On Sunday I finished reading the David Itzkoff’s, Robin, his biography of Robin Williams. I’ve always been a fan of Hollywood true stories, but they’re usually books about the Golden Age of Hollywood, like The Divine Feud, A Cast of Killers, or biographies of Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift.
This was the first Hollywood biography I’ve read that was about about an actor whose career spanned my own lifetime. I worshipped Robin Williams when I was a kid. As I got older, his movies were liking checking your pulse to make sure you’re heart is okay. Some how, the release of his famous movies always were always in tuned with whatever I was going through at the time.
As the book charted the course of his career, I felt like I was walking down memory lane. I remember seeing the episode of Happy Days where he made is first appearance as Mork from Ork. I watched Mork and Mindy religiously. I had a Mork from Ork T-shirt and action figure. The movie adaption of The World According to Garp, changed my life when I was in my teens, and Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, and The Fisher King were laxatives for the tears I was holding in at the time. I was never a huge of Good Will Hunting, but I was happy for Robin Williams when he won the Oscar for it.
As one does when they’re reading a biography, I Googled some of his early work, particularly his comedy albums. Reality, What a Concept, was the first comedy album I ever bought with my own money. I listened to it constantly until I could recite almost the entire 90 minute set. The album had me in stitches even though I didn’t get half the jokes. Listening to it nearly forty years, there were still a handful of jokes I don’t understand.
Like a lot of kids in the seventies who sought refuge in comedy and comedians, I spent a lot of time imitating Robin Williams. I would do variations of his act and impressions of his impressions. Reading about his early career in the late-seventies, it dawned on me that I was an eleven year old kid imitating a coke addict. In light of some of the poorer life-choices I made in my twenties, I can see now that I saw of more myself in him than I thought.
Robin Williams greatest appeal to me was his humanity. He was raucous and out there, but he was also incredibly sensitive. What surprised me about his life, was how insecure he was about his talent and his place in Hollywood. He took roles because he was afraid to turn them down and he worried there wasn’t enough room for him in Hollywood. He accepted roles other actors turned down, and when he did develop projects that were suited to his talents, critics derided him for being too sincere.
It was that humanity that caused tears to well up in my eyes whenever I opened the book. It made me nostalgic for my childhood and gave me the opportunity to relieve what it was like to watch each performance for the first time. I’ve also experienced Robin Williams’ pain first hand. Having had friends commit suicide, I could see what would drive someone to do it.
As an example of how ahead of his time Robin Williams was, he made a provision in his will to protect his voice and image for twenty-five years. Despite his insecurities and flaws, he knew those were the things he truly owned. Now he’s protecting them from beyond the grave. At a time when people are willing to sell their souls for a bit of security, it’s nice to know some of my heroes had their integrity in tact.
Anyone who is a fan of original the Blade Runner is familiar with its history: It was box office flop when it was released in 1982 and got a second life when it was released on video—one of the first movies to do so. But there’s another story in the Blade Runner’s canon that is rarely discussed, and that is its popularity with the gay men in the eighties and nineties.
For most people, Blade Runner is a cool noir movie set in the future. But for gay men of a certain age, Blade Runner is also a parable about the AIDS crisis.
The most obvious comparison between the four replicants who escape to earth to confront their maker and AIDS patients from the eighties, is their quest for more time.
In the film, replicants are “born” with Methuselah Syndrome, a gene that limits their life span to four years, preventing them from developing emotions and rising up against their masters. At the time the film was released, the majority of AIDS patients were predominantly young gay men (as well as women and haemophiliacs). If anyone wanted more time, it was these men whom, like the replicants, were in the prime of their lives. It’s a theme that was echoed in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America ten years later.
When Roy, the replicant leader finally meets his maker, Dr. Tyrell, he’s told there is no cure for the gene that will cut his life short. Tyrell explains he tried everything to reverse the effects of the gene but the virus is too resilient. Roy bargains with Tyrell, he proposes different possibilities for a cure, and Tyrell tells him why they don’t work.
Roy is skeptical of Tyrell’s dedication to a cure, just as AIDS activists questioned pharmaceutical company’s commitment to finding an effective and affordable treatment, not to mention that lack of support from the so-called leader of the Free World, Ronald Reagan. Whether it was increasing funding to find a cure or promote awareness, every solution proposed to prevent the virus from spreading was met with excuses.
