Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Word Virus Epidemic and Predatory Metaphors

I watched an interesting film the other day called "Pontypool", based on a book by Tony Burgess.  It's about a mysterious deadly virus that strikes a small town in northern Ontario.  It's advertised as a psychological thriller--but it's also a kind of linguistic zombie flick. 

The strange virus that affects the townspeople is caused by infected words in the English language, so that when certain words are spoken and understood by another, they become contagious. When you become infected, the words gets lodged in your system and you start repeating them obsessively, which, as director of the film Bruce McDonald explains, is possibly your immune system working overtime to try and save you from the virus by trying to destroy their meaning.  You become confused, unable to remember how to string words together. If you want to say, for example, "Let’s go for a coffee" it might come out "Giraffe five eleven." It becomes so intolerable, "you attack somebody and try to chew your way through their mouth. So it goes from repetition to mixing up your words to extreme violence."

The two main characters, Grant and his co-worker Sydney, are holed up in a soundproof room at a small radio station in the basement of a church when a mob of cannibalistic townsfolk begin frantically beating down the doors.  Grant and Sydney's only solution is to not say any words in English. Since they don't know which words are infected, it's better not to speak at all. (They try speaking in French, which the townspeople don't understand, so this buys them a little more time, but not much.)  Then Sydney begins showing signs of having been infected and Grant must figure out a way to stop the progress of the disease.  He realizes that not understanding a word disinfects it and asks himself, "How do you make a word strange?"

Meanwhile Sydney starts chanting "Kill!  Kill!  Kill!" and heads zombie-like towards Grant.  Grant has to convince her that kill does not really mean kill.  "Kill is ... kiss," he says.  Kill doesn't mean kill anymore.  Kill now means Kiss.  He makes her repeat it over and over:  Kill is kiss, kill is kiss, kill is kiss, until she's "cured".

Reviews were mixed about the cinematic worth of the film.  Some, who wanted more gore, thought it boring.  Some simply didn't "get" it.  Others, like myself, found the premise intriguing.  It parallels the breakdown of civilization and our inability to communicate with one another, hints about the deterioration of language and disillusionment and instability.  If the author's intention was to invoke unease in his audience, he certainly succeeded.  It also impresses on you the idea that nowhere you go is really safe, and loved ones and people you have known all your life can suddenly turn on you and viciously attack you.

The author and screenwriter Tony Burgess, in an interview refers to the film as "a chapter that the book imagined or forgot, or couldn't fit in"--as if the book were alive and writing itself.  The book, he says, is "kind of randomly related to itself."  I tried to think of a work of poetry or fiction that I'd read recently of which I could say that it was intentionally or randomly related to itself.

Another intriguing idea he put forth (in the interview) was that the film is "really a metaphor for metaphors that keep hunting you, long after they've been meaningful.  They keep coming at you."  What really interests him, however, is: "Are there figures of speech that become predatory, long after their meaning as figures of speech have left the stage?"

Metaphors that hunt you down, stalk you, come after you ... metaphors that are ... predatory.  Made me think of Jungian archetypes run amuck, for some reason.

I found the concept highly interesting, and the film was unlike any zombie-type horror film I have ever seen.  It didn't need graphic scenes of agonizing torture or bloodied walls or hacked off limbs or severed heads to impart the sense of extreme fear.  As long as you kept quiet and didn't say anything, you would be safe.  But they (Grant and Sydney) were trapped in a radio station and the frenzied mob had entered the building and they needed to announce to the world how to stop the disease.  Except to do so would mean talking, broadcasting over the airwaves, and that would, of course, draw zombie-like townfolk in even greater numbers to them. 

I hated the ending.  I suppose it was inevitable.  I still hated it.  (Have you ever seen a horror flick with a happy ending?)

I generally don't like horror films.  Psychological thrillers, yes.  Mysteries and mind-teasers, definitely.  Torture and dismemberment, no matter how artful or shlocky, for entertainment sake ... I squirm and cover my eyes or leave the room.  Even the "classics" -- Night of the Living Dead, pod people, zombies on the march ... give me nightmares.  But this one, "Pontypool," I couldn't stop watching. 

Ah,  the inadequacy of words, and the sheer power of words -- existing simultaneously from their creation to their combustion to their eventual transformation.  How ironic--that to cure someone of a disease that renders them incapable of remembering how to form intelligible word connections, you had to take a known, familiar word that still had meaning--and recast it as gibberish.  Kill is kiss.  Yellow is crowded.  Girafe five eleven.

Anyway, what an idea!!  A virus caused by words--but only in the English language.  It's not all that farfetched to think of a future scenario where a virus could be specifically designed to attack only those of a certain genetic disposition, dispensed by vaccination for a fictional disease whereby the recipients, when innoculated, would be rendered incapable of creating or bearing offspring. Anihilapop. Or one where the world's food supply has become so contaminated that one is reduced to eating the bark of a tree, boiling one's own manuscripts for soup, or  marinating one's shoelaces.  Now that is scary!!

Click here to see a trailer of the film.

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