This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine Aspen Extreme.
Aspen Extreme was the 40th movie released in 1993, according to the Internet Movie Database. Originally I was going to do a three-part series, looking at the 10th, 40th, and 70th, movie released in 1993. This was based on an idea that popped up during an interview I did with Filmmaker Magazine. Public Access was the 10th movie from ’93 and I forget the 70th. I decided to do just one, Aspen Extreme, because it was the first one to arrive in the mail. I bought it new online for under ten dollars. I wanted to get out of my own head, and do a movie that I didn’t select, but that was selected for me. So I figured why not apply 10/40/70 to release dates, in ascending order, by year? It turns out that a lot of them — especially from the 1970s and 80s — are porn movies that are out of print. For instance, the 10th movie released in 1988 is California Native, directed by Wolfgang Gower.
I had never seen Aspen Extreme, and watched it twice before 10/40/70-ing it. One of the first scenes shows TJ Burke (Paul Gross) opening his mail. Inside a manila envelope is a rejected short story from Esquire. He thumbtacks the form rejection letter to his bulletin board. I thought that was good. How many Esquire-rejected writers are there as characters in action-ski movies from the Bill Clinton Nineties?
TJ and Dexter (Peter Berg) have decided to leave Brighton, Michigan for better opportunities in Aspen, Colorado. (Full disclosure: I live about 20 miles south of Brighton.) Now they are in Aspen. They hop aboard a snow cat. Dexter rides on the roof. TJ sits next to the Driver.
Dexter: This is outrageous. Anywhere around here you could just climb.
Driver: Where you guys from?
Driver: I’ll bet you’re here to see if you can be ski instructors, huh? I bet 100 of you guys show up every year for that. The locals call it the freshman class. You read about movie stars in ski magazines and you wanna move here.
TJ: Yeah. Well, I mean, that’s all part of it, right?
Driver: Hope you guys are good.
This is a good shot, with the open sky and mountains in the background. There seems to be something about movies from this era where the colors really pop. Sometime around 1999 or 2000, or 1996-1998 maybe, lots of films were drained of color. Blood reds and bright blues lost favor to dull gray and tan and orange. I think it had something to do with the emergence on the market of affordable digital camcorders, whose early versions weren’t so good at capturing full-spectrum color. The aesthetic creeped into early movies shot on digital video, such as Richard Linklater’s Tape (2001), Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (1998), and Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003). A denuded look became chic, a look that rejected the glorious Technicolor that dominated the late studio era. There’s a sort of clean-air wholesomeness to this frame, squarely framed, eager, as if the spirit of Ronald Reagan still lay over the land.
The scene illustrates a type of movie that was popular in the 1980s and early 1990s that’s not so common anymore. Let’s call it the Half-Way Comedy. Half-Way not because these are failed comedies, but because they are basically serious stories that skate close to the edge of full-on comedy but that stop before crossing the line. Disorganized Crime (1989) is a good example. So is Fast Getaway (1991). These films skirt between genres with an easiness that’s not too forced. Some of them either feature actors before they became stars or long after, but more than likely they are peopled by folks who work hard but who for one reason or another remained under the collective radar. I wouldn’t say that Aspen Extreme has any truly funny scenes, but there are plenty of scenes that make you smile, as when TJ and Dexter show the fascist ski instructor Karl that they know how to ski. The Half-Way Comedy is probably harder to pull-off than it looks; its tone is just as distinctive as the pure thriller or horror or drama, but because of its mongrel nature it tends to be forgotten.
TJ is at the swank house of a wealthy lady, Bryce Kellogg (Finola Hughes). Everything about her is icy fake, and the movie wants us to think that TJ is in danger of forgetting his Michigan roots for a lifestyle of wealthy privilege. At this point, it’s unclear what Bryce wants from TJ, other than to be her boy toy. He’s cleaned up a bit in this shot, neatly framed in white. She asks him what his dreams are, which seems to be a too-personal question for someone she’s only known for a short while:
TJ: Well, one time I, uh, one time I kind of wanted to be a writer.
TJ: I mean, I wrote some stuff and tried to sell it to some magazines [he almost sounds like Tao Lin here]. The thing is, I never really went to college, so I never learned to do it.