“The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long,” Dr. Tyrell tells Roy right before Roy kills him. Up until AIDS began its Sherman’s march across the queer community, gay men had never known so many freedoms, especially in San Francisco and New York. The flame that was gay liberation that shone so bright in the seventies, was quickly being extinguished in the early eighties. And like the replicants, it was Conservatives’ only method of keeping gay men enslaved and preventing the uprising that was to come in the form of ACT-UP.
Like the Nexus 6 model Replicants of 2041, gay men of the eighties were a rare breed on the verge of extinction. If they didn’t take matters into their own hands, they would be doomed.
There are other, more subtle comparisons between the queer community in the eighties and the Los Angles of Blade Runner. The movie’s costumes screamed of the club scene post Studio 54; the refusal to recognize that replicants and gay men were sentient beings who could experience love; and of course that feeling of hiding in plain site from the authorities. I don’t think a sentence better describes trying to pass as straight in the eighties than Tyrell Corp’s motto “More human than human.”
Not only did the themes of Blade Runner resonate with gay men, but so did the original soundtrack by Vangelis.
Before Blade Runner, Vangelis introduced mainstream pop audiences to electronica with his Academy Award winning score for Chariots of Fire. The album was a blend of classical and electronic music that went well at dinner parties and in elevators.
With Blade Runner, Vangelis took it up a notch and created a score that could have come out of the gay bathhouses and sex clubs of the eighties. The album has a feeling of catharsis to it that goes well with two men fucking. Many of the gay porn videos would incorporate the heavy beats and electronic chimes from the soundtrack into the music that played over the moans and groans of men getting it on. There is no doubt in my mind there is a direct link between Vangelis’ score and Moby, whose albums would define the gay party scene in the nineties.
Now that I’ve seen Blade Runner 2049, I can say that it is a film for our time as Blade Runner was for its time. The moral and military control corporations have over our daily lives; how we negotiate our virtual relationships, not to mention technology’s relationship with the natural world resonated with me. There are still tendrils of connections between the old film’s themes and production design and the new one, but you would have to know they were there to appreciate them.
Blade Runner 2049 may attempt to define to what it means to be human in 2017, (and if its first weekend’s box office gross is any indication, the film’s position in pop culture as well), but in my humble opinion,the original has way more soul.
I love film criticism, especially when it’s as well written as this one. Jen Sookfong Lee does an excellent job of describing the context of when “My Own Private Idaho” was released in 1991–what was happening in Pop Culture and how gays and lesbians were being portrayed in films and on TV. She explains where the movie fit in with the Grunge scene, how it influenced fashion, and the risks River Phoenix and Kanequ Reeves when they starred in it.
My favourite parts of the book were when she compared the story of Mike and Scott her own story of growing up in an immigrant household and who the movie changed her perception of what one could expel from life. Her short biography about River Phoenix’s life was also really touching. Reading the book I was constantly reminded of learning of his death in the New York Times, and the morbid trek my roommate and I took to the Viper Room in LA to see where he died.
If you’re looking for a light read, I don’t know if this it. It’s a slim volume but there’s a lot of information in it. Parts of it read like a university thesis, but I was totally fine with that. If you take film seriously and watch movies over and over again to figure out what makes them great, I would recommend this book.
The story follows the members of the Paris chapter of ACT-UP in the early nineties. At the time the film takes place, AZT is the only treatment available to AIDS patients which was either ineffective, or the side effects were so violent, people stopped taking it. Antivirals (or the cocktail as the are known) were still being tested; however, pharmaceutical companies were keeping the results close to their chests.
I’ve seen a lot of “AIDS” movies in my time: Longtime Companion, Philadelphia, Parting Glances, and The Living End to name a few. Those films were released at the height of the crisis when there seemed to be no end in sight. They had an immediacy to them; they were pleas for help and compassion. They tried to humanize the victims of AIDS—portray them as people instead of monsters who got what they deserved, as so many right-wing politicians wanted us to believe.
There have been a few AIDS epics over the years, the most successful being the stage production and HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s, Angels in America, which is brilliant. I recently saw the Arts Club’s production of Perestroika at The Stanley and was amazed by how many of the themes resonate today. That said, the play was written and produced when AIDS was still a death sentence.
