See Guardians of the Galaxy

Image: Mingle Media TV
Image: Mingle Media TV

How could a movie featuring a talking raccoon, a walking tree, a green lady, a overly-literal hulk, and a guy named “Starlord” be any good? The latest Marvel outing makes such a film work with Guardians of the Galaxy by blending silly humor with heartfelt drama and plenty of action, featuring great actors, and hiring a great effects crew. Sure, the premise is a little thin—the story revolves around a small magical rock—and the universe is sometimes mind-numbingly complex. But at its heart Guardians is a buddy film, and the friendships work. The Associated Press reports the film will earn an estimated $94 million on opening weekend. Paul Dergarabedian of Rentrak told the AP, “[F]or Marvel to have four films this year [including Guardian] open with over $90 million is amazing. It’s unprecedented success.”

Fans of Harry Potter More Likely to Overcome Bigotry

Image: Jan Arkesteijn
Image: Jan Arkesteijn

“Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays,” reports Pacific Standard (hat tip to The Week). This is hardly surprising, given the strong anti-bigotry themes of the books. Incidentally, I discuss the various themes of the Potter novels in depth in my book, Values of Harry Potter—which would make a spectacular gift for the young reader in your life.

What if Colorado’s Democrats Infringed the Right to Have Sex the Same Way They’ve Infringed the Right to Bear Arms?

Constitutional scholar Robert Natelson spoke at a Pro Second Amendment Committee banquet in Grand Junction March 23. I’ll release his entire speech soon. In this segment, Natelson compares the right to have sex with the right to keep and bear arms—and he points out that the majority of Colorado’s Democrats hypocritically protect the former while infringing the latter.

Natelson said:

Ask yourself, what would be the reaction of the Colorado legislature’s majority to a proposal requiring a background check before anyone could exercise the Constitutional right of nonmarital sex?

What would be the reaction to a bill saying that the eager couple even had to pay the fee for the background check?

What would be the reaction of Speaker Ferrandino or Senate President Morse to a bill stating that the eager couple was limited to “fifteen rounds,” so to speak?

Absurd, our legislative leaders might say? Indeed not. Natelson points out that the annual number of deaths due to sexually transmitted diseases is comparable to the number of violent deaths involving firearms.

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Go See Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dark Knight Rises, is extraordinary, showing that a “comic book” movie is capable of intellectual and adult themes as well as stunning action sequences. These are real people, some of whom happen to wear masks, not caricatures. I highly recommend it; indeed, I intend to see it at least one more time in theaters.

I do recommend that you watch the first two films first, as the final film continues aspects of those stories. Particularly, the first film, Batman Begins, sets up the “League of Shadows” conspiracy, while the second film, The Dark Knight, explains why Batman took the blame for another’s evil. (I’m very glad that the third film rectifies that injustice.)

I am glad to see that many have resisted naming the recent atrocity in Aurora in a way that invokes the film. Neither the film nor any of its creators deserve that association. Indeed, one little way of giving the perpetrator what he wants is to make that association; he obviously targeted the release of the film for symbolic purposes. We ought not fulfill any of that thug’s wishes.

I’d like to thank the Westminster Police Department for having an officer at the local theater. “We want people to know they can come out and have a good time,” in safety, one officer said.

Christopher Nolan, director of the film, writes on the web page for the film:

Speaking on behalf of the cast and crew of The Dark Knight Rises, I would like to express our profound sorrow at the senseless tragedy that has befallen the entire Aurora community. I would not presume to know anything about the victims of the shooting but that they were there last night to watch a movie. I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me. Nothing any of us can say could ever adequately express our feelings for the innocent victims of this appalling crime, but our thoughts are with them and their families.

Thank you for the sentiment, Mr. Nolan, and thank you for your fine works of art. Please keep doing what you do best: make great art.

Track Review of Rush’s Clockwork Angels

Finally I am ready to offer my track-by-track review of Rush’s new album, Clockwork Angels.

