Written by Matt Bowes
I have the opposite problem to Steven Penny, the silent protagonist of John Paiz’s debut film Crime Wave. See, Penny’s an aspiring screenwriter who’s full of ideas for the beginnings and the endings of crime flicks. They’re all relatively similar, mind you, but he’s great at thinking them up. What he can’t figure out is the middle of the story, the sequence of twists and turns that will keep the audience guessing until the final act. Me on the other hand, I’m terrible at thinking up beginnings, as this opening sentence will suggest, and my endings aren’t that hot either (more on that later).
Crime Wave is a deeply strange, funny, and charming film. Originally released in 1985, it has been almost impossible to find for the past couple of decades. Luckily, this past spring the film has resurfaced on iTunes and is also available for purchase on YouTube here in Canada. If you’re a fan of David Lynch, Wes Anderson, Charlie Kaufman or The Kids in The Hall, you really need to check this hidden gem out, as it comes across as a mixture of all four, with a real sweetness at its core that’s coupled with an fairy tale-feeling entry into the world of adult sexuality.
John Paiz, who in addition to directing, producing, editing, and lensing the film, also plays its hero, Steven. He’s a pretty strange character, obsessed with making the best-ever “colour crime movie” in the style of pulpy B-pictures from the ‘40s and ‘50s. He’s shacked up somewhere in suburban Winnipeg in a small, poster-strewn apartment above the garage of Kim (Eva Kovacs) and her parents. Now, as I noted earlier, Steven never talks; instead, Kim provides narration for much of the film, as she too has been infected with the craze for colour crime movies. Kim and Steven have a very sweet relationship, which starts once Kim finds some script pages Steven’s thrown in the garbage. As the frustrated Steven can only write under the watchful eye of the street light outside his window, most mornings another set of pages ends up in the trash.
Steven’s a loner, the sort of guy who dresses up as a suicide bomber when going out to a Halloween party, but to Kim he’s a font of information on how movies get made. At one point, Kim daydreams about taking him to her classroom for show and tell, but through his abortive script pages she also runs headlong into the weirdly sexual undercurrents found in Steven’s work. When Steven gets into a rut, not even being able to think up potential beginnings and endings for his dream picture, and being attacked by rats to boot (!), Kim sends a message to Dr. Jolly, a man who’s left an ad in Colour Crime Quarterly magazine, in the hopes of adding some twists to Steven’s tale.
The most charming aspect of this deeply charming movie is the extremely unorthodox approach it takes to storytelling, which recalls the work of Charlie Kaufman at his most meta. We begin the film proper in media res, with the story of Ronnie Boyles, an Elvis impersonator from Canada looking to break into the big-time celebrity imitation game. The so-called “racket” of dressing up as a dead singer is seemingly already sewn up by Buddy Holly, Hank Williams and Sid Vicious lookalikes. Then we cut to Kim, explaining the basic setup of this version of Crime Wave, before cutting back to Ronnie Boyles’ tragic demise. Check the clip out below, and you’ll be charmed by the homemade cake version of Ronnie’s world, as well as the wonderful hand-drawn animation:
As the different iterations of the film within the film wear on, the saga of a little guy “from the North” looking to break into American markets shifts into the cutthroat worlds of Amway salespeople, self-harming self-help gurus, and even world-famous colour crime filmmakers. As Steven sinks further into a writer’s block-induced depression, these frustrated characters even leave their noir realm and enter that of their creator, bouncing off one another with a weird, Lynchian sexual tension in an increasingly full one-room apartment. Despite all of the meta trappings, Crime Wave is potentially one of the most deeply felt examinations of writers’ block I’ve ever seen, and definitely the most entertaining. The film also walks a razor’s edge with its portrayal of Steven Penny, who alternates between sweetly quirky and fairly menacing from scene to scene.
Paiz’s off-kilter vision of Winnipeg is cast in vibrant Technicolor, which is made even more noticeable by the hilariously garish early-Eighties fashions. He also populates the film with pitch-perfect simulacra of 1940s Hollywood opening titles and credits, alongside book covers and merchandise from various Steven Penny films, with an attention to detail that recalls Wes Anderson at his most fastidious. This is especially impressive given the low budget of the film, which was shot piecemeal over the course of two years, on evenings and weekends. Granted, with this comes some of the eccentricities that go along with indie filmmaking from this period: with the exception of a few shots, most setups are filmed straight on with no dolly movements or Steadicam (which, again, recalls Anderson for the modern viewer), and some of the sound seems to have been dubbed in after. Eva Kovacs also seems to have grown three or four inches in different parts of the film. Some scenes end abruptly, or have potentially unplanned-for guest stars, like the little kid hiding behind the couch in one of the Crime Wave intros as seen here.
Still, these oddities are keeping in tone with the very strange world Paiz draws the viewer into, where silent men show off their fevered hobbies and bullies prowl the streets of Winnipeg looking to throw pears at them. As an artifact of Canada from the Eighties, as a showcase for an idiosyncratic visual style, and for its fascinating cosmology of colour crime, John Paiz’s debut feature deserves an equal amount of attention to that garnered by the other chronicler of Winnipeg weirdness, Guy Maddin.