art project in which bystanders photographed her blending into one social milieu or another; and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, with his photographs of passers-by unsuspectingly tripping their own self-portraits.
2. "Joyce Tenneson and Karin Rosenthal," at the Fraser Gallery Bethesda Tenneson's portraits of "wise women" are an Oprah-worthy lesson in fuzzy sepia tones and fuzzier inspirational vibes. But if you think turning the human body into a landscape sounds equally trite, take a look at Rosenthal's work. In her painstakingly arranged tableaux of partly submerged bodies, arms become rock walls, legs resolve themselves into fjords, and butt cheeks become convincing lily pads.
3. "Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth," at the Corcoran Gallery of Art Gowin is best known for taking intimate shots of his family, but "Changing the Earth," a collection of aerial photographs taken over the past 20 years, demonstrated that he can also handle the big picture. Gowin's aerial images of scarred landscapes are most compelling when they turn reality into abstraction, especially in a series of snow-dusted agricultural settings that toy productively with circular geometries and unreal textures. "Changing the Earth"
was hauntingly eloquent but—just as important—admirably understated.
4. "Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism," at the Phillips Collection Block out, if you can, this show's abysmal organization. Focus instead on the resonances between works by Weston and later generations of photographers and painters. To their credit, the curators included not only Weston's famous sexualized peppers, splayed nudes, and crystal-clear landscapes, but also such refreshingly obscure (and quirky) works as the pictures he took in MGM Studios' prop-storage rooms and during a swing through the Gothic South. Even half a century on, Weston's photographs remain vital.
5. "Paul Fusco: RFK Funeral Train" at Hemphill Fine Arts This exhibition wasn't as good as the earlier book, but it came close. Fusco, a magazine photographer, was assigned to ride the train carrying Robert F. Kennedy's body from New York to Washington following the politician's assassination, in June 1968. In a moment of inspiration, Fusco decided not to photograph inside the train but rather aim outward, at the passers-by who lined the tracks in a gesture of farewell. Inexplicably forgotten until their publication in 2000, Fusco's boldly oversaturated and aistorted photographs offer a remarkable encapsulation of a poignant moment in American history.
6. "Evelyn Richter: Photographs," at the Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes Living in East Germany during the Cold War, Richter was often repressed by party apparatchiks. Her best images capture visitors to art museums, city pedestrians, and pockmarked building façades with a winning casualness. This exhibition, coming late in Richter's life, won her some much-deserved attention on this side of the Atlantic.
7. "Ms. Booth's Garden," at the Ralls Collection Jack Kotz's photography channels such Southern masters as William Christenberry, William Eggleston, and Birney Imes, but it also reveals an individual vision. Over two decades, Kotz took more than 10,000 photographs—none exhibited publicly until this year—documenting the locales inhabited by his grandmother, Myrtle Booth. Through unexpected symmetries and varying intensities of light, he conveys a sense of place as convincingly as any of his predecessors.
8. "Conversations Through Photography," at the Watkins Gallery at American University This collection of documentary photographs by 10 Israeli and Palestinian artists featured a series of portraits of steely-eyed Palestinian career women, unexpectedly colorful images of life in the refugee camps, and a wistful documentation of a modest experiment in cross-border harmony. But the exhibition's clear standout was photojournalist Rina Castelnuovo. One of her series captured Palestinian children swimming in water covered with an intensely colored film of green algae. Another features gut-wrenching images of an all-too-common rite of passage in the occupied territories: young boys posing with assault rifles in front of incongruously cheery cartoon backdrops, taken so that parents can have a "martyr photograph" if their child is killed in the streets.
9. "Colby Caldwell: Songs," at Hemphill Fine Arts To become finished works, Caldwell's pieces must survive successive alterations by movie cameras, video recorders, and computer software—not to mention the dust and grit that Caldwell gladly welcomes into the mix. The resulting images are sumptuous, grainy fields of color so ethereal as to be otherworldly. And the fact that some of these works convince as landscapes yet are only tenuously related to actual places makes their impact that much more potent.
10. "Façades," at G Fine Art I tried hard to dislike these decontextualized building façades photographed by Roland Fischer. For one thing, the Munich-based photographer's work seems similar enough to that of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Andreas Gursky, and Thomas Struth to be redundant; for another, his portrayals are lifeless to the extreme. Still, Fischer won me over. His crystal-clear printing is impressive, even on a large scale, and his unwavering geometrical focus turns even demonstrably ugly buildings into beautifully ordered compositions.
Finally, a word of praise for an exhibition that classifies only marginally as photography: "Judy Pfaff: Recent Work," at the David Adamson Gallery, mainly featured graphic and mixed-media works, but Pfaff used photographs of gardens and vegetation as the starting point for many of her best pieces—which include at least one reinvention of the humble contact sheet on a
massive scale. CP
Every week, the major Hollywood studios and some smaller distributors release new films, and critics dutifully review them. Increasingly, though, it seems that filmmaking (as opposed to popcorn retailing) is focused on just one month: December in New York and L.A., January in the rest of the country. Putting together two top-10 lists—one for this article, another for the Village Voice film critics' poll—made this clear for me. Cinematically, Washington and New York had very different 2002s.
Up there, the movies that qualify for this year's top-10 lists include ABC Africa, Blackboards, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Devils on the Doorstep, Intacto, Love Liza, Morvern Callar, Narc, The Hours, Max, Nicholas Nickleby, The Pianist, The Quiet American, Russian Ark, Take Care of My Cat, and 25th Hour, most of which will open here in January. (A few will probably show up even later.) In D.C., however, listers can reward such films as Black Hawk Down, The Devil's Backbone, Gosford Park, Iris, Kandahar, Monster's Ball, The Son's Room, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, and What Time Is It There?—all released in New York in 2001 (or earlier).
Of course, some local reviewers pretend that they had the same year as their New York counterparts. That's not hard to do, because most of the more prestigious limited-release films are screened for D.C. critics before the end of the year. I've actually seen all but three of the December 2001 New York releases listed above (including four that I saw in local film festivals or repertory programs). But putting those films on a top-10 list for a Washington publication would be like reviewing plays that are being performed only in New York. (Oh, wait—the Post does that, too.)
