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Paperback Hero

1973, Starring Keir Dullea, Elisabeth Ashley, John Beck, Dayle Haddon, and Franz Russell. Directed by Peter Pearson (Agincourt Pictures).

Guest review by Patrick Lowe

Throughout the history of this nation's fragile, but eclectic cinema, our filmmakers have had more than an occasional fixation with the subject of male losers. Not so much the lower class, but men with no class at all. From Bob and Doug Mackenzie to the Kids in the Hall to the Trailer Park Boys, a big chunk of our male iconography owes its inspiration to clods, dysfunctionals, bumpkins--or in the words of one critic--the bullies, the cowards, or the clowns. Even when national heroes like Terry Fox or Norman Bethune make it to the screen, it's still the slobs that garner the critics' attention. All sorts of theories have been put forth by the likes of Margaret Atwood or Bob Fothergill as to why this is, most suggesting it may be a reflection of our inferiority complex over playing "little brother" to our older sibling down south. Whatever the source, at no time was this trend in over-the-hill adolescents more prevalent than in the early 1970s. Think of Pete 'n' Joey on the road to nowhere in Goin' Down the Road,  the terminally immature Newfie Will Cole, forever immortalized by Gordon Pinsent in The Rowdyman, or the boorish, drunken soldiers of Wedding in White and the horny adolescents of Rip-Off.

And then there's Rick Dillon, the bawdy bundle of prairie machismo in Paperback Hero, one of the best Canadian films of the decade. Played with brassy bravado by Keir Dullea--perhaps his best post-2001 role--and directed with equal bravura by Peter Pearson, Dillon's persona defined the word 'hoser' well before Bob and Doug came on the scene. From the opening credits to the picture's tragic finale, Rick is a man for all seasons: bar brawler, skirt chaser, ne'er do well, hockey player and (as it turns out) classic gunfighter. And while the film has all the trademarks of the national loser cycle, it has none of the dreariness associated with the genre. So far from being a morbid lump of fatalism like Wedding in White, it's a fast-paced, beautifully photographed yarn, with all the '70s drive-in elements so dear to Canuxploitation: car chases, fratboy humour, oversized sideburns, shower sex, and gory hockey violence. Sometimes the film gets corny, sacrificing a lot of potential depth in the name of entertainment, but it never gets dull, all the while providing insightful glimpses into the mindset of adolescent manhood, on and off the rink.

In his mid 30s, Dillon is the cocksure bon vivant of the tiny hamlet of Delisle, Saskatchewan, and alongside his restless, married buddy Pov (John Beck), intends to keep it that way. Though more-or-less a working Joe, Dillon gains his star status as the town's main player on its local hockey team, as well as an amateur gun-slinger, even going so far as to model himself as a cowboy marshal. He struts, he brawls, he fornicates, carelessly brandishing his six-shooter whenever a target becomes available--needless to say, he's testosterone incarnate. Rick's always in trouble with Burdock (George R. Robertson), the town constable, and he's as disrespectful towards women as he is attractive to them. In between antics, he becomes involved with the wistful, but ever-patient Loretta (Elizabeth Ashley) as well as college girl Joanna (Dayle Haddon), daughter of his employer, Big Ed (Franz Russel), also owner of the town  hockey team. Naturally his shenanigans push him almost over the brink, when he gets charged for assault due to his roughhouse antics with women. Still, he continues to live life on his own terms, because as he sees it, around town, "I'm the marshal."

Life carries on as always, until Big Ed eventually breaks the bad news: the team is playing its last game, due to the rink's faulty ice machine, and Rick is offered a caretaker's position up in Saskatoon. And when Joanna threatens to abandon him, his status and machismo are suddenly challenged. The breaking point finally comes during the last playoff when the game is canceled due to the poor indoor ice conditions. This results in a all-out hockey brawl, as Rick goes off the rails, assaulting the constable and prompting further mayhem. He literally holds up a bus to kidnap Joanna just to keep his spirits high, but in the end, she's unimpressed. "You're a big joke Rick," she lectures. "Five years from now nobody will even remember you." Forced between surrendering his delusions or paying a hefty price  to keep them alive, he chooses the latter. "I'll make the sons a bitches remember me," he groans, eventually grabbing his pistol and strutting down the streets of Delisle to face Murdoch, High Noon-style. While Loretta and the townspeople look on, Rick engages in one last shoot out before needlessly being gunned down into immortality.

Loser though he may be,  Rick is also an exuberant, larger-than-life character--not entirely unlike director Peter Pearson himself. Like his fictional counterpart, Pearson was, by all accounts. an aggressively confrontational but legendary figure, the very antithesis of Canadian self-pity. He started out as a journalist, worked as a director for CBC TV's newsmagazine This Hour Has Seven Days, and made a name for himself with the NFB drama The Best Damn Fiddler from Calabogie to Kaladar. Originally, he was not the first choice to direct Peter Carter of The Rowdyman was slated to do the job, and given the many similarities between the two films, he seemed like the natural choice. But when Carter got sick, producer John Bassett managed to recruit Pearson last minute. And as the production progressed, it became clear that Pearson and Bassett identified very much with the character of Dillon. Or as Pearson explained in an interview, "Both Bassett and I had a bit of that tin god mentality and were also a couple of guys who aren't above going into confrontation scenes even when we're wrong. Rather than back down we'll try to shoot it out."

