Category Archives: Art

Transatlantic: Absolute Genius

The three versions of the album. Photo from nealmorse.com

So, after much anticipation and perhaps some untoward eagerness on my part, Transatlantic’s Absolute Universe: The Ultimate Edition box set finally arrived yesterday.  Or, maybe one should write more appropriately, it landed!  And, yes, I was and am thrilled.

I had received a promo copy of two versions of the album—The Breath of Life (Abridged) and Forevermore (Extended)—and I’ve been playing them pretty much non-stop. 

But, with The Ultimate Edition, I now have yet a third version of the album, Mike Portnoy’s blu-ray version. If you have to pick just one of the three, I’d highly recommend the blu-ray version as the best.  Not only does it capture the spirit of The Breath of Life (which Morse mixed and curated) and Forevermore (which Stolt mixed and curated), but its sound is just nothing short of glorious.  Each instrument is crystal clear as is the space between each. 

Most astonishing of all sounds to emerge from the blu-ray version is Pete Trewavas’s bass. I’ve always thought of him as an excellent bassist, but I didn’t realize just how excellent until hearing the blu-ray version. Somewhat funny that he was the only band member NOT to mix and curate a version of this album. 

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Friendship and Star Trek

As young children, my older brother and I watched the original Star Trek series on Saturday mornings.  We weren’t big TV watchers as a family, but Star Trek was special.  To make it even better, it was the local PBS that aired Star Trek, presenting it free of all commercials. 

Every Saturday, Todd and I awoke very early and watched the rerun for that week.  This would have been around 1975, almost a decade after the show first aired.  After each episode, Todd and I would talk, always mesmerized by the possibilities of space, life, and a billion other things.  How much of the galaxy had this crew explored?  Were they the modern Lewis & Clark?  What happened when someone transported from one place to another?  How smart were the computers?  Were the Klingons the Soviets and the Romulans the Chinese?  Or, maybe the other way around?  Why did we only see the military aspects of Starfleet?  What about the colonists, the pioneers?  How did time travel work?  If the Enterprise found itself sent back to Earth, why did it happen to arrive the same year the show was being filmed.

Pretty serious stuff for an eight year old sitting with his much admired thirteen year old brother. 

I had no idea at the time, but the show’s founder and creator, Gene Roddenberry had actually described Star Trek as a “wagon train to the stars” when he first shopped it to studios.  It would be set, though, on the space equivalent of an aircraft carrier, a mobile community as diverse as Gunsmoke’s Dodge City, he continued in his show treatment.  The crew, roughly 203 of them, would be as diverse as possible, asserting that racial prejudice and ethnic strife would be things of the past in the non-specified time of Star Trek.  Only later did the show writers decide it took place in the 2260s.  From its beginning, however, Roddenberry’s Star Trek represented a brash Kennedy-esque liberalism, a confidence that America could teach the world the principles of civilization, tolerance, and dignity.  [Sources: Whitfield and Roddenberry, THE MAKING OF STAR TREK (1968); and Paul Cantor, Gilligan Unbound (2003) and The Invisible Hand of Popular Culture (2012)]

And yet, this wouldn’t be merely a western in space.  Roddenberry recruited some of the finest science fiction and horror talent available in the 1960s including D.C. Fontana; David Gerrold; Robert Bloch; Samuel Peeples; Richard Matheson; Theodore Sturgeon; and Harlan Ellison. 

Though much of Star Trek now appears campy, especially with its poor attempts at humor and terrible costumes (especially for the aliens), there’s no doubt the team making the show took science fiction and its ideas very seriously.  Themes of natural rights, equality, imperialism, personality, racism, religion, history, culture, and much else important in life appeared throughout the original 79 episodes.  It must be noted, though, that I don’t remember my young self thinking poorly of the special effects. 

Sharing my favorite scene—Kirk fighting a gorn—proved way too much for my kids.  Dad, my oldest daughter asked, “why is Captain Kirk fighting a guy in a rubber suit?”

And, of course, my brother and I loved all of the fight scenes.  Who wouldn’t want to follow Kirk into battle?  The guy was made for serious leadership.  Plus, the over the top fight music was simply incredible.  I can still recall the entire theme instantly, while poorly visualizing the yellow-shirted Kirk kicking, punch, and rolling.  I’m really not sure how many times I tried to perfect Kirk’s jump kick maneuver as a child.  It’s amazing I’m not more damaged than I am.  Thank the good lord I only tried it upon invisible and imagined foes.  I wasn’t so fortunate when it came to the Vulcan nerve pinch.  Practice with this—especially after sneaking up on members of my family and trying it—really only resulted in sore muscles and hurt feelings.

