zombies

THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

PONTYPOOL

CANADA, 2008

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Peter Bradshaw is the film critic for The Guardian newspaper. He described the movie Pontypool as ‘utterly baffling and stunningly boring.’ No doubt Bradshaw does his job well. Film critics on the broadsheets are obliged to keep readers informed of the latest releases, summarise plots without revealing spoilers, indulge in the snobbery that contributes to the brand of the newspaper, be adept with a neat phrase and share some emotion about the film. Peter Bradshaw has these skills.  Analysis, though, he sidesteps. He does what many critics do when they are chasing deadlines.  Bradshaw waves flags for fashionable concerns, shares the erudition he does have and bluffs the rest. Because of his inability to make sense of Pontypool, Bradshaw alleges that the playwright and award-winning actor Hrant Alianak delivers in Pontypool the worst acting performance he has ever seen in a film. Even without examination the phrase is empirical nonsense. As it happens, Alianak is fine as Doctor Mendez, a man who is as stimulated by intellectual curiosity as he is fear and disgust.   There is a reason why Alianak in his career has won a Genie award, the Canadian equivalent of the Oscar, and found regular work. He is a trained and professional actor. Many in movies, and especially in low budget horror movies, are not.   Elsewhere, Bradshaw has praised the horror films of George A Romero but by the time the zombie maestro had arrived there was a bandwagon and a handy flag to wave.  To say that the acting in the low budget Romero movies is variable is being kind.

Someone who is capable of analysis is Noam Chomsky.   He has revolutionised linguistic theory, picked at the hypocrisy of American foreign policy and explained as well as anyone the virtues of anarcho-syndicalism.   He talks, writes and thinks a lot. Despite his books, interviews, lectures and broadcasts no evidence exists of what he thinks about horror films.   If Chomsky is ever tempted to relax with the genre, Pontypool could become one of his favourites.   The equally famous linguistic philosopher, Wittgenstein, if he had achieved immortality, would have also been a fan.

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Whatever the movie, zombies carry an infection or virus. In Pontypool the virus is transmitted by the language. This is where Peter Bradshaw became confused. What happens is that a word is understood and repeated by the victims until the virus has them wandering around slowly and eating people. The language is the corruption and infection that will lead to destruction.   Repeating a word that is understood but being ignored by others is a moment that has occurred to most of us.  In those instances we feel reduced or lost.

The negative notion that language is corrupt and a bulwark against understanding and progress was proposed by William Burroughs. In an attempt to break free of this manacle on thought Burroughs chopped his books into sections and put them back together in random order. He also took a lot of drugs. The idea was that they would help him to think without a language. Burroughs cannot be recommended as a role model and he was definitely strange but what he said about language was sensible and, when we think about it, obvious. Wittgenstein was not as odd as Burroughs but he could be moody and he had crazy eyes. Yet Wittgenstein was a serious academic and he said something similar to Burroughs, albeit he was more positive about the qualities of language.

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In Pontypool the zombie phenomenon is carried by language and it represents this corruption of human consciousness. Language may be essential for communication and cooperation but, as much as it facilitates activity and thought, it denies us autonomy. Language is a useful but pragmatic tool that is exploited by the powerful.  In Pontypool the virus or infection has to be resisted. Alternative languages and meanings are utilised by the three people obliged to be the resistance moment.

Mark Gannzy is the disc jockey that hosts the local radio show in Pontypool.   Sydney Briar is the producer and Laurel Ann operates the equipment.   At the beginning of the film Mark drives to the radio station where he will work his evening shift. After this brief journey, when Mark encounters a confused stranger, the rest of the film is restricted to the radio station. There is a gory moment inside the radio station but the real horror takes place outside and out of sight. Language not only transmits the virus and collects victims, it shapes our discoveries and how we observe and respond.  The absence of direct action helps Pontypool have a strong sense of how an apocalypse might be experienced.  Misinformed and confused by mass media into being passive spectators we will wake up in oblivion.

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The three people who operate the radio station constitute a family. Mark and Sydney bicker like a man and wife and dispute control and dominance. Laurel Ann is quiet and remote like a disengaged teenager. She both witnesses and provokes the arguments of the parental figures of Mark and Sydney.  Although she has returned from combat in Afghanistan, Laurel Ann is patronised.  What happens to the family and what also happens to the language help explain the strange brief and sudden scene at the end of the titles.   This, though, will have different interpretations within an audience. The radio commentary over the end of the titles is not just ambiguous but ambiguous about being ambiguous. But by then we have had enough information about the dominant themes of the movie and we can tolerate the faint and almost indecipherable credits.