What distinguishes BPM from the movies of the eighties and nineties is that it is set at the cusp of a major medical breakthrough. When my friends and I talk about our friends who succumbed to the virus, we often say, “If they had just hung on for another year they would have made it.” In many ways, the characters are doing exactly that: hanging on for one more year.
The VIFF program described BPM as face-paced, and a race against time. That’s only half true. The protagonists are definitely running out of time, but the film’s pacing is methodical. There are a lot of scenes in meeting rooms that center around debates as to what course of action to take next. I’ll admit there were moments when I wished I could have paused the film to stretch; at the same time, I couldn’t stop watching it and wanted to see how it ended.
Although I wished the director, Robin Campillo, picked up the pace, I could not shake the feeling that I was watching something epic. The film’s structure felt like it had been borrowed from the documentary How to Survive a Plague, but the story was so artfully told it was easy to shake the comparisons.
Whereas Angels in America was a mediation about a nation’s soul, BPM was closer to Love in the Time of Cholera. Yes, the characters are fighting to change the world, but they are also falling in love with each other at the same time. There is an unlikely romance at the centre of the film which drives the narrative to its conclusion and rips your heart out at the end. It was so emotional that I had to ask the woman next to me in the theatre if she was okay when it was over, she was so emotional.
What distinguishes BPM from other stories that tried to impose the AIDS epidemic on larger issues, is how poetically it is told. The characters are constantly talking about the “next molecule” and there are lots of imagery of cells and dust floating in the air that are superimposed over images of people dancing at a club after a protest. It was beautiful watching how all of these images finally came together at the end of the film.
As North Americans, I feel like we are constantly checking the time when we go to the movies. We know when the next plot twist is going to happen, you can practically set your watch to the next fight or explosion. I’m embarrassed to say, it took a bit of practice to sit back and let the film unfold at it’s own pace.
Once I relaxed into the story, I could appreciate how much the film’s director borrowed directly from AIDS films of the eighties and nineties and then built on what they did best. I never once felt like my emotions were being manipulated or that I was being preached to. I could separate myself from my own experience with disease and appreciate the film as a bystander.
BPM is a very human film about limited choices and rising to a challenge. As someone who lived through crisis I can say with confidence it is one of the most accurate depictions of what it was like. And though the challenges might be different, the obstacles—wealth and ignorance—are as relevant now as they were then.
One of the benefits of having a good revue cinema in your neighbourhood is that it forces you to see old movies you’ve been putting off renting.
On Monday I went and saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind at The Rio, a movie I’ve been promising myself to watch for years now. I had only ever seen it once and that was on TV with commercials—lots and lots of commercials.
I remember when Close Encounters first came out 40 years ago. It was Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to Jaws. Now that I think about it, Close Encounters would have been to Jaws, what M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable was to The Sixth Sense: a test of an exciting new director’s talent. Was Jaws a fluke or was it all in the directing?
As I recall, Close Encounters was being marketed as a science fiction thriller. The film’s poster was ominous looking with its pitch black road that lead towards a bright light in the night sky. The commercials featured people looking into bright lights, concerned air traffic controllers, spaceships taking over cars, and luring children into fields. It was more than my 10 year old heart could handle.
The movie had an extended run at The Odeon in my hometown for its initial release. The Odeon was this cool old single screen cinema with a balcony. It had a reputation for showing grittier movies, like Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy, whereas the Shoppers World Cinema featured more family friendly fare. One of the things I love about The Rio is how much it reminds of The Odeon, and downtown Brampton in the seventies.
I would have been in my early teens by the time I saw Close Encounters on television. VCRs weren’t as ubiquitous then, and my father was too cheap to buy one even if they were. The the network television premiere of a movie was an event.
I had more experience with tension-filled movies by then. I had seen Jaws, albeit on TV, but could handle a good jolt. I probably watched it on my brother’s black and white portable television while he was out with his friends.
The movie was nothing like I imagined it to be. Instead of being a thriller, it was more of a science fiction mystery where scientists are trying to learn the meaning of five chords that keep making their presence known in different parts of the world. It was more 2001: A Space Odyssey than Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I loved it. Except for the very end that felt like it went on for too long.
