Friday, January 29, 2010

Crime Wave (John Paizs, 1985)

Never has the switching on of a simple streetlight seemed so fraught with longing and dread. The sight of it struggling to light itself as darkness is about to engulf a nondescript Winnipeg suburb was one of the many bizarre pleasures peppered throughout Crime Wave, a film about a writer, a girl, and a dream. One of the most unique and inventive cinematic works to come out of Canada during the 1980s, the brainchild of writer-director John Paizs (Top of the Food Chain) puts the creative process underneath one of those newfangled devices that magnify things with an alarming level of detail. A throwback to the days when after school was special and socially maladjusted men could hang out with little girls without it seeming twisted or off-putting, the film uses many different techniques to tell its strange tale. There are parts where it feels like a well-meaning NFB documentary about writing, while others have the air of a cheesy instructional video. A struggling screenwriter named Steven Penny (John Paizs) rents the room above the garage on the property where a girl named Kim (Eva Kovacs) lives with her mom and dad. Thrilled to be in such close proximity with someone involved with the movie business, the curious little scamp, who narrates parts of the story as if it were a school project, takes a keen interest in the solitary writer. Watching him like a hawk, or any number of birds with strong eyesight, Kim starts to collect Steven's discarded writings. While reading what's written on the crumpled paper, she discovers that Steven, despite the illuminating splendour of the streetlight hovering outside his window, is having a spot of trouble coming up with an all-important component to his stories.

You see, he's got a beginning, and an end, but no middle.

The nitty-gritty of Steven's stories mostly involve a series of characters vying for dominance in their particular field of interest. Whether it be music, the world of self-help, or selling Amway (renamed here as "Allway"), an outsider, usually from the northern part of the continent, emerges at "the top," only to end up dying violently when all is said and done. What happens to them on their way to this bloody demise is a mystery, as Steven has no clue how to write it.

The segments that involve the stories without middles are fast paced and boast a loopy sense of humour. The one featuring Skip (Jeffery Owen Madden) and Dawn Holliday (Tea Andrea Tanner), the husband and wife Allway salespeople, in particular, as it had a scene where a woman in a wheelchair is force-fed dog biscuits.

Depressed over the fact that he can't write a middle for what he likes to call his "colour crime movie," Steven passes the time by palling around with Kim (new wave music, taunting rivals, and Freezies), watching a guy count cars, riding his bike and looking at stuff (one of my personal faves - stuff rules), and attending dress up parties as a shirtless bank robber with explosives taped to his chest.

After Dawn (the beguiling Allway salesperson) bludgeons dominant musician Ronnie Boyles (Darrell Barren) with a typewriter in his bedroom (he has since moved from the garage to the house, and has obviously begun to hallucinate), Kim decides to contact a Texan named Dr. C. Jolly (Neal Lawrie) who specializes in creating the middles of screenplays.

The weirdness factor increases somewhat when we hit the sunflower fields of Kansas and meet Dr. Jolly; the spooky look he gives Steven while out the middle of the road will cause you to loose a fair amount of your precious urine.

The decision to make Steven a wordless character was quite risky, as it put the dialogue onus solely on the underdeveloped shoulders of a child actor. Luckily, Eva Kovacs is a spirited delight as the ever curious Kim, a girl whose thirst for knowledge troubles her parents (they think she should focus less on the persistence of vision, and more on her homework). Besides, Steven's voice can be heard loud and clear in the segments I alluded to earlier; in that, he speaks through his ambitious characters.

Filmed over the course of two years, Crime Wave is a fascinating portrait of what must be like to be from Winnipeg and possess an artistic temperament.

Also, if you've seen the Kids in the Hall sketch where Bruce McCulloch plays a little boy who brings a businessman named Mr. Stevenson (Kevin MacDonald) home with him and begs his mom (Scott Thompson) to keep him as a pet, you'll immediately "get" what the film is going for in terms of tone and style. Just substitute "businessman" with "colour crime movie maker," and you'll do fine.

Oh, and only a Canadian film could boast a non-creepy relationship between a little girl and a grown man in such a nonchalant manner.

video uploaded by Reel Canada

Special thanks to Russ for providing the colour crime movie screen captures.


  1. If anything is ever like a Kids in the Hall sketch, I am interested; so thanks to your comparison, I will watch this movie! It looks pleasant.

  2. John Paizs is credited with directing a few episodes of The Kids of the Hall.

  3. Yay Russ!

    I love that KitH sketch. d. just bought us Seasons 1-4. We'll eventually pick up Season 5 even though the show's quality was in a fairly steep decline.

    I thought about you last night when we were watching the trailers for In the Loop. There was one for a Norwegian Nazi zombie movie, Dead Snow. Looked right up your proverbial alley.

    That Jeopardy! champ is too freaking hyper.

  4. He's a mensch.

    I get misty when those old school streetcars pass by just as Bruce is about to set Mr. Stevenson free.

    I'll probably end up watching that Norwegian Nazi zombie movie one of these days. After all, it's been quite some time since I saw Kitchen Stories, and I think I'm ready for another Norge flick.

    Yeah, like, totally. What does she think this is... Wheel of freaking Fortune? ;)

    (I was rooting for the lady in the headband.)

  5. Who you calling a mensch? ;)

    Always happy to see Crime Wave love. That whole nighttime scene with Dr. Jolly scared the bejezus out of me; that's one freaky dude.

    You can really tell the two year gestation period - looks like Kim had a bit of a growth spurt somewhere.

    I need to see that Food Chain film -- any good? I already talked up Springtime in Greenland...same tone and almost as good as CW.

    Now we just got to get you a copy of PTA. I'd love to do the caps for that one.

  6. Speaking of growth spurts, there's a YouTube clip of a grownup Eva Kovacs doing the news in Winnipeg.

    Any good? Top of the Food Chain is freaking hilarious; Campbell Scott is deadpan perfection.

    I know what PTA stands for. :)

  7. We just did a podcast all about Crime Wave. Hope you enjoy!

  8. Highly enjoyable. Awesome site.

  9. I was sure I'd seen this movie when I clicked... but no, I'd seen _Crimewave_ (1985), not _Crime Wave_ (1985). The other one is good too.

    1. I've heard nothing but good (and weird) things about Sam Raimi's Crime Wave.