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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

13 January

First public radio broadcast, 1910

On this day in 1910, the first public radio broadcast was … heard is probably the wrong word, since almost no one had a radio set and the quality of the 500-watt transmission was so bad. But the first public radio broadcast was made at any rate, from the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, where Enrico Caruso, then the most famous opera singer in the world, sang arias from Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci along with Czech soprano Emmy Destin. Though both had belting voices, the microphones placed in the footlights were not really up to the job and it was only when off-stage microphones were sung into directly that the few hundred listeners in Newark, New Jersey, in various hotels in New York, and on board a ship moored in New York harbour, could hear anything significant. The transmission was masterminded by Lee De Forest, a remarkable inventor who in his long life (he died in 1961) would be granted more than 300 patents. De Forest was the first man to use the word “radio” for what he was doing, partly as a way of avoiding charges of patent infringement by Marconi and Stubblefield, who appeared, up to this point at least, to have the world of wireless (as they called it) telegraphy and telephony all sewn up.

Pontypool (2008, dir: Bruce McDonald)

Pontypool is a beautifully lo-fi piece of genre misdirection that opens at a tiny local radio station in a church basement where some disgraced former big-noise DJ is on his first day back at the microphone. Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is a grizzled hard drinker of the old school, all bass rumble and professionalism, who uses the word “folks” a bit too often. Once eased into the chair (both him and us) this simple Canadian film (yes, that Welsh place name is slightly misleading too), treats us to what looks like a muted character piece about someone coming to terms with their new, reduced, circumstances. But then things start going wrong. Just little things at first. Like the fact that the woman who comes in regularly to sing on the show just kind of gets stuck halfway through a line and can’t continue. There’s an apparition in the snow outside. People start phoning in with bewildering stories. And this is where the film gets interesting, as various genre mood boards are presented, held up for a second, then taken away again. What are we watching? Is this a siege movie? Should we expect zombies? Alien invasion? Or is this just a case of good old fashioned smalltown hysteria? I won’t say any more, except that Pontypool shows that all you need to make a film is a simple but pungent idea, that limitations of space (this is shot almost entirely in the radio studio) don’t matter if you use that space properly, and that sound can count more in a film than images, because they’re suggestive of a huge unseen world. It also really helps that in the shape of Grant Mazzy we have a man who is paid to keep talking, so whole acres of exposition can be laid out without the script ever appearing forced. And that tendency of DJs to just keep talking, regardless of whether they have anything to say, is exploited wickedly towards the end, in a joke that seriously redeems a film just when it was beginning to get a bit silly. A cult gripper.

Why Watch?

  • Atmosphere
  • Nicely judged performances by husband and wife Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle
  • A “how to” of lo-fi film-making
  • An intelligent offbeat chiller

Pontypool – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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