‘Hand Cut’ mixes ski history, action footage
September 12, 2008
ASPEN ” Both Nick Waggoner and Ben Sturgulewski spent a good part of their childhoods watching the standard version of the modern ski video: extreme action and hardcore soundtracks, all unfolding at a dizzying pace. Consequently, they also spent a good part of the early years just trying to recover from the assault on their senses.
“It would pump you up,” said Waggoner. “But it’s like coffee. You feel good for 15 minutes, and then you’re totally bonking. You can’t enjoy that throughout a whole film.”
So Waggoner and Sturgulewski ” both film majors who graduated recently from Colorado College, both 22 years old, and freshman-year roommates ” went a different route for their debut movie. “Hand Cut” features the requisite on-mountain action, much of it by a fleet of local athletes: Jacqui Edgerly, Kate and Will Cardamone, Chris Erickson, and Nick DeVore, whom Waggoner met by chance in South America. The film emphasizes backcountry skiing, snowboarding and telemarking, which does not exactly constitute a novel approach in the ski-film niche.
But Waggoner, who directed the film, and Sturgulewski, who shares cinematography credits with Waggoner, mix equal parts history in with the action footage. Instead of the typical, aggressive soundtrack straight out of Southern California, the film features the rural blues of Colorado musician John-Alex Mason. The result, says Waggoner, is that “our film is gentle, approachable.”
And “Hand Cut,” which has its world premiere Friday at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, places backcountry skiing in a unique historical context. The film links the backcountry experience not to the early days of skiing, but to what might be considered the sport’s prehistory ” the 19th century miners and railroadmen who laid the foundation for towns like Aspen, Telluride and Revelstoke, British Columbia.
“In many places, these towns wouldn’t exist without that history,” noted Sturgulewski, who was raised in various Alaskan towns. “If these pioneers hadn’t come here first and provided that infrastructure, would we be here? Mining and railroads are what came into these towns to begin with.”
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“Hand Cut” makes the case that the pioneering spirit of the 1880s lives on in the 21st century through backcountry skiers.
“There’s a connection between hand-fired railroads, hand-built roads, mining, and hand-cutting of skin tracks,” said Waggoner, a product not only of Greenwich Village, but the numerous low-budget trips he made to Western ski areas (including last winter’s, when he racked up some 15 days making his own trails in Marble). “The mining history is what gives the flavor to these towns. It’s what makes Aspen a cool place to live.
“The Miner’s Tavern, in Silverton, the Pride of the West ” when you hang out in them, there’s a gritty side to it. The feel of people working with their hands. That’s a dying art, building things with your hands And that’s true in skiing ” you don’t see many people willing to work, to hike for their turns. And you lose out on an amazing aspect of the mountains ” exercise, hard work, and humility.”
To illustrate the point, “Hand Cut” juxtaposes new-school backcountry athletes with old-school laborers like Joe Todeschi, a 92-year-old Silverton resident, who colors the film with phrases like “snow ass-deep to an Indian,” and Joe Ryan, who runs a hut system in southwestern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, who dispenses a bit of wisdom on the climb-it-yourself ski experience: “After a big day of backcountry skiing, you never have to ask, Why am I here? Was my day worthwhile? A day in the backcountry erases all doubts.”
Waggoner and Sturgulewski, who made “Hand Cut” through their Sweetgrass Productions (sweetgrass-productions.com) and a sponsorship from Patagonia, are taking the rough road with their film. The two are living out of an eye-catching 1987 Dodge station wagon for the next few months, as they present their film in ski towns, and at such festivals as the Taos Mountain Film Festival and the Alpinist Film Festival in Jackson, Wyo.
The tour begins Friday with the Wheeler screening at 7:30 p.m., which will be followed by a performance by John-Alex Mason. The evening will feature $2 beer specials.
Beyond the roll-out of “Hand Cut,” Waggoner and Sturgulewski have their next step mapped out. It’s entirely different from “Hand Cut,” but it won’t feature head-banging music or endless scenes of death-defying downhilling. The next project will focus on skiing in Japan, and will tie the modern ski experience there to the country’s history.
“This is Western, Clint Eastwood style,” said Waggoner of “Hand Cut.” “The next one’s going to be Bruce Lee.”