How my love of an ’80s musical made me the ultimate Xanadude | Daily Xtra

Seeing Xanadu again 37 years later brought back fond memories of my gay adolescence

Source: How my love of an ’80s musical made me the ultimate Xanadude | Daily Xtra

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It’s hard out there for a debt collector: Watching Skip Tracer on National Canadian Film Day

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:

Posted in Brampton, Movies, Pop Culture, The Seventies, Vancouver | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Once More with Feeling: Re-reading 28 Barbary Lane

28 Barbary Lane: 28 Barbary Lane: “Tales of the City” Books 1-3 by Armistead Maupin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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Back to my Roots: All the books I’ve loved before

A couple of weeks ago I saw a great musical by  the local playwright, Dave Deveau, called the Elbow Room: The Musical, about the Davie Street breakfast spot that is an institution in Vancouver’s gay community.

I’m sucker for stories about queer Vancouver, having written one myself. As proud as I am of the strides gay people have made since I came out 30 years ago, I’m still sentimental for queer culture at the height of AIDS crisis. I’m loathe to say they were simpler times, but they were. We didn’t have screens getting in the way of meeting each other, and if you wanted to go on a date with someone, you had to walk up to them and ask them out in person.

A recurring theme of the Elbow Room: The Musical, is knowing your history. You would think with all the queer studies courses being offered today in universities, and films like Milk and The Imitation Game it wouldn’t be as difficult. However, I do find a lack of respect for what queers my age went through by some (by no means all) from the generation nipping our heels.

Learning my history came natural to me; I’ve always been a fan of origin stories. I didn’t have the advantage of taking a class in queer culture in my early twenties. Back then all I had was the public library and Little Sisters Bookstore.

It was the book Stonewall by Martin Duberman that triggered my interest in queer history. I had never heard of the Stonewall riot before then. That book was a launching pad to others: The Mayor of Castro Street, And the Band Played On, Queer in America, and anything by James Baldwin.

Those books grounded me in who I was and the rights I was fighting for. If anyone accused gay people asking for special rights to my face, I would throw facts back in their face. It was empowering. Some of my friends accused me of being militant. I felt I was just standing up for my rights.

Lately I’ve been reading When We Rise by Cleve Jones. The book has rekindled some of those old feelings of self-discovery back in my twenties. While the stories he’s telling aren’t new, I’m getting a fresh perspective on them.

There is one section about a secret tree house in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco where queer men used to go to have sex and get high that made me nostalgic for the Seventies. If there is one thing I wish Millennials could experience, it’s the secret hideaways we used to have access to. I don’t mean exclusive clubs or bars; I’m talking actual spaces where you could be alone where no one could find you.

I love imagining what San Francisco and Vancouver were like before they got over-developed; when they were places for free-spirits and bohemians instead of venture capitalists and software developers.

I know it’s easy to get romantic about the past, that the times weren’t as simple as I remember them. I’m the first to admit those decades weren’t without their challenges, especially if you were gay or black. I personally lived in fear of having the crap kicked out of me.

That aside,  you get the sense that people were free to do more then. Cleve Jones travelled most of Europe on just over $1000 US dollars. He was able to get a work permit in Germany. He hitchhiked from San Francisco to Vancouver, BC. He flew return from Montreal to London for a $100. I don’t know what that would be in today’s currency, but it’s still pretty cheap.

I don’t miss the past, but I certainly wish we had preserved more of it. I’m so sick of being chained to my devices, of checking Facebook every fifteen minutes whether I want to or not. I hate that anyone can find out anything about me and twist my words out of context or use them against me.

When We Rise has helped me put the times we are living in now in perspective. While Cleve Jones loves discussing all the liberty and sex he had, he’s also quick to remind us about all the horrible things that were going on: Nixon, Watergate, and the Vietnam war. Not to mention the government sanctioned affront on gays and lesbians.

At one point Jones talks about not considering himself to be an activist earlier in his career, but feeling obligated to at least show up for a protest. I’ve been struggling to figure my role in this sudden rise of nationalism, fascism, and every other phobia that has been raising it’s ugly head since the US election. There’s a part of me that doesn’t have the energy to fight the good fight. I still show up for memorials, like the one after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. But it doesn’t feel like I’m doing enough.

All l I can do for now is just show up for the protest. In time, hopefully I’ll figure out what my role will be.

Posted in LGBT, Memoir, Memoir/biography, Pop Culture, Queer Culture, The Eighties, The Seventies, Theatre | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does this hairstyle make my face look fat? Review of “The Princess Diarist”

The Princess DiaristThe Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I was expecting a book about the day-to-day antics of shooting one of the most popular movies in history, but instead it spends a lot of time discussing Carrie Fisher’s affair with Harrison Ford, and quoting fans who ask for autographs.

That’s not to say the book isn’t well-written—it is. I would say this probably Carrie’s Fisher’s strongest prose to date. However, the section where she talks about comic-cons starts to feel like padding after a while. The actual diary entries from the period when she was shooting Star Wars, is interesting, but short on revelations.

I’m glad Carrie Fisher left us this piece of her memory but therein lies the problem. As she tells us in Shockaholic, years of electroshock therapy have left her memories diminished which does not make for a good memoir. If you want to reconnect with Carrie Fisher one last time, then this a quick way to do it. If you’re looking for the inside scoop on Star Wars, then I recommend the digital edition of The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film.

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Crazy Like a Princess

ShockaholicShockaholic by Carrie Fisher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading Carrie Fisher’s Shockaholic, I’m amazed the world had her for as long as it did. I’ve read most of Carrie Fisher’s books, and although I’m always impressed with her turn of phrase, I’ve found her books never lived up to the sum of their parts. To my surprise, Shockaholic is probably one of my favourite books by her.

The first chapter confronts her mental illness head on as the title promises. However, the subsequent chapters are the most contemplative and soul-searchy of her oeuvre. She ruminates on the phenomena that was Michael Jackson and confronts her relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. Her description of her step-father is laugh-out-loud hilarious. The sections about Eddie Fisher are touching and heartbreaking.

The real surprise here, is how she contemplates her own mortality. Shocokaholic was published in 2011, but you get the sense that she knew was on borrowed time.

It’s sad that anyone who has felt like a “fuck up” in the eyes of their friends and families will no longer have Carrie Fisher to relate to anymore, however we can comfort ourselves knowing she learned to forgive herself and move on. Something we can all learn to do regardless of our mental health.

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When the going gets tough: Flash review of Born to Run

Born to RunBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was the only thing that got me through the 2016 US election.

I loved reading about his relationship with Clarence Clemons and his father; his career in the 70’s and 80’s. Big take away from this book is his dedication to his craft, practicing what you love until you literally pass out, and picking yourself up after you fail.

The chapters about “Born in the USA” were pretty enlightening as well.

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