A forgotten gem

Little-known cult comedy about writing a film gets dusted off the shelf

Reviving a crime: Crime Wave, a 1985 local film about a man’s struggle to write a feature film inspired by 1950s crime dramas, had promise but never saw a release outside of Winnipeg. Winnipeg Film Group

In a just world, John Paizs’s Crime Wave would be an international cult classic and an influential chapter of Winnipeg’s artistic resumé.

While it is most certainly the latter, Crime Wave and Paizs’s other short films live on in obscurity for the most part, even in his hometown.

The exception is when Dave Barber, programming co-ordinator at the Winnipeg Film Group, pulls the Crime Wave print off the shelves and puts it onto the little, big screen at the Cinematheque.

“Crime Wave really helped to put Winnipeg’s film community on the map, along with (Guy Maddin’s) Tales from the Gimli Hospital,” says Barber.

Released in 1985, the comedic film follows the silent and serious Stephen Penny as he struggles to write a feature film inspired by 1950s crime dramas.

The style of this movie at first feels like an old educational film, with Paizs’s signature locked-off shots, overdubbed narration and tacky, bouncy music.

This satirical outlook on 1950s lifestyle has since been imitated all over, from the British TV series Look Around You to films like Edward Scissorhands and Pleasantville.

The real treat about Crime Wave compared to its look-alikes is how undefined, yet uniquely stylized the film becomes. One minute you see Penny’s melodramatic social interactions at a costume party, and next you catch violent glimpses into his bizarre scripts.

Finally, the entire film gets turned on its surrealist head as Penny goes to find a “twist” that will perfect his script. 

One of the reasons this film is so fascinating is its self-referential nature and thus its insight into Paizs’s psyche while trying to finish this film.

This is akin to Fellini’s 8 ½ - a self-referencing film about writer’s block - and even more like Adaptation. Like Charlie Kaufman, the writer of Adaptation, John Paizs also had troubles writing the script and employed a “twist” to save it.

Troubles with Crime Wave continued, and after a botched premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Paizs decided to reshoot the last quarter of the film.

The re-edited version was picked up by distributors and buried, presumably because of its incredibly quirky nature.

To this day, Crime Wave has regrettably never received a theatrical run outside of Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 65, Number 20 of The Uniter (February 24, 2011)

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