Saturday, October 8, 2011

Within You, Without You: George Harrison Living in the Material World

The late John Lennon probably characterized his friend and band mate George Harrison best in 1968 when he told a journalist that, while George himself was no mystery, the mystery inside George was immense. "It's watching him uncover it all little by little that's so damn interesting," Lennon remarked. You get some sense of that slow peeling away of paradoxical mystery while watching Martin Scorsese's two-part HBO documentary, George Harrison Living in the Material World, which examines Harrison's life both as one of The Beatles and his search for spiritual solace in the aftermath of Beatlemania. Scorsese has described his film, in fact, as an exploration into Harrison's endless quest for serenity. "We don't know," he said while making the picture. "We're just feeling our way through." That unfortunately is also a pretty accurate assessment of the movie. George Harrison Living in the Material World is filled with fleeting bits of revelation and insight but it seldom finds its focus. At times, the jagged storytelling and impressionistic glimpses seem arbitrary and puzzling rather than revealing. You may be inside the immense mystery that makes up George Harrison, but Scorsese can't seem to tell us why we're there.

Friday, October 7, 2011

All the Maybe-President’s Men: A Trek on the Campaign Trail

“I’m all goosbumpy about this guy,” admits Ryan Gosling as Stephen Myers, an idealistic press secretary working for an inspirational candidate.

“He will let you down sooner or later,” predicts Ida Horowicz, a crafty New York Times reporter played by Marisa Tomei. This comment is reminiscent of what Shakespeare had a soothsayer tell Julius Caesar about the danger inherent in a certain date. The Ides of March, a new film that borrows its title from the mystical line written by the Bard in 1599, suggests that we should beware politicians of every stripe and their minions.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Search For Honest Reflection: Feist's Metals (2011)

Metals (Arts&Crafts) by Feist is one of the most interesting releases of 2011. It’s an album that reveals a maturing artist with a willingness to take uncompromising risks.

Metals starts with the heavy beat of a drum kit who’s heart is alive and well in Feist's world, as we're carried into the finer points of a relationship on the opening cut, "The Bad In Each Other." It's a song in 6/8 that immediately grabs your attention because of its pulse and a horn section supplemented by a string quartet. It's a big sound because it's a big album that wants to be noticed.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Rodney Dangerfield of Film Directors: Why Can’t Steven Spielberg Get Any Respect?

Why doesn’t filmmaker Steven Spielberg get the acclaim he deserves? Arguably, he’s the best known director in Hollywood, one whom the average, casual film-goer can identify by name and face. And while he’s doesn't yet have a word in the English language that encapsulates his work (like Hitchcockian, denoting a certain type of horror/suspense movie; or Felliniesque, describing a specific hyper-realistic style of film), Spielberg has, perhaps, influenced more directors than anyone else in the history of the movies, including as a producer of  Spielberg-like movies such as Cowboys & Aliens and Real Steel. From Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) to Joe Dante (Gremlins), James Cameron (Avatar) to JJ Abrams (Super 8), there is no shortage of filmmakers whose style, content and tone have been borrowed, to one degree or another, from Spielberg’s oeuvre and not always in a good way. James Cameron’s movies, by comparison, lack the appealing warmth of Spielberg’s best work, while Super 8, which Spielberg produced, played out more like an ersatz Spielberg flick, a pale copy of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind without any original personality of its own. (Not coincidentally, I think, he also produced most of Zemeckis's and Dante's films including such standouts as Used Cars and Gremlins 2.)

Yet even when Spielberg departs from his familiar fantasy films to tackle decidedly realistic endeavours (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich ), there are those who carp about the supposed softness of the material, or decry its sentimentality. While admittedly some sentimentality does indeed run through his work, he's rarely given any credit for the sheer talent on display, or for the sheer brilliance with which he animates his movies. This is something I will be examining in my forthcoming course, The Paradox of Steven Spielberg, at the LIFE Institute – Ryerson University. The simple truth is that, like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, he can’t get any respect.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #23: David Horowitz on Henry Ford (1988)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of CJRT-FM's On the Arts