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Pontypool has an ironical touch and is not without humour.  It justifies knowing smiles.  Most of us, though, will be thinking through the ideas and references rather than laughing out loud at some of the absurdities and comic tension. Dr Mendez is useful for the explanation of disease but also a playful character.   One of the unexplained mysteries of the film is why an Armenian doctor has a Spanish surname.  Before the zombies appear the station is visited by an amateur singing group that calls itself Lawrence And The Arabians. On air they sing in English an Arab folk song. This is bizarre, funny and not irrelevant.  Grant Manzzy is a cynical disc jockey that is nowhere near as cool and smart as he thinks.   The actor Stephen McHattie has a voice and appearance similar to that of Dennis Hopper, and his performance is what Hopper might have achieved before he lost his sanity.  This may be generous.  Hopper may have been sane all the time. He just became a ham. Lisa Houle as Sydney Briar is sympathetic and plays it straight, someone caught between educated cool and small town concerns. Georgina Reilly is great at capturing the insouciance of the young when they are obliged to be marginal. Her patient and resigned stares are subtle and perfect.

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The low budget of Pontypool restricts the slaying to oral accounts being reported to the radio station. At one point Grant reads out the names of the victims. As we listen to the names, we see on the screen the actual victims in photographs of when they were normal and living suburban lives. Newspapers use pages full of photographs to report atrocities but on screen with the voice of the disc jockey being an alternative to newspaper text the sequence is original, inspired and effective. It registers the impact of the tragedy and makes normal what is a bizarre and gloomy fantasy.

Author Tony Burgess has said that Pontypool was inspired by the Orson Welles radio production of The War Of The Worlds. It may have given him an idea but Pontypool reverses the situation.   Grant and Sydney are receiving information about an outbreak rather than creating one as Orson Welles did back in the 40s.  The scope for comparison between the two productions is limited but during the final scenes of Pontypool it is worth remembering the famous broadcast by Welles.

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This week Davos has met in its Swiss retreat. Rich businessmen and women discussed what might be done to ensure steady progress of humankind into the future. Politicians attended, ate the good food, enjoyed the views and made speeches. Everybody pretended to be concerned about the happiness of other human beings.  There is no evidence that the meetings of Davos have produced any ideas that have had merit or made any difference to the lives of ordinary people. The language used in their discussions, though, is sensitive and elegant.  Meanwhile in London we discovered that a charity event for rich businessmen called The Presidents Club had as part of the entertainment the abuse of young women. Although very different both these events indulged the privileged.  As institutions they ensure that a self-serving status quo remains. Thanks to the flexibility and the inadequacy of language the participants in these events are able to pretend they have an honourable purpose; appetite, vanity and indulgence masquerading as piety has a history.  The corruption is deep rooted.  It is in our institutions and the very words that we use.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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REAL MEAN CRITTERS

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS

UK 2016

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Vampire films may be fun, they have style and romance, but zombie films are more important. Vampire films are undermined by a logic that accepts an incredibly bashful apocalypse. There are exceptions but most of the time in vampire movies the infection is limited to the fiancée, the family and a few mates. In a vampire movie the world does not change, not even in the American TV series True Blood, which was more bold than most. In that show the news is different and people use alternative drugs but they drive the same cars and have jobs that we recognise from our own world.   Zombie films insist on total wreckage and consider possible futures. In a world where our cultural inheritance appears to consist of mainly recycled legacy anything that anticipates something different from how we live and survive has to be valued. The Girl With All The Gifts is a fine film and unlike any other zombie movie although there are the familiar moments that focus on the usual survival, search and flight. These elements are not routine but they do slow the film down. At least the zombies make the heroes nervous and anxious. No one tries for Walking Dead cool in The Girl With All The Gifts. Fortunately, the film is more than a traipse through the end of the world. It has plenty of bold ideas, some genuine surprises and enough random attacks from brain eaters to satisfy fans of the genre.

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The twist this time is that there is a second generation of zombies and both the first and second-generations have been created by a fungal infection. For those who are curious imagine George A Romero meets The Day Of The Triffids. The emergence of second-generation zombies is a disturbing idea, and Glenn Close, who plays the curious scientist, is good and grim when she explains the horror of their birth. We listen to a female scientist describe an event that has tarnished her spirit. Near the beginning of the film the zombies attack a military base. There appears to be a cultural split between British and American zombie movies. The response in Britain to a zombie crisis is to devise a military strategy and put the Army on the streets. The Americans rely on non-conformist individualists. Put another way the British remember the Second World War and the Americans think of John Wayne. I know; my thinking is crude and unfair.