This year, the release schedule leaves Washington filmgoers halfway through one of the bigger recent trends: films about defeated and secretly angry Middle American male losers. We've already seen Punch-Drunk Love, Adaptation, and About Schmidt all wildly overrated—but still have Love Liza to go. Although self-consciously wackier, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind can also fit in this category; after all, it was written by Charlie Kaufman, bard of the self-hating (if secretly self-impressed) schmuck. Just about any character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (Love Liza, Punch-Drunk Love) or John C. Reilly fits the bill, too, so the latter's small roles in Chicago and The Hours (opening Jan. 10) should be mentioned here. More of these films are set in L.A. than Omaha, but that doesn't stop them from being Middle American. If sprawling, empty Southern California isn't the heartland, it sure looks like it on
screen, as was demonstra ed by Miguel Arteta's
defeated–Middle American–female–loser flick, The Good Girl, set in Texas but shot in L.A. (and containing yet another of Reilly's clueless hubbies).
My own top 10 includes only one American movie, which is probably the biggest commercial flop on the list. The others are foreign films, most of which had healthy runs locally. A number of them are actually about losers, but they evoke their characters' marginal lives far more persuasively than Hollywood's sad-sack auxiliary.
All or Nothing A contrived ending mars Mike Leigh's snapshot of South London working-class life, but the rest of the film is the year's most assured and nuanced ensemble piece.
Bloody Sunday Urgent yet pensive, Paul Greengrass' docudrama indelibly burns its images of the Jan. 30, 1972, Derry massacre that began 25 years of civil war in Northern Ireland.
Kandahar Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's startling tour of the Taliban's Afghanistan is a poetic mingling of fact and fiction whose unforgettable images trump technical lapses (and a controversial bit of casting).
The Fast Runner The first Inuit-made feature is an ancient tale of vengeance, set in a timeless Canadian Arctic landscape—and captured dazzlingly on digital video.
The Rules of Attraction The year's most brazen bad-boy stunt, Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary's audacious and hilarious satire set out to intimidate fans of both Dawson's Creek and Road Trip—and succeeded.
Sex and Lucía Yes, there's lots of sex, or at least nudity, but that's not why this is Basque director Julio Medem's most engaging film. The story slips through a wormhole, allowing him to divest the latter half of the sex-and-death combo
that has previously led him to unconvincing outcomes.
The Son's Room Writer-director-star Nanni Moretti's first drama—if that's what it is—takes "the Italian Woody Allen" to an unexpected place: an acceptance of transience that seems almost Asian.
Time Out No 2002 American-loser parable can match Laurent Cantet's account of an unemployed Frenchman who pretends he still has a job, defining himself by white-collar activities that would be meaningless even if he were being paid for them.
24 Hour Party People Unpredictable British director Michael Winterbottom's grand tour of the Madchester scene is a garrulous romp that both glorifies and needles Joy Division, the Happy Mondays, and the very idea of based-on-a-true-story flicks.
What Time Is It There? Set somewhere between Taipei, Paris, and the afterlife, existential absurdist Tsai Ming-Liang's film is part meditation, part vaudeville routine on the themes of losing, changing, and killing time.
Among the films that didn't quite make this list are Majid Majidi's Baran, Zhang Yimou's Happy Times, Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home, Richard Eyre's Iris, Eric Rohmer's The Lady and The Duke, Benoît Jacquot's Sade, Patrice Chéreau's Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, and Jonathan Demme's The Truth About Charlie. Not contenders but still very intriguing were three distinctive thrillers from Spain, Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone, Fabián Bielinsky's Nine Queens, and Intacto. (The third of these will probably open here in January.)
The National and Freer Galleries, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the American Film Institute, the Library of Congress, the Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes, Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge, the Museum of African Art, Films on the Hill, the D.C. Jewish Community Center, and La Maison Française screened hundreds of movies this year, as did the city's numerous film festivals. Many of them were retrospectives or revivals (of which perhaps the most stunning was the restored Metropolis at the AFI). Of the recent films shown in these venues (some of which will return in 2003 for repertory or commercial bookings), among the most interesting were Abbas Kiarostami's ABC Africa (Freer), Samira Makhmalbaf's Blackboards (National Gallery), Thomas Arslan's A Fine Day (Goethe/Visions), Hou Hsiao-hsien's Millennium Mambo (Filmfest DC), Nick Hughes' One Hundred Days (Visions), Wang Chao's The Orphan of Anyang (Filmfest DC), Seijun Suzuki's Pistol Opera (Freer), Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen (AFI), Jae-eun Jeong's Take Care of My Cat (Filmfest DC), and Maziar Miri's Unfinished Song (Freer).
Hollywood still makes plenty of films with straight-to-video production values, but it has developed some stylists whose work is worth seeing just for its look and feel. The most notable of such movies this year were Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, Sam Mendes' The Road to Perdition, and Steven Soderbergh's Solaris—all of them visually dazzling but narratively clumsy, simplistic, or uninvolving.
I didn't see anything this year that starred Freddie Prinze Jr. or Rob Schneider, so I can't judge what were surely the year's worst movies. Among supposedly intelligent films, though, a few particularly idiotic ones stand out: Gillian Armstrong's Charlotte Gray, Neil LaBute's Possession, George Hickenlooper's The Man From Elysian Fields, and M. Night Shyamalan's Signs. Even more unpleasant, though, where films that subjected their characters to rape, murder, and terror in the service of stories that didn't need to be told: John McKay's Crush, Bill Paxton's Frailty, and Pedro Almódovar's Talk to Her. Such pointlessly ruthless films are enough to make a defeated and secretly angry Middle American male loser drive halfway across the country, muttering to himself.
As to the question of most interest to wizards and trolls: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was better than its predecessor, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers worse. CP
New stages got built, Sondheim got celebrated, and the Marksist era got under way at the Washington Postxs Style section—affirmative news in a year otherwise dominated by shrinking corporate largess and skittish audiences.
To hear theater administrators talk, their seasons were affected more by events offstage than on-. As if a stock-market dive, fears of terrorist attacks, conservative antipathy for the arts, and the threat of war weren't enough to prompt dips in underwriting and attendance, D.C. suddenly had snipers prowling its environs this fall to make potential theatergoers nervous about looking any further for drama than their TV sets.
Somehow, though, stages muddled through, even prospered. The Kennedy Center attracted international reviews and sellout crowds as triumph followed triumph in its Sondheim Celebration. A new, squarish Round House Theatre opened in Bethesda to similarly SRO business, and for the first time in decades, D.C. theater aficionados had a professional stage to attend northeast of the Capitol dome.
Moreover, the Post finally made a hire after putzing around for the better part of two years without a theater critic to whom it was willing to grant either tenure or stature. Nelson Pressley had been filling in ably while Lloyd Rose took a year's sabbatical, and when she returned just long enough to pack her things, he got to pinch-hit for an extra few months, the whole way through the Summer of Sondheim. Still, his bosses—who are hands-on enough to spike reviews when they don't like show titles—never let him make the position his own.