Everything about TJ in this scene is conditional and tentative: how can he have “kind of wanted” to be a writer? And “well, one time” sounds like he wanted to be a writer just once, as opposed to “at one time” which would cover an extended period of time. He wrote some “stuff.” He tried to sell his stuff to “some magazines.” TJ cleans up like a Hollywood actor in this scene because he is a Hollywood actor. Like the “pretty ugly girl” in Not Another Teen Movie, TJ is a great-looking person with super-white teeth and carefully messed-up hair who is cast to be a regular person. Early in the movie, he’s outfitted as a Michigan hick, but he can’t pull it off. Nobody in Brighton in 1993 had teeth that white. His teeth are white throughout the movie, but they’re really noticeable in this scene. In just a few dozen frames he’ll look up and smile and his Edgar Allan Poe terror-vision-teeth-brightness will match the whiteness of the T-shirt under his black shirt. The snow is white, so it makes sense.
From a very strange scene in the movie. Dexter is supposed to meet someone named Steve at a diner and give him a duffel bag. He’s being paid several thousand dollars to do this. Although he doesn’t know what’s in the bag, and neither do we, it’s pretty clear that it’s drugs. Dexter waits for Steve in the diner, becoming increasingly worried and paranoid. He just wants to get the exchange over with. Why isn’t Steve showing up? People — like this old fellow with the beard — walk in and stare at him. He asks the old fellow, “You Steve?” The guy replies, “’fraid not.” I tried to track down this actor. I believe he is credited as “Beard” in the movie. If he is indeed Beard, then his name is Will MacMillan, and he starred as David in George Romero’s 1973 The Crazies, where he gave a weirdly steady performance in a movie so terrifically scattershot and undirected that it makes you want to learn more about anarchy. Anarchist is one thing Aspen Extreme is not. Beard is not operating under the sign of grunge in his flannel shirt. Flannel took on new meaning as Nirvana’s album Nevermind entered the charts in 1992 and dragged grunge into the spotlight. Beard’s shirt is both workingman and grunge. Two signs. One stare. He is as stiff and fulsome as the one-armed man from Twin Peaks. He seems to know something, and for several moments surrounding the 70-minute mark Aspen Extreme promises and threatens to become spooky.
It’s a suggestive answer, meant to trick Dexter, and the audience, into thinking that Dexter was set up. That Beard knows something. How else to explain Beard’s knowing gaze? Sometimes there are throwaway moments that turn out to pierce through the screen and directly address the viewer. In this case, it’s a plea. Beard wants us to know something, but what? What does he want us to know? He wants us to know that it’s a sham, this playing around with images, this useless playing around. All this money, all this equipment, the cameras, the caterers, the second unit personnel, the stunt men and women. All in the service of a movie that’s as uncertain as a criminal who’s been ordered by a feared syndicate boss to burgle his own dear grandmother’s home, a grandmother who pushed him on swings in the summer as a child and made him hot chocolate from raw cocoa smuggled from Kashmir across many dangerous borders.
A tepid movie is what Aspen Extreme is. There is nothing really extreme about it. Some of the skiing looks a little dangerous, but it’s not extreme. The characters are not extreme, nor is what they say extreme. The most extreme thing is Beard. Beard who just sits there and pierces through the bullshit with his gaze that says, images are precious things, why are we playing around with them like this, wasting millions of dollars to make a film that will spellbind nobody? Beard and Beard alone recognizes the con that the movie is. Beard is in on the con along with everyone else who helped make this movie but he can’t pull it off, and the truth shines through in his steady gaze. At 70 minutes, Beard reveals the con. The game is up. The movie should end right there, with Beard.
Some part of you wonders, what was Beard like on the set? Probably sat in a nice chair and read a newspaper while waiting for his few minutes of screen time, which maybe took a few days to shoot. Even in those two words — ‘fraid not — he out-acts everyone else in the film. I imagine him moving around the set with a quiet confidence. I wonder if the younger actors knew that Will MacMillan (and again, I’m only reasonably certain that the actor’s name is in fact Will MacMillan) had Romero cred with them. In Michigan, the fact that an actor worked with Romero, that counts for something, but I don’t know about in Hollywood. In any case, Beard saves the movie. He sort of graces the scene, gives it some tough fiber. In another era, he could be a cult hero.
Note: I’ve begun taking my notes on these 10/40/70 films in an old Motion Analysis and Time Study notebook, and I’ll be including my notesheets in the future. Below is the one from Aspen Extreme: