Tragically Obscure: John Paizs' (The Big) Crimewave
By Skizz Cyzyk
Call it fate or what have you. In the summer of 1992, while sifting through a pile of used video tapes from a video store that had gone under, I stumbled upon a copy of a 1986 movie called THE BIG CRIMEWAVE. While I rarely impulse shop and considering at that time I was in no position to be able to afford to, something about the box made it look too interesting to pass up. I'll never forget the first time I popped that tape into my VCR. Within the first 10 minutes, THE BIG CRIMEWAVE had jumped onto my list of favorite films, eventually settling among the top three (the other two being BRAZIL and THE FORBIDDEN ZONE).
Not only was I amazed at how cool the film was, I couldn't believe I had never heard of it before. Aside from being one the most original, unique and unpredictable films I have ever seen, it is also one of the most undeservingly obscure films I know of. I can't help but think that if this film had gotten proper distribution, it would be a well known cult classic by now, putting it's filmmaker, John Paizs (pronounced "Pays") on the map of cool and inspirational indie-filmmakers.
The film looks and sounds like a 1950's educational film. Everything about it is done perfectly; the lighting, the sound design, the narration, the sets, the costumes, the music, the title cards, the colour, the overall feeling, etc. Whenever I show it to someone who's never seen it before, I like to make them play a little game which is to simply try to predict what's going to happen next.
So far, no one has been able to.
There's so much to it despite its simple story line. The humour of the film is dry and deadpan, yet quirky in a way that probably kept it from finding any kind of mainstream acceptance. It was, perhaps, years ahead of its time, and might still be today.John Paizs took much of his inspiration for THE BIG CRIMEWAVE from 1950's B-Crime melodramas and educational films, and from Fellini's 8 1/2, which he considers "the ultimate (and possibly the only other?) ‘blocked filmmaker' film". "I lived in those days, to an alarming degree, in a fantasy world of old movies," he says, "and my own films had to be, as much as I could make them, old movies." Obviously, the "blocked filmmaker"/"film about making a film" genre has taken off since then (BARTON FINK, LIVING IN OBLIVION, MAN BITES DOG, AN ALAN SMITHEE FILM, MUTE WITNESS, THE PICKLE, IRMA VEP) but back in the mid-80's it was still wide open for exploration. And explore he did, in a way that had never been done before and has never been done since.
THE BIG CRIMEWAVE is the story of Steven Penny (played by Paizs), a quiet man. So quiet, in fact, that he never says a word throughout the entire film. Steven is a filmmaker who is trying to write the script for his next film, titled CRIME WAVE, which he hopes will be "the best colour crime movie ever". Aside from the fact that he is only able to write by streetlight, Steven also suffers from a writer's block that allows him to write countless beginnings and endings to CRIME WAVE, but has trouble writing middles worth keeping.
Steven befriends Kim, a young neighbor who wants to do whatever she can to help Steven complete the script to CRIME WAVE. Kim also narrates the film, making up for the lack of dialogue caused by Steven's "quietness".
The majority of the story focuses on the relationship between Steven and Kim, but it's tied together by the beginnings and endings to CRIME WAVE that Steven writes within the film; all of which seem to be the exact same story with different characters in different situations. In one, Ronnie Boyles, an Elvis impersonator wants to be the world's greatest tribute artist, but his career is sidetracked and ultimately ended by an unintentional crime spree. In another version, Dawn and Skip Holiday, a couple on the road to worldwide domination of the door to door sales racket, a la Amway, ends in a similar predicament. In all the versions, we the audience are introduced to the competition before meeting the protagonists, and then we're thrust directly to the ending, which usually involves the tragic deaths of the protagonists.
Later, Kim finds the middles that Steven throws away and as she reads them, we are likewise treated to those too. These wordless vignettes feature scenes of Ronny Boyles accidentally shooting a hunting partner, another shows him consoling a crying child whose pet he's just run over with a lawn mower. Meanwhile, one middle has Dawn and Skip stuck in a traffic jam, and examining the marks left on ankles by extension cords used for sexual bondage activities in another. The creativity is endless and these throw away (literally) moments make for some of the funniest moments in the film.
Eventually Steven gives up on CRIME WAVE, but then regains interest when Kim sets up a meeting between him and Dr. Jolly, a script doctor who suggests that all Steven needs is "twists". Unfortunately, the good doctor goes psychotic before meeting Steven, which results in a freak accident that leaves Steven's head stuck inside a fallen streetlight... a combination that allows Steven to finally overcome his writer's block, thus enabling him to write the final version of CRIME WAVE.
