314. CRIME WAVE (1985)

AKA The Big Crimewave

“I’d always imagined that this would play at a midnight movie, kind of a cult movie and that this needed special handling. It needed to be directed at the same audiences that were going to see, for example, Lynch’s Eraserhead.”–John Paizs

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: John Paizs

FEATURING: Eva Kovacs, John Paizs, Neil Lawrie

PLOT: A young girl named Kim observes a moody boarder named Steven who has moved into the room above her parents’ garage as he attempts to write the world’s greatest “color crime movie.” As he despairs from writer’s block, she elicits the help of a Doctor C. Jolly from an ad in a trade magazine. However, the good doctor is not quite the savior Steven sets out to find.

Still from Crime Wave (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • Initially, filming took place only on weekends, as John Paizs was working for the City of Winnipeg as a traffic clerk at the time. A glimpse of his day job can be seen in Crime Wave when Kim and Steve go out on an errand during the costume party.
  • Paizs’ style evolved from the director’s technical limitations, his earlier short film efforts being shot on old equipment without any microphones. He developed a taste for narration, as it allowed him to jump around scenes without confusing the audience. (Paizs’ early short films are currently unavailable).
  • The “above the garage” character came from a previous script concerning a young man pursuing an 18-year-old girl who regresses back to 13-year-old behavior. Unhappy with the story, Paizs transplanted the character to Crime Wave, making the female lead an actual 13-year-old and knocking out the romance angle.
  • Paizs based the staccato pacing of the “beginnings and endings” on trailers for 1950s crime movies.
  • Paizs signed a distribution deal with a company who promptly ignored the film. It received no theatrical release outside of Winnipeg, and years later was dumped on VHS (retitled The Big Crime Wave to avoid confusion with Sam Raimi‘s Crimewave) without much in the way of promotion.
  • Although Paizs’ post-Crime Wave career has been slight, some might have seen his work directing segments of “The Kids in the Hall” (such as the “Mr. Heavyfoot” character). After seeing Crime Wave, the troupe’s Bruce McCulloch recruited Paizs to film standalone short segments in a similarly whimsical-surreal style.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our narrator, Kim, often observes our hero, Steve, as he stands or sits brooding by the window above her parents’ garage. This recurring image telegraphs that something is about to change for the protagonist, while giving Crime Wave a silent movie feel. Indeed, Steve’s movements, tics, and expressions (or lack thereof) summon nothing less than a latter-day .

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Silent protagonist; streetlight head; “The Top!”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Veering between self-aware amateurism and downright surreal amateurism, John Paizs’ feature debut keeps the viewer on his back foot in an unlikely, charming way. Partially dressed as a documentary, with narration provided by a young girl, Crime Wave shows the hell of writer’s block, interspersed with clips of the breathless beginnings and endings (never middles) of the writer’s output. Its hokey upbeat tone wryly slaps you in the face, while in the background strange and occasionally sinister asides undercut the atmosphere.


Clip from Crime Wave

COMMENTS: John Paizs’ Crime Wave defies most descriptions and gives the viewers a jolly good time, as well. In a scant eighty minutes, Paizs shows off what someone can do with a bit of determination and a great deal of creativity. With its spunky narrator, quizzically brooding male lead, up-tempo atmosphere with hints of hate-crime and murder, and its brief foray into the exciting world of traffic-stop car counting, Crime Wave is incredibly weird in thought, word, and deed.

Kim (Eva Kovacs) is a young Canadian girl who is absolutely thrilled when a “real, live movie person” moves in above her parents’ garage. This person, up-and-comer-and-not-even-close, is Steven Penny (John Paizs), the kind of film noir hyper-fanatic who can only write scripts by traffic light. His dream is to make—and I quote (Kim, because Steven never speaks)—“the greatest color crime movie ever.” Young Kim begins worrying when his discarded beginnings and endings—the only parts of a script he can figure out—start to tail off. Things take a hopeful turn when Kim responds on John’s behalf to a classified ad from an American screenwriter Dr. C. Jolly (Neal Lawrie), who goes insane shortly thereafter. What follows is a surreal encounter in the outskirt of Nowhere, Kansas, where the young writer is assaulted by the unhinged Dr. Jolly.

The bizarre turn of events that conclude the film contrast sharply with the meandering comedy that comprises the first two acts, which combine whimsicality and lugubriousness in a manner not dissimilar from a subdued Wes Anderson. For most of the movie, there’s a chirpy (and damn catchy) little tune that plays along with young Kim’s narration that wonderfully captures her outlook as she tries to decipher the melancholy oozing from her parents’ tenant. Whenever something unhappy is going on with him, she either refuses to see it, or writes it off as a quirk of being a “real, live movie person.” When Steve is showing off his filmmaking gear, there’s a long close-up shot of him looking blankly troubled as the score cuts out abruptly. The pause in the action is only broken with her narration “That was one of Steven’s attacks of self doubt. Later, his self doubt would make him want to quit writing Crime Wave.” Kim’s buoyancy throughout colors much of the tone, providing much of the humor.

