Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak, Rick Roberts
US theatrical: 29 May 2009 (Limited release)
It’s always brighter above the clouds.
—Ken Loney (Rick Roberts)
“Good morning, Pontypool,” says Grant Mazzy (excellent Stephen McHattie). Recently banished to smalltown Ontario, this big city shock jock is feeling vile and rancorous. “The top story today,” he snarls, is the “big cold dull dark white empty never-ending blow-my-brains-out seasonal affective disorder freaking kill-me-now weather front that lasts all day.” His producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) looks exasperated. “Well,” Mazzy adds, “Maybe when the wind shifts later on, we’ll get a little greenhouse gas relief.” Sydney glares: “You can’t make global warming jokes,” she sighs.
So begins Pontypool (in limited theatrical release and available on demand through IFC in Theaters). Mazzy likes to spew his superior intellect, slamming listeners with words coming fast and furious. As crafty as he is, however, Mazzy can’t be ready for what’s coming in Bruce McDonald’s zombie movie. It’s not just that he hears and then delivers reports of flesh-eating hordes roaming the countryside. It’s not even that he can’t be sure of the truth of the reports, holed up as he is in the church basement, or, as he calls it, “the dungeon under the street they call Drum.” It’s that the coin of his own realm—language—is the source of all the trouble.
Adapted by Tony Burgess from his novel, Pontypool Changes Everything, the movie considers the risk of words not as insults, but as means of meaning, however intended or received. Mazzy’s sense of control over language is hard-won, and not exactly stable: “I am trying to piss a few people off,” he instructs Syd, “because that’s how it’s done. A pissed off listener is a wide awake listener and he’s not gonna change the station.” That may be, she nods, but all audiences are not the same. His new, rural market, she instructs back, has specific interests: “Small towns, they’re fiercely proud places with proud people who need to know if the school bus is coming.” It’s not that she doesn’t understand his rage and instructional mode, it’s only that she has her own, practical, station-preserving investment. “I want your Mazzyness,” Syd soothes, “I hired your Mazzyness. I just need the Mazzyness to come in a little slower.”
In fact, Mazzy has at least one fan in Pontypool. Station technician Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly), recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, hears in his rapid-fire word-spew some reflection of her own experience. Neither of them sees the value in broadcasting the latest “major bust of a significant grow operation,” or the traffic scene, described by Ken Loney (Rick Roberts), “watching all the routes in and around our region” from his Dodge Dart parked on a hill—adding his own “sunshine chopper” sound effects. Laurel hears in Mazzy’s brutal poetry an apt assessment of everyday life, at once mundane and profane.
Pontypool‘s own assessment is alternately sharp and loopy. When Ken calls in from a new location, outside the office of Dr. John Mendez (Hrant Alianak), his voice is panicked. “I’ve seen things that are gonna ruin the rest of my natural life,” he gasps, “And I’m scared.” What he’s seen, or thinks he’s seen, are people transformed by as yet-unknown forces into monsters. “Some are cannibals and some are naked,” Ken reports, “They’re like dogs. Their eyes are startled.” The story is preposterous, of course, and even as Mazzy is eager to have something that sounds like breaking news, he’s skeptical too. When the BBC calls in to get an “on the ground” account, Mazzy is initially titillated by the attention, then put off by Nigel’s (Daniel Fathers) assumption that he understands the story before he hears it, that Pontypool is suffering from a comprehensible “insurgency.” Mazzy bites back: “The police are responding as we speak,” he offers, setting a familiar stage. “But as far as we can tell, there’s nothing organized, nothing political, nothing terrorist or separatist.”
The outsider’s assumption that the story makes sense in terms of what’s happened before is to the point of the movie’s metaphor. Language is not just a virus, as William S. Burroughs once observed, it is also the means by which the virus spreads. Locked up inside the station throughout the movie, Mazzy, Syd, and Laurel Ann make their own assumptions based on what they hear (stories that are only unconfirmed until a door-pounding mob shows up at the church, repeating phrases they’ve just heard in an effort to grasp meaning and focus their ferocity). Their efforts are amplified when Dr. Mendez arrives, full of theories and interpretations. “Some words are infected,” he explains (or guesses), and so the virus “spreads out when the contaminated word is spoken. We are witnessing the emergence of a new arrangement for life and our language is its host.” Mazzy doubts him. But then, Mazzy is a likely carrier, a man whose words spread and have effects. “It could have sprung spontaneously out of a perception,” adds Mendez, “If it found its way into language, it leap into reality itself, changing everything. It may be boundless. It may be a god bug.”
The puzzle is a good one, daunting, diffuse, forever timely. As Mazzy and Syd sort through possible solutions—how to scramble, control or cut loose meaning in order to stop the virus’ spread—the film turns simultaneously more visceral and more abstract. When a zombie begins to throw herself into against the soundproof window of Mazzy’s booth, she dislocates her jaw. They watch in gaping horror as it hangs, bloody and grotesque, as she cocks her head in an effort to hear, to comprehend, to get.
Huddled in the booth, the survivors ponder options. “Talk radio is high risk,” observes the doctor, “So we should stop.” Mazzy shakes his head. Suddenly, his words have a new valence—or maybe it’s exactly the same valence as always—and he feels an urgent need to “tell people.” The trick is keeping hold of what he’s telling them. Language mutates. So does meaning.