Friday, July 3, 2015

Mrs. Allie French, Steam Trains & Faithless Israelites

Mrs. Allie French steps off the train in Appaloosa.

Actress Renee Zellweger has played a number of important roles, but for me, three of her performances tower above all others. These include 1) her role of author Beatrix Potter in the biopic "Miss Potter;" 2) Her role of Novalyne Price, the woman author Robert E. Howard loved, in "The Whole Wide World," and 3) her role of Mrs. Allie French in Ed Harris' excellent Western "Appaloosa." In Allie French, she takes on a real complicated woman, and makes us feel for her. It's a wonder that someone so dedicated to the law and justice like Virgil Cole would take up with someone like Allie. But then, Allie is the first woman with whom he's tried to have a real relationship.

While reading Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett, I was initially puzzled by the need for the trains to stop for water. Steam locomotives burned coal, wood, or oil for their power, right? Wrong. Steam is produced from boiling water, and the combustible materials heat the boiler that makes the water boil that produces the steam. Right? After reading Terry Pratchett's Fantasy novel, it was interesting to watch "Appaloosa," and see a real nineteenth-century steam train chugging up a grade in New Mexico. When it stops beside a water tower, a metal spout swings down that will supply water to the engine. Cole puts away his volume of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays and poems, and asks Hitch to help him survey their surroundings. The lawmen are transporting Randall Bragg, a rancher convicted of murder, to the place where he will be executed. As the lawmen step outside the carriage, two hired gunmen ride into sight. 

Between them rides Allie, whom they will shoot unless Cole releases his prisoner. So Cole ignores proper procedure, and lets Bragg go, even though he knows the gunmen won't release Allie. Yet Allie seems to view Cole's response as a sort of betrayal.

Cole and Hitch pursue the party, and track them down moments before the group are attacked by Indians. Cole sees enough in that brief glimpse to realize that Allie has gotten intimate with the head gunman. What is she thinking? Is she suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, or is something else going on here?

The two men help the others fight off the Indians, but as they are all in danger, Cole agrees to put off their differences until they reach their destination. Then he sidles up to Allie, and lets her lean into his back, but he can't look at her, not yet. 

Later that evening, she tells Cole that Hitch tried to kiss her, back on that day when Cole sent Hitch down to the building site of their new house. Cole's worked with Everett Hitch for too long to believe that. Still, he loves Allie, and when all the business with the Indians, Bragg, and the gunmen is over, he takes her back. He freely admits he's never had much business with women. Yet something in him loves Allie, and will forgive her anything. He continues to court her, and treat her tenderly. As for Allie, she seems to love Cole, and want to be with him all the time. Yet when he's not around, she feels an instinctive need to be with the man she deems to be in charge of the situation in that moment.

A familiar Old Testament theme is that the Israelites continually loose faith in God and worship the gods of other nations. After watching "Appaloosa" again recently, it struck me that Allie is like the Biblical Israelites: constantly afraid of what will happen next, and who will protect her when the next bad thing occurs. Fear drives her to actions she's not proud of. In comparison, Virgil Cole is like God. He loves Allie, and will always love her. His love for her is unconditional. It's called agape love. It's an ideal that all of us aspire to, but few, if any of us, truly live up to.

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Robert B Parker & Ed Harris on Complicated Women

Red Rock Canyon in California, USA

In Ed Harris' movie "Appaloosa," based on the Western novel by author Robert B Parker, city marshall Virgil Cole is the ultimate impersonation of a benevolent dictator. Cole has no interest in accumulating wealth for himself, or extending the power and influence of Appaloosa by conquering nearby towns or businesses. He may have his flaws, but essentially he's a man like Gerald Skibbow in Peter F Hamilton's novel The Reality Dysfunction, who believes in simple values, and expects his citizens to respect the rights of others. 

He may beat up a drunk in the saloon for not leaving when he tells him to, or for using foul language in front of the woman he's falling in love with, the beautiful Mrs. Allie French. Nevertheless, he doesn't hurt others out of a desire to do so. In fact, he relies on his friend Everett Hitch to make sure he doesn't cross the line and abuse the authority he has been entrusted with. In those rare moments when he loses control, he wants Hitch to restrain him, to hold him back, when his emotions temporarily overwhelm him. And Cole always tells the truth. Always.

"No one always tells the truth," Mrs. French tells him, shortly after she gets off the train and finds employment playing the piano in Appaloosa's saloon. 

"I always figured telling the truth was easier." Virgil Cole shrugs. "Tell a man what you think."

"And a woman?" she asks.

This question flusters Cole, and seems to embarrass him.

If Virgil Cole is easy to understand, Mrs. French, or Allie as she prefers to be called, is more difficult. She wears fine clothes, yet has no money. She smiles often, yet speaks demurely, and with lady-like grace. Cole quickly takes to her, and within a few days, he buys a house for them already under construction in Appaloosa, which surprises his friend Everett Hitch. Allie seems equally in love with Cole, yet one day he walks back to the Marshall's office, complains Allie is fretting, and over seemingly inconsequential things such as curtain material.

Hitch: These are a little small for curtains, aren't they?
Cole: Get off with you, you rascally varmint!

Cole asks his friend to go calm her down. When Hitch arrives at the worksite, deserted due to a windstorm, she shows off the foundation and rough framing, and expounds on their great plans for the house. Her eyes gleam with all the hope, joy, and pride she takes in her future with Cole. But then she pulls Hitch into her arms and kisses him passionately. 

