CanCon

Titles Reviewed:
The Hard Part Begins (1973), Red (1970), Skip Tracer (1977)

The Hard Part Begins

(Canada, 1973) DIR: Paul Lynch. SCR: John Hunter. PROD: John Hunter, Derrett Lee. CAST: Donnelly Rhodes, Nancy Belle Fuller, Paul Bradley, Linda Sorenson, Robert Hawkins, Doug McGrath, Neil Vipond.


Ghosts come back to haunt country singer Jim King (Rhodes) when his band King And Country plays a gig in his home town. The bittersweet experience of "coming home" is beautifully rendered in John Hunter's screenplay, as King will confront a lot of ugly truths about himself.

His professional and personal relationship with pretty young co-singer Jenny Frame (Fuller) is seen at its best and worst. Jenny, who is becoming a star in her own right, gets mad when King sees his ex-wife Alice about problems with their son. (These scenes with Jim's ex, and visiting his son at the correctional institute, are correctly full of resentment and awkwardness.) Conversely, King doesn't tell Jenny that a record company wants to sign her, because he knows he needs her to boost his flagging image.

Even smaller roles have a complexity as real people do: full of love and hate, optimism and frustration within seconds of each other. Bit parts are given three-dimensional characterizations free of the "small town yahoo" clichés, like the guy who gets to fill in on stage, or the waitress with a wink.

Of course, we get to see all the shades of Jim King, who is an amiable, perpetual screw-up. He is an over-the-hill entertainer who is running out places to play, as entrepreneurs succumb to booking rock and roll to stay in business. He struggles to keep his act together at the expense of his bandmates' own future successes. The two scenes in which Jim visits his dying former partner Hank Riley (Vipond) are symbolic of the vanishing old guard. Despite his touching romance with Jenny, King thinks nothing of having a fling with an old flame.

Despite one vital change at the climax, the film has no real ending. It just stops. Some conflicts remain unresolved. As in life, not everything gets taken care of in one weekend. The music and crowd noise continue as the credits roll. What we have just witnessed has great consequence, but it's another day, and life ambles on.

This film has a special resonance for me, as I grew up 25 miles from the Brant County area where it was shot. Paul Lynch (in his feature directing debut) and cinematographer Robert Saad perfectly capture the small-town Ontario milieu. It's about the moments between the plot; the nostalgia and melancholy in its backrop of diners, cheap motels and bars; the knowing slow death of small towns that people leave for supposedly greener pastures.

There must've been a law that early 1970s English-language Canadian films had to feature one of the stars from Goin' Down The Road. Amusingly, this one features both of them. Paul Bradley plays Duane, the steel guitar player, whose devil-may-care attitude is good for some comic relief, but is perhaps the film's most responsible character. I love that funny-real scene where he blows up at the stoned-out hippy drummer Lou (Hawkins) for suddenly leaving to join a rock and roll band. Doug McGrath has a couple of scenes as lunkhead Al Dawson, who accuses Jim of getting his sister pregnant, and pressures him into making an honest woman out of her.

For such a movie to work, the music must be good, and Ian Guenther's wonderful song score is full of small-town melancholy and wistful searches for love. (I have the soundtrack album.) The film's only misstep in authenticity is that the two leads' singing voices are not their own.

Our cinema showed great promise of a Canadian New Wave, circa 1968 to 1973, with films so fresh and un-self conscious. Alas, many of its rising stars would work in tax shelter movies or episodic television to fill their careers. Like many of its characters, The Hard Part Begins is evidence of a great promise that sadly went unfulfilled or misused, but this gritty gem remains a fine example of its era.

Red

(Canada, 1970) DIR-SCR: Gilles Carle. PROD: Pierre Lamy. CAST: Daniel Pilon, Genevieve Robert, Gratien Gelinas.


Canadian cinema (circa 1968-73) could be a cousin to the French New Wave, British "Kitchen Sink films", or even American independent works of the 1960s (specifically Shadows). Our films from this period share much with those influential movements, in experimentation of film form, "on-the-street" docudrama approach, and a proper dose of playfulness. Each of these movements were defined by a cultural icon: the French had Belmondo in Breathless, the British had John Osborne, and America had Ben Carruthers. If we were to consider our cultural icon from this period, a common (yet not incorrect) answer would be Joey and Pete from Goin' Down the Road. However, now, I'm not so sure. Perhaps our true answer to this equation would be Daniel Pilon's titular character in Red.

Further, Red is perhaps the ancestor of both things that Canadian cinema would become: self-conscious art-film and Canuxploitation. It is torn between two disciplines much like the central character. Red is a hustler who ekes out a living in urban life in Quebec, but revisits his native heritage. When his sister is killed, and he is blamed for the murder, he spends time in the wilderness with his people while he bides time to decide his fate. Whether driving in his fast car through the skeletal freeway system or placidly boating through a lake, Red is equally at home, yet both of these worlds collide.

