Review by Thomas Scalzo
Posted on 24 June 2010
Source bootleg DVD
92YTribeca Film Series: Crime Wave
An Interview with John Paizs
Top of the Food Chain
Springtime in Greenland
Middles are hard to think of, as every scriptwriter knows.
Psychopathic Hank Williams impersonators! Demented door-to-door salesman! State-employed car counters!
Welcome to Crime Wave, brainchild of writer, director, producer, and star John Paizs. An aspiring filmmaker working on his first feature, Paizs crafts an imaginative and memorable universe of colorful characters, outlandish scenarios, and unexpected filmmaking techniques. He also channels his singular cinematic ambition into his portrayal of Crime Wave’s hero, Steven Penny. Like Paizs, Steven has dedicated his existence to the art of the motion picture, having decided long ago that his life was meant for one thing: to pen the greatest crime film ever written. Check that, the greatest color crime film ever written. Trouble is, Steven can’t manage to craft that elusive second act, the middle part of a script that gives every storyteller fits. Sure, the beginnings and endings come easily enough, but the middles always seem out of reach. Though his nights are passed in hopeful reverie, clacking away on his typewriter by the light of a nearby streetlamp, each new day finds Steven mired in quiet desperation, staring up at the lurid posters of 1950’s crime films adorning his walls and lamenting his previous night’s literary failures.
Enter Kim. An inquisitive and determined girl, Kim is the daughter of Steven’s landlord, and is quite intrigued by her father’s unusual tenant. At first she contents herself to climbing nearby trees to peer into the small room above the garage where Steven lives. Once she realizes that Steven is a writer, however, and is wantonly discarding his nightly toils in the family garbage can, she sets about retrieving his work, and reading it eagerly at the first opportunity. Encouraged by the girl’s enthusiasm, Steven begins teaching Kim all about color crime films, in the process renewing his own love of the genre.
Aside from this vital role of keeping Steven on task, Kim also regularly breaks character to directly address the audience and explain what’s going on. You see, Steven never speaks, and without Kim’s insightful and entertaining exposition, we would be left with little more than Steven’s subtle gestures to indicate what he’s feeling. Kim’s monologues range from simple narrative glosses (“Steven and I were now best friends”), to instructional digressions explaining the highly important concept of the persistence of vision. It is an unexpected narrative technique, but Paizs’ consistent and judicious use of it is never jarring, and is occasionally hilarious.
In today’s screenwriting world, voice-over narrators, not to mention direct audience address, are generally considered no-nos. My college screenwriting teacher, for instance, immediately looked at a student disapprovingly the moment any sort of narration was suggested. That Paizs so cavalierly disregards these unwritten rules is what makes his film so accessible, and enjoyable. In what is arguably the film’s funniest moment, Kim explains to us, after a strange and silent interregnum in which Steven stares out into space, that what we just witnessed was “one of Steven’s attacks of self-doubt.” Paizs even goes so far as to include a moment of direct audience participation, in which Kim implores us to “try it too!” This unexpected breaking down of the barrier between audience and character serves to create a unique intimacy in Paizs’ film, and to further draw us into his characters and his world.
Paizs also uses Kim’s interest in Steven, and her relentless hunting through Steven’s discarded work, as a way to segue into a series of mini-films. With each new beginning and ending that Kim discovers, the main action of Crime Wave is put on hold, and we’re thrust into a series of lurid color crime dramas. Aside from a few throwaway scenes, which seem to be Steven’s half-hearted attempts at middles, the beginnings and endings of his color crime stories have the same basic structure: the film opens with a 50s-radio-commercial narrator introducing three people or couples at the top of their respective, and bizarre, professions—including famous musician impersonators, direct distribution salespeople, and self-help gurus. And in each instance a newcomer “from the North” arrives on the scene to shake things up.
Though they certainly function as entertaining digressions from the main story, these mini-movies also serve to show us the workings of Steven’s mind in particular, and of the screenwriting mind in general. They show us how a writer can become trapped within an idea, incapable of following the natural course of his own thoughts due to a self-imposed injunction to tell a particular type of story. We can only assume that the reason Steven continues to fail in his efforts to complete these tales is that he is not interested enough in his characters’ lives. For what does an unemployed man know of being an impersonator, a direct distributor, or a self-help guru? Perhaps that is why in each of these mini-films, the stories inevitably devolve into senseless violence. Steven simply reaches a point where he doesn’t know what else to do with his creations.