For my general take on on the album, see my review for The Objective Standard. I think this is a terrific album, perhaps the best of Rush’s career. Anybody who’s remotely a Rush fan should buy it and give it a listen, and then another.

However, I recognize that Rush’s music is not as accessible to non-fans as is the typical rock album. Most hot singles today come and go. They have a fun riff, some fun lyrics, and people enjoy it, for about three months. And then it disappears, nobody cares about it, and few listen to it again.

Rush’s music is different. It’s more sophisticated, lyrically and compositionally. It requires multiple listening sessions to even fully “hear” a track, to notice its structure and texture. Not as many people will spend the time to listen to Rush’s music, but those who do often fall in love with it, and keep listening to it year after year.

In a hundred years, most rock bands of today will be forgotten. A few will be remembered. Rush will be among them.

That said, as with any album (by Rush or anybody else), I like some of the tracks more than others. My goal here is to rate the tracks. Those who just want a taste might want to purchase the best tracks individually.

As I discussed in my TOS review, this is a “concept album” in the sense that the songs tell a story, chronologically, of a man’s life in an alternate “steampunk” universe. You can’t understand the significance of some of the lyrics outside the context of that story. However, as Geddy Lee has said, each song is meant to stand on its own musically. Thus, while I strongly suggest that you buy the entire album and listen to it as an album, you can also enjoy tracks singly. Here my purpose is to suggest which are the strongest tracks.

Best Song: “Clockwork Angels”

I regard the title track, “Clockwork Angels” (the third track on the album), as the best song on the album. At 7:31 minutes, it’s the longest track, and it offers a range of styles within it.

Lyrically, the setting of the song is the Crown City. The protagonist of the story, a simple farm boy, is visiting the city for the for the first time, and he is dazzled by what he sees. The description that accompanies the lyrics offers his perspective: “I had seen many images of the city before, and Chronos Square, but nothing could convey the immensity—the heaven-reaching towers of the Cathedral of the Timekeepers, or the radiant glory of the Angels. . . bathed in the brilliant glow of the floating globes.”

In the beginning we hear chants and some vapory-sounding guitar. I imagine the cart rolling into the city. Then some really bold, rhythmic guitar takes over.

At the minute-eight mark, the song takes a slow turn. When I first heard this, I was disappointed; I was hoping for a more rocking track. But I think the idea is that the protagonist is a little taken aback by what he sees, and he’s trying to take it all in. The lyrics accompany: “High above the city square / Globes of light float in mid-air / Higher still, against the night / Clockwork angels bathed in light.”

Then at a minute-twenty-nine the song takes off, and this is where I start to really love the track. It is glorious, it is pounding, it is intense. Geddly Lee drives with the bass.

At two-sixteen, the song relaxes into the the refrain, ending, “The people raise their hands [toward the Angels] — As if to fly.” That takes us close to the three-minute mark. From there the song mostly builds on variations of the same material.

But then at the four-fifty mark, the song takes a very different turn, sounding loose, almost drunken. This lasts for nearly a minute. It’s a peculiar section, and I don’t love it musically, but I think what’s going on is that the protagonist is starting to let some of his disillusionment show through. The lyrics go, “Lean not upon your own understanding” / Ignorance is well and truly blessed”—hardly an inspiring thought.

But then the song recaptures its positive, uplifting spirit, its spirit of wonder. It is quintessential Rush. And I love it.

Best Tracks

Several other tracks join “Clockwork Angels” in comprising the album’s best.

“Caravan” opens the album with the clanging of train bells. The opening lasts for nearly forty seconds, and then the song takes off with a bass-driven, off-beat riff. It’s great. Then at a minute-ten, the song offers its powerful refrain to the lyrics, “To the distant dream of the city / The caravan carries me onward / On my way at last.” It’s some of Rush’s best music.

