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Aspen Times Q&A with Railroad Earth’s John Skehan

The members of Railroad Earth had only played a handful of live shows around their native New Jersey and recorded five demo songs before they improbably landed a gig at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2001.

That show introduced the band to Colorado, and soon to the masses of passionate followers of string music and improvisation. Railroad Earth’s rocking approach to bluegrass and their freewheeling concerts have made them the kind of band that music lovers orient their lives around.

The band returns to Aspen for a two-night run at Belly Up on Jan. 28 and 29. I spoke to Railroad Earth mandolin player John Skehan during one of the band’s previous wintertime multi-night runs in Aspen:

ANDREW TRAVERS: You do a lot of these multi-night runs, and some hardcore fans are sure to hit all the Colorado shows. How do you craft the arc of performances over multiple days?

JOHN SKEHAN: You do end up in a mindset, where rather than a first set and second set you’re looking at Friday, Saturday, Sunday and the overall arc. We change things up night to night, as much to keep ourselves on our toes as to keep the audience interested.

AT: The Railroad Earth connection with fans and audiences is uniquely intimate and personal. Is that something you guys consciously wanted to cultivate? Or did it just kind of happen on the road?

JS: It just kind of happens. We’re very blessed to have that kind of audience that really wants to be with you and see where you’re going to go. It keep us from doing the same thing night after night. They want to take the ride with us. And this scene that we’re in, and that we share with so many of our other brother bands out there, you’re blessed because you have a segment of fans that make live music a big part of their lives. It’s not, “OK, I’m going to go to the Enormodome to see Sting once a year.” They plan their vacations, their lives, their weddings, around going to hear live music. They make it a sacrament of their lives. We’re lucky to share that with them.

AT: Your song “Colorado,” from the first album, where did it come from and what inspired it?

JS: Colorado has been an interesting recurring theme throughout our existence. That came from a banjo riff that Andy [Goessling] had, and it kind of began to come together as we were first trying to figure this thing out. We recorded a short disc of demos that got passed around and we got enough positive feedback on that that we were able to go out and buy a crappy beat up old red van and tour, which led us to go, “Let’s take these five or six songs and add five more so we have something to tour with.”

Part of that initial tour was this big and scary thing that happened: we got a slot at Telluride. So of course one of the lyrics is, “Down the rocks run the cool rushing waters,” thinking about being on that stage in Telluride and looking out to the one end of town where the canyon ends and there’s that beautiful stream running down it. So it was just, well, I guess we’re bound for Colorado.

AT: That first show in Telluride gets talked about like it was really the genesis of Railroad Earth as we know it. Coming out of that show did the band find its identity?

JS: No. I don’t think we had any idea. We were just swept up in something, saying, “What is this thing?” It’s one thing to go in a studio and do some local shows to tune things up and experiment with songs. In that first year and beyond we were just learning what this thing is.

AT: Your progressive bluegrass style fit in with the tradition of Colorado bluegrass — New Grass Revival and Leftover Salmon and company. Do you approach a Colorado show any differently than elsewhere?

JS: I think we’ve always just done what we do. Colorado is receptive to it. Especially in the early days, we didn’t set out to be a bluegrass band or a rock band with bluegrass instruments — we were just working with this body of songs that Todd [Scheaffer] had come up with and that we had contributed to. We were just lucky that Colorado is a place you can come out with bluegrass instruments, put drums behind you, and do some more exploratory improvisation in that context and nobody looks at it as completely bizarre or anything.

atravers@aspentimes.com

Longtime Colorado hockey ref searching for fresh Aspen officials among youth ranks

Aspen High School hockey hosts Resurrection Christian on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Peter Arnold’s playing career ended after high school, but his time on the ice continues a few decades later. A longtime USA Hockey official and new Aspen resident, Arnold is searching for the next generation of hockey referees among the youth ranks in the Roaring Fork Valley.

“I know from my time officiating that it made me a better player. I saw more of the ice, I saw the game, I saw plays develop,” Arnold said. “These kids here don’t need the money and I’m trying to find a different motivation to get some kids out there to officiate. You can start as young as 12 years old in USA Hockey. If I get three or four boys and girls to come out from youth hockey to put on the stripes and give it a go, to me that’s a win.”