Their new hire—Peter Marks, late of the New York Times—brings a sense of enthusiasm and discovery to a reviewing staff that has always invested most of its critical capital in appearing jaded. Of course, Marks really is discovering things—when he sees such familiar local lights as Floyd King, Nancy Robinette, and Halo Wines, it's for the first time, so the qualities for which they've long been popular hereabouts hit him with the impact they once had for the rest of us. Arena Stage's comfort with in-the-round staging and the Shakespeare Theatre's relaxed way with Elizabethan speech seem similarly remarkable to him and—in the sort of clear, authoritative prose that sells tickets—he's remarking on them. Thus has Marksism, at least in its initial stages, revolutionized Style. A heavy schedule of Broadway openings (Marks' new editors could hardly hire him away and not rub the Times' face in it) has him leaving D.C.'s off-off-KenCen stages to stringers more often than one might wish, but that'll likely change as he discovers the intriguing work that's so often done in Washington storefronts and Arlington warehouses.
As for art? Well...Commercial Houses
If Michael Kaiser spends a decade at the Kennedy Center and never produces another thing, fans of musical theater will still be grateful to him for the 11-week Sondheim Celebration that began his tenure. As one Broadway-ready production after another attracted reviews, producers, and fans from as far away as Singapore to a marble box that no longer seemed quite such a poor relation of New York's Lincoln Center, it was hard to believe that so much had been accomplished with so little. The KenCen's investment (roughly $10 million, a bit less than a single Broadway musical generally costs these days) bought festival artistic director Eric Schaeffer six star-studded revivals in repertory and an astonishing bonus import from Japan, not to mention high-profile cabarets by Barbara Cook and Mandy Patinkin, a kiddie show featuring area youngsters (Into the Woods), a concert-hall interview with the composer himself, and employment for a slew of D.C. performers who didn't look remotely out of their league playing with the likes of Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christine Baranski, and Lynn Redgrave. It was possible to cavil about less-than-felicitous individual contributions (Sean Mathias' direction of Company, Blair Brown's Desiree in Night Music) and still come away thinking that the overall experience was both exhilarating and unlikely to be equaled anytime soon.
It's worth mentioning, however, that about as many people saw Elton John's pedestrian Aida in its six weeks at the Opera House as saw all the Sondheim shows combined, and that the KenCen earned rental fees on the Disney show's run, as opposed to having to find $3 million above ticket revenues to make the Celebration possible. Kaiser's risk-taking and fundraising acumen—among his coups, Catherine Reynolds' $100 million gift this month for building a KenCen plaza atop an adjacent spaghetti bowl of roads, and Alberto Vilar's $50 million for programming and arts-management training—allow the center to be adventurous in ways it hasn't been since Roger Stevens stopped running things decades ago. In fact, the city's other theaters almost have to find programming niches in areas that the KenCen's positioning as "the nation's" arts center gives shorter shrift. Its proportion of mainstage theatrical attractions specifically aimed at African-American audiences, for instance, reflects national demographics more than those of majority-black D.C.—which is one reason audiences so often find plenty of August Wilson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Thomas W. Jones II at such venues as the Studio Theatre, Arena, and MetroStage.
The National Theatre managed to stay lit for almost six months, which is something of a recent record, though God knows it's still pathetic. That the most appealing touring house in the nation's fourth-biggest theater town should sit empty for so much of every year ought to mortify the Shuberts, who book it. At least the shows (from this year's pop-kitsch sensation Mamma Mia to 1965's pop-kitsch sensation Man of La Mancha) were crowd-pleasers, and next year the schedule should pick up by default when the Opera House goes dark for renovations.
The Warner Theatre booked its usual mix of concerts, inspirational blaxploitation, and bus-and-truck Broadway, while Ford's Theatre settled for reruns of its Hot Mikado and Christmas Carol franchises, and a disappointing I'm Not Rappaport that was advertised as a pre-Broadway tryout but played longer here than it did in New York.
Downtown Repertory Houses
Arena had an up-and-down year, as has been its wont lately, with the admirable (a roof-raising Polk County) pretty much canceled out by the dreck (smarmy, sitcommy On the Jump). A specially commissioned piece, Anthems: Culture Clash in the District, struck many observers as little more than cliché-ridden cultural tourism, but the company seemed surer-footed when approaching classics by O'Neill and Moličre, and it was blessed with fortuitous timing on occasion. Just hours, for instance, after a press conference in which Trent Lott detailed the conservative apologist's position on 1948 racism, Arena laid out what might be termed the apologetic liberal's 1949 position, in South Pacific. The juxtaposition would have meant more, let's note, if the production hadn't rushed through its anti-prejudice anthem, "You've Got to be Carefully Taught," as if it were something to be gotten past on the way to the love songs.
The Shakespeare Theatre designed the hell out of the Bard, but it couldn't seem to get much resonance from his scripts this year. The troupe actually fared better with star vehicles—for Kelly McGillis (The Duchess of Malfi) and Elizabeth Ashley (The Little Foxes)—that were not penned by its eponymous playwright. Foxes also provided a scene-stealing Nancy Robinette with an opportunity to do some of the best work of her distinguished career.
Studio had a strong, stable year, filling its two regular houses with everything from Greek tragedy to British comedy to African-American dramedy, then opening a newly acquired adjacent space with a sweetly batty musical. The company also imported the showiest of the drag shows that clustered in D.C. this year: The feverishly divine glamour goddess Lypsinka's bubble-gum-pink lounge act, The Boxed Set, was a certifiable hoot.
Up the street a bit, the Source Theatre played host to a different sort of gay attraction when it rented its space to Making Porn, one of a whole parade of shows this year to feature full-frontal nudity. The troupe's own shows included a terrific Oleanna, featuring Holly Twyford as a student who has a few surprises for the main man in her life. (Twyford went on to play a variation on that theme a few months later in The Shape of Things at Studio.) Source's two-year cohabitation with the Washington Stage Guild finally proved too tight a fit for both troupes, so WSG split for more expansive/expensive pastures (the space Living Stage had just vacated a half-block away) while awaiting construction of a home it can call its own, near the Convention Center.
At the somewhat more upscale AFI Theater, which is about as prime as theatrical real estate gets in D.C., the Woolly Mammoth and African Continuum Theatre Companies shared both space and upticks in attendance. For ACTCo, which has been growing in assurance during several nomadic years, the KenCen location brings credibility; for the Woollies, who've been there a couple of years now, it's just one of many stops. (Audiences also journeyed to Source to see the cabaret insanity of Kiki & Herb in Pardon Our Appearance and to the D.C. Jewish Community Center to catch the city's first 9/11-themed drama, Recent Tragic Events.) The wildest Woolly discovery was spoken-word artist Sarah Jones, whose Surface Transit was the most riveting solo show to play the KenCen since Lily Tomlin spent a month in 1988 there searching for signs of intelligent life.
