Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Treasure Trove of Cultural Delights: Duane Allman's Skydog, Neal Stephenson's Anathem, Peter O'Toole, thirtysomething, Alan Moore's Watchmen

With so much available in any given year, and numerous movies, books, TV series and CDs not yet watched from years past, I am constantly striving to catch up with everything I want to watch, read or listen to. And then there are the newly released musts in any number of fields, and the classics that bear repeat visits. Here are a few of both that I enjoyed in 2013.

1) Music: Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective

I had no idea that the late guitarist Duane Allman of The Allman Brothers Band was such a highly respected session musician in his time. But coincidentally just after I was introduced to that fact in the very fine Muscle Shoals documentary film, I read a detailed and quite laudatory review of the new box set Skydog: The Duane Allman Retrospective in the British music magazine Uncut. I pretty much ordered it right away from Rounder Records but I didn’t actually acquire it for another six months as Rounder wasn’t able to fill all the orders for the 7 CD set. I only acquired it when it was re-released in Canada (by Rounder and Rhino records) in November. Despite the aggravation of not having my initial order filled, Skydog was definitely worth the wait.

The 129 tracks on Skydog cover virtually all of Allman’s short lived career (tragically he died at age 24 in 1971 in a motorcycle accident) from his initial forays into music with The Almond Joys (a covers band first heard in a now out of print 1973 record, Early Allman) to his stint with The Hour Glass and then The Allman Brothers Band. Along with The Doors, The Byrds and Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Allman Brothers Band were among the very cream of American rock groups. In between, Duane Allman honed his chops doing session work for a incredible array of musicians, including Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, John Hammond, Eric Clapton, Otis Rush and Ronnie Hawkins, to name but a few of his most famous collaborators.

Duane Allman
But what blew me away on Skydog, besides Allman’s superb guitar skills (more than 40 years after his death he is deservedly ranked as one of the guitar greats, second in many minds only to the late Jimi Hendrix. I won’t quarrel with that assessment) was some of the truly great music and albums he was involved with. (His work for them is featured alongside the best of The Allman Brothers Band as equal, which it really is.) Just being exposed to such seminal if not always well known tracks – I certainly had not heard them before –such as Boz Scaggs’ blistering soul song "Loan Me a Dime," or Laura Nyro’s powerfully emotive "Beads of Sweat," gives you some idea of what Allman contributed to the work he helped craft. (One of the constants in Muscle Shoals were the testimonies to how he helped elevate any session he took part in.) And of course some of his session work was remembered most for justifiably famous albums and tracks - Derek and the Dominoes’s Layla and Assorted Love Songs album, Wilson Pickett’s superb cover of The Beatles’ "Hey Jude." Overall, Skydog is such an embarrassing set of musical richness that you’ll find yourself listening to its discs over and over. (I was especially surprised by the musical range displayed by Lulu of "To Sir With Love" fame.) I only wish the second, ‘encore’ edition of Skydog hadn't been packaged so cheaply – the first limited edition was done in a neat guitar case that opened up and each CD had its own sleeve, replicating the sleeves guitar strings come in – but all the music and the informative booklet, with liner notes from Scott Schinder and a moving tribute to the dad she never knew by Duane’s daughter Galadrielle, is here. (She also compiled the box set's song list with Bill Levenson.) What makes Skydog such a unique release is that, outside of jazz, where most artists of note began as session musicians before forming their own groups, rock rarely acknowledges its own session musicians. It’s an indication of Allman’s remarkable talents that even if he had not attained some measure of fame as a member of The Allman Brothers Band, his contributions to music would have still been incalculable. Check out Skydog and see why.

2) Books: Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

author Neal Stephenson
Though it was published in 2008 (and I bought a copy of it a few years back), it took me to this year to finally get around to reading Neal Stephenson’s amazing speculative novel Anathem (Harper). All I can say is wow! This is simply of the finest SF novels I've ever read, a humongous – 900 plus pages – epic saga which tackles all the big issues of life and death, philosophy and science, history and evolution, religion and life, all wrapped around a typical, well worn SF trope, which I won’t reveal here. Set on an Earth-like planet named Arbre but at a time about 1000 years later than our own technological status, it’s seen and narrated through the yes of a callow young man, Erasmus, a fraa (or monk) in a monastery in a world where those cloistered places are centered around mathematical conceits and not religious ones, which puts a fascinatingly different spin on things. Erasmas’s life is upended when a game changer, a life altering occurrence affects Arbre and catapults him into new experiences. With new acquaintances, he then begins to question the vary foundations of his world – and “faith.”