This being the 40th anniversary edition of the film, there was the obligatory mini-documentary about making of the movie. Spielberg said the inspiration for the film came out of the Nixon hearings of all things. He said, watching the hearing, he felt that the government had been keeping secrets from the country and he wondered what else they were hiding from them.
They talked to JJ Abrams, who I’m just not a fan of. I loved Cloverfield and I enjoyed his Star Trek and Star Wars reboots, but I don’t see him as the heir apparent to Spielberg and Lucas, like the film industry is trying to make us believe. Even his homage to Spielberg, Super 8, left me feeling wanting more.
They also spoke Denis Villeneuve, who directed Arrival and the Blade Runner 2049. I might be biased because he’s Canadian, but I found Villeneuve to be far more interesting. He saw Close Encounters in university and said the movie was a study in directing. You can see the echoes of Close Encounters in Arrival. And then he summed up the movie perfectly when he said the aliens and the humans attempt to communicate through culture. It was so French.
I’m pretty sure the the 40th anniversary print looks better than when the movie was released in 1977. The colours were brilliant and the special effects still hold up. The sound was perfect. You heard every freaking noise.
I was surprised by how many themes and images made their first appears in Close Encounters that would resurface again in movies like ET and Poltergeist. There’s the creepy blond child who gets abducted by an unseen entity; there were the rolling thunder clouds; the house set against the edge of a large field; the chaos of child-rearing; supernatural beings taking control of a home; governments covertly invading a community.
Narratively, Close Encounters is closer to AI than ET or Poltergeist. There’s a spiritual quality to Close Encounters that I’ve always found comforting, perhaps because I was raised Catholic and don’t believe in God. Here you have Roy, the least spiritual person in the world becoming obsessed with visitations and visions of a place he’s never seen. He develops a psychic connection with others who are having the same vision and whom everyone thinks are crazy. And some of them are. It’s an interesting perspective for an alien movie. Way ahead of its time.
My biggest complaint about Close Encounters the first time I saw it was the ending. This time my biggest complaint was the red jumpsuits they gave to the people who were selected to go on the ship by the government. The red jumpsuits were one of the biggest nods to the seventies in the entire film. Everything else looked so organic by contrast.
I was really hoping that Disney would restore the Star Wars: A New Hope and release it in the theatres for its 40th anniversary. How they passed on such a huge money-making machine is beyond me. Close Encounters was a great substitute and is probably the better film truth be told.
I read a biography about George Lucas earlier this year and the author talked about how Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola looked down on Spielberg and didn’t consider him to be of their calibre. Close Encounters definitely proves them wrong.
Visiting Toronto always feels like I’m watching a home movie about my life. Toronto was the first city I lived in on my own after I left home. It’s been nearly 30 years since I moved to Vancouver, but whenever I’m back I’ll see a building or walk down a street and will be whisked back to my twenties.
I was in Toronto last week visiting family. I had been in the city for less the twelve hours, scourging for a cup of coffee when I saw was a photocopied poster for a screening of Boys in the Sand at the Cineforum and boom, there I was back in 1988.
I remembered seeing those posters all the time when I lived downtown. There were usually a group of them stapled to a telephone pole. They were all over town. And even though I loved cinema as much, if not more, than I do now, I never went to a screening.
The poster for Boys in the Sand immediately caught my eye. I recently saw Seed Money, a documentary about Chuck Holmes and Falcon Studios, the major producer of gay porn in the seventies and eighties. The film made me realize just how much porn influenced gay male culture. We didn’t see ourselves on TV or in movies back then, and when we did, we were usually portrayed as lisping fags there for comic relief or to be murdered.
Boys in the Sand is one of those films I’ve heard all about but have never seen. It’s referenced constantly in gay plays and novels from seventies as the ultimate in gaydom. It’s the antithesis of The Boys in the Band; whereas as that film was about self-loathing homosexuals, Boys in the Sand was a sex-positive celebration of gay scene on Fire Island.
I made a point of taking a picture of the poster in case I had time to see the film while I was in the city. I showed the photo to the friend I was crashing with to see if he was interested in seeing it with me.
“Is Reg Hart still screening movies in his living room?” my friend asked. “I thought he was dead.”
“No,” I told him. “This is at Cineforum.”
