“Springes to catch woodcocks”
The Horror of Understanding in Pontypool and The Interview
by Pablo D’Stair
Though it is hard for me to imagine anyone having not seen the masterful Canadian horror film Pontypool, I have to face facts that it has gone unwatched by many. So to quickly summarize: set in a church basement radio station during the course of a single night, the film chronicles the outbreak of a virulent disease (transmitted by the cognitive act of processing language) as it spreads uncontrollably across the expanses of Canada and perhaps beyond. Grant Mazzy (in a barnstorming performance by the always marvelous Stephen McHattie) is the recently relocated shock jock who serves as primary victim of and unwitting mouthpiece for the unexplained condition that is decimating the others locked in with him and the world outside. I hasten to emphasize that it is not merely inside “language” that the virus gestates (as I feel is often the misconstrued idea taken from audience to the film) but in the act of “understanding.” And therein the horror lies: the particular vulnerability is that the very act of attempting to understand what is happening leads to it happening, more swiftly, and the impossibility of ignoring an attempt at understanding is the predicament of the characters and, indeed, of the world at large, on display.
To turn this most basic survival instinct into the monster needing to be survived is a thing of wide implication. After all, in not only situations where life is immediately at risk, but in situations of more expansive sociological significance, the suggestion that “thinking” and “understanding” are villain strikes a very unique cord. Not only does it seem an act born of the devil to twist the purity of empathy (in all senses of the word) on its head, but to so deftly distort the very “nature of humanity,” which Thinking could be considered, into the impossible-to-subvert destruction of said humanity is…well, a drag to say the least. I am reminded of the predicament of the chimpanzee in Vernor Vinge’s Run, Bookworm (a story perhaps even less known than Pontypool) wherein in order to survive in the sense of “living” the poor thing must discard the very essence of what it values as life: intelligence.
Horror cinema, at its best, always aims to implicate the “victim” figures, and in turn, the audience as much as possible, quickly dismissing the moot rhetoric of arguments about guilt or innocence and turning the hot light focus on the nature of Man-Writ-Large. Pontypool, through making villain not of some perversion of human thought (as is the typical thing to do, often to great effect, i.e. the Bad Guys always representing the extreme end of a spectrum and the Good Guys having to admit some germ of the same extreme in themselves in order to escape/survive/go on) but of the purity and rational-ness usually reserved as “antidote to the insane” (the film makes the effect of sanity far more catastrophic than that of its inverse) is a unique little poison pill.
The most wonderful thing about The Interview is that it begins as a Kafkaesque horror of a perhaps-innocent man being strong armed by the police into an interrogation cell and accused of something he didn’t do and ends as an even worse Kafkaesque horror of a definitely guilty man being strong armed by the police into an interrogation cell and being accused of things he definitely, unrepentantly did do. This is the same man, by the way (I beg pardon for my fatuous indulgence in that opening sentence) and one of my all-time favorite screen performances by a male actor (Hugo Weaving). In a nutshell, the film is one of claustrophobic observation-inside-of-observation: the police observing the killer, other police observing the police observing the killer, the killer knowing the double observation is taking place, the two sets of police, per procedure, not allowed to give whiff of each other’s purposes, the one to the other.
An example of the power of closed room set piece cinema (indeed the few scenes that do—as images accompanying the relating of past incidents—take place outside of the confines of the station/interrogation cell are more or less superfluous) the film is even more remarkable for setting the devastatingly absolute traps (for audience and characters) inside of semantics and subtextual remarks rather than in any of the usual big reveals, outing of bald facts, or irrefutable discoveries–think something along the lines of watching The Usual Suspects after knowing full well who Kaiser Soze is (only more so) or of watching The Game after knowing it’s all a game, both pieces of knowledge just making things worse and more alarming. In the case of this vicious little film, the subtext and seemingly innocuous phrases all but make impotent the should-be-damning nature of a flat out confession—asking for a sandwich at a specific moment and not receiving it until another moment is revealed to be enough to overpower a full on, graphic description of a brutal and random homicide…or of twenty plus such homicides.
The film focuses on the nuance of our nature to understand—how it is achieved and what the act of its achievement indicates of those in pursuit. “Induction and deduction—they still teach that?” the veteran interrogator asks of his less seasoned partner at one moment, putting the pin on the exact horror-show that is allowed to play out. Not simply a case of a little mistake (such as the misreading of Miranda rights) allowing a criminal to skate (as many other films and television programs often use to effects both mediocre and sublime) but instead a case of a procedure followed to the “T” subverted by the insertion of what would obviously be considered insignificant and random statements (these insertions calculatedly done by someone who understands the nature of the perfectly polished process and counts on its sheen for the easy slipping out) the film turns the desire for exactness and propriety into a goblin.
What the film so deftly and horrifically points out is that the more specific and absolute the understanding is required (and desired) to be, the more its seemingly concrete nature turns subjective. A kind of absurdity-in-sobriety, it is a depiction of two sets of clear headedness, set to opposite balances of the scale, shown to each contain the elements necessary to make the device keep perfectly level, while at the same time make the table collapse beneath the measured weights.
Pablo D’Stair is a novelist, essayist, and interviewer. Co-founder of the art house press KUBOA, he is also a regular contributor to the Montage: Cultural Paradigm (Sri Lanka). His book Four Self-Interviews About Cinema: the short films of director Norman Reedus will be re-releasing October, 2012 through Serenity House Publishing, International.