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A Movie a Day, Day 42: Crime Wave

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A Movie a Day, Day 42: Crime Wave

Just about everything I’ve written about so far in this Movie a Day series is pretty easy to find no matter where you live: If it’s not in a theater near you, it’s on DVD or due out soon. But not Crime Wave, the 1985 film I saw last night. It was selected for a one-night screening by Not Coming to a Theater Near You, which should give you an idea of its status. According to the film’s director, John Paizs, who was at the screening for a Q&A afterward, Crime Wave was released on VHS (as The Big Crime Wave, since Sam Raimi released Crimewave that year), but it’s not on DVD or Blu-ray.

That’s a shame. Crime Wave is a gas, and it’s probably the most inventive movie I’ve ever seen about the agony of trying to fill an empty page. Paizs plays the tormented screenwriter, Steven, who’s a whiz at beginnings and endings, but can’t figure out what to put in between. During the Q&A, Paizs said he knew he wasn’t a good enough actor to read lines for the part, but he figured he could pull off a silent role. He was right: His speechless schmo’s stunned-fish affect gives him a primal, Harpo Marxish innocence that’s both comic and endearing.

We learn what Steven’s thinking by seeing discarded bits of his writing played out and by listening as his landlord’s precocious preteen daughter, Kim (Eva Kovacs), addresses the camera or provides voiceover narration. Kim has a major crush on her neighbor, so she follows him closely, becoming an expert in all things Steven Penny. Paizs gets her voice surprisingly right, but this is no World of Henry Orient-style coming-of-age heartwarmer. It’s much odder, more interesting, and more stylized than that.

Paizs was an illustrator and then an animator before he was a live-action director, so it’s not surprising that he put a lot of thought and creativity into the movie’s look (he even made the dramatic, ’30s- and ’40s-style crime movie posters that paper Steven’s apartment.) During the Q&A, he said he made the movie as a rebellion against the realistic, documentary-style features coming out of his native Canada at the time. He was going, he said, for a “more stylized, ’50s-style aesthetic,” and sure enough, his saturated colors and lurid title sequences could have come from a Douglas Sirk melodrama. The soundtrack is amped up too, shunning the aural wallpaper of ambient sound to emphasize noises like the crinkling of the pages Kim rescues from the garbage can where Steven threw them. Paizs’s model, he says, was “the very limited palette of sound that you would hear in a radio play.”

The shaggy-dog plot zigzags between the often absurd “color crime” scenarios Steven cooks up or gets into, making a few stops to follow Steven as he explores the town or to peer in on Kim’s stolidly middle-class parents, who are framed and lit like zoo specimens. That loose structure leaves plenty of room for pungent little spoofs on then-new cultural phenomena like Amway salesmen, self-help gurus, and TV puff pieces about successful artists. Paizs also throws in some mini-lectures that evoke those earnest how-to films that used to be so popular in the ’50s, and some pure, goofy surrealism, like the sight of Steven with a broken streetlamp stuck on his head like a freakishly elongated, intermittently glowing helmet.

This kind of movie isn’t for everyone, as Paizs pointed out last night: “I feel like I’m defending it a lot,” he mused. Realizing how limited the audience was for this film, he says, made him resolve to do something more mainstream the next time around. For years, he tried writing scripts with more traditional characters and stories, but “there was nothing new or special…I really kind of lost my way and lost my individuality.”

I’m sorry to have discovered him just to find out that there’s not much else to see. But I did find his second film, Top of the Food Chain (also called Invasion!), on Netflix. I look forward to seeing what weird pleasures that one contains.

Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.