Theater J had the sort of respectable, sober, intelligent year its subscribers have come to expect of it, with shows concerning horrors and reckonings of various stripes. The Stanislavsky Theater Studio spawned a subgroup—Synetic Theater—to focus more on its trademark physical theater; the larger entity maintains its emphasis on "synthesis of the arts." Gala spruced up the Warehouse Theater on 7th Street while waiting for construction to begin on its new Tivoli Theatre home on 14th; the Folger Theatre mounted a jewel-like She Stoops to Conquer that delivered more laughs than any other comedy in 2002; and the Theater Alliance was abruptly struck with pioneer spirit and blazed a theatrical path where no troupe has gone for better than half a century: Northeast. Count the $100,000 makeover of a onetime auto showroom into the 100-seat H Street Playhouse among the year's more heartening downtown surprises.
'Burbs and Beyond
Less heartening, at least at first glance, was the long-anticipated opening of Round House's new Bethesda home. The 400-seat house feels too wide, too gently raked, and has no real divide between audience and stage, all of which made it seem cavernous and warehouselike in its first two productions. That didn't keep audiences from flocking, however, and by the third show—a smartly observed Cherry Orchard pitched so far forward it seemed to be falling into the audience's lap—at least one designer had figured out how to make the place feel like a theater. The troupe said goodbye to its old home in grand style with intimate ghost stories in The Weir and local author Ernie Joselovitz's briskly fictionalized theatrical history lesson, Shakespeare, Moses, and Joe Papp.
A bit farther outside the Beltway, the Olney Theatre did a professional job with mostly middlebrow material, while Rep Stage in Columbia seemed to be trying to turn itself into Round House North, producing shows (The Swan and The Belle of Amherst) with which the Rockville house had had great success.
Across the river, the Washington Shakespeare Company spent an aggressively adventurous year, deconstructing a pair of comedies by its namesake playwright but scoring more strongly with rarely produced absurdist puzzlers by Albee and Genet. Busier-than-thou Eric Schaeffer took time off from celebrating Sondheim at the Kennedy Center to shepherd a more raucous breed of musical comedy to success at his own Signature Theatre. Hedwig and the Angry Inch brought Rick Hammerly back to town in high style, shortly after his withdrawal from a show at nearby MetroStage forced its cancellation. Happily, MetroStage recovered later in the year with a crowd-pleasing African-American take on Chekhov called Three Sistahs, which extended and extended for months.
The Keegan Theatre took a well-received Glass Menagerie overseas—but overreached elsewhere with an inept mounting of Violet, a countrified musical about racism, and an ill-advised co-production with the Fountainhead Theatre of the '50s William Inge potboiler Come Back, Little Sheba. The American Century Theater didn't do much better with the same author's Picnic, though the troupe's 2001 celebration of Danny Kaye was popular enough to return for a couple of reruns and had a brief stint in Manhattan. The Horizons Theatre extended its audience-interactive In Good Company franchise with actors impersonating sexual icons, and Teatro de la Luna scored again with its annual festival.
As always, the action was spiciest on the fringes, where such variously sophisticated itinerant troupes as Cherry Red Productions, Purchased Experiences Theatre Company, the Scena Theatre, Actors' Theatre of Washington, and Project Y Theatre Company generally had little trouble living up to the aggressively attention-getting titles (Shopping and Fucking, Seven Blowjobs, Dingleberries, Naked Men Singing, Savage/Love) of the works they tended to produce. As always, their aim to startle, challenge, and surprise stood in stark contrast to the reassurance proffered by many of their more affluent, subscription-based theatrical brethren.
Oddly, though, the most shocking moment of the theatergoing year occurred at the Kennedy Center—a sequence in the breathtaking Medea brought to town by Dublin's Abbey Theatre: Fiona Shaw—sweatered and skirted, and, except for the murder in her eyes, looking every inch the housewife next door—headed out, knife in hand, to slaughter her children, and as she did, the sound designer filled the theater with an ear-splitting roar of the sort that sometimes accompanies similar moments in horror movies. On opening night, two teenagers sitting behind me let out screams also appropriate to horror movies, and the audience braced for the tension-releasing laughter that would surely follow. But 30 seconds later, when the stage's glass wall had been splattered with blood and the ear-splitting sound had ceased, the girls weren't giggling; they were sobbing convulsively, as was most of the rest of the crowd, affected by a millennia-old story in much the way audiences must have been affected when it was new.
It was as if, in an unguarded moment, possibly because they were in a place where they usually find amusement and distraction, a few hundred patrons had been blindsided—and had allowed all the grief of the past year, all the tension and societal anxiety they had been sublimating in public, to emerge at once. Any year with a moment like that counts as a good one. CP
Let's pretend for a moment that movies such as Snow Dogs and The Hot Chick don't exist. The Washington City Paper tried to this year, devoting coverage to films that seemed a little more worthy, a little less my-cousin-in-law wrote-a-script-ish, and therefore spared me hours of boredom. But just as parents can't ever fully protect their kids from the bad people of the world, my editors couldn't save me from all of the bad movies of 2002. Here's an abbreviated list of bottom-scrapers that Oscar will snub for a bunch of very good reasons:
Rollerball There's a subtext of international conspiracy and a point at which things inexplicably go green—though you might assume it's just your reaction to watching two-years-running worst-of-lister Chris Klein.
Big Trouble A Get Shorty wannabe with airport bombs, a Martha Stewart–headed dog, and not a trace of Dave Barry's humor—which is odd, given that it's based on a Dave Barry novel.
Slackers High-school love goes simultaneously psychotic and boring, and a 71-year-old Mamie Van Doren gets a sponge bath from creepy Jason Schwartzman.
Blue Crush Professional competitor, professional girlfriend: Surfer Anne Marie shows young women what girl power is all about when a potential suitor says "I love you" with cash.
Hey Arnold! The Movie Not even a football-headed cartoon character can make gentrification funny, though I imagine D.C. theaters were packed.
Jason X Actresses from the WB battle the masked one—circa 2455, postcryogenic freezing, and in space. In space!
Kung Pow! Enter the Fist It's hard to understand why a movie that tried out comedy both old (bad Asian-flick dubbing!) and new (a cow that fights with its udders! a one-boobed woman!) just wasn't funny. Hmmm.
FearDotCom Aug. 30, 2002: Google breaks down as audiences around the country tap "fear site" into their Palm Pilots, hoping for a quick death.
