Movies are like little shared multi-million dollar dreams that we get to experience on demand. While they aren't reality, they reflect little slices of the real world like a kaleidoscope or a fun house mirror. What these movies say about the real world is distorted, more fun and a little larger than life. With this in mind there are a whole bunch of famous (maybe infamous) films which take place in part or in whole in our little valley which can give us a little glimpse into how people around the world think about what’s goin on here. Of course everyone knows that Colorado is where the secret world government consisting of the five richest people in the world including The Queen, Colonel Sanders and the Pope meet every year, but did you know that there is much, much more to see here than just our beloved shadow government?
Of course the most realistic of all the films ever made about Aspen Colorado is Battlefield Earth. L. Ron Hubbard's saga of the year 3000 is also the greatest science fiction film ever made. Forget Star Wars. Battlefield Earth realistically portrays Aspen in one thousand glorious years, after the earth has been stripped entirely of its shiny gold and turned over to a race of 8 foot tall John Travoltas. Aspen is depicted as it is in the year 3000, a luxury resort ravine full of feral humans on the run from a giant Vinnie Barbarino. As the most historically accurate movie about the future ever made watching Battlefield Earth is quite shocking, but to quote James Joyce "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."
For people just getting to the valley this summer there are two films which will give you a little taste of what Aspen is supposed to be and what it really is. Both of these films are set in the early 90's or late 1980's and have virtually identical plots. Two friends take off from their small towns looking for the good life where someone can plug them into the social pipeline. Eeking their way through life these characters are sick and tired of being nobodies, but most of all they are tired of having nobody. These blue collar characters leave their worm farms behind and move to Aspen only to lose everything, becoming bodies crushed in the gears of this luxury resort. And that's just Aspen Extreme.
Aspen Extreme is probably the greatest 1980's Ski Movie ever made and the only movie filmed entirely in Aspen, about Aspen for Aspen. I had never heard of this film before coming here, but it is extremely important- a cultural linchpin that holds this valley together. Aspen Extreme is the story of Dexter and some other guy who come to Aspen as ski instructors and live in what looks like a derelict box car in a river. They live their dreams skiing, writing, and dating Finola Hughes the star of the 1983 sequel to Saturday Night Fever, "Staying Alive," (who is sort of on the run from Vinnie Barbarino if you think about it). They get addicted to drugs and one of them dies while skiing in the yearly Powder 8 Competition. This competition seems to be kind of "Rite of Spring" held annually to thin out the ski instructor ranks and ensure that the gods of ski and powder are sated with fresh blood. The lesson of Aspen Extreme is that while half of the people who just up and move here will die because of avalanches or drugs, the other half will certainly fall in love with a soap opera star and become celebrated writers like local heroes Hunter S. Thompson, Walter Issacson, and Emzy Veazy III.
Dumb and Dumber is a far more famous film which depicts two working class heroes on an adventure which would make Joseph Campbell blush with joy. Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne live hum drum lives in New Jersey, where they have no food, no jobs and their pet's heads are falling off. One day they find a briefcase, owned by a beautiful woman named Samsonite who is on her way to Aspen- where the beer flows like wine. Driven by a sense of duty and love of which troubadours will one day sing- Lloyd and Harry set out on an odyssey to return the briefcase, which happens to be full of cash. Once in Aspen they find out that their quest for love entails spending all of that cash on cars, fancy hotels and saving endangered wildlife in pastel tuxedos. Once they are exposed as blue collar idiots, Lloyd and Harry are expelled from Aspen thrown into the wilderness, presumably walking back to New Jersey.
Both Aspen Extreme and Dumb and Dumber have valuable lessons interspersed throughout. We find out that you can't trust John Denver, that the Monkeys were a huge influence on the Beatles and that in life skiing is the easy part. There are some fantastic and unbelievable moments in both. Dumb and Dumber is clearly filmed at the Estes Park Hotel, 200 miles away and is totally devoid of local landmarks. Equally as ridiculous Aspen Extreme has a number of scenes that take place in a regular old greasy spoon diner, nary a Michelin star to be seen. If they were eating at the Gucci Store it would be more accurate. If you just moved here or have lived here for years any of these films are absolutely worth watching. These films offer us a glimpse into our near past and the far future and are a reflection of this place, however distorted.