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

David Horowitz
In the chapter Icons Revisited, I included a number of writers who re-examined past iconic figures whose personalities still continued to overshadow the decade. Some of the writers included Barbara Branden on Ayn Rand, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin on the Kennedy family, John Malcolm Brinnin on Truman Capote, Heather Robertson's fictionalized biographies on former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, and former leftist activist (now neo-conservative) David Horowitz who, along with Peter Collier, wrote a riveting and complex study of the Ford family empire called The Fords: An American Epic. Horowitz, the founder of the online FrontPage magazine, had already previously written a fascinating and highly readable biography of the Kennedys, but the Ford family posed a whole different challenge for two men who once stormed the barricades against the kind represented by Henry Ford and his automobile empire. This interview in 1988 took place three years after Horowitz, a former editor of the San Francisco leftist magazine Ramparts, had turned his back on the left and began his career as a social conservative.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Personal Soundtrack: Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap Stories (Viking Canada, 2011)

On January 30, 2010, Randy Bachman (formerly of Guess Who and BTO) offered a live, on-stage version of Randy’s Vinyl Tap, the weekly show he does for CBC Radio. On the show, called Guitarology, he talked about the use of guitar in the history of rock’n’roll, playing tracks by the appropriate artists. Then for three consecutive nights in the intimate Glenn Gould Theatre in downtown Toronto, Bachman and his band played live, simulating the original recordings by using the same guitars the original artists used.

This year, Randy has published a collection of stories from the radio show in book form. He has included some of the Guitarology material, as well as other tales gleaned from a lifetime on the road, and in studios.

At the concert, he kicked things off with the Fender Telecaster: playing authentic renditions of Dale Hawkins’ “Susie Q” and Buck Owens’ “Buckaroo”. On “Message in a Bottle” from The Police, Randy said, “this is Andy Summers’ hardest song.  [This riff is comprised of] stacked 5ths. Try doing that for 4 minutes!”  Well, he managed to do it, and then, even more impressive, Bachman managed to take on “We’ve Ended As Lovers” and sound just like Jeff Beck!

Bachman's guitars at Glenn Gould Theatre
On paper you don’t get to hear the songs, but you do get the authentic voice of someone who has been there (and back) telling the stories. The chapter entitled “Randy’s Guitar Shopp” features many of the tales from the concert.  As a teenager in Winnipeg, he met Lenny Breau who gave Bachman some guitar lessons. This led to his interest in jazz guitar. In his autobiography (2000’s Takin’ Care of Business) he mentioned the debt he owed to Breau. His lessons with Breau, and run-ins with Neil Young, are recounted in a chapter called “Lenny, Neil and Me.” His familiarity with the axes, chops and hot licks of players from Chuck Berry to Eric Clapton, comes through in fascinating yarns he spins on the pages of Vinyl Tap Stories.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Writers in Charge: John A: Birth of a Country and Camelot

In the 1970s and 1980s, I went to see movies once, sometimes twice a week. After I quit film criticism in 1989, I found my movie attendance drop off to the point that, in this calendar year, I've gone to the cinema exactly twice – and once was to see a live broadcast of a play put on by the London's National Theatre Company broadcast by satellite to the theatre (Danny Boyle's Frankenstein); the other was to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II. It's not that I've stopped watching movies – I continue to build my extensive DVD collection, though that avenue, as I outlined here, may have reached the end of the line – it's just that most of the movies I pick up aren't necessarily new. (I recently bought Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1974) and John Boorman's The Tailor of Panama (2001) for less than $5 each.) With the demise of the 'director as god' in film-making, the creative energies that excited me so much in the movie theatres of the '70s and '80s are, with a few exceptions each year, gone.

Where it has reappeared is on television, and the power is usually in the hands of writers. Over the past few years, I've been enthralled by a remarkable string of  writer-run shows: Mad Men, Battlestar Galatica, The Walking Dead, The Republic of Doyle, Flashpoint, Invasion, Boomtown, Deadwood, The Tudors, The Borgias, Rescue Me, Game of Thrones, Endgame, Damages and, from what everybody tells me though I've yet to catch up to it, Breaking Bad. There have also been miniseries, such as John Adams, Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon that have floated my boat. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. So, it was with great anticipation that I awaited the start of this season. One American show, Pan Am, showed a great deal of promise in its debut episode last Sunday, but two Canadian productions, one a made-for-TV movie, John A: Birth of a Country, and the other a new series from the people behind The Tudors, Camelot, have mostly got the season off to a great start.