40 Days and 40 NightsäJosh Hartnett has battled Somalians. He's battled the Japanese. Here he battles...his penis. After watching him make locker-room talk dull, even Noah would advise Hartnett to keep his pants on.
Super Troopers A cop comedy bad enough to make Steve Guttenberg look good. CP
Somebody hit the Pause button on jazz for the first half of 2002. Sure, concerts continued to take place, and CDs still came out by the boatload on the cottage-industry independents. But among the larger record labels—both major and indie—jazz began the year appearing as if it had finally reached the status of total niche music, supported solely by well-heeled cultural institutions and rich old people who use words like "classy" to describe a music that sounds best when it's gutbucket.
Although the majors don't release much worthy jazz anyway, they do set the mood for the industry at large—and several labels started off 2002 by shuttering or cutting back their jazz departments. Atlantic folded its jazz division, leaving saxophonist James Carter, among others, labelless and with a new CD in the can. Columbia shed its longtime relationships with the most famous Marsalises, Branford and Wynton. And the Verve Music Group dropped half its roster, reduced most of its new-release schedule to reissues and smooth-jazzers, and then announced that it would be cutting back on instrumental jazz to focus on crossover performers such as vocalists Natalie Cole and Diana Krall.
But something funny happened during all the belt-tightening: Jazz flipped the bird and busted a move. It healed itself, as it always has, by focusing on the music, not the economics. As the rest of the world was busy buying Norah Jones' almost-jazzlike Blue Note debut, the hard-core jazzheads discovered some truly amazing stuff—some of it, surprisingly enough, issued by the very same sources that seemed to have abandoned the music they love.
In late May, Verve released Footprints Live!, Wayne Shorter's first all-acoustic CD as a leader since 1967. The album knocked out fans and critics alike with its powerhouse take on the sax god's back catalog. Shorter's disc was followed in early June by Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, and Roy Hargrove's equally smokin' Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall, which honored Miles Davis and John Coltrane without sounding derivative of either, as such tribute CDs typically do.
So even as Verve seemed to be moving away from such music, it gave us two of the best instrumental-jazz records of the year. These CDs share the same bassist, John Patitucci, and drummer, Brian Blade, and even the same style of material: melodic, harmonically advanced mid-to-late-'60s acoustic jazz. It was their leaders' vision that made them more than the sum of their parts—or mere marketing exercises.
Yes, Shorter was acoustic again. Yes, Hancock added to the pile of Miles and Trane tributes. But the universal acclaim these projects received had everything to do with their musical quality and nothing to do with their sales strategies. Well, almost nothing. OK: It had a lot to do with sales strategies. But Footprints and Directions are also damn good discs—because they were popular as well as important releases, they helped overcome jazz's overall malaise.
In August, Warner Bros. briefly left behind the likes of Kirk Whalum—gospel-flavored smooth jazz is fine for the unwashed masses, but please!—and continued to lift jazz's spirits with pianist Brad Mehldau's Largo. Though he's best known for his acoustic piano-trio CDs, Mehldau enlisted a few more instruments—as well as rock producer Jon Brion—for this outing, and the result is stunning: It's jazz through and through, but it's recorded and produced in a style more typically associated with experimental rock (think Radiohead, whose "Paranoid Android" Mehldau covers). Largo is perfect for youngsters looking for an adventurous but accessible entree into jazz—and for the few older jazz fans who don't have canes permanently stuck in their fannies.
If you think cultivating youthful fans isn't important to jazz's economic and creative health, guess again, pally. A few years ago, the Village Voice's Richard B. Woodward reported a record-label executive saying, "The audience for straight jazz is made up of aging white males. In 10 years, after they've all had heart attacks, it'll be left with no audience." (Now that's classy.)
Be that as it may, the end isn't here just yet. Here's the rest of the jazz that raced from the gut, jumped out of the friggin' bucket, and landed right on my CD player in 2002:
Nu Bop, Matthew Shipp; Soul at the Hands of the Machine, Guillermo E. Brown; Raining on the Moon, William Parker Quartet Featuring Leena Conquest I'm usually about 600 CDs and about a million hours behind in my listening, but I broke into my regularly scheduled programming every time a new disc from Thirsty Ear's Blue Series came into my pad. It's not even that I liked all of them—I just didn't know what to expect, and my curiosity always won out over my immediate responsibilities. The much-ballyhooed "sound of surprise" that describes jazz at its best is the common ingredient in this multifaceted series, overseen by pianist Shipp, but the creative use of modern electronics is much in evidence as well, especially on Shipp's own Nu Bop. The hubristic title is completely appropriate: Shipp borrows the timbral elements of triphop without adopting any of the genre's rhythmic trappings, making for a jazz-piano CD that sounds like little else that has come before or since.
Brown, one of Shipp's bandmates in the David S. Ware Quartet, made his debut as a leader on Soul at the Hands of the Machine, another CD that lives up to its title: The sci-fi-influenced disc somehow mixes world music, illbient, and jazz in a way that sounds completely natural.
Bassist Parker, another Ware Quartet colleague, released approximately 9,907 CDs in 2002, but Raining on the Moon is the only one that will make you feel as if you need the other 9,906. It's funky without being funk, bluesy without being blue, and it features an avant-leaning vocalist without annoying pretensions. The sassy Conquest always stays just inside the edgy and grooving melodic contours Parker and his band provide, giving the music elegance and grace without making it sound overwrought.
Modernistic, Jason Moran; Strange Place for Snow, E.S.T. Though their styles are hardly similar, pianists Moran and Esbjörn Svensson are both nothing if not au courant. On Modernistic, Moran shows off his postmodernist chops by interpreting James P. Johnson's "You've Got to Be Modernistic," Robert Schumann's "Auf Einer Burg," Muhal Richard Abrams' "Time Into Space Into Time," and Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," churning them out with conviction, style, and largess. It's ballsy as hell, but Moran has the mad skills required to pull it off.
Like Mehldau, E.S.T. leader Svensson grew up listening to rock and electronica as well as jazz and classical. All of those influences are evident on the smart and lovely Strange Place for Snow. Though Svensson's trio is all-acoustic, ambient electronic sounds are often overdubbed for subtle textural effects. Drummer Magnus Oström, who favors brushes over sticks, often interpolates the light and nervous stop-start rhythms of drum 'n' bass into his playing, and bassist Dan Berglund walks not once on the album, recalling the open-ended approach of the late, great Scott LaFaro.
Hecho a Mano, Chano Dominguez; Soul of Things, Tomasz Stanko Quartet; Black Water, Rudresh Mahanthappa Jazz should always have an accent, and these three CDs speak in tongues from Spain, Poland, and India. On Hecho a Mano, pianist Dominguez mixes thick bop harmonies with the rhythm and energy of flamenco, and he does so without making either weak-kneed.
