Friday, September 6, 2013

Pontypool (2009): Word vomit goes viral

Pontypool (2009)
dir: Bruce McDonald

"Oh no. It was coming up again. Word vomit. No. Wait a minute...actual vomit." - Mean Girls

Rarely are horror movies stuffed with words. Horror movies are almost never fixated on words. Horrific things happen, and mostly these events are ineloquently explained, then somebody dies. Now and then, words can be used as puzzles, but, even in those cases, words are hardly obsessed over.  And, the movies are never so stuffed with words that there's no room for much of anything else.

Pontypool is STUFFED with words. I don't just mean casually.  It is obsessed with them.  For the first hour of the movie, it is a radio play turned into a movie. People talk into microphones, phones, out of phones, in the air, and they talk and talk and talk.  There's things happening, and they get talked about. Sometimes they are only talked about on the surface. Sometimes they are verbally dissected. But, people are filling in between the spaces so there isn't dead air.

Pontypool has a point to all of this.  Pontypool is about a former shock jock radio DJ, Grant Mazzy, on a morning when a virus hits the small sleepy town he has recently been forced to work in.  He gets a phone call from the local traffic guy who has a gig where he claims to be in a chopper, but is actually only in a van with special effects.  He gets phone calls about people attacking each other outside of doctor's offices.  He gets phone calls about dying babies who mutter Mama is slow repeating unearthly tones until they fade out.  He gets all these weird bizarro calls as a virus hits the town and makes everybody go crazy.

The virus, we find out, affects the English language, and is transmitted through words.  Sometimes words of endearment, sometimes charged words, but people become fixated on these words and repeat them until they spread the virus, and only certain words infect certain people.  Mama, Missing, Sample, Kill...these words infected one person or another.

And, its all so pointedly political.

To back up a little bit, Grant Mazzy is a grizzled old shock jock radio host who says offensive things to "build his audience" even thought he's been kicked back to the minor leagues.  He says things that remind you of Don Imus.  He offends people to get his audience to listen to him.  He'll casually mention drinking, but then the people who he mentions are actually alcoholics.

Meanwhile, everybody around him are starting to fail to remember how to understand language.  They get fixated on words or ideas, and then mindlessly repeat them and blather on and on until somebody else gets fixated then they move on to the next victim. And, the English language keeps getting more and more fraught with these fixations and people repeating things that have emotional resonance even though they start to lose all meaning.

With this duality, Burgess is pointing out that the more we talk, the more we don't listen, and the more we parrot, the less we understand. He is blatantly turning our most horrible instincts in the information age into a horror movie level virus that he uses against a town.  Pontypool isn't just fixated on words, its whole universe is words. And, its how these words because useless and meaningless even though they have emotional resonance that we hold dear to us.  And, if people don't understand the words as we do, we get angry, and start beating people senseless.

That hurts.  Its a burn that burns hard.  It is pointed right at everybody who parrots whoever their favorite news host or radio dj is without taking the time to understand what it is they're saying.  And, it does it without explaining the parallels to the real world.  It may be somewhat blunt, but its not that blunt.

Is a radio show a good movie?  Yes. Hell yes. The tension builds slowly and strongly. You can't do anything but listen to what's happening.  You don't need to even watch the first hour. Just listen to it.  Listen to the word vomit that happens. Listen to the people talk and talk.  These words are genius. And this movie is so well constructed that you always know when you should start watching by the end.  It's creepy. It's smart. It's wordy.

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