When it came down to the quick of it all, though, it was the interaction of the personalities—the characters of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty, especially—on the show that meant so much to us. 

Star Trek demonstrated, over and over, I think, that real heroism comes not from individualism, but from friendship.  These guys on that little screen not only loved one another, but they each bettered the other.  Spock needed Kirk, and Kirk needed McCoy.  McCoy needed. . . well, everyone.

When Star Wars came out in 1977, I loved it.  But, in no way did it compare to Star Trek, at least to my way of thinking.  I knew that Star Wars was essentially science fantasy, while Trek was real science fiction.  Again, as my young mind saw it.  Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were great, but for real fantasy, I turned to Tolkien.  For sci-fi, I wanted Kirk and Spock and a whole host of science fiction authors from Asimov to Clarke.

When Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out, my mom took me to an opening show in Kansas City—then, the major metropolis in my life.  We saw it right before Christmas, 1979, and I was completely blown away.  The scale of it reminded me of 2001, and the return of NASA’s Voyager spacecraft for a science loving kid was a dream come true.  To top it off, the movie ended with the creation of an entirely new form of life, an incarnation of man and machine.  What wasn’t to love?  This seemed so much better than the blowing up of a Death Star!

Rewatching it quite recently, it hit me what a beautiful movie it is.  Many critics have complained that it simply failed to have enough action, that it demanded too much of the viewer.  This is all probably true, and these are also the reasons I like the movie so much, even as a 12 year old.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a film that allows one to consider possibilities, to realize the immensity of the unknown, and to contemplate the potential dangers of space travel.  The movie demands immersion.

Nothing prepared me, though, for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  I saw it only days after my eighth-grade year ended.  It hit me hard, very hard.  The film is the best of the best when it comes to Star Trek.  Shakespearean acting flies freely, dialogue from Melville comes equally fast, and the plot moves as dramatically as the best war movies made prior to Apocalypse Now.  Realizing how quickly they’re aging, the crew encounters a late twentieth-century genetically created superman, a Nietzschean tyrant bent on absolute revenge for Kirk’s actions in the original episode, Space Seed. 

Unlike every one of the later movies, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan avoids camp, managing to tell a story as serious as Star Trek The Motion Picture but with immense humanity of friendship, community, and sacrifice.  Shatner is especially at his best.  The scene where he allows his arrogance to bring death upon his crew and the scene in which he realizes Spock has sacrificed himself for their mission are two very scenes.  For better or worse, I’m sure I have watched The Wrath of Khan more times than any other movie in my 46 years.  I have it memorized—dialogue, scenes, and music.  Still, the movie has never become so familiar to me that these two scenes just described don’t fail to move me to tears.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock had some fine moments, but it’s clear that the crew would never again reach the heights of Wrath of Khan.  Star Trek IV returns to sap and camp, and the movies really become uneven from that point forward.  Yet, no one could deny its popularity and money-making ability.  Thus far, there have been a total of five live-action television series, one animated series, and ten movies set in the original universe.  Two additional movies—though essentially action films in the vein of Star Wars—have appeared in the rebooted time line.  One can also find Star Trek toys, comics, and books everywhere and anywhere.

Star Trek has permeated our consciousness as much or more than any other manifestation of pop culture.

Why?  Several reasons, but only two need be mentioned here. 

First, I’m convinced its timing was most fortuitous, coming as an optimistic Kennedy-esque frontier vision just as the 1960s soured into the imperial horrors of our policy in southeast Asia and with the subsequent dramatic loss of American confidence. 

Second, and more importantly, the show was about friendship, community, and sacrifice.  Art, drama, and theater might very well mock or forget such themes in cynical and decadent ages, but such ideals can never be utterly destroyed. 

Kirk needed Spock, and Spock needed Kirk.  The same was just as true for Scotty and McCoy.  Individually, they succumbed to terrors, errors, and arrogance.  As a group of friends, playing off of and leavening the strengths of the other, they were unstoppable.

These are not just good lessons, they are western and, even better, transcendent ones. 