“The Anarchist” is great, rollicking rock. To get an idea of why I think it tops the list, listen in at the 2:50 mark. The interplay here between Lifeson’s guitar and Peart’s pulsing drums is just magical. And then at 3:05 Lee’s bass joins the conversation more strongly.

“Carnies” begins as just another hard-rock song. But then at 0:57 it sprouts wings, and then at 1:22 it soars into this airy, contemplative space. I love the song’s mix of pounding rock and sweet melody.

“The Wreckers” has a pretty weak opening, but at sixteen seconds it begins an intriguing interplay between strummed guitar and bass. My understanding is that, in recording this, Lee and Lifeson switched instruments. This is followed by a wonderful, soul-wrenching refrain at fifty-eight seconds: “All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary / ’Cause sometimes the target is you.”

For pure, driving hard-rock genius, “Headlong Flight” is a must-purchase. Plus, I love this song lyrically: “Some days were dark . . . / Some nights were bright / I wish that I could live it all again.”

“The Garden” closes the album perfectly. It is far and away Rush’s best “slow song,” carried by acoustic guitar and Lee’s soulful voice. The refrain (at a minute-twelve) is beautiful musically and lyrically: “The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect. . .”

Second-Tier Tracks

Look, don’t get me wrong, I love all the tracks. But these are relatively weak ones, in my book. Of course, Rush’s weaker tracks are still loads better than most bands’ best tracks, so this is relative.

I enjoy “BU2B,” and it’s a good hard-rock song, but to me the music just isn’t quite as compelling and interesting as with other tracks.

“Halo Effect” is a fine slower song, but nothing about it makes me want to tag it as top-tier.

You can tell right away that “Seven Cities of Gold” is going to be a groovy song. I like it quite a lot, but it seems too repetitive to me, and little about it stands out. I have to say, though, that there’s some fantastic bass work starting at the four-minute mark; Lee grooves out.

“BU2B2” is more of an interlude than a song. It ably conveys the protagonist’s sense of anguish at this point in his life.

I quite like “Wish Them Well” musically and lyrically, but it’s not a stand-out to me. The theme is that you can’t get caught up with those who wish to tear you down.

The Album

By my reckoning, then, a person could get the “best of Clockwork Angels” by purchasing seven of the tracks.

But, as noted, even the relatively “weaker” tracks are still pretty good.

Plus, the album artwork is exceptional for this album, and it also tells more of the story than is revealed in the lyrics.

So there are several good reasons to get the entire album, even if you’re not a lifelong Rush fan.

On a personal note, I’d like to thank the guys of Rush for making this album. It’s amazing, and arguably Rush’s best album ever. I’m impressed by their long-lasting passion and drive to make the best music they possibly can.

Drug Checkpoint Outrage

I was shocked and outraged to see two “Drug Checkpoint Ahead” signs this evening along Highway 36 northbound ahead of the Church Ranch exit (in Westminster, Colorado). Even worse, the police had pulled over two vehicles along Highway 36, and another four vehicles along Church Ranch, and were in the process of searching those vehicles.

I do not know which police agency or agencies were involved in this frankly fascistic violation of the civil rights of the citizens. I called the “Administration” and “Desk Officer” lines of the Westminster Police Department but got a recording. (This was at 10:21 pm; I doubted that those at dispatch would be in a position to answer my questions on the subject.)

Apparently the police were pulling over cars totally at random; they did not pull me over (as they all seemed to be occupied searching others’ vehicles).

What is especially angering about this is that the police are spending MY tax dollars for the purpose of violating people’s rights.

Ironically, I witnessed this travesty as I returned from Liberty In the Books, where we had just reviewed an extraordinary set of lectures by Ludwig von Mises on the importance of limiting government to the protection of rights. In those lectures Mises criticizes America’s first “experiment” with Prohibition; I will conclude with his commentary:

[T]he notion that a capitalist form of government can prevent people from hurting themselves by controlling their consumption is false. The idea of government as a paternal authority, as a guardian for everybody, is the idea of those who favor socialism. In the United States some years ago, the government tried what was called “a noble experiment.” This noble experiment was a law making it illegal to buy or sell intoxicating beverages. It is certainly true that many people drink too much brandy and whiskey, and that they may hurt themselves by doing so. . . . This raises a question which goes far beyond economic discussion: it shows what freedom really means. . . .