“Yeah. Cineforum is Reg Hart’s living room.”
This put a new spin on things. Now I had to see the film if for no other reason than to experience Reg Hart and his underground film series.
I Googled Cineforum. Only a handful of pictures came up. What I could see looked kind of cramped but charming in an underground cinema kind of way. My biggest concern was claustrophobia. The weather in Toronto had been going back and forth between really hot and raining. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to stand watching a movie in a living room for nearly two hours. Not to mention the fact it was $20 for the screening and I was burning through money as it was.
Still, there was this part of me that really wanted to experience this firsthand. I thought back to the eighties and all those posters for screenings of John Waters and advante garde movies. Reg Hart and his Cineforum was the only way you could see a subsersvive and banned movies; it wasn’t like you could just go online and find a bootleg copy. And here he was, thirty years later, screening Boys in the Sand, the first mainstream gay porn. This could be my last chance to see it for a long time and I didn’t want to pass it up.
As fate would would have it, I ended up going for dinner with my nieces the night of the screening. I told them about the film and where it was being screened and they were intrigued. I kept looking at the time on my phone, but we were having such a wonderful evening I didn’t want to cut it short. Not to mention, I had a couple of drinks in me and wasn’t sure I had a 90 minute porn in me.
I’m still kicking for myself for not getting to the movie. I looked to see if I can find a copy of the movie online but have come up empty. I did get to see a documentary about Allan Carr at the Inside Out festival, and while it was no Boys in the Sand, it scratched an itch.
The movie is basically a love letter to Armistead Maupin and the Tales of the City. I liked the film, even though there were moments when I felt like it was becoming a 90 minute book trailer for his upcoming memoir, which I don’t need any convincing to buy.
The scenes where Maupin was performing for an audience reminded me why he’s deserving of a documentary. He’s a better writer than people give him credit for. Maupin has a lovely turn of phrase and a way with metaphors that comes from his southern roots. He can also be really campy when he wants to, which shines through in his personality as much as his novels.
As a narrative documentary, the film is very effective. I didn’t know that Armistead Maupin worked for Jesse Helms in his 20s only to be attacked by Helms in the 90’s after the Tales of the Cityminiseries aired on PBS. I also didn’t know that he met Richard Nixon at the White House, or that his father was a White Nationalist.
The stories of how Maupin emerged from the closet were the most interesting to me. He basically suppressed his sexuality for so long that when when he moved to San Francisco, he didn’t just come out of the closet, he broke down the door and made furniture out of it.
I knew the newspaper series was ahead of its time, but I didn’t realize just how ahead of its time until I heard the former editor of the Chronicle talk about his concerns with the direction the story was going and the introduction of more gay characters as it went along.
I loved the clips of interviews with Maupin from the seventies and eighties. The best parts of the film are meeting some of the people who inspired the characters in the books. There’s his roommate and friend Stephen Beery who undoubtedly was the basis for Michael Toliver. In the interview footage, Stephen comes off as goofy and sweet, a person who said what was on his mind regardless of propriety.
Another person you meet is the food writer (whose name I forget) at the Chronicle whom Maupin partied with. She comes off as one of those garish seniors who defy age and provides some of the funniest lines in the film. I’m positive she was the inspiration for the character of Mona. There’s a scene in the film where she describes his coming out to her. Upon Maurine’s telling her he’s gay, she says, “Big fucking deal. Half of San Francisco is gay.” The way she said it sounded exactly like Mona’s dialog from the books.
Most of the audience at the screening were middle-aged men and lesbians who obviously identified with the books. Let’s just say, there weren’t a lot A-gays in the crowd. Not that it’s a bad thing; these are my people and it’s nice to reconnect with them. In some respects, I felt like I was at an Anne of Green Gables convention.
The screening could not have come a better time. I just spent the last three months re-reading all nine volumes in the series. I started on February 14, the day of my best friend, Keith’s, birthday. Keith died four years ago, and for some reason, I was having a really difficult time of it this year. Reading Tales of the City always helps me feel closer to him; they were the only books he ever read.
The series has always served as a touchstone for me. The books are a great way of reflecting on my life, and the world in general. They’re not genius like Remembrance of Things Past, but Maupin’s reliance on pop culture and current events takes me back to where I was at that point in time. The books are like a journal in that sense, resuscitating old emotions and jogging memories.
