John Paizs’ Vow of Silence
Published August 14, 2013
by Aaron Zeghers
I was first alerted to this rash decision of Paizs’ – this decision to embark on a multimedia vow of silence – by fellow Winnipeg filmmaker Mike Maryniuk.
And where more fitting for this story to begin than inside Winnipeg’s infamous Wagon Wheel Restaurant.
The Wagon Wheel, famous for it’s home-cooked Club Sandwich and old fashioned sentiments, was the subject of Maryniuk’s latest in a spree of experimental documentaries. And there he was one afternoon when who but John Paizs walked through the front door. The prodigal son had come home for the traditional feast.
Never one to miss an opportunity, Maryniuk approached John, re-introducing himself.
The two had a pseudo-introduction years before, when Maryniuk programmed John’s Highway 61 Revisited for a screening titled “Craptastic: Juvenile Craptastic Gems“. Needless to say, Paizs was none too happy to find his early film under this banner of shame. But Maryniuk quickly explained that he believed Highway 61 Revisited to be “the cornerstone of a fun and raw cinema in Manitoba”, and the day went on without blows.
Their second meeting was kinder. Maryniuk voiced his respect for Paizs as an early film pioneer in Winnipeg and a great Canadian filmmaker. He went on to explain that he himself was a filmmaker and that his latest film topic was the restaurant that they sat in. “Would you be interested in doing a quick interview?” asked Maryniuk.
Paizs hesitantly agreed and excused himself to order his food. But when Maryniuk returned moments later with a camera and sat down across from Paizs in that booth, Paizs immediately seized up. Paizs said he couldn’t appear on camera or film at all, and that he didn’t realize that it was that sort of interview. Maryniuk empathized with him and suggested they just audio record their conversation. Paizs once again said, “No, no, no, no…” saying that he also couldn’t be audio recorded.
Paizs said he didn’t do that kind of thing anymore and Maryniuk admitted defeat.
^ A still from Paizs’ Crime Wave.
The completed film Survival Lessons: The Greg Klymkiw Story really is a fabulous spectacle of personality. It’s a must-see for any Canadian film buff and it pays a very well-deserved homage to Kylmkiw, a pillar of the Winnipeg and Canadian film community.
But while watching this great film I had to wonder, “What would John say?”
Lucky for me, a like-minded film goer posed my question to Ryan McKenna and Greg Klymkiw after a screening of Survival Lessons at the Winnipeg Cinematheque. McKenna explained that he did contact Paizs, and in turn Paizs informed him that he no longer did audio or video interviews.
“Jeez, Ryan, so sorry, but I have to respectfully, and regretfully, decline. I’d love to help you out, help out a fellow filmmaker, especially one just starting out, but giving recorded interviews is just not something I feel comfortable doing, or like doing. In fact in the last year, I turned down three interviews, one for a podcast on a film of mine, one for another Winnipeger who wanted to do a doc on my filmmaking in Winnipeg, and one for a certain freelance journalist. So, that gives you an idea of where I’m coming from. Sorry again, Ryan. Wish I could help. But good luck with it!!” wrote Paizs.
McKenna too admitted defeat… kind of.
“John did participate in a way,” says McKenna. “He gave me permission to use clips from ‘Springtime in Greenland’, but none of his other films. He felt the digital transfers were not good enough (John is an extreme perfectionist). I ended up convincing John to let me use clips of Greg in “Oak, Ivy…” and “The International Style”, but the deal was that the clips could not be used with any reference to Paizs or his films,” said McKenna via email.
^ A still from Paizs’ Crime Wave.
The good news for those of us that still have questions for eternally Silent Nick, is that he still does written interviews, at least for Jonathan Ball who is the author of an upcoming critical monograph titled John Paizs’ Crime Wave.
“Paizs has been plenty chatty to me and definitely helpful with the book,” says Ball via email.
“About half of the book analyzes Crime Wave. The other half situates Paizs and his 1980s films within cultural and theoretical contexts,” says Ball, who pits Paizs as the first post-modern Canadian filmmaker and the founder of prairie post-modernism. The book – to be released in 2014 – focuses on Paizs’ first feature film because it “stands as the apex of Paizs’ artistic development, and Paizs’ last effort, to date, as a writer-director,” says Ball.
Much is also said about Paizs’ Crime Wave in the very revealing hour-long documentary On Screen! Crime Wave, part of the On Screen! TV series that chronicles early Canadian cinematic success.