Trumpeter Stanko doesn't add polka to his jazz, but on the gorgeously open and lyrical Soul of Things, he does make music that fits the postcommunist Polish psyche: warm but reserved, quiet but tough. The CD isn't overtly political, and it doesn't need to be; it's the thoughts that inspired it that count. As Stanko told JazzTimes: "Jazz was like freedom for us, the opposite of communism."
Personal politics also have a place on alto saxophonist Mahanthappa's Black Water, which addresses the Indian diaspora. Mahanthappa explores his heritage with a jazz quartet alone, opting not to add obvious decorations such as sitar and tabla to his hard-edged post-bop sound. Why should he? Sax, piano, bass, and drums are all he needs to make his musical point.
If you're looking for box sets and reissues, these are the ones you need:
The Complete Roost Johnny Smith Small Group Sessions, Johnny Smith There is no lovelier collection of jazz guitar from the '50s. Or, for that matter, any other era: Smith's tone and phrasing are so smooth that only a corpse could be unmoved by them.
On the Beach, Philip Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble; Music From Tomorrow's World, Sun Ra and His Arkestra Cornetist Cohran played with Ra, and it's obvious that he studied the master's free-form groove. On the Beach is an obscurity from 1967, but it shouldn't be: The album is an explosion of loose-limbed, large-scale African-funk-flavored jazz.
Music From Tomorrow's World is a lo-fi collection of two '60s club dates by Ra's Arkestra, but what it lacks in fidelity it more than makes up for with quirky melodies and tumbling rhythms. It's post-bop, pre-free, and all good.
A Love Supreme (Deluxe Edition), John Coltrane Sort of a no-duh, but for those on the fence: This includes the only complete live performance of the timeless title suite as well as the long-thought-lost sextet version of "Acknowledgement."
These are the ones you don't:
The Genius of the Electric Guitar, Charlie Christian; The Herbie Hancock Box, Herbie Hancock Cool-looking packages, sure, but not really worth the expense. Clunky as hell, too. In fact, the Hancock set actually includes directions on how to open the damn thing.
The Complete Miles Davis at Montreux, 1973–1991, Miles Davis Let's just get this out there: Miles pretty much stank in the '80s, and no one needs eight versions of "Time After Time" stretched over 20 CDs to prove it. CP
The task of compiling my 36th annual best-movie list has led me to reflect on how much of my life I've spent in the dark. I began reviewing for a long-defunct Georgetown tabloid in late 1966. Here, in no particular order, are some of the films released during my first year on the job: Bonnie and Clyde, Persona, The Battle of Algiers, The Graduate, Chimes at Midnight, Accident, Point Blank, The Exterminating Angel, The War Is Over, King of Hearts, Bedazzled, Marat/Sade, Blow-Up, Fahrenheit 451, In Cold Blood, Two for the Road, and The Young Girls of Rochefort. In retrospect, I realize that I had the good fortune to become a reviewer at the apex of one of cinema's golden ages.
Even accounting for dimming eyes and the loss of brain cells, I don't think I can be accused of senior-citizen crankiness for decrying the current state of filmmaking. These days, the most interesting thing about the majority of new releases is how much money they make. Admittedly, I've done this gig so long that some burnout is inevitable. With rare exceptions, I haven't much left to say about action movies, dating comedies, serial-killer slashers, chick flicks, Holocaust dramas, space epics, or James Bond thrillers. Nor do I have any burning desire to see the latest vehicles for Adam Sandler, Sandra Bullock, Tom Cruise, Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Meg Ryan, Bruce Willis, or Ben Affleck.
Although fewer and farther between, exciting movies continue to appear. In 2002, I saw and wrote about 40 films, roughly half the total of the previous year. Despite my laziness, I lucked out, drawing some plum assignments that refueled my flagging enthusiasm for moviegoing.
Broadway director and choreographer Rob Marshall's feature debut, Chicago, is the liveliest movie musical of the last half-century. Marshall shakes the dust off this long-defunct screen genre, infusing it with energy and imagination. Based on the 1975 stage production starring Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, which was revived six years ago and is still running on Broadway, Chicago offers a jaundiced, neo-Brechtian view of tabloid journalism, the American justice system, and the cult of celebrity. Screenwriter Bill Condon, who wrote and directed Gods and Monsters, interweaves the satirical plotline—about two conniving murderesses with show-biz aspirations and a slippery shyster—with more than a dozen John Kander–Fred Ebb neo–Jazz Age songs that articulate the characters' thirst for notoriety. Catherine Zeta-Jones, a veteran of British musical theater, proves to be a spellbinding singer-dancer-actress and, surprisingly, Richard Gere, who began his career in stage musicals, matches her step for step and note for note. Top-billed Renée Zellweger runs a distant third, slipping in and out of character but exhibiting enough spunk to compensate for her workmanlike singing and hoofing. Set in 1929 just before the stock-market crash, Chicago comments on the fickleness of fortune. Edited at breakneck, post-MTV pace, it never flags, from the brassy opening number through Zeta-Jones and Zellweger's razzle-dazzle finale duet.
Writer-director Todd Haynes fulfilled the promise of his breakthrough featurette, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, in Far From Heaven, a stunningly executed postmodern replication of midcentury Hollywood melodramas. Using filmmaker Douglas Sirk's 1955 All That Heaven Allows as his template, Haynes combined social commentary and a pastiche of Universal-International's stylized Technicolor weepies to achieve a complex tone that is, simultaneously, slyly ironic and deeply compassionate. Julianne Moore stars as a '50s Connecticut housewife whose dollhouse existence is shattered when she discovers that her husband (Dennis Quaid) is gay. Rattled by this revelation, she turns for support to her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert). Like Sirk, Haynes subverts the conventions of soap opera to confront the narrow-minded bourgeois moralism that ostracizes those who transgress its rigid norms.
Fans wondering how director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman could top their extraordinary surrealist comedy Being John Malkovich will be disappointed to learn that they haven't. But they've come close enough to make Adaptation one of the year's most inventive movies. The title alludes to their scriptwriter protagonist's attempt to translate an intractable nonfiction book about a Florida orchid poacher into a viable screenplay, as well as to the Darwinian imperative of survival in an inhospitable environment—in this instance, contemporary Hollywood. Nicolas Cage, in his strongest performance in years, plays dual roles—uncompromising, self-lacerating screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his carefree, go-getting twin brother Donald—but Chris Cooper trumps him as a shrewd, dentally challenged botanical bandit. (Meryl Streep, however, trots out her grating mannerisms as the author of the book that stymies Charlie.) Adaptation collapses in its final reels, surrendering to the action-movie formulas that it previously mocked—but not before Jonze and Kaufman have assembled a fascinating free-form collage of comedy, drama, and hand-biting Tinseltown satire.