As I read them this time I noticed that, the first three books (Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, and Further Tales of the City) are about the friends you make in your twenties. You go on wild adventures; you’re willing to take more chances, and throw caution to the wind. You know what you don’t want from life, but you’re not exactly sure what you do want from it.
I also noticed how often the characters call each other out on their shit. I became more aware of each character’s flaws by what another character said when they were mad at them. As far-fetched as some of the scenarios in the books can be, the emotions get pretty raw and the fights can get pretty personal.
There were scenes that reminded me of episodes from my twenties where I fucked someone over, either by design or by accident, and was called out on it. What defines those moments are not what I did, but how I felt when confronted with my actions. The people who actually said something are the ones I remember the most and still talk to today. They made me a better person.
The next three books (Babycakes, Significant Others, and Sure of You), illustrate how the relationships from your twenties evolve and mature in your thirties. Some friends disappear for a while and come back. You find yourself becoming better friends with the people who used to be in the periphery of your social circle. You hang onto grudges with the people in your life. And even though you still love them, you replay moments, good and bad, that remind you of why you are still friends.
I think Babycakes is perhaps one of the most underrated books of the eighties. It perfectly captures the fear and paranoia of the AIDS crisis as well as the sense of loss and mourning we were all experiencing. It’s a beautiful portrait of a gay man struggling with survival guilt and trying to navigate an uncertain future and his place in it. If you ever want to know what the AIDS crisis was like, I recommend reading this book, it captures it perfectly.
Sure of You, was meant to be the final chapter of the series. The book is another example of Maupin’s skill as a writer. Maupin drops all the pretence of intrigue and adventure from the previous five books and settles for what feels like a drawing room comedy about the eighties.
There’s a heartbreaking moment between the series’ ingenue Mary Ann Singleton and her adopted daughter Shawna. Mary Ann bequeathes a suitcase full of Shawna’s birth mother, Connie’s, possessions to her. The case is literally a time capsule of the first book in the series. Contained in it is a terry-cloth python with plastic eyes that roll.
That snake and Connie’s other possessions represent everything Mary Ann hated about Shawna’s mother, and yet they sum up the innocence and niavete of the first book.
Who would have dreamed she would end up the custodian of Connie’s memory? Maupin writes of Mary Ann. It’s a feeling I’ve experienced many times over the last thirty years.
No one was more surprised than I was when Maupin added three more books to the series (Michael Toliver Lives, Mary Ann in Autumn, and The Days of Anna Madrigal). I remember being hesitant to crack open the seventh book for fear it would ruin the series, the way The Phantom Menace ruined Star Wars. The seventh book does have the feeling of being tacked on at the end, but I certainly identified with Michael Toliver and in his fifties.
What the last three books are able to capture is the new people in your life as you get older. Maupin introduces a group of younger characters who inherit the memory of 28 Barbary Lane and embody what San Francisco has become. He makes you care for these people the way he made you care for Michael, Mary Ann, Mona, and Brian.
At the same time, the relationship between the original four has evolved yet again. They are still in each other’s lives, but not the way they were in the seventies and eighties. They’re more like an extended family; a lifeline to the past.
Reading the last three books, I found myself reflecting on the relationships I had in my twenties. At the time, I thought my closest friends and I would be joined at the hip until old age. Instead they’ve become tertiary characters in the story of my life. I still love them and chat with them as often as I can, but I have a completely different circle of friends now. When I speak of my roommates from my twenties, it’s like I’m talking about a galaxy far, far, away.
Coming back to the books this time, Maupin’s mediation on aging rang true with me. As someone who is looking down the barrel of fifty, I often worry if I’m going to have enough money to retire, will I have to leave Vancouver, and who will take care of me. According to Maupin, these things have a way of working themselves out in the end.
My favourite lesson from Tales of the City, are the immortal words of Connie Bradshaw: Look, if you can’t deal with your own sexuality, hon, you’re gonna get screwed but good in this town.
Basically, life throws you curves balls; either get in the game or go home. I’m happy to stay I’m still in the game, and intend to keeping playing until it’s physically impossible.
