Zed: Stay behind my aura!
In short: Zardoz is a trainwreck movie. It may even be the perfect example of a trainwreck movie. In order to discuss Zardoz, I think it's necessary to first state what I mean when I call something a "trainwreck movie". It's pretty simple: a movie is going along for a while and in your mind you're thinking to yourself "this is pretty good!" and then, at some point, the movie jumps the tracks and at the end of it, you're shaking your head and saying something in a disappointed tone, like, "fucking Zardoz, man..." There are a few examples I can think of right now... The Hulk, The Keep, and Lifeforce(that one's a BIG TIME trainwreck). All of these are not bad movies, per se, they're just movies that lose the way at some point while maintaining very good intentions. What denotes a trainwreck movie from a bad movie is that it is always internally consistent (just as a train doesn't cease being a train when it leaves the tracks, The Hulk doesn't stop being the movie that preceded it when Nick Nolte and Bruce Banner have a metaphysical special effects fight and, in fact, if the movie ended any other way it would be a betrayal of everything that came before it) and full of intriguing ideas that never seem to make it to the screen in a coherent fashion.
Zardoz is probably the perfect trainwreck movie because, as soon as it starts, you can see that it's going to wreck somewhere along its path. You can feel it the same way you feel like you're in the most competent of hands when Touch of Evil starts with that uncut tracking shot. It's hard not to know that disaster looms when the floating head of a man, dressed up like a genie and claiming to be immortal, tells you that Merlin was his idol and that the story you're about to see is an allegory and a satire. It's even harder to put aside feelings that disaster is going to eventually beat this movie into a bloody pulp as a giant stone head flies over gorgeously photographed landscapes like a hot air balloon with a guidance system and lands near a bunch of people on horseback wearing nothing but red underpants and bandoliers. And when, after said people on horseback bow before it, pledging allegience to the head they call Zardoz, that floating head responds to them by saying "the gun is good, the penis is bad" and spewing gun after gun after gun from its giant mouth, it's difficult to shun the knowledge that you are going to dislike this movie for the very same reasons that you are going to unabashadly love it.
The movie's plot is one of a science fiction utopia/dystopia in which, sometime in the future, humans have divided into two camps. One group is barbaric and is policed by the horseback people, known as Brutals. Their leader, Zed, sneaks into the giant floating head and finds himself among a second group of people, the Immortals. The Immortals are just that, immortal. Everytime they die, their bodies are regenerated by a supercomputer/A.I. thing known as The Tabernacle. They're also telepathic and like to meditate. They're superintelligent and super bored, living in a 1970s science fiction dreamland, a combination of colored plastics and old architecture, glass and stone. Their food and wealth is provided to them by the barbaric outsiders who, to appease their god Zardoz, give offerings of wheat to the giant stone head. They're obviously patterned after hippies or hippy ideals and, as Zed arrives, they're unsure of what to do with this bummer of a brute. Study him or kill him with telepathic powers?
The movie is one of these science fiction movies that is mostly about ideas. I would wager that a majority of the running time is spent explaining the world and it's landscape. It is fascinating for a while, but eventually the explanations of whatever new wrinkle to the world is presented start seeming repetitive at best, dull at worst and, in the second half, just confusing. What little narrative tension that exists in the second half is borrowed from popular mythology, The Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings, etc. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and it's neat in a "oh they snuck that in nicely" kind-of way. But the people never resonate on a human level... The Immortals are mostly too remote and clinical to care about. Zed spends too much of his early screen time not doing anything but following Immortals around as they explain what he (and we) are seeing.
Zed is played by Sean Connery in, unfortunately, the worst performance I've ever seen him give. He is a killer and a rapist who, eventually, learns to be the smartest guy on the planet, but Connery just looks bored or confused most of the time. Perhaps I'm projecting. His acting is more interesting as the character grows smarter, but by that time, I was so busy keeping up with the overly complicated and expanding plot that I hardly noticed. Connery is also saddled with an unfortunate costume, spending the entire running time of the movie in red underwear that makes him look like a cheap Tarzan (though there is one moment when he wears a wedding dress that allows me to cross off "see Sean Connery in a wedding dress" from my list of things I'd like to see before I die).
It's too bad, too, that the movie buckles under the weight of all its concepts because there is so much to like here. I had the most fun watching this movie than any of the others I've watched so far for this blog. The movie is terribly earnest, sometimes to the point of campiness. There is a logic and a cleverness to everything and it's beautifully shot and produced. The first hour is delightful as the movie introduces us to the world it's devised, but, again, once the plot starts to take off and Zed inspires a civil war among the Immortals and is taught the secrets of the universe while inseminating women Immortals with his seed, it just flies right off the rails. It flies so far off the rails, in one scene an Immortal tells Zed that they built a spaceship. Zed says, "did you use it?" The Immortal replies, "yeah, it was a dead end" the way you might say you once ate a pear and didn't quite care for it.
There are three scenes I need to describe here that might give you an even better idea of what kind of movie this is: First scene: an Immortal man enters a room of other Immortals and speaks in "dubbed". His lips don't match the sounds he's making and the sounds are incomplete and garbled. The other Immortals applaud it as if it was a performance of poetry. Second scene: at dinner, the Immortals go into "second level meditation" and make loud moaning noises. One man doesn't want to go into second level meditation and they wiggle their fingers at him as he struggles under their psychic weight. Third scene: Sean Connery in red underwear running around a hall of mirrors with various images projected onto them, shouting over and over again, "TABERNACLE!!!" while looking confused and angry.
Pauline Kael apparently said that if this movie wasn't in English, we all might have thought it was a maserpiece. I'm inclined to agree somewhat. It's a fascinating movie, to be sure. It's thougtful, serious, witty, insightful, and honest... and these are all the reasons it's a bad movie. Whatever it happens to be being thoughtful, serious, witty, insightful, or honest about at any given time in the movie, it is ignoring everything else that is important. Still, something in me thinks that someday, fifty years from now, people could resurrect it as an overlooked classic. It's too good to be this bad. It's Fucking Zardoz, man... and there's nothing else like it.
Thursday, October 06, 2005
Zed: Stay behind my aura!
So, last night I watched Zardoz. To most people, saying you watched Zardoz would not be anything of note, but to me it was significant. When I was about 12 years old, I had a VHS copy of the movie Aliens, which, at the time, was my favorite movie. I watched that thing over and over again.
The important thing to note re: Zardoz is that at the beginning of the tape there was a 5 minute or so promotional thing about 20th Century Fox’s video line. They ran through many movies that had just been released to own and Zardoz was on there. It looked interesting, Sean Connery on horseback, a giant stone head, people in long flowing robes, and a generally weird sci-fi feel to it. I was very into sci-fi at the time and thought Zardoz looked quite interesting. But I never watched it.
Over the years, Zardoz took up some space in my mind. Every now and then I’d think about watching it, but other movies always took priority. In the past few days up to Zardoz’s arrival (via Netflix), I thought to myself... oh man, it’s coming... Zardoz... fucking Zardoz man. I had waited almost 15 years to see this film. And as the day of Zardoz’s arrival approached, when I spoke of it I referred to it not as Zardoz, but fucking Zardoz, man. And today as I sit here, I realize, I’ve finally seen fucking Zardoz man. That’s a good feeling. I’ll post about my thoughts about fucking Zardoz later tonight, but right now I’m just satisfied that fucking Zardoz will no longer be one of those movies that I’ve never seen. Fucking Zardoz, man.