The first hour of this film is dizzying, as there are more story threads than in most commercial movies. We see Red blurring between scenes with his mother, his siblings who work at a construction site, and various chippies along the way, until the movie converges to a singular plot line about his escape from authority and ultimate revenge. But Red continues to surprise us. It allows the viewer to study and understand his complex relationships without having to over-explain them. Plus, the movie's consistent shifts in tone, and some geniunely bizarre moments (like a bachelor party that initially resembles a wake), always veer this revenge melodrama from its conventional path.

Red is a marvel of Canadian cinema that assuredly will reward with multiple viewings. The art house crowd would appreciate its complex and unconventional narrative, but there is still lots of sex and violence for the drive-in. Like its central character, it has the best of both worlds.

Skip Tracer

(Canada, 1977) DIR-SCR-EDITOR: Zale Dalen. PROD: Laara Dalen. CAST: David Peterson, John Lazarus.


During Canada’s tax shelter movement, when dentists and lawyers were encouraged to make movies with a 100% tax write-off, there were still films that didn’t attempt to be the ersatz Hollywood commercial product that was the norm for tax shelter fare. Take Skip Tracer. This unsettling work opened in 1977 to good reviews on the festival circuit, and then, like all Canadian cinema not done by David Cronenberg, didn’t play well at the box office and slipped away, only to be occasionally revived in second-run venues whenever they do a “Best of…” Canadian retrospective, or as CanCon filler on TV. To date, its only home video appearance was on VHS, with the alternate title, Deadly Business.

Skip Tracer is guerrilla filmmaking at its finest. Shot in roughly a month in the fall of 1976 for $145,000.00, this is a lean, mean movie that unsparingly depicts the dirty things people do for a living. Our “hero” is John Collins (Peterson), a repo man who is in a slump. Usually he is the top man of the year in terms of successfully collecting from delinquent debtors. Collins is a quick-witted cynic who seldom finds anything cheerful in his life. David Peterson plays the role a little over the top, perhaps how Collins would act, to disguise his shallow interior. During his downtime, he shows the ropes to an eager young man, Brent Solverman (Lazarus). Through Collins, we learn that heartlessness is the trick to surviving this business.

Sometimes Collins doesn’t practice what he preaches, in moments when his humanity precedes his call of duty. In one scene, he subtly tells a client to get a loan through a bank instead of through his firm, because he would get charged a lower interest rate. Perhaps this is why this former top dog of the company no longer has a private office, and his effects have been moved to the common, open concept section of the bureau. Collins is as much at war with the office competition as the people who owe money.

Skip Tracer’s success is often due to its constant element of surprise, and lack of pat solutions. Most tellingly, Collins gets stabbed by one of his debtors, but the identity of his assailant remains unsolved. His consistent efforts to collect from a recurrent foil named Pettigrew, ends in a shocking resolution. A more conventional film would naturally have the identity of the stabber resolved, or Collins' new partner would come to his rescue. Rather, Brent practically disappears from the plot, just as life could have it. After he recuperates from his wound, Collins adapts a "fuck you" approach to everyone: the clients who always give him the runaround, and the agency that is always screwing him.

This striking film, -written, directed and edited by Zale Dalen and produced by his wife Laara- is mostly shot in long, single takes, adding to the element of surprise: the frame is so wide that anything could intervene. One memorable segment features Collins hammering away at a drain pipe where one of his deadbeats is hiding. It is so uncomfortable to watch, as there are no safe cutaways: you are forced to watch the dehumanization in his daily routine. But also Dalen has a great eye for detail: occasionally he will cut away to people's involuntary gestures, so you can really tell what they're thinking behind all that tough talk.

Filmed by Ron Orieux in muddy browns and heightened whites, Skip Tracer has a washed-out look that compliments the gritty material. The less picturesque avenues of Vancouver become an impressionistic essay about our hero's confining world. His realm is a claustrophobic office space with papers a mile high, a tiny bachelor apartment, seedy strip joints, bungalows with crying kids and expensive TV sets, and flat undeveloped suburbia with fancy houses in which ten-cent millionaires hide behind the curtains.

Skip Tracer still puts to shame most of what is called Independent cinema today. It also puts to shame the typically mitigating factors that affect much of our country’s artists. After the critical success of this film, Zale Dalen’s follow-up picture, The Hounds of Notre Dame, was poorly handled, and has largely remained unseen, even in the usual slipshod ways in which Canadians must view their own cinema. Dalen’s resume of sporadic feature films includes the futuristic punk fantasy Terminal City Ricochet, and the unreleased ensemble romantic comedy, Passion. Like many of our filmmakers who remained north of the border, he had spent much of his career directing television, as the feature films got fewer and further between.

Nonetheless, Skip Tracer is a dark horse milestone in Canadian cinema that didn’t deserve its early retirement from the limelight. But once seen, it is an unsettling piece that one never truly shakes off. However you can see this, Skip Tracer is essential viewing.