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If there are plenty of ideas in The Girl With All The Gifts, the title and the reference at the beginning of the film to Pandora and the box she opened signals that this zombie movie will eventually examine the story of the Creation. In the original myth the box was meant to explain why there was evil in the world. In The Girl With All The Gifts the myth is used to explain suffering, dismal fate and heavy handed unfairness. Or why the Creation did not have quite the happy ending some people might have expected.   The final line in the film is that ‘we have plenty of time.’ The Creator has infinite time, and there is enough in the Universe to ensure that something will last forever.   He or She is all right, and there may even be a smile on His or Her face. The rest of us are not so lucky. Our brief spans of existence are the price that has to be paid for the appetites and curiosity of the Creator.  He or She prevails. We do not. Although The Girl With All The Gifts explores the Creationist theme it is never doctrinaire. There is enough to satisfy both the Archbishop of Canterbury and Richard Dawkins. There will be a few self-important humans, though, that might take offence.

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Nothing puts the human race in its place as well as The Girl With All The Gifts. For once a member of another species approaches a human being and asks ‘Why should it be that we die for you?’ The penultimate scene in the film heralds a different world. It is both profound and moving. Paddy Considine plays the soldier who has to witness what happens. As acting challenges go this must be as big as it gets. We all have an idea of what has been seen through the giant telescopes, and the beginning of a new world is not something that happens every day. Considine is a fine actor and he does more than okay.

The film is dominated by a handful of key players. These represent the human need to educate and nurture, to discover and to defend and protect. These professions or disciplines have always been important in shaping the future. Gemma Arterton plays the teacher, Glenn Close is the scientist and Considine represents the military. All are fine. Arterton abandons the glamour that was used so effectively in Tamara Drewe. The camera emphasises her exceptional height, and she wears baggy clothes and is makeup free. Glenn Close is the scientist dedicated to discovering an antidote. She has a military haircut and uniform and is also glamour free. Considine looks like we would expect him to. He has the ability to shout orders at people and sigh when confronted with cosmic developments. The child actor Sennia Nanua plays Melanie, the girl who represents the future. Her thespian challenges exceed even those of Considine. She deserves praise for surviving a difficult task and is entitled to a rewarding future as an actor. But the description of her as surviving is deliberate. The film makes huge demands on a young actor.

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The relationship between the teacher and the young girl adds interest to a film that is not short of ideas. There is kinship between the two but because of the virus they are obliged to remain physically distant. Grief and loss dominate zombie movies but unrequited affection or love across the species is unusual.   The early scenes also make us wonder about our responsibility to difficult children. Glenn Close appears to be caught between her purpose as a scientist and her responsibility to the military and authority. Her identity is split between masculine ambition and feminine responsibility. This is a good concept but the use of genders as reference points feels a little sexist. The actions of Close oblige us to rethink the myth of Pandora. Scientists both close and open the box and sometimes simultaneously, and, as the end of the film suggests, there may be more than one box. There was no big bang explosion in the box of Pandora. We should not be critical of Greek myth makers. Their telescopes were on the small side.

There are a couple of dubious moments. The interest that the zombies have in humans is not always consistent, and the response of the zombies to the dog that the young girl Melanie discovers does not make sense. These are isolated moments, and compared to most zombie pictures the plot has rigour.   The wanderings of the heroes reveal a ruined urban landscape. The use of British brand names and shopping malls crowded with puzzled zombies implies criticism of the modern world. It predicts a world where escapist materialism and optimism are redundant and well beyond ordinary people.   The zombies can be regarded as representing the excluded of the future, creatures without the necessary style and wit to make the required contribution.  They will be considered a nuisance. Once employed as manual labourers and warriors these are the people that well paid and intelligent computer technicians are already referring to as ‘the useless class’.

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The notion that zombies may be the beginning of a species superior to human beings is present from the beginning of the film but it is expanded and consolidated when Melanie explores abandoned homes or what she regards as the achievements of human beings. The possibility of zombies becoming a superior form to humans makes sense. We began as unassertive amoeba. We can only wonder what the trees and rocks thought of our amoebic ancestors. It is doubtful that they were impressed. In a film that insists we abandon our sense of self-importance even the end titles oblige us to think again. An image of the human brain is magnified until it becomes a vast mysterious universe. This is what we carry inside our skulls and it is as much a mystery to us as it would have been to the amoeba that fought for life in the sea and streams. Brains, though, of course, they lacked.

The Girl With All the Gifts is impressive because it has ideas that reinvent zombie themes but a plot that leads us to something more grand and inspiring.   Rosalind Franklin, one of the scientists that discovered DNA, is mentioned. The laboratory to which the humans flee is named after her. It occurs in the film before we realise why the reference is relevant. Like much else that is in the film, it requires us to think. Well, we have to do something with our brains.

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Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers a collection of film criticism. His latest novel Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.