Podcast: The Return of the King

Our three-part series on The Lord of the Rings comes, sadly, to an end. A huge thanks to John J. Miller for bringing me onto his excellent show and allowing me to talk and talk and talk about some of the things I love most in this crazy whirligig of a world. A true and meaningful honor.

Here is part III:

https://www.nationalreview.com/podcasts/the-great-books/episode-163-the-return-of-the-king-by-j-r-r-tolkien/

Hitchcock’s The Birds

The Idyllic Torn Asunder: Hitchcock’s The Birds

“I am neither poor nor innocent”—Melanie Daniels, protagonist of Hitchcock’s The Birds

Cinema as Art

From the time I was thirteen or so, I had fallen deep in love with movies.  I didn’t actually grow up watching a lot of TV shows, but I certainly loved renting movies and enjoying them in the comfort of my house, especially when my parents were out playing Bridge or doing something similar with their friends. 

For me—then and now—the more intense the movie, the better, though I also loved stupid, slapstick comedies.  Several of my high school friends appreciated and understood the actual art of cinema far more than I did, and I learned a great deal from them about directors, cuts, camera angles, actors, lighting.  Even to this day, I can’t watch anything other than comedy without analyzing every aspect of the film.

College didn’t give me much time for movies, but two events in graduate school not only re-awoke my passion but increased it exponentially.  The first, and less important of the two, was the attending of a film studies class on the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Everything my friends in high school had taught me sharped to a finely and intellectually honed blade of finest steel as the professor explained how to study a film—similar to a novel, but with a different kind of depth—walking through the film, scene by scene.  I was, to put it crudely, rather blown away. 

Hitchcock, His Women, and Me

Additionally, while in graduate school, two friends really shaped my view on films.  The first was Craig, an apartmentmate as well as office buddy.  As it turned out, Craig knew British film really well.  I’d never appreciated it or PBS before, but he gave me that love of both.  Second, I found out that another close friend was also a Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) fanatic.  Tamzen (my great friend to this day) and I spent many hours watching and analyzing Hitchcock.  These moments with Craig and Tamzen are ones I still treasure.

Like Tamzen, I considered myself a Hitchcock fanatic as well, preferring a Hitchcock film even to a science fiction one.  I especially loved, in order, Rope, Vertigo, Psycho, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest.  I never fell for Kim Novak or Vivian Leigh, but I have always thought Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren two of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen.  Phew.  I still do, though, of course, Kelly played attractive characters while Hendren played repulsive ones.  To my mind (that is, in the world of celebrities), only Morena Baccarin rivals Kelly.

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Porcupine Tree’s Delerium Years: The Best Boxset You Don’t Own

Image borrowed from the Burning Shed website.

Few bands in the prog world have done as much to shape the last quarter century of the genre as has Porcupine Tree.  In many ways, they defined what is often called “third-wave prog,” giving it a certain psychedelic and hard edge. 

The glorious Delerium Years, 1991-1997, boxset captures the earliest part of the band’s history in a rich way.  Indeed, I would go so far as to say it’s the nicest boxset I now own, and I’m comparing it against/to boxsets/earbooks from Rush, Big Big Train, Spock’s Beard, Yes, Chris Squire, Ayreon, Dave Brubeck, Steven Wilson (solo), and others. 

The Delerium Years comes with the latest mixes of the five major releases from the band: On the Sunday of Life; Up the Downstair; The Sky Moves Sideways; Signify; and the live Coma Divine.  Each CD is individually packaged within the larger box set, though absent the individual booklets with lyrics and liner notes.  One can find all the liner notes and lyrics in the book that comes with the set—more on this below.  The Delerium Years also—rather wonderfully—includes the more experimental Voyage 34; Staircase Infinities; Insignificance; and Metanoia. Best of all, at least in terms of CDs is the inclusion of Transmission IV, a wild 40-minute improvisational rock epic, “Moonloop,” and a disk of previously unreleased tracks, The Sound of No One Listening. Though I love all the music, I’m most taken with “Moonloop.”

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Tolkien, Wagner, Nationalism, and Modernity

“Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases”–J.R.R. Tolkien

[Originally delivered at an ISI Conference, “Modernists and Mist Dwellers,” on Friday, August 3, 2001.]

