Thursday, February 24, 2011

The End

In a small, isolated pocket of a community of greater and lesser luminaries once called the Milky Way, there is a little, insignificant lamp still glimmering its little, insignificant glimmer. There are a few astronomical objects caught in its gravity, eight of which are large enough to be called planets. Once upon a time, there was life on that third one. Those tiny, bright sparks that you see on the smouldering, black surface of the sphere are the lights they forgot to turn off.

The End of Times is coming, my friends, and it's been coming since the Beginning of Times. One of these days, the energy generated by the Big Bang will dissipate, and our pretty, cosmic balloon will deflate with a rude, blubbering noise. Or maybe poor, little Sol will flicker out because someone forgot to pay the gas bill, and all of us will be left shivering in the darkness like Moncton on a midwinter's Monday morning.

Some of you have stopped reading newspapers, and I don't blame you. What you're offered for the price of your subscription isn't really news at all. Instead, you get the rants, howls and dribblings of a battery of hacks, quacks, shills and charlatans who were hired to fill in the white space between the perfume ads. If you want to read the uninformed, biased blathering of a semi-erect, pseudo-literate, shaved chimpanzee, you can find that right here at Limited Vision.

Wanna let television inform your opinions instead? Fine, "Bowling With Celebrity Convicts" is on four channels at nine pm - but it's probably a rerun.

Parson Pocket has been thumping his Book of Revelation for years and telling us all that the Day of Judgement is upon us. In point of fact, he's been under investigation since 2003 on allegations of fraud, racketeering and statutory rape, so he's probably going to be appearing before a somewhat less illustrious court sometime soon.

All of us have the feeling that the world is going to end, and that it's probably going to occur right after we leave the building. We've named it Armageddon, Pralaya or Ragnarok - maybe we call it the Big Crunch. Because there seems to be no other point to the exercise, we might just use the End to justify our means: being rude, selfish, petty, manipulative and impatient with those who get in the way of what must needs be our short term goals.

"Get rich or die trying", "He who dies with the most toys wins", "If God didn't want them sheared, he wouldn't have made them sheep". We believe in the Trickle Down Effect of economics - that is, when we've used up the good, somebody else can have our garbage. If it's the End of the World, then all bets are off.

But what if it isn't? What if we get up tomorrow, look out the window and see our street shimmering under a light, clean blanket of snow? What if the beach has been swept clear of yesterday's litter and footprints? What if the next big thing is a fair thing? What if the people who form our new government really do want to be the good guys?

What if we were all a little kinder, all a bit fairer, all just a touch more generous and compassionate? Think about that.

That wouldn't be the end of the world.

Monday, February 14, 2011

"Limited Vision" and the Bigger Picture

One night about twenty years ago, I was waiting for a bus to take me home following my afternoon warehouse shift. Because I knew I'd have quite a while to wait, I opened my strip-cover paperback, angled the pages toward the illumination of the nearest streetlight and tried to read for a few minutes.

I was a little upset when I discovered that the typeface, which had appeared perfectly legible the night before, was now indistinct and blurry, and I could not decipher a single word! I called my doctor the next morning, and I was given an appointment for the end of the week. After that exam, he booked me a visit with a very busy ophthalmologist - for six weeks after that.

She performed her magic and she worked her spells. At the end of our interlude, she informed me that I had two choices. The first was that she could write me a prescription for a pair of good eyeglasses, which would cost me about six hundred dollars, or I could go to the drugstore and find a pair of acceptable magnifying lenses for less than twenty. I reached into my jacket pocket, and pulled out the smudged, scratched dollar store glasses that I'd been using for the last two weeks. "Like these?" I asked.

All of us have limited vision to one or another degree. It might be the result of illness, accident, heredity or just the passing of time. It is regrettable, but it can usually be corrected.

Because our eyes are not at the sides of our heads near our ears, our field of vision is reduced too. We don't always see that leopard up the tree, the hot babe from high school or the grey car in the next lane. We can compensate for this too - it's time to turn our hearing aids up!

At one time, I had two part-time jobs which invariably got busier at the same time each year. One beautiful summer morning, I raced home from my ten-hour graveyard shift at one place to get ready for my seven-hour dayshift at the other. Dirty work clothes from the previous night flew and scattered down the hallway of my apartment as I ran into the bathroom and cranked the hot water in my shower as full as it could go. I noticed that it was darker behind my shower curtain than it usually was, and I was worried that I might be going blind - suddenly and with no prior warning! My concern was put to rest the moment that I took my wet, soapy sunglasses off.

Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. They also tell us that some people can't see the forest for the trees. If we stand too close to the canvas at the art gallery, we see tiny, little dots of muddy colour and might miss the gorgeous, bright vista that Renoir intended. Sometimes, we don't see the "Bigger Picture".