Throw in a costume party, a private club for imaginary friends, gay-bashing rednecks in pickup trucks, a quarantined city, and countless other brilliant, yet insignificant ideas, and you just barely get the gist of CRIME WAVE. For those who have yet to see it, I've already given too much away.
In March of 1984, then-26-year-old Canadian filmmaker, John Paizs sat down for three weeks and wrote the screenplay for a movie called CRIME WAVE - a comedy about a filmmaker with writer's block. Paizs was no stranger to writer's block. He was, in fact, blocked, and hampered by self-doubt himself, much like his main character. The fact that he already had two unsuccessful feature screenplays under his belt did not make matters any better.
Yet before that period in his life, Paizs had managed to establish himself with a series of shorts. At the age of 22, he made THE OBSESSION OF BILLY BOTSKI, a film that seemed to jumpstart the "weird films from Winnipeg" movement epitomized these days by the likes of Guy Maddin, and also predating the current lounge music craze by more than a decade. He followed that up with three more shorts; THE INTERNATIONAL STYLE, which he considers his worst film, OAK, IVY AND OTHER DEAD ELMS, and SPRINGTIME IN GREENLAND, which he considers his best short. All three shorts were eventually packaged together as a feature called THE THREE WORLDS OF NICK.
From May of 1984 to June of 1985, Paizs and his small crew (usually consisting of no more than three people and sometimes as few as one - himself) spent their weekends shooting CRIME WAVE. The film was shot with a rented Arriflex BL 16mm camera plus Paizs' own wind-up Bolex, and funded with about $60,000 worth of Canadian art council grants. Most of the cast consisted of friends, friends of friends, or relatives. Paizs employed several techniques to make CRIME WAVE look and sound like an old movie. The camera rarely moves (like in many silent films) and the film is lit with hard lighting and harsh sunlight to achieve a "technicolor" look. All of the sound was replaced in post-production; a process Paizs called "Select-O-Sound", which gave the film a clean, controlled, retro-sounding soundtrack.
In September of 1985, CRIME WAVE premiered at the Festival of Festivals in Toronto. Audience reaction was positive for the beginning and middle of the film, but Paizs decided the ending needed to be different. By the spring of 1986, slightly more than two years since it's inception, the final version of CRIME WAVE was completed.
Though CRIME WAVE was picked up for distribution, it was buried by it's distributors, most likely due to them getting cold feet over the film's very odd, quirky style of humor. To this day, it has never had a theatrical run outside of Winnipeg. The U.S. distributors of the film had an extra problem to contend with; CRIME WAVE was being released around the same time as the Sam Raimi/Coen Bros. film, CRIMEWAVE. "That my title is two words as opposed to one - CRIME WAVE - obviously wasn't a big enough distinguishing feature for them", Paizs says. The distributors solution was to essentially deface the beautiful "CRIME WAVE" title card with an overlapping video title, reading "THE BIG", thus changing the film's title to THE BIG CRIMEWAVE.
The trouble didn't end there. All of the companies who released THE BIG CRIMEWAVE on video went out of business by the early 90's. The video has been out of print for years and there has been no way to get a non-pirate copy of it ever since (unless you are one of the lucky ones to find a used copy at a video store). However, pirate copies have kept THE BIG CRIMEWAVE alive, though only in obscure cult-film status.
After THE BIG CRIMEWAVE, Paizs went on to direct music videos, commercials and television shows (including episodes of "Maniac Mansion" and segments of "The Kids in the Hall"). He recently completed a new feature film, TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN, starring Campbell Scott and Thomas Everett Scott, and lensed by Bill Wong, who also shot several of John Woo's films. Two members of the CRIME WAVE cast have gone on to other roles; Eva Kovacs (Kim), is now a TV news anchor in Winnipeg, and Neil Lawrie (Dr. Jolly), had a bit part in Guy Maddin's ARCHANGEL, and continues to do theater acting.
The release of TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN will hopefully renew some interest in John Paizs' first real feature, CRIME WAVE, finally getting it the recognition it deserves. Hopefully, a re-release on video will be in store and the film print will make it's way to some festivals anxious to discover an important "lost film" and introduce it to a whole new audience.
For more info check out Frank Norman's great CRIME WAVE site.