I was born a fool, don't want to stay that way.
Irish writer Sebastian Barry won the 2017 Costa Book of the Year Award for "Days Without End," a novel judges described as “one of the most wonderful depictions of love in the whole of fiction.” Barry is the first novelist to win the prestigious award for a second time, after winning in 2008 for "The Second Scripture," another of Barry’s four novels that feature a member of the McNulty clan. Barry’s seven novels imagine the people in his ancestral family that were never discussed.
As a child he discovered there had been a great-uncle who had fought in the Indian Wars. At age 8, he equated that story with the cowboy films he watched in Dun Laoghaire. But the story grew in his mind, as he contemplated for 50 years, imagining the sorrow of a person having to leave Ireland and consequentially fight for the removal and erasure of another native people from their own home.
I’ve been hungry for the style and lyricism of which Barry appears to be a master. I found the author and the title from a list of notable reads assembled by the American Library Association. The subject matter of the novel intrigued me; its narrator Thomas McNulty, a teenage crack shot, has fled the Great Famine of Ireland and been swiftly conscripted into the U.S. Army, shuttled off to the great plains of Wyoming to fight in a blue uniform against the Sioux and the Yurok. Thomas traverses the states to Tennessee to later enter the Civil War.
“Everything bad gets shot at in America ... and everything good too.”
I marveled at how directly and colloquially Barry describes the famine and brutality of his circumstances while also finding heartbreaking beauty in the nature and companionship that accompanies his journey.
“The mules treading along so mulish graceful and only their choosy footfall sounding. Otherwise the usual full sounds of night. Something cracking through the wood, bear or elk maybe. Maybe the wolves come hungrily through the brush. The sky is just beaten silver now too and the moon alters his light a shade to make sure he seen … We been through many slaughters, John Cole and me. But I am as peaceful and easy now as I ever been. Fear flies off and my box of thoughts feels light. I’m thinking, John Cole looks big for the mule … like the mule and him ain’t in the same world exactly. Then he pulls his hat down tight. Ain’t nothing in it. He pulls his hatbrim down, under the moon. With the dark trees around. And the owls. Don’t mean nothing. Be hard to be in the world without him. I’m thinking that. That part of the country you see two or three shooting stars a minute. Must be time of year for shooting stars. Looking for each other, like everything is.”
These capacious architectural passages left me heartstruck. And Barry’s visceral storytelling had me completely hooked, well before I realized this was more than a retelling of our nation’s fateful beginnings or its violence past, but rather a book of steadfast love.
Thomas McNulty finds a friend and lover with brother in arms, “handsome John Cole.” These men are complicit in the horrors that shape American history and yet also form a devoted family, defending and caretaking a young Sioux girl and reaching out for one another with unyielding tenderness. Their bond to one another and to their makeshift family requires the kind of courage and tenacity that defines integrity. Thomas claims “there is a seam in men called justice that nothing burns off complete.”
The author’s own son Toby came out to him a few years ago, and Barry describes how capable and delicate is the love between Toby and his boyfriend that it served as inspiration for the love between Thomas and Cole. Barry deftly and convincingly captures the development of their relationship as it persists through great hardship and the complexities of war.
“How come we lying here and guarded and inside four walls and the camp lying within this wooded land and the dogs of winter biting and scraping at our limbs? … Got to say it is a marvel how the mortal bones stand out. I can see his hip bones and his leg bones where they thicken at the knees. His arms just whittled branches from a dried-out tree. Long hours we lie close and John Cole lays his hand on my head and leaves it there. John Cole, my beau.”
Actor Aidan Kelly brogues the audio book narration of this novel, earnestly and wittily delivering the wonder of Barry’s prose. Definitively worth a listen.
Originally posted in the Aspen Daily News, May 24, 2018
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