Arnold will lead a Level 1 officiating seminar on Sunday at the Aspen Recreation Center. It’s the beginning of a new role he has with Aspen Junior Hockey, where he’s been put in charge of leading scheduling and officiating efforts in the valley. He’s been trained through USA Hockey to lead such seminars.

A University of Michigan graduate, Arnold has been visiting Aspen since his teens in the early-to-mid 1980s and even spent a “ski bum year” living at the base of Aspen Mountain during the 1996-97 winter. He eventually moved to Steamboat Springs in 2002 and called it home until recently relocating to Aspen with his family.

Arnold has made many trips to Aspen and other Western Slope ski towns over the years to officiate ice hockey games, something he’s done since 1987.

“I was a high school student and I got into it because I wanted to improve my skating and know the rules better and I thought I could give back to the game,” Arnold said. “The money was always a nice perk, but never the motivation.”

Peter Arnold poses with his wife Lenka, daughter Emma and son Thomas. The family recently relocated to Aspen, where Peter is now in charge of leading scheduling and officiating for youth hockey.
Courtesy photo

In order to become an official and take part in Sunday’s seminar with Arnold, one must register as a Level 1 official through USA Hockey’s website via the “officials” tab. After registering, there will be an option to select a seminar, of which the Aspen one should be listed.

While there will be some ice time on Sunday morning, Arnold said a lot of the seminar will be via PowerPoint presentations and the like, part of an improved and condensed training program USA Hockey has developed to get more officials into skates.

“USA Hockey has done a tremendous job, a tremendous amount of work, to make the process of getting your requirements completed a lot easier,” Arnold said. “It’s been burdensome for a while.”

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Aspen football falls 20-17 at Steamboat on late field goal in non-league finale

Aspen senior Porter Lee throws to a teammate during the homecoming football game at Steamboat Springs on Friday night.
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

A late field goal pushed the Steamboat Springs High School football team over visiting Aspen on Friday night at Gardner Field, with the Sailors holding on for a 20-17 win on homecoming.

A 35-yard field goal by SSHS sophomore Charlie Reisman with less than three minutes to play proved to be the difference. With the ball and a chance to rally, the game effectively ended with an Aspen interception and a few Steamboat kneel downs.

The contest was plagued by penalties and turnovers. The action started with a long fourth-down touchdown pass midway through the first quarter that gave Aspen a 7-0 lead. The Sailors tied the game at 7-all only a few minutes later on a 29-yard Brady Grove touchdown run.

The first quarter ended in a 7-7 tie after Aspen’s kickoff return for a touchdown was called back because of a penalty. The Sailors connected on a field goal as time expired in the quarter to take a 10-7 lead into the halftime break.

Steamboat opened the third quarter with another Grove touchdown run for a 17-7 lead and looked like it had a chance to pull away, but the Skiers answered. A 27-yard field goal by Aspen made it 17-10 midway through the third quarter, and AHS quarterback Porter Lee tied the game on a run before the quarter was out for a 17-all tie entering the fourth.

Aspen’s offense sputtered in the final quarter, getting stopped on a key fourth-down try. After an AHS interception was called back because of a roughing the passer penalty, Steamboat was able to move the ball into field goal range where Reisman was able to connect with 2:54 to play.

Beck Vanderbosch’s interception not long after sealed the deal.

Steamboat, which plays a classification higher than Aspen in 3A, improved to 4-1 overall, its only loss a 50-0 rout to Moffat County in Game 2. The Sailors next have a bye and then open league play Oct. 8 against Eagle Valley in Gypsum. Steamboat will host Glenwood Springs the following week.

Aspen fell to 1-3 overall. After beating Colorado Springs Christian in the opener, the Skiers have lost three straight to Summit, Battle Mountain and now Steamboat to close out non-league play. AHS will jump into 2A Western Slope League competition next week when it hosts defending 3A spring state champion Rifle on the AHS turf. The No. 9-ranked Bears (2-2) were off this week.

