The Unkindest Cut: The Editor, Crime Wave, and Canadian Film

The Editor Film Poster

Talking History focuses on a wide range of topics in Canadian history, and it consists of articles by Canada's foremost historians and history experts. Our contributors use the power of narrative to bring the past to life and to show how it is not just relevant, but essential to our understanding of Canada and the world today. "Talking History" is a series made possible through a special funding grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Paul Corupe is a Toronto-based writer and editor, and the creator of Canadian film website Canuxploitation!

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At the same time that Winnipeg filmmaking collective Astron-6 premiered their much-hyped horror parody, The Editor, at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014, one of the most influential Manitoban filmmakers was also preparing to get his due. Director John Paizs may not be as recognized in Canadian film circles as Atom Egoyan or David Cronenberg, but his debut feature, 1984’s Crime Wave, is one of our nation’s most distinctive cinematic works. Restored for a special festival screening that year, Crime Wave is an endlessly amusing post-modern pastiche that laid the groundwork for not only The Editor, but many of the genre films being produced by emerging Canadian filmmakers 30 years later.

When it comes to rich film histories, Canada’s story is shorter than most, with earnest attempts to kickstart the industry only beginning in the late 1950s. By that time, Canadian theatres were already overrun by American and foreign films, and the Hollywood studios weren’t interested in letting our own movies compete on equal footing. For audiences, a cultural tension developed between the often dry Canadian films we’re duty-bound to support and the slicker foreign efforts we might prefer to see, even as they push local productions into the margins.

This tricky love-hate relationship manifests quite clearly in Astron-6’s bloody and boorishly funny, The Editor, a tribute to the Italian "giallo" films, which were heavily stylized and sexually charged whodunit thrillers that gained popularity in the 1970s. Churned out by filmmakers like Dario Argento and Sergio Martino, these films are known for their bewildering plots and nonsensical titles like Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1971) and Death Laid an Egg (1968).

Drawing on this tradition, The Editor follows Rey Ciso (Adam Brooks), an established film editor who lost four fingers in a film cutting accident years ago, and now spends his days cutting together sleazy European horror flicks with the help of a clumsy wooden prosthetic. But reality starts to mirror fiction when the cast and crew on Rey's latest assignment start turning up murdered, often with their fingers missing. Despite no shortage of possible suspects—including a suspiciously ambitious young actor (Conor Sweeney)—Detective Porfiry (Matthew Kennedy) is convinced that the film’s troubled editor is behind it all. Rey, who’s been suffering from unexplainable blackouts, eventually begins to doubt his own innocence as well.

At the film’s TIFF screening, a late-night audience thrilled to Astron-6’s extensive and well-considered references to giallo film history, with all the expected genre clichés accounted for—a mysterious killer clad in black leather gloves, a slinking synthesizer score and garishly tinted lighting that bathes the action in overblown reds and blues. The Editor especially revels in the English dubbing usually featured in these films, with characters delivering off-kilter, redundant lines in stilted cadences. But what’s most notable is how Astron-6 (Jeremy Gillespie, Adam Brooks, Conor Sweeney, Matthew Kennedy and Steven Kostanski) were able to mould these influences into something that reached beyond them. The Editor not only works as a parody of a giallo, but also as a giallo itself, a shaky tower built on scavenged bricks from film history.

John Paizs even pops up for a brief cameo in The Editor—a reference to the earlier director’s own importance in developing this approach with Crime Wave, the story of a filmmaker who struggles to make the greatest "colour crime movie" of all time. The first film to really play with our national unease with the ubiquity of foreign pop culture, Crime Wave is carefully layered on a foundation of big and small screen history, including monotone 1950s educational filmstrips, pastoral mid-century sitcoms, Walt Disney idealism and violent B-movies.

Poster Crime Wave

Paizs stars in the film as Steven Penny who, in the midst of a bad case of writer's block, forges an unlikely but sweet friendship with Kim (Eva Kovacs), the young daughter of the couple who rent him a small room above their garage. Steven has only been able to write a series of beginnings and endings, and Kim is determined to help Steven come up with the middle he needs, even sending him to collaborate with a mysterious American screenwriter who’s not all he seems to be.

Where Crime Wave really comes alive is in the dramatized fragments of Steven’s failed screenplays. Patterned after movie trailers for 1940s and '50s crime thrillers, each features tense music, fast cutting, and an overbearing narrator who describes characters determined to get "to the top" of their professions by any means necessary. There’s an angry Elvis impersonator who murders a dishonest club owner, an Amway sales couple who start stealing from their customers’ homes and a self-help guru who can’t stop self-harming—each of whom comes to a tragic end.

Paizs synthesizes his influences in a way that not only sends up these kinds of cheap Hollywood films, even as it has a clear affinity for them—Steven’s apartment is full of posters for forgotten programmers like the American-made Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders (1953). Crime Wave was the first to recognize and find the humour in the idea that you can embrace imported pop culture while still remaining skeptical of its values and cultural prevalence, and The Editor continues this tradition by turning the lost-in-translation absurdities of ‘70s Italian films into an earnest (and funny) homage to the era.

And it’s not alone. A new generation of filmmakers raised on a steady diet of VHS tapes have been busy making their own variations on this idea, with varying success. We’ve seen everything from Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter’s (2001) tribute to '70s drive-in movie fare to 2010’s Beyond the Black Rainbow, which crossed vintage sci-fi think-pieces like Solaris (1972) with a David Cronenberg sensibility, and Hobo With a Shotgun (2011), a film grounded in video-era classics directed by John Carpenter and Walter Hill. More recently, there’s been the high-concept '80s hybrid Wolfcop (2014) and this year’s Turbo Kid, which nods to post-apocalyptic films like Mad Max (1979).

Not only are these films carefully connected to wider trends in film history, they’re also united in how they have embraced Crime Wave’s crafty treatment of cultural anxiety and helped it evolve into a distinguishing trait of Canadian filmmaking.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

John Paizs's Crime Wave, by Jonathan Ball

About the book: The same year that TIFF restored Crime Wave, they also helped release this monograph of the film by Winnipeg-based academic and writer Jonathan Ball as part of their Canadian Cinema series. The short volume takes a scholarly, approach to Paizs’ populist work, not only exploring the story behind the film’s production, but also deconstructing the film’s layers and frames in a way that helps situate it within the ongoing history of Canadian cinema. But most importantly, the book stands as another argument for recognizing Crime Wave as one of the most important and enjoyable Canadian films ever made.

They Came from Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema, by Caelum Vatnsdal 

About the book: Though Canada has produced no shortage of horror films since the 1960s, what some see as a disreputable genre has largely escaped critical notice over the years. This fascinating history traces the genre from early silent era experiments through the tax-incentive driven heydays of the 1970s, the crazed slashers of the '80s and beyond. Vatnsdal’s welcoming writing and wry appraisals of these films makes They Came from Within a fun read as well as a useful reference. A second edition of the book, released in 2014, also includes a look at more modern works like Wolf Cop, Antiviral and the Astron-6 productions that are helping to define the current direction of Canadian film.

Canadian Cinema Since the 1980s: At the Heart of the World, by David L. Pike

About the book: The birth of the "modern" era Canadian film can be traced back to a handful of filmmakers toiling away in the late 1950s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the industry truly matured, spurned by new levels of commercial success and visibility on the world stage. This publication, by American author David L. Pike, offers a good overview of the progress and growing pains of that era, delving into the post-modern sensibilities that started to seep into Canadian cinema at the time from not only Paizs, but also fellow Winnipeg Film Group member Guy Maddin.

June 26, 2015
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