Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Post-Structuralism of the Living Dead: PONTYPOOL (2008)


"Only the medium can make an event" - Baudrillard

In PONTYPOOL  the world ends not with a bang but with the words "in Pontypool the world ends not with a bang but with the words 'in Pontypool the world ends in Pontypool'..."- an ever-tightening stutter-stop loop that causes cannibalism as people try to unsay the source of the said words. It's no time to be running an early morning English speaking radio talk show, in a town so blizzarded out all winter that you have to take the world's word of it that it's still out there, past the white/gray curtain. This one early morning a slow escalating series of incoming calls, emergency broadcasts (or pirate interceptions, in French) and mass confusion envelop early morning DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a self-styled outlaw with a yen for conspiracy theory; his harried but maternal line producer, Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle); and intern Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly). For a long stretch of film we meet only them, and a lot of voices calling in to deliver astonishing reports that go blank in big flurries of horrible chaos as people chant meaningless phrases over and over then bite each other.


Of course if you've never done angel dust then the stories sound like the ravings of the town's many drunkard local fishermen. Grant can't quite believe it, and his paranoia begins to overwhelm him -is the whole town in on some bizarre prank? It's not until BBCI phones that Mazzy realizes what was mere minutes ago a punishment assignment (Pontypool the Canadian equivalent of Siberia due to his cantankerous airwave anarchy) has led to this one Wolf Blitzer Gulf War-style moment.

He blows it, though. Too freaked out.

The sense of cozy insulation works a soothing spell for quite awhile (especially if you listen on big cushy headphones  while watching in the dead of night/early morning, as I usually do). Grant, Sidney and Laurel-Anne's studio is set up in a church basement (looks like an AA meeting is about to start) and they haven't seen any of the things described. This is a snowbound town where nothing ever happens or has happened. All Mazzy and Sydney and Laurel-Ann have are the callers, whose voices gradually devolve into repetitive cannibal madness and all other lines--police radio, AP wire, 911--are dead, or dying, just static and then the alien-like buzzing we belatedly recognize as the emergency broadcast signal. It's like the whole world has shrunk around their little studio - an island in an already island-like town. Pontypool, where they know most of the residents by name, winter nights stretch long into the following evening, leaving the town forever shrouded in a haze of booze, depression, and shuffling from heated car to radio station basement to car to home to bed to car, with no sun to indicate if you're coming or going, with windows just reflecting an opaque walls of darkness and snow. It would make sense that, of all places, here is where language and listening has such power - where everyone is snow blind so their other senses are enhanced.


What really makes it work is the power of imagination coupled to the frustration of never getting the complete story --we strain at the bits of the movie's limited knowledge, and we recall the way breaking news drips slowly with newly emerging facts buried in an avalanche of idle speculation to fill in the minutes on CNN and their ilk. It recalls back when the radio was the news delivery system, where vivid descriptions conjured mental images of disturbing power, a time when 'showing' mass cannibal carnage in all its Tom Savini-ish Fangoria glory was a subversive act, something to look away from in blanched shock. Now it's the opposite --showing us almost nothing becomes a new form of subversion, back to the fire and oral history and imagination. There are now countless zombie / mass plague insanity knock-offs and for a few seconds the 'found video footage' trick was novel but that was 10 years ago and they're still endless (and cheap). Of them all, only Pontypool (2008) finds an original tack, sailing towards the source of the original Romero film's hidden candy shell power--the news broadcasts--the way the professional newscasters with their cigarettes and thick glasses and bustling assistants behind them all both offer reassurance and terror, their steady authoritative and comforting deep news anchor voices only serving to make the pronouncements about 'packs of ghouls' more terrifying (Night never use the word zombie in that movie, or even--as I recall--the second).  Pontypool rocks that same tack. It's almost too post-structuralist for its own good at times, too lit workshop precocious, but makes terrific use of uncertainty, the unreliable aspect of oral history and delves deep into the way imperiled people instinctively turn to the media to provide a narrative structure for the chaos around them, and how the media finds itself compelled to provide one, to make it up on the spot if need be. Without clear visuals, long shots of the calamity, official press conferences, the calm but thrilled voice of a reporter standing in the snow near a firetruck, we have only our own imaginations with which to structure things. At such times radio can reach the deepest vaults of our mind, forming deep cerebral cortex responses not normally our own. The morning 9-11 went down, for example, I was at work, in the office: no TVs, AOL still relatively young, so we listened to it on the radio. Hearing Peter Jennings describe the towers falling and planes crashing into Washington, I imagined the world consumed in fire, civilization ending all around us, a happening so apocalyptic it was hard to fathom it was even real, more like Orson Welles' War of the Worlds. When I finally saw the footage, horrifying as it was, it was almost a relief (the building fell straight down rather than to the side creating a domino effect stretching the length of Manhattan- which was what I had pictured). That's kind of maybe part of the reason why I love this film so damn much. It's the only thing that's yet come close to recreating that surreal almost merry apocalyptic feeling. I was, in fact, giddy. It was only a few days later when I noticed half the "blue collar Buddha" (as we called them, mostly firemen) population of my uptown AA meeting was gone, and the few that remained, devastated with grief and survivor guilt, that the full brunt of it all sank in.