What Stephenson accomplishes with Anathem is to create a world that is both familiar to us – its emphasis on the difference between its modest, self effacing fraas and suurs (female monks) and a rampant, materialistic consumer society – and strange, too with different words (jeejah for cell phones, speelies for cameras ), languages (Orth, Flucchish) and historical events (The Terrible Events, The Reconstitution, The First Sack). Utilizing dictionary explanations, in The Dictionary, put out every thousand years, to clarify some of the terms used by Erasmas and his friends and teachers as well as a chronology of Arbre’s history, Stephenson’s Arbre (which means tree in our French language) is a fully realized, richly depicted planet with some great and memorable characters among its population. In essence, it avoids the weak characterization rampant in the genre while not short changing SF’s strengths, its imaginative and clever concepts. On one level, I'm not surprised it’s this good (Stephenson’s’ previous 1995 novel The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer melded futuristic cyperpunk and the structure of a Victorian era diary to great effect) but I still was not prepared for how great it really is. Admittedly, its length does mean it flags a bit and as a non mathematically inclined reader it’s occasionally too dense, but most novels of this size would commit those errors. However, if you’re a science fiction buff, which I certainly am, and want to introduce someone to the pleasures of the genre, Anathem would be be the ideal place to start.

3) Movies: Peter O’Toole in The Stunt Man and My Favorite Year

Peter O'Toole (1932-2013) in The Stunt Man

The recent passing of the late great actor Peter O’Toole, at age 81, occasioned many mentions of his best film work, in his leading man debut Lawrence of Arabia (1962), of course and in some other movies such as The Lion in Winter (1968), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969) and The Ruling Class (1972) as well as his recent role in Venus (2006), the last of his eight Oscar nominations, an award he never actually won, despite receiving an honorary one in 2003. I can’t comment on all those films – I still have not seen Goodbye, Mr. Chips or The Ruling Class - but two of my favourite performances of his, besides Lawrence of Arabia, were in his two best eighties outings: Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man (1980) and Richard Benjamin’s My Favorite Year (1982). These two disparate parts offer proof positive of how fine an actor O’Toole was. (Charitably his overall film resume is lacking in too many great roles like these.)

Mark-Linn Baker & Peter O'Toole in My Favorite Year
In The Stunt Man, O’Toole dominates the screen as a mercurial film director named Eli Cross, who hires an escaped prisoner (Steve Railsback) as a stunt man on his World War One epic. But soon the stunt man starts to fear that Cross wants to kill him and like his own past – we never find out much about him except that he was in Vietnam and not what he was arrested for - we don’t know what Eli is all about until the film’s conclusion. O’Toole is clearly having the time of his life as Eli - who crows that if God could do the tricks that we (directors) could do, he’d be a happy man. He delights in tormenting his own cast and crew even as he recognizes that no matter how powerful his anti-war movie might be, it won’t affect people’s attitudes towards the subject of war itself. Rush’s fast moving and evocative direction and literate script (from Paul Brodeur’s novel) as well as Domnic Frontriere’s terrific score, ensure that The Stunt Man keeps you on your toes while offering up a deliriously delightful film experience, no small credit to O’Toole’s contribution.

The Stunt Man was never promoted by the studio heads who deemed it a failure despite its unanimous critical acclaim and numerous film festival awards – a sad reality fully explored and explained by an accompanying documentary on the movie’s DVD edition – but though O’Toole’s stint in actor Richard Benjamin’s directorial debut My Favorite Year was seen by many more people, I think it, too has not been given due notice because Benjamin (Racing with the Moon, 1984, Mermaids, 1990) has never received his proper acknowledgement as a filmmaker (though O’Toole did garner Oscar nominations for both roles). In My Favorite Year, which functions as a love letter to the days of early live television much as The Stunt Man does for the joy of moviemaking, O’Toole is perfectly cast as Allan Swann, a dissolute actor who is shanghaied by comedy writer Benjoy Shore (Mark Linn-Baker) to guest star on the variety show he writes for, a resulting farcical affair which ends up in chaos on set, involving gangsters, action packed sequences and much comic mayhem. As Swann, O’Toole displays both a wild, excessive side (any comparisons to Errol Flynn are fully deliberate) and a touching soft one, both on display in the movie’s best scene when this quintessential British star visits Benjy’s ribald Jewish and theatrically behaving family. It’s a hoot but also sad because Swann comes to reveal the pain of the separation between him and the young daughter he barely knows. (It's also something of an in joke as O'Toole had quit his excessive boozing and drinking entirely by the time he made the movie as the accounts of his death made clear. I must admit, I thought he'd never stopped indulging.) In both movies, which have so many pleasures, O’Toole fully fleshes out characters who could have remained superficial and forgettable but are anything but that. By all means, get your hands on the deservedly classic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia but the above two movies will allow you to see this very fine actor at his cinematic best without Lawrence’s epic scope and ravishing landscapes to distract you.