Undefeated and No. 4-ranked Basalt (4-0) also had a bye this week. The Longhorns open WSL play next week against No. 7 Moffat County (4-0) in Basalt. The Bulldogs rolled over Kennedy on Friday, winning 51-15.

acolbert@aspentimes.com

Colorado high schools navigate a dire referee shortage during football season

Summit High School quarterback Hank Chabot hands the ball off to PJ Trujillo late in the fourth quarter of the Tigers' 56-0 win against the Skyview Wolverines on Sept. 3 at Tiger Stadium in Breckenridge.
John Hanson/Courtesy photo

FRISCO — On Sept. 3, Randy Schouten of Eagle-Vail and the other sports officials in his car departed a Coal Ridge football game and took part in a Garfield County Sheriff’s Office-sanctioned high-speed dash to Rifle High School.

With a police escort, Schouten and the referees drove 112 mph down Interstate 70 before speeding past traffic that had been stopped for them in the town of Rifle.

The reason? Schouten and the group of football officials were racing to get to Rifle High School for the 7:30 p.m. start of their second varsity football game of the night.

“My poor Honda CRV,” Schouten said. “We had four big guys in the car, and it wasn’t happy by the time we got to Rifle.”

Police officers blocking traffic and escorting referees from one high school to the next is just one example of how dire the officiating situation has become in Colorado for middle and high school sports.

“It’s almost to the point of getting desperate,” said Schouten, a 50-year-old referee of numerous sports who helps run the Colorado Sports Officials association.

Just how bad is the officiating situation in the mountains? In the football area Schouten covers — which ranges from Kremmling to the north, South Park to the south, and Aspen and Rifle to the west — he said he’s tasked with ensuring 14 schools have referees for sporting events. For those 14 schools, Schouten estimated he needs 35 referees to cover all football games each Friday night. He currently has only 23.

As a result, mountain schools like Summit are having to alter traditional schedules to accommodate. Two weeks from now, that’ll mean the Tigers’ big varsity football showdown versus Glenwood Springs won’t take place under the Friday night lights at Tiger Stadium. Rather, it’s been moved to Saturday afternoon.

“Friday night football games are going to go away,” official Chuck Nissen of the Colorado West Custom Sports association said. “Everybody loves Friday night lights, but if there’s no official, there’s no game.”

Schouten and Nissen said the state — and country, for that matter — has been staring down an officiating shortage for several years now. But the predicament has become worse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The two officials said the situation has boiled up to where it is now for several reasons:

  • Younger officials are not joining the ranks to replace an aging work demographic. Nissen, 62, said 60% of the officials are 50 or older.
  • Officials are experiencing more harassment from coaches, parents and even the players themselves. Last spring, the National Federation of State High School Associations conducted a survey that found 57% of departed referees said the reason they stopped officiating games was because of poor sportsmanship exhibited by parents and players.

Schouten, 50, and Nissen said poor sportsmanship, namely from parents and coaches, has a domino effect for young officials who are trying to improve at their newfound craft.

“I had two new basketball officials who both got into the business at a middle school in Eagle County, and they were learning and a coach really laid into them,” Schouten said. “So they both quit.”

And then there’s COVID-19. Schouten and Nissen were blunt that some officials quit the trade or sat out assignments last year because they did not want to wear mandated masks while refereeing games. They both said many officials, namely older referees, found the expectation of running up and down a court or field while wearing a mask to not be ideal considering their own physical fitness.

There are also referees who did not officiate, or haven’t returned to the craft, because they are worried about contracting COVID-19 during an assignment.

Summit High School Director of Athletics Travis Avery has had to work with officials to make the best of a bad situation, such as the reality that there is currently only one certified basketball official in Summit County. Avery said he can’t do things like schedule a swimming or diving meet at home unless he’s able to get one of the two officials in the mountain region to commit to a date. The athletic director also pointed to a recent junior varsity football game in Aspen where Summit and Aspen coaches had to officiate themselves.

Nissen’s sales pitch to anyone out there willing to don the white-and-black stripes?

