Film Stripped: Ponytail

Sarah Buchanan

“I think the term ‘Lynchian’ is lazy,” claimed Barry Doupe, a Vancouver artist whose first feature-length computer-animated film Ponytail has elicited many a comparison to the work of David Lynch. “There’s a lot of work out there that’s creepy and weird and interesting, but there’s an authenticity about some weirdness. There’s something truly strange. Like, you start to think that a person couldn’t have made that, there had to be some kind of macrobiotic fungus that formed it.”

Ponytail is a movie that achieves this level of true and unadulterated strangeness, leaving a wake of frustrated narrative-hounds searching for a coherent structure, and the rest of us searching for the fungus that created it. But you can’t watch a Barry Doupe film if you’re looking for something. You also can’t watch a Barry Doupe film if you have an aversion to computer-animated nudity, rotting computer-animated animal corpses and dialogue that references both Neil Hamburger jokes and B.C. filmmaker Stan Douglas in the same breath.

I realized upon viewing the film for the second time that the trick is to kind of lean back, grab a bag of cheezies, find a good chair (one that is hopefully more comfortable than those provided by VIVO at the film’s Vancouver premiere—let me just say that I totally love that space and value their programming immensely but they REALLY need to do something about those chairs), and take in the amazing visual wonderland of computer-animated colour and movement. From the first images of a woman’s face spouting ink from her eyes, a telephone off the hook and a tape player turning itself on, you get the feeling that these images interact in a similar way to the characters, who all speak a sort of broken-German dialect of pop-culture references and truisms. Doupe’s attachment to text-to-speech technology, in which a computer translates text into a mechanical spoken language, mirrors the unnatural imagery, taking it one step further with inverted syntax and jarring sentences.

And why choose German with subtitles instead of English? Was it simply an effort to add another layer of weird? Have his screenings at the Tate Modern and various European galleries made him reach out for an audience that seems to appreciate his work more than… well… Vancouver? Apparently not. “I had made some previous films using text-to-speech, in English, but people couldn’t really understand what they were saying,” he claimed. “So as an experiment, I did a talk in Chicago, and tried one clip in German text-to-speech with subtitles. Afterwards , people were talking to me about things characters were saying—it felt to me like people knew what was going on.”

The subtitles really did add another dimension to the dialogue, which helps viewers interpret the sometimes cryptic-yet-beautiful phrases that seem to come out of nowhere. Phrases like “Do you like finger?” or “Does anyone notice when the young move youthfully?” The final effect comes off as the mutated offspring of a hacked copy of The Sims and (call me lazy) a David Lynch film, with the kind of narrative stream that runs through your weirdest nightmares. It makes sense on one level of your brain, while the other level is trying to figure out what the fuck is going on.

It would be easy to reduce the film to an exploration of virtual gaming culture, and the restrictions faced by the avatars we create, but this isn’t really Doupe’s vision. “I’m not actually interested in the social aspect of all these online games; I’m interested in the aesthetics. Video games often have these cinematic, interstitial moments where you’ve done your job, you’ve killed your guy or whatever, but then there’s a little story that keeps you going, or a little movie that plays, and that’s what interests me.”

You could think about Ponytail like one of those little I-just-beat-level-three movies, except the characters eventually divorce themselves from all human control, and begin stumbling around of their own accord and having original thoughts, speaking German, licking toilet seats, realizing their inability to achieve personal desires and not wearing any pants. Much like the tape player turning itself on at the beginning of the film, there is a creepy strangeness that results from this loss of control—the kind of control we’re used to having over computer avatars.

Personally, I think it’s much more interesting to let them run wild, even if the characters end up as lost as their human counterparts. After all, why create a computer world where characters can do anything if we’re just going to make them do the same boring things humans do, like wearing pants and speaking properly? Thanks, Barry, for reminding us not to be lazy.