But while clever tomfoolery abounds, so do menacing touches. Hidden in the bright light of a pleasant Canadian city are suggestions of violent, homophobic behavior. Going through another bout of writer’s block, Steven takes to riding his bike around, eventually meeting a group of unemployed, effeminate young men. The whole bit’s only explained by Kim’s narration: “every now and again, guys in half-ton trucks wanted to talk to them.” We see that these truck guys want nothing more than to harass and injure the fellows. This unsettling spike comes out of nowhere, and disappears about as quickly as it arrives. And while I’m on the topic of menace, the villain of the piece, Dr. C. Jolly, could have been lifted straight out of one of David Lynch‘s nastier grab-bags.

And then, so much of the movie is so sweet and cute and… well, it all hangs together, somehow. And this isn’t even taking into account the mini-movies inside, showing Penny’s beginnings and endings, nor his descent into hallucinatory psychosis, nor… well, you get the idea. Watching this movie a second time before writing this, it was still fresh and exciting in its quaint, clever little way. Quotable lines abound, the characters large and small all felt real, and it has a neat, wholesomely subversive energy. Checking out John Paizs’ film bio, it appears he has not done much beyond this, which is a real pity. However, Crime Wave achieves what it sets out to do, even if I’m not quite sure what that is.

Gregory J. Smalley adds: John Paizs’ labor of love is a unique, ahead-of-its-time retro-camp comedy with an off-the-chain surreal third act. It prefigures both Barton Fink (vintage writer’s block that starts as comedy and turns into nightmare) and the entire backward-looking oeuvre of fellow Winnipeg native Guy Maddin (of whom Paizs was a friend, and who was just working on his first shorts when Crime Wave appeared). In 1985 we had Mel Brooks-style parodies of older movie genres, but the conceit of deliberately mining outdated styles to create unreal, hermetic cinematic atmospheres was brave new territory. Not surprisingly, Crime Wave got zero theatrical distribution and had to survive as a word-of-mouth oddity. Curiously, another 1985 indie—Screamplay— starts from a very similar premise, built around German rather than early Technicolor crime movies, but it is neither as effective nor as delightfully strange. Maddin would take up the gauntlet and take surreal nostalgia cinema as far as it could go, but Paizs was arguably the first to succeed at it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The shaggy-dog plot zigzags between the often absurd ‘color crime’ scenarios Steven cooks up or gets into, making a few stops to follow Steven as he explores the town or to peer in on Kim’s stolidly middle-class parents, who are framed and lit like zoo specimens… Paizs also throws in some mini-lectures that evoke those earnest how-to films that used to be so popular in the ’50s, and some pure, goofy surrealism, like the sight of Steven with a broken streetlamp stuck on his head like a freakishly elongated, intermittently glowing helmet.”–Elise Nakhnikian, Slant (2010 screening)

“…stands alone as its own weird, singular thing…  it has that mysterious, relic-like quality that does make you want to unlock its secrets.”–Justin Stewart, The L Magazine (2010 screening)

“Never has the switching on of a simple streetlight seemed so fraught with longing and dread. The sight of it struggling to light itself as darkness is about to engulf a nondescript Winnipeg suburb was one of the many bizarre pleasures peppered throughout Crime Wave, a film about a writer, a girl, and a dream.”–Yum-Yum, House of Self-Indulgence

IMDB LINK: Crime Wave (1985)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

John Paizs’ CRIME WAVE – A fansite with lots of behind-the-scenes photos and more links

The Projection Booth Podcast Episode 20: Crime Wave – Incorporates interviews with actors Eva Kovacs and Neil Lawrie, producer Gregory Klymkiw, and a separate interview with author Jonathan Ball

John Paizs’ Vow of Silence – Background on Crime Wave and the reclusive Paizs (who now refuses to be recorded or filmed)

An Interview with John Paizs – 2010 interview with the director for “Not Coming to a Theater Near You”

Interview: John Paizs – Another interview with Paizs, for Canuxploitation

JOHN PAIZS with Rumsey Taylor – 2014 interview with “The Brooklyn Rail”

CRIME WAVE – TIFF 2014 – TIFF CINEMATHEQUE 2K RESTORATION – Gregory Klymkiw’s review starts off with a long account of the film’s distribution debacle

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

John Paizs’s Crime Wave (Canadian Cinema) – Jonathan Ball goes to bat for the film with a book-length study

HOME VIDEO INFO: So far, no Blu-Ray. VHS copies once existed, but are long extinct. Thankfully, for now, the folks at Amazon Prime have this little beauty streaming on demand for members (Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial). No Prime? You may have to travel to the Winnipeg film archives, then. (The Winnipeg Film Group offers a DVD, not available through retailers). Catch this one if you can.

2 thoughts on “314. CRIME WAVE (1985)”

  1. Love this movie! During my mid-eighties adolescence it was an endlessly rewatched touchstone in my circles (videotaped off of late night CBC). Like many of the things we liked most back then, it was precisely because it was a testament to wierdness, absurdity, irreverence, and just a warm affirmation to our constantly dumbfounded state trying to process both the banality and disenfranchising nature of the world around us.

    Like Devo, or the Church of The Subgenius or Rocky Horror, it just let us know there was other high weirdness out there and we weren’t on a desert island.

    I finally saw it on a big screen (in Ottawa) a few years ago and it was just as sublime as ever. I wish it had greater cult status and that the director could have bloomed like the Coens, or David Lynch. So happy it made the list!

  2. Thrilled to welcome this cult classic to the list. One hopes it gets a proper DVD/Blu Ray release, so that it can finally cultivate the fanbase that is so richly deserves.

    What a great addition!

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