Celluloid International is a series of multi-part essays on different cinematic movements across the globe, some well-known, others less so. We're kicking it off with Nick Hanover's examination of what he's termed "the Cinema of Loneliness," a theory that Canadian film, because of the geography of its home, is predominantly concerned with isolation, whether it's of the emotional or physical variety. Earlier versions of the first three essays were originally published at Spectrum Culture.
The Cinema of Loneliness: An Exploration of the Emotional Center of Canadian Film
Part Three: Pontypool and Canada's Language Wars
Communication is supposed to be a way to allow us to reach out to and understand one another. Words and speech are intended as the most direct method of expressing our thoughts and emotion. But communication is inherently flawed, separated as it is into myriad dialects and languages, all meant to represent individual groups, cultures, locations. Canada itself is a nation starkly divided by language, torn between English and French, a division that's representative of Canada's complicated colonial history. Through the lens of the horror genre, Canadian punk auteur Bruce McDonald arguably crafted one the best examinations of that lingual division with his 2009 masterpiece Pontypool.
Like most of McDonald’s previous work, Pontypool is just as much commentary on genre clichés and stereotypes as it is an examination of his homeland; where Highway 61 turned the road film on its head through the simple prop of a dead body, and Hard Core Logo attempted to shatter everything you thought you knew about rockumentaries, Pontypool seeks to do the same for horror in general and zombies in particular. Cleverly set primarily in a small-town radio station studio, Pontypool builds tension through its refusal to ever show the viewer much of anything. When the incidents the film is built around occur, the truth of what is going on is revealed slowly, the audience learning as the protagonists do. McDonald and Tony Burgess, the screenwriter of Pontypool who also wrote the novel which the film is based on, have created a taut, panicky work that maintains an anxiety other films would never display for fear of not entertaining their audience.
McDonald, however, trusts the audience enough to take risks under the expectation that they’ll stick with him through and through and it pays off gloriously. Focusing on two barely likable characters, DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) and his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and to a lesser extent on their eager young assistant Laurel Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly), McDonald avoids packing the film full of obviously sacrificial archetypes or focus group determined personalities; even more surprisingly, the film almost never leaves the confines of the radio station. Gone are the typically dark, overly shadowy corners and alleyways of so many survival horror films; gone are the over the top severed limbs and portions of bodies; nearly nothing that audiences have come to expect from zombie films is present, replaced instead by a measured tension and a set design that at first seems like a theatre stage before becoming increasingly more claustrophobic, more terrifying than any wide open space.
Canada may be a land of wide open spaces, often to its detriment, but McDonald is more interested in making the loneliness of communication physical, trapping a great communicator in a realm he otherwise considered comfortable and safe, even as the rest of his life was anything but. Like Romero’s classic zombie originator Night of the Living Dead, it’s the confined space at the heart of Pontypool that really makes the film, but McDonald adds a further level of commentary to the film by drawing parallels between the situation at hand and Mazzy’s internal struggle with the isolation he feels he was already stuck in before the incident, being a formerly big time DJ stuck in some anonymous small town. It's made clear that Mazzy has a difficult time opening up to people and it's no coincidence that he really only comes to life when presented with the initial thrill of the deadly situation he and his fellow radio crew have found themselves embroiled in.
Which is what makes Pontypool's eventual twist so effective and heartbreaking. Even though it was released in the middle of the now hyper-saturated zombie craze, Pontypool managed to breathe new life into the genre and twist its basic rules in a way that remains completely unique and novel. Mazzy eventually learns that the enemy is his beloved language itself, gone rabidly viral and violent through meme culture, taking root with simple repetitive phrases that stick in the victims' heads until they've gone beyond all rationality and sense. Like a magnified version of what happens when you get a pop earworm latched in your brain, the "zombies" of Pontypool are frustrated and angry and in desperate need of an outlet.
The zombies are angry because they can no longer communicate and are now isolated en masse in their irritation, incapable of the all-too-human tool of speech. When Mazzy discovers, all too late, that only the English language is currently infected, it's a fascinating twist, a way of revealing how even the unification of a country can't cover up the natural barriers to communication that exist between languages and culture and the ways that natural phenomena– be it disaster or geographic separation– can intensify that division. Pontypool is the loneliness of language made incarnate, a thought provoking treatise on how even our attempts to be close to one another can push us apart or prove disastrous.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and has contributed to No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on twitter @Nick_Hanover