[O]nce you have admitted [that government should stop people from drinking too much], other people will say: Is the body everything? Is not the mind of man much more important? Is not the mind of man the real human endowment, the real human quality? If you give the government the right to determine the consumption of the human body, to determine whether one should smoke or not smoke, drink or not drink, there is no good reply you can give to people who say: “More important than the body is the mind and the soul, and man hurts himself much more by reading bad books, by listening to bad music and looking at bad movies. Therefore it is the duty of the government to prevent people from committing these faults.”

Voice of the Musical Saw: Interview with Natalia Paruz

My favorite scene from the film Another Earth involves the two main characters in a music hall; the composer plays the musical saw for his friend. The director skillfully weaves in scenes of space flight, and the friend (played by Brit Marling, who also cowrote the script) offers a moving response to the music. (I appreciated and enjoyed the quirky film overall despite its problems.)

After I posted my initial remarks, Natalia Paruz—the “Saw Lady”—mentioned to me via Twitter that she played the music of that scene. I’d already seen her perform the “Star Trek” theme on a YouTube video. And, when I was younger, a friend of mine played musical saw. So I figured I’d ask Paruz for an interview. She agreed, and the exchange follows. My questions are in italics.

How did you come to participate in the film Another Earth?

Director Mike Cahill saw me performing in the NYC subway and that gave him the idea to incorporate a musical saw into the film. He asked me if I would help choose music for the saw to play, and then record it for the soundtrack. He also asked me if I would coach William Mapother, the actor who was to act as if playing a saw, to do that.

Did you record the piece specifically for this film? How long of a process was it?

The piece was composed for the film by composer Scott Munson, who is probably the most prolific composer for the musical saw, inspired by the way Mike (the director) described the movie and the feel of the scene in an e-mail. I recorded what was to be a demo of the piece for Mike to hear—I was basically sight-reading the piece. We were certain we would re-record it properly later (if the piece met with Mike’s approval). It turned out that Mike loved the piece so much that he wanted to keep it exactly as is—so we never re-recorded it—what you hear in the movie is the demo! I later recorded the piece again, for my second album.

What was it like working with an actor to teach him to look like he’s playing the saw? Did he end up actually being able to play it a bit?

Working with William was a lot of fun for me because it was different from what I usually do, which is teach people how to actually play. It was challenging to come up with a system of signs that would map out the moves the music requires, for a person who doesn’t read music.

At the shoot I stood in front of William and mimed directions for him while he was “playing.” In the scene it looks as if William is looking as Brit Marling watching him play, but in actuality she wasn’t even there when we shot William “playing.” He was looking at my miming. Later, we shot Brit sitting in the audience. William wasn’t there for that—the director had me play on stage, so that the sound would inspire emotions on Brit’s face.

There is an instant when all one sees is the saw (a shot from behind)—that shot was done with me actually holding the blade. William did an excellent job pretending to play a saw—he never made a sound (he didn’t learn how to actually play) but he looks very convincing. During the shoot I had to give marks to each take, letting the director know which part of which take looked realistic and which didn’t. Editing that scene is a masterpiece of its own—it couldn’t have been easy to assemble all this separate footage, and Mike did such an amazing job!

Can you actually “tune” a saw, as the actor suggests in the film, or was that just made up for the performance?

In actuality one doesn’t “tune” the saw but rather “warms it up” before playing. That is done by bending the blade repeatedly up and down. If the air is cold (say, because of strong AC in an auditorium)—the saw wouldn’t sound good on the first try, and bending it up and down warms the metal to a temperature where it would vibrate more readily. That is what the “tuning” bit is based on.

How big of a deal was the film in terms of advancing your career?