I’ve always been a champion of Canadian film. Growing up, I was the only person I knew who watched the Genie Awards telecast. I also recognized the directors Sandy Wilson (My American Cousin), and Patricia Rozema (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing) when I served them in a restaurant. Both were really impressed I knew who they were.
Last Wednesday was National Canadian Film Day, a coast-to-coast-to-coast celebration of Canadian cinema in honour of Canada’s sesquicentennial. There was no way I was missing out. It was chance to see some films I missed in the theatre, plus it was free.
There was a lot to chose from, not to mention, the CBC website was streaming about a dozen movies for free. I went with Skip Tracer at VanCity Theatre. The Pacific Cinematheque had screened it back in February, but it was on a weeknight and I was too tired after work.
I had never heard of the film before I read about in the Cinematheque’s email blast. It described it as this noirish crime thriller set in Vancouver in the seventies. That was enough for me. But last week’s screening was even more enticing because the film had been selected by Atom Agoyan, and he was going to be there to introduce the film.
The screening was a classic Canadian occasion. Half the seats in the theatre were reserved and they went unoccupied for the screening of the film. I still managed to find a good seat between two sets of filmgoers. I would have been sitting in the front row if I had stayed in line for popcorn.
The film’s introduction was pretty endearing. Atom Agoyan told us the story of how he discovered the film at a theatre in Victoria, BC. The poster had four words across the bottom that he had never seen before: “An independent Canadian film”. I could only imagine what would have meant to him at the time.
In true Canadian fashion, the film’s director, Zale Dalen, said he couldn’t believe his film was being screened forty years later. He just assumed it had vanished into obscurity. And in some respect it had; I’d never heard of it before.
I don’t know if would classify Skip Tracer as “Noir” but it certainly has elements of it. The film is centered around a debt collector, John Collins, and his “apprentice” Brent, as he tries to make “man of the year” at his office, for the fourth year running at the money lender where he works. The only thing stopping him is loan he’s having trouble collecting on a from a used car salesman, George Pettigrew.
The movie follows John and Brent around Vancouver as they collect from a lot of down-on-their-luck-people. Over the course of the film, John gets demoted, threatened, and attacked by one of his clients. The whole point of the movie is what John’s job is doing to his soul. He’s constantly being asked by his clients how he can live with himself. He insists he’s just fine despite evidence to the contrary.
I have to say, the movie really holds up. There’s one shot of a couple looking at a model of home through store front window that could easily have been filmed today. During the Q&A, the director said he was surprised at prescient the movie is, pointing out the film was made before consumer debt became ubiquitous. He told an anecdote about trying to get theatres to let people use a credit cards to pay for their ticket but they wouldn’t go for it.
It was also fascinating to see Vancouver in 1977. The Harbour Centre was still under construction, and the BC Hydro building on Burrard was still one of the tallest buildings in the city. In fact the movie starts with the opening chords for Oh Canada that you hear at every day at noon.
I loved the film’s lighting. It was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm. There were some great hues of red especially in the the bar scenes. The whole film reminded me of a Fred Herzog photo. And of course the costumes were out of this world. Why did we stop wearing airplane collars and bellbottoms? There’s a great scene near the end of the movie where it’s all this fog. I couldn’t tell if it was real fog, or a smoke machine. But best of all, the film ends right in front of the building where I work.
Skip Tracer reminded me what I love about Canadian Cinema. Our films are quirky and low budget, but they really work hard to make the best with what they have at their disposal. They make you feel that every story is important, and that, if you’re lucky enough, it has the potential of reaching an international audience before disappearing for a few decades to be dusted off and appreciated all over again.
You can watch the movie on YouTube; however, the film was bought by an American distributor and renamed Deadly Business in this version:
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve bought and read these books. Tales of the City stills stands as one of my all time favourite books; I read it about every other year. The first three books of this nine book series are pretty fast and furious. Not only do the books delve into the lives of the inhabitants of 28 Barbary, but all three have an undercurrent of crime that I enjoy. I highly recommend these books to queers in their 20’s who want to know what it was like to be gay in the 70’s and 80’s. The books are perfect time capsules of the time. I’m always surprised by how much I enjoy Further Tales of the City; you would expect the series to start to feel long in the tooth by the third book, but Maupin manages to heighten the tension just enough for you to fall in love with his characters all over again.