I miss the Bigger Picture a lot. I don't understand why I can buy an record of somebody's credit transactions from VISA, but I can't see how many dead "Liberals" voted in the last provincial election. Why is it that a business owner can list his entire family as fulltime employees (when they haven't even seen his place of business), but the people who actually do work for him get only sixteen-hour weeks with no benefits?

Why can Telus sell me a phone package with call display, and then offer me a service that hides my identity when I call you? Once, I lived in a strata property in New Westminster that had ten empty units. They were owned by seven doctors in Toronto, who had never visited the building. Did I mention that there were people sleeping under the protected overhang of our underground parking lot every rainy night?

Why would the provincial government "give" a downtown building to a seniors' society, and refuse to grant them funds for its maintenance? Why are we turning grain into alcohol for our fuel tanks and putting fruit into our cosmetics when so many people are hungry? Instead of going off to war, why don't we all go out to lunch?

And I don't understand how the stories, music and art of individuals can become the intellectual property of corporations. Why couldn't John Fogerty perform any of his old CCR songs for twenty years?

No, I don't always see the Bigger Picture, but aren't those little, muddy dots interesting?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

True Grit

In the 1930's, John Wayne created a character who would become known as the Duke, and he would play him in westerns, war movies and in public for more than forty years. In films that ranged from Stagecoach to the Shootist, John Wayne drew audiences with a gravel voice, cat-like walk and a simple philosophy of right and wrong.

In 1969, Wayne won his only Oscar, for trying to portray someone other that the Duke, and failing in the most spectacularly entertaining fashion. The character was Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn, and the film, directed by Henry Hathaway, was called "True Grit".

Cogburn is a deputy federal marshal attached to the court of Judge Isaac Parker in Fort Smith, Arkansas. One of two hundred such men, charged with returning thieves, murderers and other assorted miscreants from the wild landscape known as the Indian Territory (much later Oklahoma), Cogburn has shot and killed twenty-three men in the course of his four years' employment. Once more, Wayne portrays a morally-upright curmudgeon with a hard fist and a fast gun. This time, he wears an eyepatch.

After farmer Frank Ross is murdered and robbed by his hired man while on a horse-buying trip to Fort Smith, his fourteen year-old daughter, Mattie (Kim Darby), travels to town to settle her father's affairs, and to find justice or revenge for his killing. When she finds that the killer, Tom Chaney, has fled to the Indian Territory to escape that justice, she seeks the aid of the toughest and most merciless man-hunter she can find. The mercenary Rooster Cogburn suits her needs exactly.

The thing most likely to thwart Mattie's ambitions is a lack of money, but the canny teen believes that she can solve that by selling her father's new horses back to the man from whom Frank bought them. Colonel G. Stonehill (Strother Martin) is convinced that he holds the legal and ethical highground here, and flatly refuses to consider buying the ponies back. Martin was an actor of great ability and talent, and he was a notorious scene thief. It is a pleasure to watch his eloquent and understated Stonehill's journey from petulance to amazement - to perhaps even a grudging respect - for Mattie's business acumen. She persuades him to buy Frank's ponies at a loss, to pay compensation for a Ross horse stolen from Stonehill's custody, and finally to sell one of the ponies back to her at the new (lower) market price - with horseshoes provided at his own cost.

There is a new tenant (Glen Campbell) at the Monarch Boarding House, where Mattie has been staying. He identifies himself as Sergeant LaBeouf of the Texas Rangers, and informs Mattie that, he too, is hunting Chaney, whom he knows as Theron Chelmsford, for the murder of a Texas state senator in Waco. He agrees that the killer has fled to the Territory, and has probably joined the gang of outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper.

Mattie outlines her plan for the capture of Chaney and even reveals Cogburn's role. Too late she realises that she does not hold LaBoeuf's manner or his abilities in very high esteem, and tries to veto his presence on the hunt.

Lucky Ned (Robert Duvall) and Cogburn are acquainted with each other. The outlaw carries a new scar on his lower lip, where Rooster shot him. Ned was very lucky that day, because Cogburn was trying to hit his upper lip, and his aim was off.

Lucky Ned is not as lucky in his choice of followers, who, while they are vicious and savage enough, don't seem especially bright or capable.

Jeff Corey plays the whining, complaining, self-pitying Tom Chaney, who has been grudgingly accepted into Lucky Ned's gang of second-rate badmen. It is probably a fair judgement of his character that even they don't trust him to do much more than care for the horses.

When Mattie attempts his arrest - on her own - at the point of her father's old dragoon Colt, Chaney believes that he once again has the advantage of a less able opponent. This time, he is wrong.