In the film Paizs is interviewed in detail about Crime Wave. While his difficulty in writing Crime Wave is evident in the content of the film itself, it becomes clear in On Screen! Crime Wave that the release and distribution of the film took a great toll on Paizs’ gusto as an early underground filmmaker.
One specific devastating moment was the film’s premiere at TIFF in 1985.
“I was working feverishly to get the film done in time and I actually picked up the final reel of the film on the way to the airport,” says Paizs in the made-for-tv doc, On Screen! Crimewave. “I was sitting at the airport with the final reel fresh off the printer. I remember I felt very depressed, thinking that its out of my hands now.”
Once Paizs arrived at the festival his sense of excitement returned and he eagerly if not nervously looked forward to the screening.
“It seemed to be going great. There was a lot of laughing at all the right spots and it was loud. I was standing at the back and my heart was just racing and I was really electrified by the whole thing as it was unfolding,” says Paizs in the doc.
^ The Crime Wave poster.
“There was a lot of anticipation. The theater was full. It was an evening screening,” says author Geoff Pevere in On Screen! Crime Wave. “Then, there was a massive malfunction which caused a breakdown in the projection of the film.”
“I think it was 10 or 15 minutes later that finally the film was up and running again,” says Paizs. “But the momentum was lost.”
“It also happened to occur right at the point where the movie’s tone turned. I think a lot of people thought they were watching a different film. They weren’t able to experience, this change in tone kind of organically,” said Pevere, author of Mondo Canuck: A Canadian Pop Culture Odyssey.
“When the screening finished it didn’t matter to me for some reason how well the first part of the film was working,” says Paizs in the doc. “I’d hit rock bottom again. It was like a rollar coaster. I went back to my hotel room and went straight to bed. I woke up the next morning feeling kind of numb and I was wandering through the lobby of the hotel when someone came up to me and they said, ‘Have you seen the review of Crimewave in the Globe and Mail?”
^ The Globe and Mail review of Crime Wave from TIFF 1985 by Jay Scott.
“They thrust it in my hand and it began with something like, ‘If the Great Canadian Comedy ever gets made that I may be the person to do it.’ Suddenly I was feeling pretty good again about it. The review did go on to say that the last part of the film was just a lot slower in pace and there weren’t as many gags in it and I wasn’t following my formula…”
“…and so,” says Paizs, “I decided that I would re-write and re-shoot the last quarter of the film.”
“He was going to actually take his film out of circulation, and completely re-shoot like the last third of the picture,” says Paizs’ friend and producer Greg Klymkiw. “A very brave move for someone that had no money.”
In the original ending Steven Penny narrowly escapes rape, torture and death when the deranged Dr. Jolly suddenly collapses dead for no apparent reason. In the dark night, Steven runs from the crime scene and is hit by the truck-driving dog Polo, seen earlier in the film. By a stroke of luck Steven is saved by some backwater hillbillies who teach him to follow his dreams, giving him the strength to complete his colour crime script. The pacing of this original ending is far slower, darker, and creepier than the revised ending, with an added tack-on summary care of Eva Kovaks that reverts to the film’s original style.
^ A still from the original ending of Crime Wave.
Paizs sold his car and returned to the drawing board to create an entirely new ending – the ending that Canadian cult film fans would come to cherish. In this ending, Stephen Penny is struck with a falling light standard and experiences a spiritual transformation of sorts that kick-starts his creative drive, shooting him into fame and fortune as the greatest colour crime filmmaker to ever live! In the final moments of the film and his life, Steven Penny a la Citizen Cane types his final words: “I really did mean to be good.”
“I think he was deathly afraid of being taken as a pretentious artisté who’s speaking above an audience’s head,” says University of Manitoba film professor George Toles in On Screen! Crime Wave.
^ A still from Paizs’ Crime Wave.
Upon re-completion of his underground blockbuster, Paizs acquired a Canadian distributor for the film and set his hopes high for its release. But the release never came.
“The distributor wasn’t coming up with a lot of plans to distribute it. There’s a history in Canadian distribution, I think of individual films that are not handled well,” says long-time Winnipeg Cinematheque Head Programmer, Dave Barber.
“I’d always imagined that this would play at a midnight movie, kind of a cult movie and that this needed special handling. It needed to be directed at the same audiences that were going to see, for example, Lynch’s Eraserhead. That wasn’t part of the market that they had experience,” says Paizs.