In a pivotal and superb scene, Steven spends an evening in the company of his wretched band of unsavory creations, watching as they drink, curse, and fight. It is a scenario worthy of Flann O’Brien, an author’s characters living their lives without his input. What Steven sees during this night is enough to sour him on his creations and his dream. In the morning, his typewriter is in the trash. Of course, with Kim around to bolster his spirits, we know Steven won’t be down for long. And sure enough, Kim’s eagerness to learn everything Steven has to teach about color crime movie making, and her efforts to both rescue him from depression and put him in touch with a potential benefactor, ultimately lead to Steven realizing what he needs to do to complete his screenplay.
One is tempted to tie in Steven’s creative struggles with those of writer, director, and producer Paizs. After all, Crime Wave is the story of a young man living in Winnipeg and struggling to be a screenwriter. And just as Paizs found a fictionalized version of himself the perfect outlet for his creative impulses, so too does Steven realize that a fictionalized version of himself is exactly the character, and inspiration for a story middle, that he was seeking. Add to this several small touches, such as Kim informing us that Steven had, in his earlier life, borrowed money from the National Film Board of Canada to make a short film that “almost nobody liked,” and it seems clear that Paizs is injecting much of his own struggles into his character.
In thus analyzing the semi-autobiographical nature of a Winnipeg-based filmmaker, the work of Guy Maddin inevitably enters the discussion. Like Paizs before him, Maddin regularly draws on his own life, or fictionalized versions of his life, for his subject matter. And as with Paizs’, Maddin’s work features the narrative contributions of George Toles. And a penchant for dry, and often morbid humor is a hallmark of each man’s respective creations.
These similarities aside, however, Paizs and Maddin differ substantively in the pacing of their films. Where Maddin’s films are frenetically edited, often to the point of incomprehensibility, the user’s impression of a particular scene assembled more in the mind than in the eye, Paizs is more than content to linger on a single shot, showing us Steven staring into space, for instance, or the slow coming to life of the streetlamp outside Steven’s window. Such creative choices allow us to more fully inhabit Paizs’ world, to feel ourselves a part of its quiet moments.
And Paizs’ world is a Technicolor-infused dreamland, a place where a man can spend his days accomplishing nothing more than writing unfinished screenplays and staring off into space. By contrast, Maddin’s universe, as on display in an iconic work like Brand Upon the Brain!, is a dark, confined place, where shadows flit at the edges of our sight, where toil and stress are inevitable, and where nightmares are real. Maddin’s is a world of terrible fascination, to be sure, but I’d much rather spend time in the comic book serenity of Paizs.
Aside from its inviting world, what makes Crime Wave so fascinating, and worthy of multiple screenings, is that it is not only a tale of a young screenwriter attempting to find his voice, but also a visualization of a young filmmaker’s struggle to find his voice. From the sharp violence of the mini-movies, which feature heads bashed in and exploded, to the domestic bliss of Steven and Kim walking in a park, to the surreal evening with Steven’s characters, Paizs is constantly experimenting with styles and subjects, never falling back on telling his story in a predictable or conventional way.
It is possible, of course, to use the above argument to dismiss Crime Wave as self-indulgent and sloppy, little more than an attempt to cobble a feature film together from several disconnected ideas. A viewer with such an attitude might judge Paizs’ creative editing and narration techniques to gloss over what in truth are little more than half-baked ideas. On the other hand, his creation can easily be considered a work of inspired genius, a madcap tale that refuses to follow the rules and contents itself with telling a story its own way.
Perhaps it is the aspiring writer in me, but I want to believe the latter. I want to believe that writer, producer, editor, and star Paizs found himself up late at night, clacking away at his typewriter by a streetlamp, frustrated at his own inability to complete a tale, only to realize that his very failure was the story, the story of every writer’s early attempts to get something down on paper, to finish something, no matter how inept. The false starts, the reworkings, the cobbling together of characters, scenes, ideas—they’re all part of the story of creation. We can’t say for sure if Steven’s finished version of Crime Wave would have astonished us, but Paizs’ story of how Crime Wave came to be is certainly a delight.