The scene all of us recall best is the one where Cogburn rides casually toward Pepper and his three cohorts, informing the outlaw that he means to kill him in about one minute.

"I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man," says Pepper.

"Fill your hand, you son-of-a-bitch!" replies Rooster, taking his reins in his teeth, his Peacemaker in one hand and his Winchester in the other.

It would be nice if all of us had aged as well as this movie.

Truer Grit

In 1903, forty year-old Mattie Ross takes a train trip to attend Cole Younger & Frank James' Wild West Show. She has travelled to Memphis, Tennessee from near Dardanelle in Yell County, Arkansas, at the invitation one of the troupe's lesser-known luminaries. Mattie has come to see a one-eyed former federal marshal named Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn.

When Mattie was fourteen years old, her father Frank was murdered by one of his employees while the two were on a trip to Fort Smith, to buy saddle horses. When Mattie arrived to settle her father's affairs, she learned that the killer, Tom Chaney, had fled to the Indian Territory with her father's horse, his two good luck gold pieces and $150.00. Mattie was determined to bring Chaney to justice, or to see him dead. After some investigation, and a good deal of difficult negotiation, she hired tough, merciless Cogburn to ensure her success in her quest.

True Grit has been filmed twice. 1969's production is a John Wayne Movie, arguably one of his best. In 2010, the story has come into the hands of Ethan and Joel Coen, and the brothers handle it beautifully. This time around, they and their fine ensemble cast have created a cold, dark, dangerous, winter manhunt in a wilderness which is still thirty years away from becoming Oklahoma. There are scenes in which the audio track of either movie could be dubbed over the other, and would not be too badly out of sync. The sets and cinematography are gorgeous, and because this is a Coen brothers work, the violence is graphic, but not gratuitous.

Jeff Bridges' Cogburn is no manufactured, Hollywood cowboy. He is an aging, overweight, bad-tempered, dissatisfied, one-eyed drunk, who is very good at killing people. In addition to his sidearm and his rifle, Cogburn travels with a pair of cap and ball Colt pistols slung over the horn of his saddle. We know that we will see more of these later.

Thirteen year-old Hailee Steinfield as Mattie is a smart, stubborn, opinionated teenager, who irritates everyone she meets and will push each of them to, or past, the contemplation of homicide - preferably hers.

Texas Ranger Sergeant LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) is an vain, ambitious young man who has been tracking Chaney for the best part of four months for the killing of a state senator in Waco, Texas. Mattie has little regard for his abilities, less for his manner, and tries to dismiss him like an unwelcome suitor.

LaBoeuf attempts to interest Cogburn in a partnership which excludes Mattie entirely, but this falls to pieces when the two lawmen discover that they don't like each other at all.

British Columbia boy Barry Pepper is Lucky Ned Pepper (no relation, I'm sure). Ned is the leader of a small gang of bandits with whom Chaney may have taken refuge. He and Rooster have unfinished business, Cogburn having shot him in the lower lip some time before while aiming for his upper lip. Barry's Lucky Ned looks and sounds eerily like Robert Duvall, who played the part in 1969. But this is not Duvall's Lucky Ned. This is a ruthless, able, dangerous outlaw of Barry Pepper's own invention.

Josh Brolin's Tom Chaney is, by turns, a coward, a bully and a mean, murdering drunk. On the run from a Texas murder warrant issued in the name Theron Chelmsford, Chaney found work, refuge and a home on the Ross family farm. Mattie thought him lazy and stupid before the murder of her father. After, his death or capture became the singular aim of her life. It may be Mattie who instigates and drives the manhunt, but it is Tom Chaney who pulls her forward like a magnet.

The Coens insist that they have been truer to Charles Portis' 1968 novel than Henry Hathaway's film was, but they have changed events or characters to project their own vision of what the story should be. Surprisingly, this has small detrimental effect on the finished work, and serves mainly to make a good story last longer. Fans of the novel, and perhaps Charles Portis himself, may be outraged, but those of us who knew the story only from the 1969 film will probably be pleased with this well-finished product.

See it with your dad - or your big brother. I think they'll agree.

Truest Grit

You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free except the Grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it. Charles Portis - True Grit

Mattie Ross is a proper, pious and prosperous citizen of the town of Dardanelle in Yell County, Arkansas. She is a respected figure in its financial community, and may be an officer of one of its banks, perhaps even its owner. She is a pillar of her church, and still lives on the farm where she grew up, although not in the same house. In 1928, Mattie, who is in her mid-sixties, takes up her pen and paper to write a true account of events that took over a two-week period when she was fourteen years old. She appears to expect publication, and it might not be her first time.

When her father Frank was on a business trip in Fort Smith with his hired man Tom Chaney, he was robbed and murdered by Chaney, who fled to the wild Indian Territory across the river. When Mattie arrived to settle his affairs and bring his body back home, she was informed the the local police did not have jurisdiction in the pursuit of Chaney. That was a matter for the marshals of the federal court of Judge Isaac Smith.

After she has obtained several opinions of the qualities of Smith's marshals, she settles upon one Reuben J. Rooster Cogburn, who is regarded as the toughest. Cogburn is a one-eyed, hard-drinking tough who has killed twenty-three men in the course of the past four years. Mattie approaches him with the facts of the case, and offers him a sizable reward in addition to the regular salary and expenses he will receive from the court. She is also determined to go along on the manhunt, to ensure that her interests are properly represented.

They are joined by Texas Ranger Sergeant LaBeouf, who has been pursuing Tom Chaney for the best part of four months on a Waco, Texas murder warrant issued in the name of Theron Chelmsford. Mattie is so unimpressed by the vain, ambitious LaBeouf that fifty years later, she neglects or forgets to tell us his first name.

They believe that Chaney may have joined the outlaw gang of Lucky Ned Pepper. Ned and Cogburn have unfinished business, Cogburn having shot him in the his lower lip a year before. The gang consists of the Parmelee brothers, Harold and Farrell, an older man named Haze, and a boy named Billy, who is on his first adventure since leaving home.

It also includes Pepper's lieutenant, known as the Original Greaser Bob. Even luckier than his boss, Bob might actually be immortal.

One snowy night, while the two of them and LaBeouf are waiting in ambush for the gang above a squatters' shack near the freezing bodies of rustlers Emmett Quincy and Moon Garrett, Rooster recounts some of the story of his life to a sleepy Mattie. One of his tales is about being pursued by a posse of seven men for armed robbery. When he grew tired of the game, he turned his horse Bo to face his pursuers, took the reins in his teeth, and rode at them with his two Navy sixes blazing. "I guess," he muses, "they was all married men who loved their families as they scattered and run for home." Mattie accuses him of stretching the blanket, but Cogburn insists that every word is true.

Mattie Ross does not regard herself as an avenging Sword of the Lord. She believes that people make free choices, and God's will did not enter into Tom Chaney's choices or her own. Mattie's God has bigger accounts to reconcile, and all of us will answer to him for our actions one day. Mattie has come to this place to facilitate human justice - not just revenge - and even when she shoots Tom Chaney with her dead father's big cavalry pistol, it is because he has left her no other option.

She does not whitewash her companions or demonize their opponents. While she does not censor their words or their actions, she is very candid about those of which she disapproves, and there are many. She cites scripture to enforce her arguments, but she does not quote it. Mattie believes that we are all good Christians, and we know our Bible.

Some critics have likened her to Hucklberry Finn, but Mattie Ross is nothing like that easy-going scoundrel. Others have called her "Captain Ahab's little sister", but she's not that either.

Mattie Ross is a strict, proud, just woman who always displayed True Grit.

I like her.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Ramblings of the Wooden Horse

There are twelve signs in the Chinese zodiac. They are Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. Each sign is symbolic of a Chinese lunisolar year, and repeats every twelve years. The year is also influenced by one of five elements; Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood. I was born in 1954, and I am a Wood Horse. 

2011 is the Year of the Metal Rabbit (apparently, its colour is white).

To my friends who were born in 1951, or to those who intend to pop little, white-metal rabbit buns out of their ovens in this year, I can promise no great things. Nor do I offer any dire predictions. 4709 (by some Chinese calendars) will be as good a year to be born and to be alive as any other. Y'just gotta work with what ya got.

Rabbits are elegant, sensitive, gentle, peaceful and merciful - there's a good start! They are good friends and partners who care passionately about family, but still need their own space. They are paradoxically cautious and emotional. Metal rabbits are thought to be stronger; more determined and resilient (as opposed to those soft, pink, fuzzy bunnies, I guess).

Rabbits' wise parents will encourage their offspring to seek out the companionship of Pigs and Dogs, but to avoid Rats and Roosters. Often, they will be disappointed. There are an awful lot of roosters and rats out there, and bunnies will be what bunnies will be.

Chinese New Year's Day is the first day of Chun Jie, the Spring Festival, and even within China, the traditions and customs of its celebration are many and varied.

Wherever it's spread, though, it is celebrated with decorations, good food, new clothing and thoughtfully considered presents. Homes should be thoroughly cleaned, not only to rid them of last year's bad fortune, but to make room for this year's blessings too. Also, this is the time to reconcile with others, to let go of and forget all our grudges, and to offer everyone our sincere wishes for peace and happiness.

Sounds like a good beginning to me.

 (Gung Hai Fat Choi)