Hitch pulls away, and explains, like a father to a child, that they are both with Cole, but he and Allie are not together. She frowns (something she rarely does in public), pulls away, and asks him to leave. Hitch says nothing of the incident to his friend. Still, he can't help but wonder at the kind of woman to whom Cole has pledged his heart. 

But then, Allie French is a complicated woman.

Dragon Dave

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Virgil Cole's Contemplation: The Complete Emerson

Just in case you wondered what passage Virgil Cole was reading from, here's the complete paragraph. Try taking a breath after completing each sentence, before rushing on to the next.

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

--from his essay on "Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Words to live by, I think you'd agree.

Dragon Dave

Related Internet Links
Emerson Central

Monday, June 29, 2015

Lawman Versus Gunman

 While "Appaloosa" shared sets and locales with films like "3:10 To Yuma" and "Cowboys And Aliens," author Robert B Parker and director Ed Harris was more concerned with exploring the type of people who would try to settle an untamed land. Central to the story are the lawmen who keep the peace. Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch don't talk much. To Ed Harris, they're the type of men who could ride side-by-side all day, never say a word to each other, and be perfectly content with the nature of their camaraderie. In fact, Cole seems a stranger to words, a man who uses them when necessary, but sparingly, knowing they can inflict as much harm as the guns he wields. Cole frequently looks to Hitch to help him find the appropriate words in a given situation. But what he lacks in education, he makes up with determination, by reading noteworthy authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, and attempting to embody the ideals he finds in their books.

"Everett, listen to this," Cole says one day, looking up briefly from his leather-bound volume of Emerson. "What I must do is all that concerns me," Cole reads slowly and haltingly, "not what the people think."

Everett Hitch regards his friend somberly, and nods in reply.

Later, when enforcing the law proves tricky in Appaloosa, sidekick Everitt Hitch suggests that they are gunmen first, then lawmen. If they know what's right, maybe it's okay to bend the law in this one instance, for the sake of the greater good. Virgil Cole's answer is straight-forward and immediate. He simply wouldn't know how to look at himself, if he saw himself as anything other than a lawman first.

As SF authors such as Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Allan Steele have suggested, it'll take strong, forceful characters to establish self-sufficient colonies on other worlds. People like Gerald Skibbow, Father Horst Elwes, and Quinn Dexter in Peter F Hamilton's novel The Reality Dysfunction will all attempt this in their own ways. But when the people of such a colony are looking for someone to establish the law and maintain the Peace, they could do much worse than employ someone Virgil Cole, and his loyal friend Everett Hitch.

Dragon Dave

Friday, June 26, 2015

Ed Harris Makes A Sci-fi Western

Ed Harris may be known to Sci-Fi fans for his roles in "Snowpiercer," "National Treasure:  Book of Secrets," and "Apollo 13."
Tolkien fans will forever remember Viggo Mortensen's portrayal of
Aragorn in Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" movies.

In "Appaloosa," the movie version of Robert Parker's novel, Ed Harris plays Virgil Cole, a gunman who earns his living by serving as the city marshall in small, frontier towns. He's ably served by his stalwart sidekick Everett Hitch, played by Viggo Mortensen. When he and his friend Everett Hitch reach Appaloosa, the aldermen explain how Randall Bragg (played by Jeremy Irons), a local rancher, has shown contempt for the laws and people of their small town. 

Sci-fi fans may remember Jeremy Irons from "Eregon",
"Dungeons And Dragons," and "The Time Machine."

Bragg and his hired hands have stolen, raped, and killed. They murdered the town's previous marshall, and will continue their nefarious ways until someone stops them. The aldermen may be scared, but they don't understand the mentality of the man they want to hire. Cole's has one condition for accepting the job: if he serves as marshall, the Law in Appaloosa will be any law he feels is appropriate. 

Timothy Spall, who plays one of the aldermen, is known for
his roles in "Enchanted," 

"Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events,"
and as Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films.

When the aldermen point out that they'd be effectively turning control of their town over to him, Cole's sidekick Everett Hitch points out that they've already ceded control of their town to Bragg. Or, as Cole puts it, in his colorful way, "Everything that eats meat likes a dead buffalo." But they quickly learn that he means business. Within a few minutes of their signing his agreement, two of Bragg's men lay dead at their feet.

"Appaloosa" defies our expectations of a western. There are no big shootouts with gunmen falling off rooftops, no great explosions that destroy half the town, no sweeping tales of revenge, and no maddened horses pulling a carriage packed with travelers toward the edge of a cliff. Nor do aliens swoop in at night, and carry off people and cattle in their spaceships. No one even paints all the buildings in the town red. But for me that's part of its charm, and why I feel the film has a Sci-Fi element. For much of Science Fiction literature involves settling other planets. Consider Ray Bradbury's book The Martian Chronicles, or Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, many of Robert Heinlein's novels, or Allan Steele's excellent Coyote series. When people decide to plant themselves on a new planet, they leave civilization behind, and start anew. "Appaloosa" reminds us of that.

"Appaloosa" may be a small movie, but it deserves to be seen. Hopefully the actors in it, many notable for their other Sci-Fi and Fantasy roles, will help make the movie palatable for them. After all, we're all drawn to actors, and I'd never heard of "Appaloosa" or Robert Parker before I saw the movie in the DVD aisle. I had simply seen Harris and Mortensen in another movie together, and wanted to see them together again, so I bought the DVD. I'm glad I did.

Dragon Dave