Ostensibly a thriller—it opens with the camera penetrating a thicket to discover a corpse—Lantanauses a whodunit framework as a pretext to explore the tangled lives of four Australian couples: a straying police detective and his troubled wife; a lonely, insecure woman and her estranged, hapless spouse; a psychotherapist and her professor husband, scarred by the murder of their child; and a struggling working-class pair whose marriage, unlike the others', is untainted by alienation and mistrust. Andrew Bovell's knotty screenplay gains resonance from director Ray Lawrence's realistic presentation—he shot in actual locations using available light sources. Strong performances by Anthony LaPaglia, Leah Purcell, Geoffrey Rush, and Barbara Hershey illuminate this absorbing if somewhat diagrammatic character study.
In Time Out, a middle-age Grenoble businessman loses his job but conceals the bitter fact from his wife and children by pretending that he's obtained an important new position with the United Nations in Geneva. Convincing the family of this deception emboldens him to more daring duplicity, including sweet-talking friends into participating in phony investment schemes and joining forces with a career criminal who imports and sells fake designer goods. Gradually, the protagonist's initial humiliation becomes a form of liberation, freeing him from paper-pushing corporate servitude to revel in a dicey vagabond existence—until time runs out on him in a denouement that is redemptive, ironic, and heartbreaking. French director Laurent Cantet's deliberate pacing makes the film feel unnecessarily sluggish, but patient viewers will be rewarded with a richly ambiguous examination of an adult theme, subtly performed and artfully calibrated.
This year's Filmfest DC offered restorations of two forgotten classics by French New Wave filmmaker Jacques Demy. Lola (1961), Demy's feature debut and his masterpiece, is a black-and-white, widescreen romantic fable focusing on an assortment of unwittingly interrelated characters either experiencing the intoxication of first love or attempting to survive abandonment and heartache. Sparked by Anouk Aimée's enchanting performance in the title role, Lola overflows with allusions to the movies that forged Demy's beguiling vision: Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's On the Town, Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct, and the swirling, circular films of Max Ophüls, to whom Lola is dedicated. One would have to struggle hard to resist the moonstruck, melancholy charm of this magnificently photographed movie.
Bay of Angels (1963), Demy's second feature, is an alluring love story featuring one of Jeanne Moreau's signature performances. Moreau, who partially bankrolled the project, plays Jackie, a quirky, compulsive gambler who sacrifices her husband and child to her fatalistic obsession with roulette. In a casino, she encounters a young bank clerk, Jean (Claude Mann), a novice at games of chance. Initially, they bring each other luck, winning enough money for a luxurious Riviera fling. But when Jean asks Jackie to renounce the capricious thrill of the roulette wheel, their affair turns sour. Aided by cinematographer Jean Rabier and composer Michel Legrand, Demy creates a dazzling, sun-struck Nice. Meanwhile,
Moreau, clad in an all-white Cardin wardrobe, gives an unforgettable performance, combining Marilyn Monroe's disheveled voluptuousness with Bette Davis' pop-eyed volatility.
Hollywood skewers itself in director Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal, a freewheeling, stylistically adventurous comedy-drama that nobody seems to have enjoyed but me. Following his glossy, empty remake of Ocean's Eleven, the filmmaker returned to his indie roots with an ensemble piece that unfolds in Los Angeles during a 24-hour period climaxing with the 40th birthday party of a movie producer (David Duchovny). The tangentially linked characters include an insecure aspiring screenwriter (David Hyde Pierce), his restless businesswoman wife (Catherine Keener), a lovelorn masseuse (Mary McCormack), and, playing dual roles as actors and characters in a film-within-a film, Blair Underwood and Julia Roberts. Juxtaposing crisp 35 mm footage and digital video processed to achieve a panoply of textures and tones, Soderberg clearly reveled in an opportunity to explore cinematic form. Admittedly, Full Frontal's illusion and reality games hardly break fresh ground, but it's bracing to watch the filmmaker and his stellar cast indulging themselves by taking a holiday from their customary commercial pursuits.
The Reel Affirmations Festival premiered Italian director Laura Muscardin's Giorni ("Days"), arguably the most thoughtful film about AIDS to date. Thirtyish, HIV-positive Claudio (Thoms Trabacchi) leads a meticulously ordered existence, circumscribed by his bank-manager job, his longtime domestic partnership, rigorous gym workouts, and the exacting regimen of medications required to support his immune system. Then a capricious erotic encounter with a handsome young waiter in a public park changes everything. Claudio embarks on a tempestuous (and heedlessly unprotected) affair marked by a spontaneity that he has hitherto denied himself. Muscardin chronicles her protagonist's days in a mosaic of crisply edited vignettes, depicting Claudio's troubled relationships with his concerned doctor, neurotic sister, and taunting friends. The sex scenes in this rich, artful film vibrate with a palpable eroticism rarely captured onscreen, underlined by the unspoken dread that can (and does) transform the act of passion into a death sentence.
A few more satisfying 2002 movie memories: veteran French director Claude Chabrol's sure-handed narrative command in the excessively muted psychological thriller Merci Pour le Chocolat; the galaxy of glamorous French actresses showcased in François Ozon's lumpy soufflé 8 Women; and the unflinching realism of Polish filmmaker Robert Glinski's Hi Tereska' screened at Filmfest DC, a grim account of an impoverished girl's descent from sweet-faced first-communion celebrant to cold-eyed dominatrix.
I'll bypass the customary dishonor roll of misbegotten movies. Let's just fa-la-la-la-la and forget them. CP
Good beats have been compared to drugs for most of hiphop's existence, but this year, the metaphor took a hyperspace leap for two unassuming dudes from southern Virginia: Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, aka the Neptunes, became the supreme pushermen of hiphop and R&B production.
Need evidence that record execs have been slobbering on themselves while waiting to snatch a piece of the Neptunes' percussive, unpredictable audio narcotica? Look at the ever-growing list of artists who have used the duo recently: The commercial prospects of discs by Ja Rule, Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, LL Cool J, Toni Braxton, and Justin Timberlake were unquestionably improved by the presence of Williams and Hugo's quirked-up talents, even if on just one track.
None of those popsters needed major help moving units, but working with the Neptunes ensured brand-name recognition. And big-budget urban music is far from outgrowing its obsession for designer goods of any sort. In its November issue, Blender went so far as to ask, "Are the Neptunes driving other producers out of business?" The answer was, in some cases, yes.
