Crime Wave, a fantastically funny and strange flick by former Winnipeg director John Paizs, premiered in 1985, shook things up, and then mostly disappeared. On Friday, February 28th, Cinematheque offers a free (free!) showing of this seldom seen Canuck cult classic, along with two of Paizs’s short films, The Obsession of Billy Botski and Springtime in Greenland.

Paizs will be on hand for the event, along with local writer, filmmaker and critic Jonathan Ball, who is launching a new book on Paizs’s work.

John Paizs

Crime Wave is by former Winnipeg director John Paizs and is showing at Cinematheque on Friday, February 28th. (Courtesy Cinematheque)

An early and ingenious example of the film-within-a-film trope, Crime Wave is more or less about trying to make a movie called Crime Wave. Paizs himself plays blocked screenwriter Steven Penny, who types away every night, illuminated by the streetlight outside his window, only to chuck out the pages the next morning.

Wrestling with fierce writer’s block, Steven is rescued by precocious suburban schoolgirl Kim, who is played by Eva Kovacs. (Yes, that Eva Kovacs, currently a Global TV broadcaster but back then just a kid -- and as cute as a bug’s ear.) Kim’s incongruously cheery narration of Steven’s morbid story adds to the off-kilter humour.  

Steven tries out beginnings and endings, which we see onscreen in spot-on spoofs of motivational films, advertising and old B-movies. His stories always involve our hero “From The North” trying to make it “To the Top!” Steven has a problem, however, with “the stuff in the middle.” For all its outlandish cinematic flourishes, his masterwork keeps getting stuck.

Paizs’s own “stuff in the middle” is a twisty bit of meta-narrative. Crime Wave has been called the first postmodern film in Canada, and its use of comic pastiche and pop-culture parody must have been a revelation to audiences used to the kitchen-sink regional realism of Canadian films like The Rowdyman and Goin’ Down the Road.

Crime Wave became influential for the Winnipeg Film Group, which was just getting underway in those days, and for local filmmakers like Guy Maddin. Paizs’s clever, creative ways of getting around low-budget, low-tech constraints, his flat deadpan comedy, and his somewhat, uh, conflicted attitude to women all show up in later Winnipeg work. Paizs also inspired other Canadian indie filmmakers, like Bruce McDonald (the Toronto director who made Hard Core Logo) and Andy Jones (the dangerously funny Newfoundland comedian and writer).   

And while Crime Wave anticipates films by the Coens and Charlie Kaufman, it has never got the attention it deserved. With its references to the hero from the north who struggles to make it to the top (an implicitly American peak), Crime Wave is an exploration of the peculiar plight of Canadian cinema, squashed under the crushing, glittery weight of Hollywood. Unfortunately, the film itself became an emblem of our national tendency to ignore our own, its distribution rights disappearing into some black hole of the movie biz.  

But if Crime Wave has been hard to find over the years, its mythology has grown, as old VHS copies have been handed from fan to fan.  And on Friday, it will be back on the big screen, where it belongs.

See Crime Wave at Cinematheque on Friday February 28 at 7 p.m. Hear Alison Gillmor's review on Up to Speed with host Ismaila Alfa at 4:20 p.m.