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: