How do you stop understanding this? How do you not understand a word? When I was younger I would say a word over and over again, until I didn’t recognize it anymore, until it felt “foreign” to me. At one point, Grant Mazzy, formerly a big time radio jockey, now relegated to a small town radio slot, where his producer chides him to talk more about late school buses and missing cats than antagonizing himself into an audience as all good shock jocks do, comes to this realization after their town of Pontypool is besieged by hoards of residents driven by an epidemic of murderous rage. In this case, the words are from the English language.
This Canadian production immediately brought to mind the Twilight Zone, and there were several moments when I thought I would see Rod Serling turn a corner, cigarette between his fingers, and tell us the moral of the story. The most evident commentary here though, is the power of language as identity, especially as it has to do with the re-shaping of Canadian identity. English, the dominant language in the world seems to be at once the source of the problem while French and Arabic are not “carriers” of the virus. At one point a BBC news anchor forces the small town radio jockey to do a spontaneous live television interview about the happenings in the town, pushing him to talk of terrorists and separatists as the attackers and later pompously gloats when he realizes the Canadians don’t know much. There is another moment when a group of white Canadian performers come into the radio station to sing, “Lawrence and the Arabians”, with one girl in blackface and another dressed as Osama bin Laden and waving a fake Uzi as a musical prop. And during the climax, the protagonist is “forced” to speak French to preserve his life. It must also be added that a Canadian doctor by the name of Mendez, and who is of middle eastern descent, figures out that English is the specific carrier of the virus.
All the while, as I watched this film, I kept thinking of a Samuel R. Delany novel, Babel-17 wherein language is used as a weapon during an interstellar war. His story, however has a more sophisticated premise because its the learning of the language that changes the learner’s thought patterns and perceptions of the world, even enhancing other abilities. Pontypool’s premise is that words take on other meanings but eventually arrive at the point where the infected human becomes unstable and reduced to a violent, cannibalistic state (but only with those who are not in that state –> like most modern day zombie films, they never attack each other. ???). Then I thought about how the Canadian military responded so rapidly and forcefully on the little town of Pontypool in this film at the onset of the violence, that it may have even been a military experiment gone awry. In any event, it is based on the book, Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, of which I have not read, but will very soon.
The beginning of the film is a wonderful ode to late night paranoia-style talk radio, wherein the host speaks endlessly about conspiracy theories and other strange happenings. Brought back memories of Art Bell and Coast to Coast AM. It is also wonderfully sound designed and executed. I may do a whole analysis on it later because I really believe it deserves more recognition than I am able to give it here. I also thought that the composition style of the director was really well framed and focused, and really complemented the claustrophobic atmosphere that the characters were subjected to, on this single and solitary location film.