But that's it - we can't always be near a TV with CNN, but even if the power goes out we can find and old battery-operated radio. We all secretly love calamities (as long as they don't happen to us or we don't know whether anyone we know was hurt or killed) because suddenly, for once, something is happening and the mood amongst the reporters is always jubilant. They try to restrain themselves, but this shit is why they got into this. Careers are made in such moments. It's one of those rare times when absolutely no one can predict what will happen, when no one knows the whole story, and it's the newsman's turn to create a proxy, out of thin air if need be, until the real one finally coheres. The whole world seems to wake up in such moments, to be unified in their collective shock and awe, secretly loving the thrill of orbiting closer and closer to a possible armageddon, to the mad chaos of complete social chaos.


Why  I've already seen Pontypool four times is the comfortable sense of being in a warm radio booth on a frozen Ontario small town morning it provides, and the early stretches of incoming news as DJ Mazzy in the morning starts out with the usual bickering with his producer over when to read school closings and the slow mounting panic/paranoia when he begins to think people are all fucking with him, all so organic it all unfolds in more or less real time for long stretches without the viewer (me at least) noticing; as the influx of news and shaky narration causes a breakdown in our perception of reality, we trust his deep perfect radio voice (it wouldn't have worked with a high-voiced wuss actor like Edward Norton). In other words, while not being specifically scary, and always kind of funny-ominous, there's a sense that something meta is always at stake, something that might leak out and effect even your blogging about it, for more than any horror film I've seen, it gets that whole post-structuralist Burroughsian language as a virus concept.


The secret, as media studies grads know, is the news media's secret agenda has always been to cast anxieties about the prevailing social structure's solidity off on handy targets: crooks, shady pols, terrorists--which then makes the news a comfort. You see which way the finger of blame points, and you make sure you're standing behind instead of in front of it. And when you're behind it, you're strong; furthermore, you know which way to look for oncoming danger. So when the TV station reports on a mass insanity uprising, it becomes 'real' in a way it couldn't be otherwise even if you witnessed it yourself. This process strengthens you by strengthening the illusion of law and order's ultimate omnipotence within you. As Jack Torrance would say, cannibalism is okay to talk about in front of their son, because he "saw it on television." It's the same for us. In fact cannibalism's power in Pontypool lies in its invisibility. Thus one Romero news broadcast is worth three dozen CGI zombie army ant hill urban killing floors, all those tedious Matrix-rip bending over backwards, both barrels blazing slowmo shots are just video games played by some kid you pass on your way to pick up your laundry. The end of the world can't be accepted as a legitimate event until it is authenticated through the TV. Unless the revolution is televised it cannot exist. This is what Baudrillard and McLuhan can teach Gil Scott Heron. It's why so many disaster movies now get real news anchors to come on with their fake news.


In Dawn of the Dead (above) Romero yanks even that little buoy of illusory 'objective reality' away right from the start; the TV station itself starts to collapse from nervous exhaustion at the start of the film, the crew devolving into petty arguments and agendas. Those who haven't had a chance to experience the dead rising directly commandeer the zombie outbreak to suit their agenda, the black intellectual in the in progress talk show labeling it as a cover-up for cop violence in the ghetto. When the four people we follow find a TV later, there's just one continuous talk show left, with two pundits yammering in a progressively more hostile, childish manner. Reality, civilization, has in effect become totally subjective. Even bona fide facts are debated. It was always like that once, maybe, before cross country railroads and telegraphs. But each man was connected to some tribe, some family in those days. Now our tribe is purely virtual, friends from everywhere except our own neighborhoods. Without the news to structure our reality, we're all insane from cabin fever inside a week, even while inside a crowded survivor camp.