But here's what separates Williams and Hugo from your average music-industry mafiosi: They're so damn nice about it. "They need to give more people more chances," Williams once said about the major-label tastemakers. He was talking specifically about young kids trying to break into the biz, but the comment easily could've applied to folks such as Dr. Dre and Timbaland, two A-list hiphop producers who seemed to lose luster while the 'Tunes took over the block.
So what's the cultural significance of all this? Like any well-schooled dealers of controlled substances, the Neptunes have learned that it's best to deliver the product and stay clear of the consequences. Urban radio buys in bulk, and it tends to have a short memory. Williams and Hugo engineer their grooves for maximum impact, with layers of hooks that usually hold up for the first five or 10 listens—which is more than enough to allow a song to become a heavy-rotation head-nodder (N.O.R.E.'s "Nothin'"), pop-culture fodder (Nelly's "Hot in Herre"), or even a new classic (Clipse's "Grindin'"). In most cases, the marketplace remembers the groove more than the rhyme. In 2002, the marketplace had no choice.
Williams and Hugo just might be artistes underneath all that commerce, though. Even a forgettable sex track such as Jay-Z's "F**k All Nite," from the so-so double-disc-er The Blueprint2: The Gift & the Curse, demonstrates a noticeable Neptunian musical intelligence. The bass line sounds like detached Steely Dan, and the processed female voices and spacey noises add a pleasant air of old-school cheese. It's smart yet unintellectual, like most of the cuts on In Search of..., Williams and Hugo's own disc as N.E.R.D.
But that song was also proof that the Neptunes will cut corners when nobody's paying attention. Could they be getting stingier with their top-notch material? If that's the case, Jay-Z was smart to limit the amount of work he gave them on The Blueprint2, allowing skilled up-and-comers such as Just Blaze and Kanye West most of the production credits. Of course, Williams and Hugo's presence ensured that Jay-Z's name would stay on the charts—which has been his M.O. since Day 1.
While Jay-Hova and the other big shots got bigger by taking fewer chances, however, the rest of the ever-expanding hiphop world offered a healthy dose of surprises, comebacks, and career-defining moments, many of which had no connection to the Neptunes ‡hatsoever—a fact that seems almost necessary to point out this year. Here's a look at the best 2002 had to offer, N.E.R.D.-y and not:
I Phantom, Mr. Lif He sounds like Rakim, rails like Michael Moore, and backs it all up with the most clear-headed beats in the Def Jux canon. The result is the best hiphop concept-album since Digital Underground's Sex Packets. Mr. Lif's beef is simple: Living life as a normal guy sucks big time, and trying to buck society's expectations is a lose-lose proposition. But there's no neatly tied-up American Beauty–style ending here. Instead, Lif blows everything to shit in a nuclear blast. Now that's entertainment.
Original Pirate Material, the Streets A snot-nosed, hiphop-worshiping Brit wisely decides that copping an American flow would be utterly ridiculous, so he spits sublime Birminghamese over laptop beats that sound just foreign enough to be credible in their own clickety-clack way. Mike Skinner is the savvy slacker Everyman behind the Streets, and it now appears that America will never know how much it needs him: The music mags hyped our man from the beginning, but so far, MTV and pop radio have dropped the ball.
From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots, Dälek The cacophony of Dälek's live gigs is becoming legendary, but this 11-track LP is sweetly abusive and expansively thunderous in its own right. The rapper/producer and his band of sonic experimentalists respect hiphop as much as the next guy, but they're exponentially more pissed off about its current state of corruption. Underneath it all, though, From Filthy Tongue is a love letter to both music and spirituality.
All of the Above, J-Live In which the former teacher from Brooklyn nails the early-'90s Native Tongues vibe without rehashing that scene's wide-eyed hiphop discoveries. J-Live's down-to-earth attitude and sharp ear for top-shelf traditionalist beats are more than refreshing: All of the Above is the year's best proof that old-school aesthetics don't have to be condemned to a future of MTV lip service and cheesy album skits.
Phrenology, the Roots Philly's finest finally cut loose, and even the mistakes sound inspired. (What's that punk song doing in there? And Nelly Furtado?) Black Thought has never been more electrified on disc, and his badass boasts alone separate Phrenology from the rest of his group's catalog. Meanwhile, drummer ?uestlove points his kit at some honest-to-goodness breakbeats, giving the rest of the Roots access to a rockbox that had previously been locked tight.
The Private Press, DJ Shadow Only someone with a monklike personality and a geek's attention to detail could've created The Private Press, which treats fey '60s obscurities and snare-heavy glitch-beats—and pretty much any musical obscurity in between—with the same level of funkified affection. That's what separates Shadow from all of the other DJs: It's not about rep, it's not about style—it's about putting everything in its place. But we're not talking taxonomy here: We're talking hiphop, and Shadow's turntablism speaks it with the coolest accent you've ever heard.
Blazing Arrow, Blackalicious Frontman Gift of Gab wants a hiphop revolution with a low body count, but unlike the never-ending stream of well-read MCs who are wistful for better days, he's willing to accept a certain amount of psychic discomfort while riding in the way-back machine. His rapid-fire lyrics and producer Chief Xcel's fusion-flavored thump-ups are often smarter than they sound on first listen.
Fantastic Damage, El-P El-Producto won't win the Most Succinct MC Award, so it makes sense that he released Fantastic Damage Plus: Remixes & Instrumentals for heads who don't want too many lyrics impeding their PlayStation sessions. But his dark metaphors and oblique sociopolitical references more than reward your undivided attention. Even better, his gutteriffic groove-making skills possess a few hundred more hit points than anything else in hiphop's catacombs.
The Fix, Scarface Put on the ex–Geto Boy's seventh disc after listening to The Eminem Show—it's like watching Braveheart after Ferris Bueller's Day Off. The 30-something Scarface makes the subtle argument that being a one-man army—even an aging one—is preferable to having a thousand sycophantic sympathizers. Not quite a comeback album in the purest sense of the term, but one that recalls the best of gangsta rap's culture-shocking heyday.
Lord Willin', Clipse Both unapologetically Southern and sonically galactic, Lord Willin' is the disrespectful second cousin of OutKast's landmark Stankonia. Malice and Pusha T probably wouldn't have a career without the disc's heavy payload of magic Neptunes dust, but the Virginia Beach siblings handle their end of the transaction without flinching. The clicks, thumps, and boasts of "Grindin'" made the summer that much better, and the rest of the disc puts the customer first without kissing anybody's ass. CP
Copyright © 2002 Washington Free Weekly Inc.