Having a Fox Searchlight film on my bio certainly looks nice next to the other films I played for (Dummy with actor Adrien Brody, American Carny, I Sell the Dead, etc.). Also, the majority of the “Likes” on my Facebook Page are from people who saw Another Earth, so I would say the film certainly helped spread word about musical saw playing in general and myself as well.

As I watched the scene from Another Earth, I was struck by how much the musical saw sounds like a human voice. Usually the violin is described as close to the human voice; is the musical saw the closest to it?

It is amazing how a piece of steel can sound so human. So many times when people hear me playing before seeing me play, they come looking for a singer . . . and when they realize the sound is coming from the saw they find it hard to believe. They put their ears close to the blade to verify the sound is actually coming from there!

The saw’s sound is so much like that of a soprano voice that it was used in a recording of some choir, to do the high notes their sopranos couldn’t reach. I perform with opera singers often. Audience members often remark on how sometimes they cannot tell what sound is coming from the singer and what sound is coming from the saw! I recorded track #13 of my second album especially in order to show the similarity of a soprano voice to that of the saw’s.

I assume one can buy specialty “saws” for music that can’t actually saw anything. What’s the business of producing musical saws like?

About 100 years ago there were many manufacturers of saws made especially for music (see my detailed list of them). Today there are only three manufacturers of musical saws in the USA and some overseas, led by Mussehl & Westphal, which is the only manufacturer who lasted over the years. They have been selling musical saws since 1921. For a few years during the 1920s, sales averaged approximately 25,000 per year! However sales dropped significantly during the late 1930s as the art of playing music on a saw almost disappeared, especially after WWII.

So how did you get involved in this unusual pursuit? How long did it take you to become proficient?

I was introduced to the art of playing music on a saw by chance (or fate). I had mapped out my life as a dancer (I was a trainee with the Martha Graham Dance Company, and I performed with many smaller companies, in musicals, taught dance, etc.) but being run over by a car put an end to that. I searched for an alternate career, but nothing I tried filled the void the lack of dance left in my spirit. To cheer me up, my parents took me to Europe. We went to a show for tourists and part of it was a guy playing a saw, and for the first time since the accident I felt excited about something. It was as if providence pointed its finger to tell me what I was meant to do in life.

Since there was no musical saw teacher to be found, I taught myself, through trial & error (no internet tutorials back then either) how to play. At first I only thought of it as a hobby, but an invitation from a local Salvation Army Center (which heard about my playing from a neighbor of mine who could hear me practicing) changed that. When my phone kept ringing with invitations to perform, I realized that I could turn this into a career.

Anything else?

About 10 years ago I founded the NYC Musical Saw Festival which aims to promote the art form of playing music with a saw. When I started there were only five other saw players, but our numbers grew and we even established a new Guinness World Record for the “Largest Musical Saw Ensemble,” with 53 people playing saws together!

Thank you for the great questions, Ari!

Readers are invited to visit my website, where people can download my music, and my Facebook Page, where people may ask me questions about the musical saw or the movie.

Thank you very much,

all the best,
Natalia

Reviewing Ayn Rand’s ‘Anthem’

Recently a local reading group I attend reviewed Ayn Rand’s dystopian novelette Anthem. That book served as my introduction to Rand many years ago, and rereading it proved rewarding.

In our discussion, we explored a variety of topics:

* The romance between the two lead characters, Equality and Liberty, develops as Equality becomes an independent thinker and scientist. This anticipates Howard Roark’s comment in Fountainhead, “To say ‘I love you’ one must first know how to say the ‘I’.”

* The way Equality values his scientific work anticipates the relationship between the heroes and their work in Atlas Shrugged. It illustrates Rand’s view that material objects are not valuable in themselves, but only in relation to individual values and consciousness.

