Mountain Gazette Magazine -- issue number 78 December 2000
Getting it on with mountain town pigs
Reviewed by Curtis Robinson
Around a Halloween bonfire in Paonia, Colorado and steering the conversation to my new favorite subject: "Scrapple." Not the porkscrap-and-meal culinary delicacy, but the delicious ski town movie made in the late-'90s, set in the '70s and reviewed here-and-now because it's probably the best ski-town flick ever made, and because Mountain Gazette was still in what we'll call the Long Slumber back when Scrapple first came out.
Around the Halloween fire, only three of maybe a dozen folks had seen the movie and it was roughly like steering an old-folks-home conversation around to the topic of grandchildren. The instant reviews were that it "captured a wonderful time," that the "fictional town of Ajax, based on Telluride, seemed so very authentic," and that it really nailed the reason we should all vote for Nader (it was pre-election).
But I was after more. Because my personal research shows that, as "Scrapple" increases its cult-film status and gains national video distribution, people take from the movie EXACTLY whatever it is they personally need. Say you're a chick with relationship issues. Then you glom onto the subplot between Beth and Tom that features flashbacks to Tom's ski-accident-victim former squeeze.
You're pissed off about sprawl? Then it's a movie about that real estate guy who first utters the chilling phrase about becoming "THE destination resort in North America." For me, a good example is that a character in 'Scrapple' is reading Mountain Gazette (Number 51, if memory serves). It was an oddly reassuring scene for somebody working on re-launching that magazine. But hey, it's not like the thing is metaphysical perfection.
Even the film's makers concede that 'Scrapple's' acting can be a tad bit stiff at times. And one challenge of using archetypes to tell any story is that you're always working on the precipice of cliche. Still, 'Scrapple' walks that line mighty well, giving us a virtual checklist of mountain town details: The instant job offered outside the post office by a guy who has his own "solid" local radio show; the friend singing original songs at the club; the casual conversation about the Next Good Place, the bartender philosopher, the 'shrooms in Canyonlands, the guy selling just enough pot to get by, the strange "only-in-this-town" candidate for local office.
Another example of attention to detail: Token Aussie Errol McNamara, a sort of mellowed-out Crocodile Dundee, tells his buddies, "Life is just too short to end up at 60 with a gold watch and a pension. Headed out to look for Nirvana. This might not be it, but the back yard's not bad." Now, to "outsiders" a line like that, drunk or sober, might ring as over-the-top trite. But in the High Country, you would be flashing back to the last time you heard and/or said words to that effect, and if it wasn't this morning on the drive to work, you'd be thinking again of the Next Place.
For the record, 'Scrapple's' title comes from a pig of the same name. The pig plotline, raising him through the summer as a sacrifice to the god of winter, was supposed to be an even bigger part of the movie, but "Babe" came out and sort of consumed the pig-movie audience. But that other pig-flick gave 'Scrapple' its better taglines when a New York Times Magazine writer called the movie "Babe on acid."
Actually, in a first-date, "let's talk movies like we're smart" sense, you could score IQ points by arguing that "Scrapple" is about transitions (and you might mention the cool music, with a soundtrack scored by blues legend Taj Mahal). The main-story premise is that Al Dean semi-desperately wants to transition his wheelchair-bound brother, a Vietnam vet, from the VA hospital to a nice little house on Spruce Street. Every other character is also in transition, but more importantly the town of Ajax is itself making that doomed march from Possible Nirvana to Something Else.
When the movie's over, complete with a great plot twist involving the pig, some high-grade dope, multi-agency narcs and a real estate mogul about to purchase his final plot, you're left with the feeling that mountain towns may still be the best of the good places on earth. And there is a "mountain town" feel, as opposed to "ski town" feel, because the filmmakers wisely chose summer for their story, which is a good up-front sign they knew what the hell they were talking about because filming in winter would cut into ski days.
Geoffrey Hanson, one of the two brothers who made 'Scrapple' as their first feature film, says the goal was to make a ski-town movie with a lot of personal stories. The basic idea is actually based on a short story by Telluride writer Sean McNamara, but plenty of added politics worked their way into the mix. Hanson notes that a very controversial election on expanding the Pitkin County, Colorado, airport was going on when they were writing the movie through the mid-'90s, and that became part of the theme. Hanson also muses that the Al Dean story, and his plans to sell just enough drugs to buy a house and get legit, is "a very American story, the idea of using illicit means to eventually become legitimate, like 'I just want to score a house.'"
"We were trying to get to the idea of a ski town in transition ... like the airport and the drugs, they illustrate that transition," explains Hanson. Drugs and transportation, airports included, do some heavy symbolic lifting in "Scrapple." Our ski-town heroes drive classic Dodge trucks, ride great motorcycles with keg-holding sidecars and own Stingray bicycles (a precursor, more or less, to the modern mountain bike).
They also drink beer and smoke weed. If they partake of stronger drink, it's Jack Daniels from the bottle. The elements of change don't drink cheap beer and smoke dope. Their representatives drink scotch and do coke. They travel in airplanes and talk about Hollywood-style studio developments and bulldozing "eyesores" around town. The movie's token narc looks like a "Mod Squad" extra and of course announces he's from Aspen in a tone that, even in 1978, must have been sounding like fingernails on chalkboard in places like Ajax and, come to think of it, in lots of parts of Aspen.
Lots of Aspenites, including a county commissioner I talked with a few years back, track the social rift of that town to the switch from marijuana to cocaine as the social drug of choice. The Coke Society, my commissioner buddy points out, is all about money and power and "who has the drug." Like birds of prey, coke folk don't share without purpose. He would argue that the marijuana culture relies less on money, more on networking, less on power and more on communal sharing. One guy in the house has cocaine, in other words, then one dude's got some coke. One guy has some weed and the whole house is smoking. That's no doubt too simplistic, but it does illustrate how "Scrapple" can work as a basic, fun ski-town party flick on the one hand, yet generate political heat on the other.
When one High County newspaper review told readers "it's about you," they were, in the terms of the movie, right on. And one more thing: We hear much about how the '70s (or '60s, or whenever) was the Golden Era of the mountain towns. But watch "Scrapple" and, along with the longing for those magic days of easily recognizable narcs, you feel what amounts to a historical connection. Because you will recognize a few friends, and maybe yourself, in some of the characters. For those of us fascinated by the social, economic and cultural aspects of altitude-rich communities, "Scrapple" is what "Forever Summer" is to surf crazies or what a good Warren Miller film is to extreme gravity fans. Men's Journal called it "a ski bum's version of 'Easy Rider.'"
Hanson admits the film has gained cult status but complains that "really, nobody's seen it." He's still looking for a national theater release, although Hollywood Video stores have started carrying "Scrapple" in the last couple of months. There is, naturally, some talk of a sequel. But Hanson doubts it'll happen. Meanwhile, you can order video copies of 'Scrapple' at the website Scrapple the Movie
, or hang around Telluride bars where we hear that bootlegs are selling for $10.
As for me, I'm looking across my kitchen and noticing that two large bottles of adult beverage are atop my refrigerator. One is a relatively expensive scotch, the other a jumbo-size Jack Daniels. The scotch bottle is alarmingly better-used these days. But they're opening the ski mountain early this year, and I've upgraded my pass, and there's coke (the cola kind) in the pantry. So, like the guys in "Scrapple," there's hope for me yet.