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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.