In college, I took a film course. The professor, an intelligent and jubilant sort, was Canadian. During every lecture, no matter what it was about, he would find a way to digress and insult Canadian cinema for a minute or two. It didn’t matter if we were talking about Sergei Eisenstein’s intellectual montage theory or Lindsay Anderson’s use of Brechtian techniques in O Lucky Man!, he’d manage to loop the discussion around to the point where he could level a dig at his native cinema. According to him, Canadian cinema was cheap, dry, humorless, and generally rather embarrassing.
Pin… hails from Canada, and I thought a lot about that professor while watching it – mostly about how, in this instance, his complaints were spot-on. Pin…, a cruddy Canadian clusterfuck if I ever saw one, is about a strange young man named Leon (David Hewlett) and his strange relationship with a strange medical dummy. The dummy, which provides the film with its name, belongs to Leon’s father (Terry O’Quinn), an emotionally reticent pediatrician who uses Pin to communicate with Leon and his younger sister, Ursula. Problem is, this early interaction with an inanimate object scars Leon to the point where he begins to treat Pin as a real person. (The title’s allusion to Pinocchio is clumsy and, considering how the film develops, a bit puzzling.)
Already we’re in the realm of the fantastic, but it’s rather disconcerting how much of this takes place in a world I consider unrecognizable and false. This film has more what-the-hell moments than the collected works of Peter Stormare.
Consider, for instance, the scene where 13-year-old Leon sneaks into his father’s office to talk with Pin. As he converses with the dummy, he hears someone coming. He hides in a closet and he bears witness to a nurse humping Pin. This incident has no bearing on the plot and is never referred to after it happens. What the hell? A little later, Leon is speaking with 11-year-old Ursula. Ursula – Ursula, not Leon – is reading a titty magazine. What the hell? There are other, significantly more uncomfortable scenes that mine similar lunatic territory. (The introduction of a poetic hero named Testes is notable for being played completely seriously.)
These scenes added together give the impression of a filmmaking crew soldiering on while failing to understand how silly their material was. By that, I don’t mean to imply that a silly premise can sink a movie every time. Some great movies have been made with silly premises – Ted Post’s The Baby or Robert Martin Carroll’s Sonny Boy spring to mind, being films about states of arrested development (as Pin… is). These films, though, generally are made with some awareness of their own silliness and with a sense of humor. Both these qualities are lacking in Pin…
But then, what are we to expect from writer/director Sandor Stern, who made his name by writing the screenplay to The Amityville Horror, that kingpin of straight-faced stupidity? The absurdity of the situation is a big problem with Pin…, but it’s not the only problem. The film struggles not only against its inherent absurdity but with a bald, proto-Freudian idea of psychological depth that is so obvious as to be absurd. Leon’s burgeoning psychosis is apparent enough that it’s nigh impossible to believe that he would be allowed to live anywhere other than a padded room.
The guy has conversations with a freakin’ mannequin, for crying out loud. He refuses the company of others. He writes epic poems about imagined incest. (What is it with Canadian cinema and incest, anyway?) He blows his top if anyone questions the reality of his imaginary friend. Leon is a certified grade-A nutcase, yet everyone (or his sister, at least) goes on like the guy’s a harmless eccentric. Combine the psychological and emotional unbelievability with the story issues and the terrible, stilted acting and you end up with this film, a film so overwhelmingly inauthentic that it almost feels that way by design.
Maybe it is false on purpose. Maybe I’m not giving Stern enough credit. Maybe his steadfast adherence to incredibility and his static, plastic compositions are meant to serve as an artistic complement to the hermetic immaculacy of Leon and Ursula’s lives. They’re brought up in one of those emotionally repressed households with the plastic on the furniture and the tables they’re not supposed to eat on. Their mother is a neat freak with whom everything must be just so, and their father is a stern and controlling man who can only express himself to his children through a dummy.
It’s not a bad theme, though a bit cliché, but applying it to the mise-en-scene makes the film feel sterile. Sandor’s film exists in a vacuum; nothing exists outside of it, and what exists within creeps along like tar. What, then, do we make of the haywire ending, which seeks to poke holes in said vacuum but only sucks whatever meager qualities the film had into a void of crap? How to justify Leon’s unmotivated shift into mercurialism? Why do the police let [SPOILER ELIDED] go free? How does [SPOILER ELIDED] not die? And what the hell is with that ending shot? Is that supposed to be taken metaphorically or literally? (It’s equally stupid either way.)
It comes down to this: Just as Pin is a simulacrum of a real person, Pin… is a simulacrum of a real film.