     When the Swedish translation of The Lord of the Rings appeared in 1961, its author was appalled.  Fluent in Swedish, J.R.R. Tolkien found no problems with the translation.  Indeed, Tolkien often considered the various Scandinavian languages as better mediums for his Middle-earth stories than English, as the medieval Norse and Icelandic myths had strongly influenced them.  His disgust, instead, came from the presumption found within the introduction to the Swedish edition.  The crime: translator Åke Ohlmark had compared Tolkien’s ring to Wagner’s ring.  “The Ring is in a certain way ‘der Niebelungen Ring,’” Ohlmark had written. Indignant, Tolkien complained to his publisher: “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.”  The translator’s commentary was simply “rubbish,” according to Tolkien.[i]

     Ohlmark was not the only critic to make the comparison.  A Canadian English professor, William Blissett, reviewing The Lord of the Rings for the prestigious South Atlantic Quarterly, found several parallels between the two legends but was unwilling to preclude “any direct Wagnerian influence.”[ii]  By the early 1960s, the comparison was becoming common.  In his last interview before his death, Tolkien’s closest friend C.S. Lewis claimed to have wanted to write a new prose version of Wagner’s Ring Opera.  Lewis feared, though, that “at the mention of the word Ring a lot of people might think it was something to do with Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings.’”[iii]  Since the first comparisons in the 1950s, many critics have used Wagner’s Ring against Tolkien.  One famous English poet referred to The Lord of the Rings as “A combination of Wagner and Winnie-the-Pooh.”[iv]

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Remembering 1990 in Music

A few days ago, I felt absolutely snarky and thought, “why not write down exactly what I think of music from the 1980s.”  In some ways, I feel I have the right to do this in a manner I could never for any other decade. 

I was in seventh grade when a very disturbed fanboy tried to kill the fortieth president, and I was a first-semester senior in college when the Berlin Wall came down. 

Yes, I’m very much a man of the 1980s.  Reagan, Rush, Blade Runner. . . how I remember the 1980s.  I came of age in that rather incredible decade.

Life continued after 1989, however, though I wasn’t so sure at the time that it would.

1990 proved to be one of the most interesting years in my personal life when it came to career choices as well as to music. 

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Approaching Weathertop: Anatomy of a Scene

In his personal recollections of his mentor, hero, and friend, George Sayer remembered that J.R.R. Tolkien possessed the uncanny ability to match his facial expressions and speech patterns to and with the prevailing mood of any given conversations.  “As I saw with him and the Lewis brothers in the pub, I remember being fascinated by the expressions on his face, the way they changed to suit what he was saying,” Sayers recollected. “Often he was smiling, genial, or wore a pixy look. A few seconds later he might burst into savage scathing criticism, looking fierce and menacing. Then he might soon again become genial.”[1] It was not affectation, but sincere intensity. The very same might (and should) be claimed of his writing ability. When the mood calls for levity, Tolkien writes with levity. When the mood calls for depth, Tolkien writes with depth. When the mood calls for contemplation, Tolkien writes contemplatively. As a twentieth-century author, he was an absolute master at this.

One can see Tolkien’s skill in the approach to Weathertop, chapter 11 of book one of The Fellowship of the Ring, “A Knife in the Dark.” Having slowly fled the social and near fatal disasters of Bree, September 30, the four hobbits, Bill the Pony, and Strider the Ranger make their way east of the village, en route to the Elvish safe haven of Rivendell. They won’t arrive in Rivendell until late on October 20, but they have no idea of just how long it will take. Dispirited, the party moves anxiously and uneasily, not sure who in the village had betrayed them to the demonic black riders. The same riders—at least four of them—attack Frodo and his party on the evening of October 6.

On October 4, after an agonizing journey through insect-ridden marshes, Frodo and his party spot Weathertop for the first time. Strider advises a roundabout route, thus approaching Weathertop from the north, a path better hidden from the spies of the enemies. On October 5, the hobbits feel refreshed after a good night’s sleep. “There was a frost in the air, and the sky was a pale clear blue,” Tolkien writes.[2] As the party nears Weathertop, they find themselves on “an undulating ridge, often rising almost to a thousand feet, and here and there falling again to low clefts or passes.” The last looks and leads into the east, seemingly endless in vista, and the party views “what looked to be the remains of green-grown walls and dikes, and in the clefts there stood the ruins of old works of stone.”

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