Perhaps due to such vicarious sentiments, Pearson gave much energy and machismo to the film. As opposed to the slower, NFB-styled realism of the time, the pace of Paperback Hero is fast and furious, with a visual style as flamboyant as the lead figure's sharp-shooting, thanks in part to Don Wilder's scenic and kinetic photography. The camera is always on the move, especially in the point-of-view hockey plays and car chases that are all the more amazing considering that Wilder didn't have access to a Steadicam. And in spite of the film's cornier elements, including an overwrought musical score, the movie is tightly edited and never gets dull. A good thing too, since despite plenty of comic relief, the film has a rather pessimistic take on its intended subject: the decline of the rural west. Throughout, we're shown a town that while still alive, is fraying at the edges, decaying gradually. It is the small town Canada of legion halls, lonely lunch counters and hockey rinks, where the young leave while the going is good, and those who stay are doomed to ossify. Caught in between youth and senility, Rick Dillon and his buddies cling tenaciously to their terminal adolescence, for outside the town of Delisle, little else remains.

As Peter Pearson himself said in an interview, Dillon "was a good man and for me, working through the film, he never hurt anybody... all Dillon does is react from the gut at all times..." Pearson's claims are half-true. Yes, Dillon is a man of instinct, but he's still a callous individual often doing more harm than good. His treatment of women has offended more than a few viewers, although it's fair to say that the film doesn't try to glorify or defend his male chauvinist side. Complicating this as well, is Keir Dullea's performance and how he plays out his fantasies as an old time gunfighter. Dullea has plenty of gusto, but many were irritated by his Western accent, which shifts over the course of film, plus his tendency to slip in and out of character. And for many, the gunfighter image was just too hokey. As one critic wrote, "making Dillon a 'gunfighter' is a clever enough device to further the myth-making process central to the film... but (it's) a borrowed bit of Americana with its inherent clichés (and it gives) the film its contrived and false moments." But it really comes down to the paradox of Dillon's dual nature. We're dealing with a man who's both genuine and a phony a natural and a ham. Keir Dullea's accent may be all over the map, but then so is his character. His cowboy get-up might be outlandish and not the genuine article, but then, so is Rick. And somehow, a local nobody living out his fantasy as a product of an American myth speaks volumes both about our own cultural preoccupation with the South, as well as symbol for our own beleaguered film industry's perceived idolization of Hollywood. Or as Pearson himself once said, "In Canada, there's a kind of gloomy inferiority complex protected by a veneer of arrogance which is really a self-destructive thing."

Paperback Hero is ultimately about the appeal and fragility of the male superego and the lengths a man will go to preserve it. If there is a flaw to the picture, it is that we never get a more complicated or deeper figure than the one presented on screen. Unlike the other on-screen failures of Canadian film, Rick is the least complex. But other than a moment when he contemplates what life might have had if he had made it into the NHL, he never has a quintessential moment of self-reflection, no inner demons to wrestle with or better angels of his nature to contemplate. Obviously, that's keeping with his character. But it would have added an element of complexity that could've enriched the film. In fact, to use Gordon Lightfoot's song "If You Could Read My Mind" as the movie's main theme tune becomes ironic in that we're dealing with a man who hasn't much of a mind to read of more of a case of "Paper-Thin Hero," as it were.

As a result, it was only inevitable during the film's release that many nationalists cringed at the character of Rick Dillon, complaining that this surplus of masculine ineptitude was only aiding the nation's burgeoning inferiority complex. Less portrayals of self-induced defeat! More role models please!! But unlike Pete 'n' Joey or  Peter Marks from Don Owen's Nobody Waved Goodbye, a trio of characters who end up leaving town and a pregnant girlfriend behind on a road to nowhere, Rick Dillon will not go gently or aimlessly into the night. Faced with the final decision, he remains true to his values, shallow as they are. And in the last stand it becomes clear that we're not dealing with an atypical Canuck schmuck after all. Rick Dillon is not one to do things half-assed. If anything, he'll do it full-assed.

Such was also the nature of Peter Pearson himself. Paperback Hero was his last shining moment in the rink of filmmaking--a game as glorious and brutal as hockey itself. Save for one more feature--an unsuccessful comedy called Only God Knows which he took over from Al Waxman (not that it helped)--Pearson's remaining oeuvre was largely in television as creator of CBC's For the Record, after which he acted as head of Telefilm Canada of the 1980's. But as a filmmaker, he's joined the ranks of all the great one shot Canadian auteurs, including Don Owen, Claude Jutra, Don Shebib, Paul Almond, and Clark Mackey. These were the directors who made one or two winning feature films, then faded into an obsolescence, having lost the war to television or given up the ship altogether. They too were once masters of the arena who sadly outlived their days of glory, forgotten by the industry they had worked so hard to foster. Yet the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and if a film like Paperback Hero deals with that dilemma, it also remains a really great film that should not be forgotten.

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