Critipeg: The Three Worlds of Nick

Available on DVD now

Cult Winnipeg filmmaker John Paizs released his trilogy of short films, The Three Worlds of Nick, in the early 1980s. The films star Paizs as Nick, a silent protagonist at odds with the people and societies around him. 

Paizs followed the trilogy with his excellent 1986 feature Crime Wave, worked sporadically in TV throughout the ’90s, and eventually took a media vow of silence, disappearing from public life. 

On Dec. 10, the Winnipeg Film Group released the trilogy on DVD. While Springtime in Greenland could previously be found on home video, this is the first DVD release for Oak, Ivy and Other Dead Elms and The International Style.

Springtime in Greenland (1981)

Nick attends his family’s barbecue and pool party on the day of the town’s big spring parade. A diving contest with another guest begins to take on sinister undertones. Paizs combines the cinematic language of 1950s advertisements and a Leave It to Beaver façade with his own creepy brand of silent film expressionism.

Oak, Ivy and Other Dead Elms (1982)

On his first day on campus at Balfour University, Nick meets a group of preppy college types playing football on the quad. He soon learns that their leader Brock (played hilariously by Peter Jordan, of CBC’s It’s a Living) is his roommate. Brock launches a campaign for student president, with the help of his old-money pals, and their tepid conservatism steadily spirals into far-right violence.

Unlike Paizs’ other films, this is shot in stark black and white. The film slowly oscillates between comic college hijinks and a sense of paranoia that would feel right at home in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Paizs swings that pendulum with a masterfully steady hand.

The themes feel shockingly contemporary for a film released 34 years ago. As a satire of student politics, it brilliantly skewers the self-seriousness of both ends of the political spectrum. Current conversations about the usefulness or danger of campus discourse could apply to the film’s characters, who dress either like Conservative leadership candidates or socialist revolutionaries, but whose struggles amount to arguing over whether a particular building should be converted into a daycare or a clubhouse.

Comparisons could easily be drawn between Brock and Donald Trump. Both are unintentional buffoons, born into money, who manipulate the press to achieve political ambitions motivated by something darker than what they outwardly portray.

In the film’s best sequence, Brock eerily recalls a bizarre episode from his childhood in which an epidemic killed all the oldest trees in his neighbourhood. The town spirals into hysteria, blaming a number of different factors. Cold War fears about foreign influence abound (another modern parallel), as do environmentalist concerns.

It’s a testament to Paizs’ strength as an artist that this is still so resonant. It’s not merely a case of history repeating itself. His themes aren’t just political or satirical. The fears and perils he addresses are universal: they’ve always been here, and always will be.

The International Style (1984)

Now working as a cat burglar (a career choice that’s utterly unexplained), Nick infiltrates a clandestine meeting of billionaires to steal a mysterious microchip which holds the key to saving humanity. Sumptuous sets and a florid colour palette enrich Paizs’ camerawork and blocking, which recall Golden Age Hollywood. Includes a performance by Guy Maddin as a female masseuse.

Published in Volume 71, Number 14 of The Uniter (January 5, 2017)

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