“It’s for the kids to have the opportunity to participate and compete and have a good time,” he said.

aolivero@summitdaily.com

Emily Bernard and literary luminaries return to Aspen

“Black is the Body” author Emily Bernard is teaching a personal essay workshop this week at Aspen Autumn Words. (Courtesy Aspen Words)
IF YOU GO …

What: ‘The Only Writing is Rewriting’ panel discussion

Who: Authors Emily Bernard, Laura Fraser and Peter Orner

When: Monday, 1:30 p.m.

Where: The Gant

How much: $50 for all Autumn Words talks

Tickets: aspenwords.org

More info: A second in-person panel, “The Wrap-Up,” will run Thursday at 4 p.m.

The acclaimed and popular essayist Emily Bernard has been working with the literary nonprofit Aspen Words for almost two years now, but has never before been to Aspen in-person.

Such is the reality of the pandemic — and, Bernard noted in a phone interview, one of the wonders of virtual work — that one could form close bonds and do meaningful service without in-person interactions.

Bernard is making her first visit to Aspen next week, among the literary luminaries here for the Autumn Words writing conference and festival, which begins Sunday and runs through Friday.

Long known as “Aspen Summer Words” and hosted in June, the annual festival moved to the fall due to the coronavirus pandemic and rebranded for 2021 as Aspen Autumn Words. The six-day conference will host eight writing workshops in fiction, essay, poetry, memoir and editing with 76 students here. Along with Bernard, the faculty includes best-selling and high-profile writers including the novelists Luis Alberto Urrea (“House of Broken Angels”), Laura Fraser (“An Italian Affair”) and Rebecca Stead (“When You Reach Me”).

On Monday, Bernard will be on a public panel about revision. It’s one of just two in-person public panels at the festival this year, which also includes the in-person Book Ball fundraiser Tuesday night at the Hotel Jerome with a keynote by novelist John Grisham. In recent years, the festival has hosted one or two panels daily with faculty, but scaled back in this pandemic year and instead hosted a series of virtual panels in the month leading up to Autumn Words.

Bernard led the jury for last year’s Aspen Words Literary Prize, which was awarded to Louise Erdrich’s “The Night Watchman.” It was Bernard’s first time working with the nonprofit, with which she’s become involved in several capacities.

Her relationship with the organization sprang from a new friendship with executive director Adrienne Brodeur after Bernard reviewed Brodeur’s 2019 memoir, “Wild Game,” for O Magazine, then met her in-person at a book fair. Along with serving on the prize jury and on the faculty at Autumn Words, Bernard is a permanent member of the Aspen Words Creative Council.

A professor at the University of Vermont, Bernard is on leave this semester on a Carnegie Fellowship, so this week marks her first time teaching in-person since before the pandemic. With ample safety measures in place for the conference — including vaccination and testing verification via the ReturnSafe app — she is excited to get back into a workshop.

“To be honest, it’s really crucial that the writers have a chance to get together,” she said in a Zoom interview from South Burlington. “There is just something that happens when you’re in the room — the energy and that magic that happens when you’re in communion.”

The personal essay workshop Bernard is teaching, she noted, is extremely diverse in age — ranging from writers in their 20s to their 80s — and race and background. That kind of diversity is a boon for a group focused on writing their personal stories, she said. Bernard has high hopes for the experience and for what she described as “the privilege to sit and be still … and focus on stories and get closer as human beings.”

“I want nothing less than for all of us to leave transformed and better, as humans,” Bernard added.

Bernard is currently working on a book, tentatively titled “Unfinished Women,” which she said is a series of biographical portraits of eight Black women of the early 20th century. Among them is are the actress Fredi Washington, who was deemed too light-skinned to play Black characters; Gladys Bentley, the lesbian blues singer who pushed the boundaries of gender roles in the 1920s; and Zora Neale Hurston, author of the classic novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and an enduring titan of the Harlem Renaissance. Bernard is looking at how and why these progressive figures were stifled by their times.

“Zora Neale Hurston was the first woman to ever get a Guggenheim Fellowship,” she noted. “So how does someone like that end up penniless and dying a pauper?”

The project follows her well-received and widely read 2019 essay collection, “Black is the Body,” which is among a handful of recent nonfiction books that found a new and wider readership in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the protests that swept across the U.S. It was among the short list of books — Saidiya Hartman’s “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,” Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” and Ibram X Kendi’s “How to Be An Anti-Racist” among them — that filled Black Lives Matter reading lists that circulated widely in summer 2020 and were embraced by white audiences publicly eager to gain deeper understanding about the complexities of race relations in America.

Subtitled “Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine,” Bernard’s collection of connected personal essays delves into aspects of her life as a Black woman in the U.S., marrying a white man, being the victim of a random stabbing attack in the 1990s, adopting children and talking about racism with mostly white students in Vermont in an essay titled “Teaching the N-Word.”

Asked about being a part of the unofficial syllabus for the woke, Bernard said she was grateful to anyone who takes the time to read her work and said she was not interested in prescribing how she should be read. She also noted that the cascading crises of recent years, the pandemic and the invigorated movement for Black lives have clarified her purpose as a writer who works in the relative seclusion of the mountains in Vermont.

“I love the idea of playing a role in this moment,” she said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I was feeling maybe some kind of survivor’s guilt living in this place with very low COVID numbers, which has a lot to do with our advantage of being in this state where I can spend my whole day looking out my window and see maybe five people in a day. … I was thinking ‘What am I doing here in my little fortress? How am I contributing to the healing that needs to happen? We’ve got staggering acts of racial injustice happening right in front of our eyes but here I am sitting in Vermont, surrounded by trees?’”

Then, she said, she read stories about people like an emergency room doctor who — at the height of the coronavirus surge — would read a bit before bed each night.

“I thought, ‘Well, that’s what I can do. I can write something that will give him something to think about, give him an escape,” she said.

And if her writing can contribute to the current freedom movement, Bernard said, she is being of maximum service from her perch in Vermont: “I think my job as a writer is to tell the truth and to testify to what I believe as honestly as possible and try to help bring someone else to do the same. And it’s the same job regardless of what was happening in the world.”

atravers@aspentimes.com

Tony Vagneur: When it comes to love, there’s no horsing around


Like the trails we hike and ride upon, our forest journeys can be capricious, going down an intriguing path, unintended in the beginning, but bringing a sweet, or bitter, experience before we’re through.

And so it was, while shuffling through old email files dating back to the past, in an effort to find information regarding an appeal about an Aspen murder, I came upon a link from my first wife, Caroline, attached to a request that I forward it to a mutual friend of ours.

The link was entitled “Man O’ War’s Ghost,” by Barbara Livingston, famed photographer of thoroughbred racehorses. If you don’t know Man O’ War, he was/is a famous horse, foaled in 1917. Big Red, as he was sometimes called, intrigued Livingston and her 2018 video followed Man O’ War’s life through the various farms and tracks that he blessed until his death in 1947.

It was a heartfelt photographic narrative about one horse and the trails he had traveled, but it got me to thinking about the horses I’ve had in my life, great beasts that are never far from my memory. Like chasing rainbows through the curves of life.

It should be said, before beginning, that Caroline had a thoroughbred gelding, foaled by Diamond Arrow Farm (Buck Deane), that was a direct descendant of War Admiral, going back to Man O’ War. How’s that for bringing it home?

My first horse was named Stardust. Wouldn’t you like to know how that name came about? So would yours truly. Honestly, stuck with a naïve, very young kid, he did things a mature, normal horse would know better than to try, but a goading kid in the saddle likely convinced him to try to educate rather than thrill me. Jumping and clearing the corral gate was one of them which didn’t end well for me. My family was right to start me off on him. At age 6, my heart was broken one winter afternoon when I got off the school bus and didn’t see him in the corral. My dad had taken him to the sale barn.

Personality is what draws us to the horses we love, or convinces us we’re not compatible, and the thing about it, like people (but not in the anthropomorphic sense), their memories live on with us long after they’ve gone to the Elysian Fields.