When Paizs looked closer at his distribution contract, he saw that his payment was to come after the film’s theatrical premiere. He found no additional clause saying that the distributor was bound to release it theatrically. So instead of paying Paizs the money he rightly deserved, the distribution company abused this loophole, refusing to release the film theatrically and refusing to pay Paizs.
“John went into considerable debt to make this picture and he was banking on this money that wasn’t being paid to him. And it wasn’t being paid to him in a legal fashion,” said Greg Klymkiw in On Screen! Crime Wave.
^ A still from Paizs’ Crime Wave.
The distributor shelved the film without giving it a single theatrical screening. Crime Wave eventually played locally for four days – an attempt by an “arthouse theater in Winnipeg” to help the financially-strapped Paizs, who was working as a door-to-door salesman to make ends meet.
Three years later the lackluster distribution company handling Crime Wave finally gave the film a ill-timed and ill-marketed VHS release. The film was retitled to The Big Crime Wave to avoid confusion with Sam Rami’s Crimewave, released the same year. The Big Crime Wave was then released on VHS mere months before the distribution company went out of business all together.
“To this day it’s barely played outside of festivals or film society screenings,” says a disgruntled Paizs.
^ The VHS cover of Crime Wave aka. The Big Crime Wave!
It would be our famed national broadcaster that would step in to save Crime Wave from complete obscurity and assist in building its cult audience.
“Crime Wave in it’s own way on the CBC in Canada eventually started to reach people that it never would have reached before. And this sort of sparked an interest in the picture,” says Klymkiw in On Screen! Crime Wave.
“There’s a lot of Canadian films that are kitchen sink drama style of film and this film just blasted out of nowhere. So a lot of other filmmakers in other cities noticed this film,” says Dave Barber, Winnipeg Cinematheque programmer.
“It was I think the first time I had seen a Canadian film that I loved,” says Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald. “And it was kind of a remarkable moment for me cause I was just starting to make films and I’d never seen a film like Crime Wave before. Such a remarkable feat of filmmaking I think.”
^ Paizs in a familiar looking pose from the original ending of Crime Wave.
Paizs would continue on as a director for hire and eventually film instructor, but Crime Wave would mark the end of Paizs’ short-lived prairie post-modernist auteurship.
“I decided I wanted to pull the plug on what I was doing. I could have kept going — I had more ideas for silent man films, I even had a kind of sequel to Crime Wave, but I stopped myself. It wasn’t that I was creatively dried up or couldn’t get money, it was because after nobody would play Crime Wave, even as a midnight movie, I figured I wasn’t going to get where I wanted to go by doing the silent man thing. Festivals may like it, but that’s where it was going to end. I was very ambitious at the time, and I wanted my films to play at the local theatre. I made some choices that probably set the occasionally bumpy road of my career, post-Crime Wave . . . but I didn’t see that I had a choice. And I still don’t think I had one,” said Paizs in a 2007 Canuxploitation interview.
While some may assume that Paizs’ decision to “pull the plug” was born purely from the commercial failure of Crime Wave, Jonathan Ball expresses a different opinion in his upcoming book John Paizs’ Crime Wave.
“We might view this form of ‘early retirement’ from personal filmmaking as not just a commercial but an artistic choice. Certainly, it seems in keeping with Paizs’ decision to reshoot the ending of Crime Wave rather than let it proceed on the festival circuit with a flawed ending despite positive reviews and reactions. This line of thinking refuses to cast Paizs in the victim’s role — sufferer of bad luck and bad business deals — and lets us view his 1980s work as the culmination of a significant oeuvre rather than an arbitrary end-stop to career cut short,” writes Ball via email.
^ A still from Paizs’ Crime Wave.
Perhaps this is true and Paizs’ multimedia vow of silence is born of the same ilk as his decision to leave behind his silent protagonist nearly 30 years ago. Perhaps it is an artistic choice, not just an arbitrary decision caused by a shyness or reluctance to speak on the record.
“He’s the silent man in his films, so it kind of works,” says Ryan McKenna, director of Survival Lessons: The Greg Klymkiw Story.
“I think John may merely feel that it’s a case of put up or shut up,” says friend and cohort George Toles via email. “Why talk about things when you’re not in the midst of doing them?”
And considering how much Paizs has already said about Crime Wave “on the record”, it comes as no surprise that he has put an end to these constantly re-surfacing questions.
With his vow of silence in full effect, the John Paizs mega fans can only guess what his final words might be:
“I really did mean to be good.”
For additional reading on John Paizs and his films please check out these great articles, interviews and resources: