September 16, 2008
Toronto Dispatch. 9.Michael Sicinski on the directions taken in this year's Toronto International Film Festival - and on Bruce McDonald's Pontypool. Notes follow. By way of wrapping up TIFF, there are a few housekeeping matters that require some attention. I don't wish to dwell on them. But yes, the first festival since the full assumption of power by the Bailey / Cowan team does send up a few red flags of concern. It's not just that the inclusion and exclusion of certain films based on premiere status clearly reflects a need, beginning to border on mania, to shed the old "Festival of Festivals" mantle in favor of a chimerical quest for world-class status, the anxious hope of finding that next new Thank You For Smoking or, um, Bella. Quality suffers under this scenario, and the just-announced date shift at Venice, which effectively moves that festival head to head with TIFF, will only make matters worse. Nevertheless, I personally found much more to like than to dislike this year, thanks to my editor's generosity in allowing me to avoid most of the high profile premieres. Others weren't so lucky. Similarly, the scaling back of press screenings, and in the case of the now-infamous Paris, Not France, the cancellation of press screenings altogether, starts to give the impression - unintended, no doubt - that TIFF may see critics in the same way many studios now do, as a regrettable annoyance to be marginalized as much as possible. Now that the Paris debacle has unfolded, with a reportedly substandard, festival-unworthy DVD supplement unspooling as part of a Paris Hilton publicity stunt, one has to question the festival's motives, or its comical lack of guile. Has TIFF been had, or was it part of a mutual back-scratching media-whore arrangement unbecoming to all parties involved? (Given that glitz is a fact of life, and even the Real to Reel section cannot be expected to remain immune, why didn't the festival program James Toback's Tyson, a doc that would have provided a media event and, by all reliable accounts, is also a worthy piece of nonfiction cinema? As it is, this year's TIFF included pretty much every piece of 2008 celluloid with the Sony Classics logo except the Mike Tyson film. Very odd.) In any case, it's a good idea to reserve judgment while the new team finds its feet. But let's just say that 2008 was an off year, and that TIFF put some of its own odd imperatives ahead of providing the best that world cinema had to offer. Having said all that, may I remind any and all disgruntled readers, who may think I am being unduly harsh or picking at microscopic nits, that criticism is, or should be, an act of love, and that I keep coming back to Toronto because despite its flaws and foibles, it is a festival I love quite dearly. The volunteer staff is second to none, the city is friendly and effortlessly navigable even in the pouring rain, and even its worst screening venues (those would be the Cumberland 4 Cinemas) are still a cut above those of most North American film festivals. Even when this or that individual selection is iffy, the Midnight Madness experience is a blast, and, on the (allegedly) opposite end of the cultural spectrum, Wavelengths is provided with the resources to debut a landmark new work such as Jennifer Reeves's When It Was Blue, which did, in fact, exceed all expectations. (Now, for some real fun, let's see Madness's Colin Geddes and Wavelengths's Andréa Picard attempt a co-presentation!) Although I was (sort of) joking with my hypothetical "Midnight Wavelengths" suggestion, it could be a place for certain films that fall between chairs, engaged in avant-garde ideas and monster-movie attitude in equal measure. After all, experimental cinema and cult films share a rampant devotion to their form that goes beyond entertainment, toward a kind of extra-cinematic identification. It's a kind of passion, for the films themselves, and for the community that develops around them. And so, for my final film under discussion, the future of love itself is on my mind. What kind of emotional investiture are we capable of making, when we feel as though our world and our person may be in jeopardy? No film I saw exemplifies this quite as much as Bruce McDonald's Pontypool. McDonald is one of Canada's leading filmmakers whose international profile hasn't been as high as it probably should be, and he has been enjoying a small renaissance lately, heralded by last year's Ellen Page film The Tracey Fragments. Now, with Pontypool, he solidifies the comeback. Based on a novel which in turn became a radio play - the film displays this, to no detriment whatsoever - the film takes place during one late winter's morning, Valentine's Day to be exact, at a radio station in the Ontario hinterlands. Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie, a character actor in a commanding star turn) is an AM shock-jock apparently run out of Toronto on a rail. After catching wind of a bizarre riot outside a doctor's office in town, and a very disorienting visit from a local singing troupe, Mazzy and his two-woman crew (Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly) discover that a mysterious virus has overtaken the town, reducing the infected to mindless, chanting zombies. However - and spoilers commence here - this is no ordinary virus, and Pontypool is no ordinary zombie flick. The virus is transmitted in person, and over the phone. A Quebecois health advisory, en français, warns against speaking in English, and in particular the use of terms of endearment such as "honey" or "sweetheart." Once the virus takes over the cortex of the brain, a rhyme-based glossolalia gives way to the endless repetition of one word. In time, Mazzy, his producer, and the besieged doctor (Hrant Alianak) deduce that the virus is transmitted through the English language. Mazzy, given to quoting Roland Barthes in his jock talk anyway ("Trauma is a news photo without a caption"), recognizes that the only cure for the virus is the avoidance of sense, an active deconstruction within English, or what the Russian Formalists called "making [language] strange" through poetic devices. He saves Sydney the producer by recoding the word "kill" as "kiss," saying, "I'm going to kill you," and planting one on her. We all left Pontypool humming the same tunes. Language is a virus. Stop making sense. Pontypool falls short of absolute genius, mostly because it is so resonant with intellectual ramifications it fails to explore. Instead, it abruptly ends, with no conclusion at all. But this "semiotic zombie film," as its correctly been called, has both a political and a socio-sexual dimension. Or, following the likes of Kristeva and Lacan, it shows the two to be one and the same. The compulsion to use language, or to allow language to use you, is a kind of internal colonization. Pontypool never names this, although it makes an implicit parallel to the colonization of French Canada by the Anglophones. But more than this, the zeroing in on terms like "sweetie" and "darling" on Valentine's Day is particularly suggestive. For Lacan, the most psychologically damaging form of language, that which puts our sense of Being most at risk, is what he called "empty speech." Lacan described empty speech as a series of worn-down tokens passed from person to person, gesturing toward meaning but actually bearing none. In this case, these terms of endearment are the hollow signifiers of "love" that are in fact stand-ins for the much more difficult work of active love, which, in Lacan's and Kristeva's philosophy, must always forge its own unique language. Pontypool calls on these heady ideas, with unrelenting wit and verve, without wearing its book-learning on its sleeve. Although certain aspects of its humo(u)r may be "too Canadian" to translate into a stateside release, I sincerely hope an adventurous distributor like IFC at least gets this wonderful film out on its VOD platform. It was a perfect way to end a less-than-perfect but always provocative TIFF. - Michael Sicinski
"The opening act of Pontypool is, without a doubt, the work of a master at play," writes Todd Brown at Twitch. "McHattie is absolutely brilliant as Mazzy.... Pontypool ends up as a significantly flawed but nevertheless compelling and gripping piece of work built around a fascinating premise. Now if someone would just film an adaptation of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash." "This is an absurdly delicious plot that shouldn't be spoiled," writes Chris Stults of the Wexner Center. "I'll just tease you by saying that you should imagine Roland Barthes adapting Orson Welles's War of the Worlds radio play." That Pontypool "wears its brains on its sleeve, in no way makes it less of a thriller, or for that matter, a great actor showcase (McHattie tears up the screen)," writes Kurt Halfyard at Row Three. "Bruce McDonald and screenwriter Tony Burgess surprisingly inject a lot of playfulness along the way. As genre flicks go, Pontypool is the full package deal." Jason Anderson talks with McHattie, Burgess and McDonald for Eye Weekly.
Posted by dwhudson at September 16, 2008 1:18 AM