As you might remember from a few months ago, my big bay horse, Willie, still talks to me in my dreams, and I awake with bittersweet memories, those of the time we spent together, and of his death.

Willie left us over 20 years ago, but I remember the big smile and warm feeling he always gave me in my breast as we headed out from cow camp on an early morning jaunt, striding down the path with the smoothest, fastest walk I ever experienced, his ears almost continually cocked forward, so excited to meet the day as we traveled through it. He was energy exemplified, and when your foot hit the stirrup, you’d better be ready to ride for he wasn’t going to wait for any unprepared nonsense on your part.

The first summer we spent together, I wasn’t totally trusting of his rambunctious energy, but we were getting along reasonably well. That fall, chasing some yearlings out of the high country in 6 or 7 inches of new snow, they missed the switchback going down a precipitous, heavily forested slope and I left Willie standing on the path while I hoofed it through the dense trees to turn the creatures around.

Having gotten them back on the trail, I went back to get my horse, and as I approached him to get on from the steep uphill side, my foot slipped on the slick snow and I fell underneath him. “I’m dead,” was my first thought, but Willie stood tolerably quiet while I slithered out from under his belly and put myself back together.

Still vivid in my memory is watching through the window as a woman leading a young boy struggled as she pushed a baby carriage up my unplowed winter driveway. Curious about her journey, I hurried to see if I could help. “Oh, I just wanted to show my son the beautiful horse you have in your pasture. He is magnificent.” Willie, then over 30 and in with three other much younger horses, one a beautiful paint, was the one she thought to be stunning.

As one fellow said as Willie and I waited on the side of the track as he passed by in a Jeep, “That horse loves you.” I’ve carried that with me ever since, but the truth of the matter is I loved him more than can be told. I hope he felt some of it, for his big heart deserved it all.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.

After more than decade of debate, Aspen’s Park Avenue set for safety improvements

A biker crosses Park Avenue on Hopkins as cars pass by in Aspen on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

After more than a decade of consideration by Aspen city officials, an east end neighborhood known for its high traffic use by motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians is finally going to get some attention.

However, it will be two years before a portion of Park Avenue will get a sidewalk on the east side, along with a realignment of the road where it’s the narrowest.

Aspen City Council agreed earlier this week that once residents in the area were notified of the plan, the engineering department could move forward with final design and budget the $335,000 project for 2023.

City Councilwoman Rachel Richards said during Monday’s work session that she wanted the project to be moved into the 2022 budget, but city staff said the capital asset plan for next year is already set and the improvements will be more economical when stormwater work on the adjacent Midland Avenue is planned for 2023.

Previous councils have talked about making improvements to Park and Midland avenues since the mid-2000s, with the focus on making it a one-way loop.

Residents in the area have been split on what should occur in the neighborhood, which has been highlighted in the last year of outreach conducted by the city.

Putting a sidewalk on Park Avenue will affect several homeowners who are using the city’s right of way for landscaping as an extension of their properties.

“I think we’ve let it go far too long of people using the right of way as part of their property and designing homes,” she said. “We need to make sure that’s not happening anymore and get back what we can because pedestrian safety and the safety of the traveling public, the safety of buses is very, very important.”

With continued concerns from the neighborhood on pedestrian safety and vehicle interactions, council directed staff at the end of 2019 to revisit improvements to the area, according to Pete Rice, the city’s engineering division manager.

Earlier this year the engineering department received direction to proceed with a schematic of a two-way street on Park Avenue with an attached sidewalk along the east side, as well as intersection improvements at Park Avenue and East Hopkins Avenue, where a pedestrian and bike path ends.

Community outreach in 2020 showed that the intersection felt unsafe to pedestrians and bikers, according to Rice.

In response, the city hired a consultant to perform a traffic study in the neighborhood and found that stop signs were warranted at the intersection to better control interactions between people traveling in different directions and on various modes of transportation, Rice said.

Neighbors and users in the area have reported that the stop signs have improved the situation at Hopkins and Park.

At that intersection, staff plans to realign and regrade the trail terminus, raise the pedestrian crossing and make improvements to the bus stop.