* For Rand, totalitarianism necessarily results, ultimately, in total economic collapse. The central reason for this is that political controls prevent individuals from acting on their own reasoned judgment, ultimately chilling reasoned thought as such. In the long run capitalism and technological progress cannot survive totalitarian controls. Contrast the primitive society of Anthem with the (in some ways) highly technical societies of other dystopias, such as Brave New World and, more recently,Hunger Games.

Now that I’ve reread Anthem, I very much look forward to reading Essays on Ayn Rand’s Anthem, edited by Robert Mayhew. I’ve read the similar compilation about Atlas Shrugged, and it is excellent.

Incidentally, I was thrilled to watch the documentary Rush: 2112 & Moving Pictures (Classic Album) and find an excellent overview of Anthemby John Ridpath. (Anthem helped inspire the story for 2112.)

Below are the review questions used for our group (and others are free to reproduce these for purposes of discussion).

1. What is the ego? (Peikoff’s 1994 introduction)

2. How do the conditions surrounding the writing and publication of Anthem relate to the book’s theme? (Peikoff’s 1994 introduction, Rand’s 1946 foreword)

3. What are the principles and laws of the story’s society, and what are the emotional consequences of Equality 7-2521 breaking them? (Chapter I)

4. What is the connection between the collectivism and the technological regression of the story? (Chapter I)

5. Why does Rand place the budding romance between the discovery of the tunnel and the Unspeakable Word? (Chapter II)

6. What is the relationship between the advancing scientific discoveries and the building romance? (Chapter III, Chapter IV)

7. Why does Equality say “our new power defies all laws?” Is he right? (Chapter IV)

8. Why does Equality think “this wire is as a part of our body?” (Chapter V)

9. Why does Equality believe the Council of Scholars will accept his gift? Why is he wrong? (Chapter V, Chapter VII)

10. What is the significance of the observation that the electric light “would bring ruin to the Department of Candles?” (Chapter VII)

11. How does Equality’s self-discovery connect to his love of the Golden One? (Chapter VIII, Chapter IX)

12. How does Equality’s independence mesh with the Golden One’s deference toward him? (Chapter X)

13. What is the “world ready to be born?” (Chapter X)

14. What does Equality mean when he writes, “I am the warrant and the sanction?” (Chapter XI)

15. What does Equality mean when he writes, “I ask none to live for me, nor do I live for any others?” (Chapter XI)

16. How does Prometheus retain his independence while learning so much from others? (Chapter XII)

17. How can one man stoke “the spirit of man?” (Chapter XII)

More on the African Roots of the Tar Baby Motif

Yesterday I wrote an article blasting the left for smearing Congressman Doug Lamborn for using the term “tar baby,” a reference to African folklore.

This morning Peter Boyles invited me on his show (630 KHOW) for an hour to discuss the matter; see the online recording.

On the air, Boyles mentioned the African “gum baby” as a precursor to the American “tar baby.” (The original sort of tar was made from pine pitch and so closely related to gum.) I thought I’d track this down.

Google pointed me to a Kansas publication The Pitch, where Gina Kaufman writes:

While coauthoring African Tales of Anansiwith her father, Mackey discovered “Anansi and the Gum Doll,” the African ancestor of Joel Chandler Harris’ “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby.” The dialect written into the Brer Rabbit stories is actually a remnant of the oral tradition of Ghana, and the wiley Brer Rabbit is the descendant of a trickster spider…

This tipped me off to the book, Framing Identities: Autobiography and the Politics of Pedagogy. That work (by Wendy Hesford) states the following (page 170):

The tar-baby image appropriates an African folktale. The basic elements of the tale are that a trickster approaches a figure made of tar, rubber, orj some other sticky substance. The trickster speaks to the figure and holds it until it can be apprehended. Versions of this folktale have been reported from the Guinea coast area, the Congo, and Angola, and are repeated throughout Africa. See, for example, “Anansi and the Gum Doll” and “Brer Rabbit” (Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend).

I see that book remains for sale, though I’d have to buy a bound copy to read it. But, by now, the fact that the tar baby story comes from African folklore is incontestable.