In December 2021, we took our Tales from Winnipeg programme to Brooklyn, NYC. We went there at the invitation of Spectacle Theater, the legendary microcinema/”goth bodega” situated in Williamsburg (see the 2020 roundtable we hosted with Caroline Golum, Isaac Hoff & Garrett Linn of Spectacle here). Originally presented online in August 2020 (everywhere except North America), the headliners of our programme are three features – Guy Maddin’s Cowards Bend the Knee (with Ela Orleans’ re-score), Dave Barber and Kevin Nikkel’s documentary Tales from the Winnipeg Film Group and John Paizs’ seminal Crime Wave, in its 2K restoration. We’ve screened Crime Wave many, many times, and because of that and because we love Spectacle so much, we were keen to do something particularly special. Thankfully, the stars aligned, spectacularly so (pun not intended). John Paizs allowed us to ship the original 16mm print of his film, unprojected since its fateful festival debut in 1985, from Winnipeg to New York. And, crucially, this particular print contained Crime Wave‘s original ending.
The story of Crime Wave‘s premiere – on Friday 13th September, 1985 – has taken on quasi-mythical status. After that “disastrous” first screening, the story often goes, distributors demanded Paizs reshoot the end of his debut feature, which he did, ensuring its status as the Great Canadian Cult Comedy. Truthfully, the version of the film screened then, at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals (precursor to TIFF), is the same one that led critic Jay Scott to proclaim, “If the great Canadian comedy ever gets made, John Paizs might be the one to make it.”
As far as distributor’s demands, John may ultimately have pre-empted them, but he didn’t even sign Crime Wave‘s ill-fated deal until the following year. The “disaster” that night in Toronto was a sound problem that brought the film’s projection to a screeching halt, lighting up the auditorium, just as the third act began. When the film resumed, the belly laughs of the preceding hour were gone, and the audience’s muted response convinced Paizs to do the unthinkable – return to Winnipeg to rewrite and re-shoot the entire final act of his debut feature, having long since exhausted its meagre budget (round about $67,000 Canadian).
The Crime Wave that you may well know and love – the best-known version of the film is still, as far as we’re concerned, criminally underappreciated – has a very distinctive third act. The film ascends into a rattling montage tracing the sharp rise and lonely fall of film-maker Steven Penny (Paizs himself), a frenzied crescendo that fulfils the promise of the first two acts by adrenalising all their wit and invention. Crime Wave goes out on a high, complete with deadpan musical coda as the credits roll. The original ending arrives at something like the same spot, narratively, but detours significantly into darker territory. As Jay Scott noted, elsewhere in that oft-quoted review, “the tone switches from mildly nuts and robustly funny to robustly nuts and mildly funny.” At the premiere, the sharpness of that tonal shift coincided perfectly with the 10-20 minute interruption. The comparatively subdued atmosphere in the room afterwards (and a smattering of early departures), alongside some caveated reviews, was enough to convince Paizs he needed to completely rethink the ending.
As the festival buzz dissipated over the next six months, Paizs regrouped in Winnipeg and determinedly reconstructed Crime Wave, his stubborn focus – arguably one of the hallmarks of his hometown cohort – on his own vision and on posterity. Paizs raised a further $10-15,000 and, with the support of his Winnipeg compatriates, who passed the hat around to support the endeavour, delivered the much-loved, “faster and funnier” final cut to premiere in Vancouver on 21st March, 1986. By some estimates, though, that half-year diversion was enough to leave Crime Wave in the wilderness for good. A vaunted distribution deal failed to deliver a theatrical release and, worse, left Paizs’ film in the rights quagmire that it remains in today.
Writer and programmer Geoff Pevere, an early champion of Paizs and Crime Wave responsible for its sight-unseen invite to Toronto, remembered the 16mm print only arriving on the day of the screening, with Paizs. “Later, I heard the director had actually picked up the just-completed print from the lab on the way to catch his plane.” So: struck, screened once and stored for 35 years – that’s the print we showed at Spectacle. When we asked after it, John offered to check some carefully kept 16mm cans, soon confirming some of the heretofore “mystery” reels contained the premiere cut – and not, we hasten to add, the “Director’s Cut”. If one thing’s clear, it’s that John Paizs made the film he wanted to make, though both versions belong on a beautiful boutique blu ray release. Meanwhile, Crime Wave‘s reputation grows, year on year, with every new viewing, hopefully towards the point Paizs’ “lost” classic can find its way home.
Our Crime Wave New York story in pictures
1 | We flew into New York on the evening of Thursday 9th December, and the next morning wandered up to recce the fabled goth bodega and take some jetlagged selfies. We’re big fans of Spectacle’s programming, so figured best to get it out of our system.
2 | Next day, we picked up the print. Our friends at Anthology Film Archives (who screened Crime Wave on 16mm back in 2014) helped us out by taking delivery of John’s print, sent direct from Winnipeg. Anthology’s Jed Rapfogel raised an eyebrow (justifiably) when he heard this was not only the first outing for the original cut in 35 years but quite likely the only extant print, and as-yet unscanned/unpreserved. Off we went to Spectacle to show it to people! #TeamLanglois
3 | Spectacle had hired a 16mm projector for the special event, and with it came projectionist extraordinaire, artist, film-maker and analogue afficionado Ian Burnley. With the requisite care and reverence (not to mention sense of circumstance), Ian unveiled the reel (actually, four reels – John sent the three original reels plus one with the “official” ending, just in case)…
4 | ..and began to prepare them for screening (note John’s careful new notes and the original “MATURE” label). Ian also gave us some great recommendation for cinemas, art shows, galleries and noodles (we were glad to meet Ian).
5 | We sat down with Spectacle’s Caroline Golum to preview the reel ahead of the screening, making sure the set-up worked and John hadn’t pranked us by sending us footage of a Winnipeg family wedding. He hadn’t!
6 | All that was left was to panickedly chalk up the A-board, pose for posterity (that’s Spectacle’s Elias ZX on the left there, Megan in the middle), welcome the sold-out audience and wait for the reviews…
Crime Wave’s 2K restoration screens in Spectacle’s Best of 2021 line-up on Saturday, 8th January at 7:30pm EST and Thursday 27th January at 10pm EST, tickets here. NB this is not the version with the original ending (just the one we know and love).
Thanks to Elias ZX, Caroline Golum and volunteers at Spectacle Theater, Monica at Winnipeg Film Group, Jed Rapfogel at Anthology Film Archives, Ian Burnley and Herb Shellenberger for helping to facilitate this series. And, of course, to John Paizs.
You can read more about Crime Wave in our Tales from Winnipeg zine and in Jonathan Ball’s excellent book, John Paizs’s Crime Wave.
If you’re interested in screening any part of our Tales from Winnipeg programme, please feel free to drop us a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.