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Obscure Winnipeg film sparks wave of interest

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Writer, professor and film scholar Jonathan Ball, 34, was just six years old when Winnipeg director John Paizs released his low-budget feature masterpiece Crime Wave on the world back in 1985.

Ball eventually discovered the film when he was in his mid-20s and found himself entranced by the critically acclaimed, but rarely seen, gem, one of the jewels in the crown of the Prairie postmodern film movement, alongside Guy Maddin's Tales from the Gimli Hospital.

"I was volunteering at the Winnipeg Film Group and I was in the back room where they had copies of screeners and I saw a bunch of copies of Crime Wave," Ball recalls.

"I'd heard so much about it, so I stole a copy," he says.

"I actually had permission to steal it," he adds. "Anyway, I watched it and I was blown away by it."

Crime Wave tells the story of Steven Penny (played by Paizs himself), a quiet man with aspirations to writing the "greatest colour crime movie ever made." Unfortunately, he is blocked: He can write beginning and endings, but the middles elude his imagination, until he gets unexpected assistance from the little girl (charmingly played by future Global morning news host Eva Kovacs) whose parents rent out Penny's garage apartment.

Ball was sufficiently impressed with the film that he wrote what must be the definitive book on it -- John Paizs' Crime Wave -- newly released by the University of Toronto Press. Simultaneously a colourful history and an in-depth critical deconstruction, the book pays respect to a film that has fallen into a heinous Canfilm limbo.

It premiéred to some critical acclaim in 1985 at the Toronto Festival of Festivals -- now known as the Toronto International Film Festival -- and was subsequently retooled by Paizs with an improved ending. Alas, it has been neglected and forgotten by the various distributors who have owned the rights to the film, but have failed to give it any meaningful distribution beyond a mid-'80s VHS home video release.

That amounted to an inherent risk to writing about a movie that isn't available through normal channels of viewership, such as DVD or iTunes, but to Ball that was even more of a motivating factor.

"To me, the book is a radical redress of (the movie's) relative obscurity," he says.

The fact that the University of Toronto Press was interested in publishing a book about the hard-to-find film was a pleasant surprise, he says. "They were very enthusiastic about the book, but it certainly presents a marketing challenge."

Ball's close scrutiny of the movie did not diminish his enthusiasm for Paizs's film.

"Crime Wave walks an interesting line where it's an extremely experimental, super-radical work, even now," he says.

"But it's completely easy to watch: it's funny, and it's not bogged down by its experimentation."

For more on Jonathan Ball's book, join Randall King in a live interview with the author at the Winnipeg Free Press News Café at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 28.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2014 D2

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