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Monday, November 07, 2005

Foreward: The Lives and Times of Ropey Scowzer

The Lives and Times of Ropey Scowzer

Who is Ropey Scowzer? It’s not a question easily answered. For most, it’s not even easily posed. The sheer magnitude of the subject dwarfs even the most accomplished thinkers of our time. Noam Chomsky, Norman Mailer, even Norm from Cheers – none have been able to encapsulate the cultural enormity of the phenomenon known as Ropey Scowzer.

According to legend, he has been many things to many people: actor, singer, poet, priest; explorer, gypsy, hairstylist; butcher, baker, candlestick maker; warmonger, spokesmodel, clothes horse.

For decades, Rope Ezekiel Scowzer has been something of an urban legend. It was easy to dismiss the rumours. There were so many stories, some told in hushed tones over watery pints, some published in large print with illustrations by Road Dahl. Just how could a single human possibly span the length and breadth of these tales, which increase in size and scope with each retelling, in suggested retail price with each reprinting? Higher education and the edification of pop culture in the western world long ago placed blind faith on the wane; if God can’t get a fair shake without scientific proof, how could Ropey? Surely, then, he was more myth than man. He had to be.

The stories are beyond belief. Depending on whom you ask, he’s been a monster, a minister, a pimp and a patient. He’s been bilked, bitten, admired and admitted. He’s charmed the pants off dozens of women, scared the pants off hundreds of men, and just plain pantsed the rest. For a brief time in the late 1960’s, he was the key advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau – a failed experiment that culminated in both the country’s only declaration of martial law and the formation of Bachman Turner Overdrive. Contrary to popular belief, however, he has never been a small Scandinavian country on the verge of nuclear power.

Surprisingly, the truth is as compelling as any barstool preacher’s tall tale. But unlike Charles Dickens’ Gatsby or the Boy Wonder in Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Ropey Scowzer actually lives up to his liquor-drenched reputation. Just about all the rumours are true; nearly every bit of hearsay bears very real, very juicy fruit. With the sheer number of stories out there, one can’t help but naysay and scoff. It’s hard to believe, but Ropey Scowzer really has been there, really has done that.

Yes, the blitzkrieg, or lightning warfare, concept was at least partly his brainchild. And yes, a war of words with his boyhood Spanish teacher, Hsiang Youn-Hsiang, really did escalate to a duel with epées atop the Tower of London. It’s true that Ropey, feeling mistreated after his fight with Trudeau, used his vast network of contacts to ensure Canada’s status as the only Olympic host nation to go without gold on home turf: at both Montreal’s 1972 Summer Games and Calgary’s Winter Games 16 years later, judges were bribed, shoes were tampered with and drinks were bought until the Great White North was friendless, poorly equipped and debilitatingly hung over.

Who is Ropey Scowzer? Hell, what is Ropey Scowzer?

When Robert DeNiro starred in the 1983 biopic Scowzer!, most critics blasted it for its lack of realism. Francis Ford Coppola’s sweeping melodrama was filmed mostly in Soho, giving the Saskatchewan prairie an oddly urban feel. The effect was supposed to be ironic – could the now-famous line, “That damned sea of wheat always gives me the shivers,” uttered in a gritty coffee shop in the Village, be anything else? – but the result was considered too surreal for the business-minded 80s.

Like much of Coppola’s early work, it was ahead of its time. Scowzer! didn’t find its audience until the late 90s, when both the BBC and CBC adapted the flick. England’s version captured hearts as a delicate eight-part miniseries starring Derek Jacobi; Canada’s entry won several awards as a National Film Board-sponsored, hand-drawn animated short. A few years later, a small Kansas city theatre started midnight screenings every Tuesday night; social outcasts and film geeks were the first to champion the picture, which they claimed needs at least 40 viewings for even slight comprehension. Movie lovers around the world have since embraced Scowzer! as an invaluable tour de force. The director himself commented in a recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine, calling it “easily my best work – I wish Apocalypse Now had an exclamation point in the title.” Today, four out of five young directors cite DeNiro’s supply of the junta amidst plastic ferns in Tribeca to be the main reason they got into cinema in the first place. *

Despite DeNiro’s own growing legend, however, he just couldn’t pull off enough swagger to sell the miraculous string of events attributed to the real-life Scowzer – the emaciated solo trek through the Andes failed to elicit half the buzz of his earlier weight gain for Raging Bull – and the disastrous closing musical number is the unanimous patsy to blame for Dustin Hoffman’s codeine-lined turn in Ishtar.

Until recently, little was known about Scowzer’s early years, the many gaps in time and logic filled with myth, wishful thinking and unreal conjecture. But now, declassification of all non-essential documents by Canadian and American government agencies – not to mention Jimmy Stewart’s deathbed confession after several cans of Red Bull were added to his IV – has made it possible to finally tell the whole story.

Here, then, are the lives and times of Ropey Scowzer.

* Statistics packaged by weight, not by volume. Some settling may occur.


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