The sidewalk on Park Avenue will reach that intersection and will be between 3 and 5 feet wide, depending on the width of the road and the city’s right of way.

The realignment of the road will shift no more than 5 feet to the west, according to Carly McGowan, the city’s project manager.

The road will narrow from 12-foot travel lanes to 10 feet wide.

At its narrowest, the right of way on Park Avenue is 26 feet wide where the two existing sidewalk segments end and pedestrians are forced to walk on the road, often crossing the street mid-block facing oncoming traffic with poor visibility because of curves, trees and houses close to the street, McGowan said.

csackariason@aspentimes.com

 

REVIEW: ‘A Hero’ at Aspen Filmfest shows filmmaker’s knack for solid storytelling

“A Hero” played Aspen Filmfest on Friday. (Courtesy Aspen Film)
SATURDAY AT ASPEN FILMFEST

2 p.m.: ‘Bernstein’s Wall,’ Isis Theatre

5: ‘Flee,’ Wheeler Opera House

5: ‘Breaking Bread,’ Crystal Theatre (Carbondale)

7:30: ‘The Guilty,’ Crystal

8: ‘The Many Saints of Newark,’ Wheeler

More information: www.aspenfilm.org

A bag of gold is an ethical Pandora’s box in “A Hero,” Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s latest domestic thriller.

The new film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and screened at Aspen Filmfest on Friday. It is due for a theatrical and streaming release from Amazon Studios in January.

Farhadi, in the decade since his Oscar-winning international breakthrough “A Separation,” has created some of the most memorable and most morally complicated characters in cinema. Rahim, the beleaguered man at the center of this suspenseful melodrama, is among his most fascinatingly inscrutable.

Jailed in the city of Shiraz for failing to pay a debt, Rahim (Amir Jadidi) is desperate to find a way to make good and begin supporting his son and ex-wife. When his girlfriend, Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), finds a purse filled with gold while Rahim is on leave from debtor’s prison, he believes he may have found his ticket to solvency. But rather than taking the gold — it’s not quite enough to save them anyway — he launches a plan to find whoever left it behind instead. Farhadi and Jadidi don’t reveal Rahim’s exact motives in returning it — Is it truly altruistic? Is he gunning for a larger reward? — and the rest of the film plays out what seem like every worst-case scenario for the situation.

Jail officials see a public relations opportunity in Rahim’s story of giving back the gold and land him on the local news. But then his loan shark and others start pulling at loose threads from the story, beginning a vicious spiral of white lies, larger deceits, exploitations and some heartrending if unsurprising societal cruelty.

As one character sums it up: “Nothing is free in this world.”

“A Hero” contributes perspective to the current conversation around “cancel culture” and the way that communities and the media that represent communities so often build people up just to tear them down. But because this is a Farhadi film, nothing is in black and white and nobody is entirely a hero or a villain. The viewer roots for Rahim, but is given countless reasons to doubt him; we are repelled by the loan shark — played with depth beneath a calloused exterior by Mohsen Tanabandeh — and yet Farhadi also makes us empathize with his side of the story and makes us to consider why he won’t drop charges and allow Rahim to leave jail.

Visually, Farhadi sticks to his well-established unfussy approach. The film is not stylized and seems unmediated — Farhadi allows you to forget you’re seeing the story through the lens of a camera and from the perspective of a filmmaking team and have a human experience.

Watching Fahardi’s films — his last three have been Filmfest selections — it’s clear that he has become the best working filmmaker for kitchen sink drama. He’s a holdout on the big screen, as the genre has moved largely to television and serial programming.

But witnessing Farhadi at his best, as he is here and in “The Salesman” and “A Separation,” these films make a great argument for the relative brevity of a well-made satisfying two-hour narrative. “A Hero” could be lengthened and deepened into a 10-part series — all of Farhadi’s films could — but they are near perfect as they are, parsing intricacies of how we live today and trusting the viewer (and smart actors like Jadidi) to fill in backstory and context without making every bit of it explicit on screen.