4) Television: Edward Zwick and Marshall Herscovitz’s thirtysomething

The cast of thirtysomething

I regularly teach a course I created called The Image of the Jew in Film and Television: Realities and Fantasies, which examines how Jews have been portrayed on the big and small screens over the years. (My Favorite Year remains one of my perennial subjects in the course.) My recent foray into that area allowed me to catch once again episodes of one of my all time favourite TV series, thirtysomething, which ran on ABC for four seasons from 1987-91. The clips I used were from the show’s ground-breaking depiction of a mixed marriage, as Michael Steadman (Ken Olin), a Jewish ad executive, married to non-Jewish, stay at home mother Hope (Mel Harris) comes to terms with his religious beliefs (or lack thereof) during pivotal seasons like Christmas, where he wondered how his Judaism could assert itself during this dominant Christian holiday; or significant life events, as when he debated whether he should follow tradition and have his newborn son circumcised. (I consider thirtysomething’s Jewish characters, including Michael’s cousin Melissa, played by Melanie Mayron, as well as that of Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) on CBS’s Northern Exposure (1990-95), to be the most complex ones ever to be portrayed on TV.) The episodes I used were typically provocative, intelligent and superbly acted, testimony to the show’s virtues as a whole. Created by Edward Zwick and Marhsall Herskovitz, both Jews married to non-Jews during this time, thirtysomething dealt with any number of serious issues, from cancer to economic worries, loneliness to parental deaths. It even featured one of the first gay couples on series television. At a time when network dramas are mostly genre exercises – The Good Wife seems to be the only one that speaks to the way we live now – thirtysomething reminds us of how relevant and meaningful network TV could be. (It and Roseanne were the first shows to deal with economic deprivation since the days of The Honeymooners and, maybe, All in the Family.) Twenty plus years since it went off the air; it remains one of TV’s finest accomplishments.

5) Graphic Novels: Alan Moore’s Watchmen

I work in a large bookstore and whenever I’m asked to recommend the very best graphic novel for someone who either doesn’t know the genre or wants something really smart to delve into, I immediately suggest Alan Moore’s 1986-87 classic Watchmen, which I re-read practically every year. First conceived as a twelve part monthly DC comics serial, it was compiled into a hardcover edition in 1987 and has remained in print ever since. With rapturous raves for its high quality – Time called it one of the 100 best novels, period, of the 20th century – it still stands out as a seminal example of the adult nature and respectability of an often still maligned or underestimated genre.

Watchmen creator Alan Moore
Created by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Gibbons, it’s nothing less than a brilliant and multi-layered deconstruction of the superhero genre, set in a what-if? world where Richard Nixon is in his third term as U.S. President and the world is hurtling towards nuclear war. Opening with a murder of one of these ‘superheroes,' though only one, Dr. Manhattan, posses actual powers, Watchmen lays bare a world where costumed crime fighters are alternately lauded, loathed and feared by the general populace even as they deal with jealousies, violence and insecurities afflicting most of them. (Some are closeted gays, as well.) Watchmen’s ambitions loom large, attempting and fully succeeding at understanding the age old appeal of superhero comics even as it also critiques how those costumed characters symbolize and represent the best and worst of the American mindset. (Forget Zack Synder’s 2009 film version of the comic; it didn’t come close to understanding the source material. My friend David Nickle, who saw the film with me, aptly exposes its flaws in his blog, The Devil’s Exercise Yard.) The novel's imagery is stunning, its story gripping and its structure, encompassing dense text which reveals the secrets and backgrounds of its members, revolutionary. Watchmen is not something you will easily put down. (That Moore is English is testimony to the wide ranging influence and impact of this most American of art forms.) And even though the standards of so many graphic novels are very high – from Art Spiegelman’s powerhouse Holocaust allegory Maus (1991) to Craig Thompson’s ineffably moving coming of age story Blankets (2003) – Watchmen, deservedly, is the bar to which they all aspire.

- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on acting archetypes. Starting Monday, January 20 to March 17 from 7-9pm, Shlomo examines the work and career of Steven Spielberg (Defining Greatness) at the Miles Nadal JCC at Spadina and Bloor.

No comments:

Post a Comment