Pontypool zeroes in on this issue by presenting the entire 'event' from within a radio station on a single day. It is only Mazzy and his producer who can determine to what an extent they should continue to connect their listeners to their callers. In this town we learn the 'eye in the sky' for local morning traffic is an old dude with binoculars on the hill, playing chopper sound effects so we get the impression he is in a helicopter, which for some reason makes us feel warm, loved, guided into work by a heavenly hand. A weird musical family shows up dressed as Arabs to sing bizarre but hopelessly square 'Arabian' songs, the dad firing a plastic Uzi for accent (I had the exact same one as a kid). This isn't given much commentary in the film but it's a good metatextual meltdown signpost. We learn that the Pontypool crisis involves the repetition of phrases until they become meaningless, a weird infection of thinking transmitted through language, an idea that rewards deep contemplation if you approach it with enough McLuhan, whose concept of language as "a form of organized stutter" underwrites the film's post-structuralist collapse, where meaning and syntax become derailed, causing human brains to go crashing into the morass of subjective looping, where each new repetition increases in violence until they rend one another limb from limb. Is this something to do with Quebec separatist intellectual terrorists? The French language seems suspiciously immune.


While the chants of the crazies may seem meaningless, what we glean from Pontypool is that everything has meaning, and the power of chant is no fluke. Anyone can use repetition to either make themselves calm (the rosary, chanting) or  drive themselves crazy (All work and no play make Jack a dull boy; sections of Mingus' Black Saint and the Sinner Lady) or both (dervishes, maenads). What makes Mazzy interesting as a character is that he is aware of this and does not take his DJ power lightly; even his school cancelation snow day news carries poetic, grim observations, and he predicts the coming crisis all based on one odd morning encounter, even knowing he may be starting the very fire he's railing against by railing against it. And he gives both women cute innocuous valentine's day cards, indicating that beneath his gruff exterior and contrarian shock jock tactics (mild compared to America's) beats the heart of a regular sentimental guy, a rotgut and cigarettes innocent. In other words, this is not an American film. There's no in-fighting, cursing tantrums, misogyny, lectures, or grandstanding. Sydney's anxiety over what her DJ's going to say is moderated and modulated moment to moment as he pushes the envelope but then eases back; her riding him to be less incendiary but tempered by an almost motherly need to keep him grounded, trying to encourage Laurel-Ann to feed him the news slowly and get confirmation first so he doesn't start a panic.


This is perhaps the film's one dubious theme, the conception of language as a virus, that it's not the news driving us crazy but the saying that the news is driving us crazy which is driving us crazy. Since these media-virus concepts show up in Cronenberg a well one wonders if this interest has anything to do Canada itself, its weird placement between the USA's ever loudening media barrage and the BBC's staid tosh clarity. The movie seen on streaming (on Netflix) is itself a virus, infecting anyone who plays it. The media breakdown can extend to your life -- is there a virus within Pontypool itself, that scrambles the very particles of code within its signal, ala The Ring? Or was my girlfriend, in the throes of a phone interview with some comedian in the other room, tripping on the extension cord for the WiFi, causing the Netflix stream, as well as internet, to go out in a single flash right at a key moment in the film? It was so perfectly timed I became as unnerved as old Mazzy. Let's pause and ruminate on what version of the new 3-D that will be, when the film makes your TV explode at a key plot juncture.



Sure that's a sick idea, but that's the thing -- when the news envelops you then you don't really know what the hell is going on the more you think you do; you don't know what is real because your imagination can't stop filling in details, and neither can the newscasters. Pontypool's climactic moment of interdimensional communication is when emergency broadcast interruption comes roaring through the station, cutting out the broadcast to announce those listening should refrain from speaking, using terms of endearment or embracing loved ones, or using the English language, ending with "don't translate these words" which Mazzy reads, translated, over the air waves- Is this, then, a structuralist terrorist attack. Oh yes Quebec resistance, how very French of you!

Top: Lisa Houle - Pontypool / Bottom: Anna Karina - Alphaville
But the French, as Godard's Alphaville (1965) computer knows, are too stubborn and contrary to be as ingenious and post-modern as the unseen linguicidal agents of Pontypool, which does for the 1939 Martian broadcast what the Blair Witch Project did for found nature films, i.e the very lack of reliable 'authorized' source information gradually reduces the one on the microphone to the sole remaining authority. John Connor at the end of Terminator 3 achieved this but with nuclear certainty, while Grant Mazzy ingeniously understands that, unless the revolution is televised, it does not exist, so as long as it is only chaos, a mere riot, he can talk it out of existence; if it is more, he must know what that more is, or cease to exist. Without a pundit chattering out in the cold and another one warm and looking at them from beyond a glass or plastic screen, and us looking at them, then there's no certainty about anything. Let go of language and everything is revealed. Not even the credits can end your transmission. So stick around past the end credits... to the grave! In the words of Sir Alfred McLennan, we must take this secret to our graves.... and even beyond!





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