We may not be able to decide who to trust in “A Hero,” but we know we’re in good hands with Farhadi as a storyteller.

atravers@aspentimes.com

County needs to get away from current testing system

My last letter about my daughter’s COVID testing experience resulted in me receiving a number of phone calls about her experience but sadly none from anyone who mattered. (“Pitkin tests results aren’t worth the wait”, Sept. 15) I learned that Aspen COVID Test offers a fully certified lab with capacity to handle more than 4x the current tests being run countywide for less money with same day turn around. Let me say that again. Aspen COVID Test can do all the testing Pitkin County needs with same day results for less money than Texas-based Microgen is charging the state of Colorado. Why did the state choose Microgen for Pitkin County? The state is requiring Pitkin to use a test site that is out of state, doesn’t provide visibility or granularity into testing data, doesn’t processes tests on weekends, takes days to return results and costs more money.

Our County board of health, county manager, state COVID testing manager, mayor and commissioners should all be on the hot seat trying to explain what seems inexplicable. Why pay more money to an out of state company for test results that are so slow as to put lives and our town’s livelihood at risk? How much more willing would our citizens be to get tested if results were returned same day? Miss an afternoon of work or school not 3-5 days while awaiting test results. Be able to actually contact trace positive results.

If you are one of our town’s members who has Governor Polis’s cell phone please ask him, if you see Mayor Torre, county manager Jon Peacock or Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman around town please ask them. And we shouldn’t accept as an answer some nonsensical bureaucratic state mandated solution. Our leaders need to lead. We have a qualified, fast and less expensive local solution that will help keep students in school, businesses open and people out of the hospital. Let’s get this sorted now, before the demands of winter ski season and or a nastier new variant make us pay an even greater price for shipping test samples to Texas.

Dan Goldman

Snowmass Village

Where’s the Aspen love?

Recently, I decided to move to Aspen on a more permanent basis, where my mother has owned multiple properties for years.

I joined an Aspen, Colorado Facebook group and announced this fact in the group. I was welcomed by many friendly members; however, there were some who basically said “We don’t want you here.”

Sadly, I am not alone in this experience. I have reviewed others’ posts where they have received similar backlash simply for wanting to share this wonderful place in the world.

These online haters I encountered seem to think that Aspen is “theirs” and are unwilling to share it with anyone.

What is wrong with our society today where we have turned our back on our founding principles and instead replaced them with a selfish, zero-sum-game mentality? Is there so much resentment that we are close to an internal conflict resembling a civil war?

You can hate me all you want, but I promise I am not responsible for your plight. In fact, I am protesting income inequality and corporate greed by giving up my high-paying career to live more austerely, and I am writing inspirational stories (for free on my blog) that I hope will help society. Trust me, I am not the one to blame.

I would love to dialogue with you to discuss potential remedies to the housing crisis facing our collective home. I am sure with all the bright minds in this community, we can find some sort of solution.

Austin Rosenthal

Aspen

McWhorter best for RE-1 board

The upcoming Board of Education election is critical for our community. RE-1 has been shifting their focus off top-quality education and more on social services for the last several years. All of our children and their futures are suffering as a result.

If you value high quality education free from political agendas, freedom, the ability to be yourself at school, for your kids to be encouraged to reach their potential, to take personal responsibility for results, and to trust one another again, then it is time to elect Chase McWhorter for the Roaring Fork Schools Board District A seat.

Our current BOE is taking away personal freedoms and rights from parents and kids. Our voices are not being listened, the board is not transparent in their actions, makes it difficult for parents to voice concerns, and do whatever they want without fear of being held accountable.

Parents, students and the community are listed at the top of the district’s organizational chart. Yet it feels anything but. The BOE and superintendent work for us. They answer to us. And this election is a reminder that our votes matter and we matter.

I fully support Chase McWhorter because he is not a bureaucrat, nor a part of the education system. He will not continue the status quo policies that result in declining student performance. He has vowed to listen to the parents and be held accountable for his actions on the BOE. Chase is the outsider and leader we need right now to change the direction our local education is heading.

Vote for Chase McWhorter.

Mindy Arbuckle

Glenwood Springs