“If the great Canadian comedy ever gets made, John Paizs might be the one to make it.”
Jay Scott, Globe and Mail, 1985
In 1986, a cult film named Crimewave was released. Though it bombed, critically and commercially, it was a notable stepping stone in the careers of a many of its key players, who, despite its ignominious failure, went on to have glittering careers that left it only a curious blip in their CVs. In this case, the term “cult” applies only in the sense that completist fans of the Coen Brothers (writers), Sam Raimi (director) and Bruce Campbell (producer, star) will keep its faint flame burning for a good while longer than it demands on its own merits. Meanwhile in Canada, another film, similarly-titled, received blazing reviews on its festival debut then all but disappeared without trace.
John Paizs’ Crime Wave was the culmination of themes and style developed by Paizs in a series of shorts starring the director himself as a ‘silent man’ character, Nick, the predecessor of Stephen Penny, mute protagonist of Crime Wave. Penny is an aspiring screenwriter, afflicted with a peculiar kind of writer’s block – he can only write beginnings and endings for the “colour crime pictures” he aspires to make, and no middles. When he takes a room above a suburban family’s garage, his landlord’s daughter, Kim (Eva Kovacs), discovers his abandoned script pages in the trash and takes it upon herself to help him realise his potential.
The synopsis, however, barely sketches the experience of Crime Wave. Paizs painstakingly shot and styled his film to mimic the Technicolor of classical Hollywood. He also re-recorded all dialogue in post-production, inspired equally by the highly-controlled sound design of radio dramas. The tone, meanwhile, is deadpan absurd, the construction post-modern. Paizs interpolates Penny’s travails and Kim’s enterprise with sequences realising the opening and closing scenes from Stephen’s script fragments. When Kim introduces him to a mysterious Dr Jolly, who promises a solution to Stephen’s dire straits, the film accelerates towards a manic and hilarious climactic montage.
Crime Wave debuted at the 1985 Festival of Festivals (later to become the Toronto International Film Festival). The screening was also, according to Paizs, essentially a test screening. Writing and producing his own work, he’d gotten used to unusual creative freedom. “I used to just get to the end and I would not show the script to anybody and I would not do another draft, I just applied to the Arts Council for the money and they were less concerned about, ‘Does it have a coherent story?’ They were more into, ‘Well, is it kind of different?’” Crime Wave, like its creator, was certainly different. Following the (successful) festival screening, Paizs was dissatisfied enough to entirely rewrite, re-shoot and re-cut the film’s final 20 minutes.
Justifiably, though unjustly, it remains the high water mark in Paizs’ filmmaking career. “After Crime Wave, expectations were quite high for me,” explains Paizs. “According to the Globe and Mail reviewer, I had to make the great Canadian comedy, and, I’ll tell you, that was the best thing that someone could possibly say to any film-maker, right, but also the worst. And because I decided not to do the ‘silent man’ thing anymore after Crime Wave, not only did I have to come up with something new that I could invest myself in passionately, but it also had to be great and, you know, that in a nutshell is why there was no follow-up to Crime Wave.” Which is a genuine tragedy for cinema, especially since the Globe and Mail review was based on the first, unrefined cut of Paizs’ masterpiece.
Crime Wave could only have been made in Canada, in Winnipeg and by John Paizs, though it’s so much more than just a great Canadian film. Though its theatrical release was thwarted by an ill-advised distribution deal (which complicates its home-viewing release to this day), Crime Wave’s timeless originality, meticulously-crafted aesthetic and the singular voice of its creator stake a claim for it in film history, exclusively on its on terms.
This article originally appeared in Physical Impossibility #4: Guide to World Cinema.
Crime Wave screens at Matchbox Cineclub’s Weird Weekend on Sunday 3rd June. Tickets from £5, day and weekend passes are available. All tickets available from CCA’s box office, 0141 352 4900, or online: bit.ly/weirdweekend. #makeitweird