Sunday, August 13, 2006
Zardoz is pleased.
I owe a good deal of my film education to the Sci-Fi Channel. Back in the cable channel's early days, the schedule relied heavily on reruns of new-to-me shows like The Prisoner and movie marathons that captured my impressionable nine-year-old imagination on many solitary weekends. One on such weekend I discovered Zardoz, a film that completely overwhelmed me with its strange, sprawling vision of the future that featured an Olmec-like floating idol, weird sexual situations, and Sean Connery in a red loincloth. Upon revisiting Zardoz, I was happy to discover that my appreciation for the film has deepened beyond delight at its bizarre antics; it's a genuinely one-of-a-kind film, perhaps the quintessential example of the kind of work that somehow managed to squeak through the studio system in the 1970's.
Nearly 300 years from now, humanity is divided between the violent, inarticulate Brutals and the "civililized" Eternals, who harness extrasensory mental powers and are blessed (or cursed?) with immortality. The Brutals worship Zardoz, a giant stone head that bellows commandments like "The gun is good! The penis is evil!" and travels the countryside vomiting weapons from its permanent grimace. But when one of the Brutals, Zed (Sean Connery), discovers an old library where a mysterious stranger teaches him how to read, he learns a secret about his god and stows away in the stone head as it returns to the Vortex (the isolated community where the Eternals live). As Zed lives among the Eternals, he learns of the vast plan that led him to the Vortex, and how his own fate is tied in with the Eternals' wish for the release of death. Zardoz is the kind of science fiction driven more by ideas than special effects (although the floating Zardoz head is pretty sweet), and director John Boorman deserves a great deal of credit for the sheer audacity of following his hit Deliverance with a film that defies all conventional filmmaking wisdom; it's a film that never slows down for the audience to catch up. While Zardoz is frequently baffling, it's also totally mesmerizing.
Boorman's vision is relentlessly fatalistic; we find out that not only Zed but all of the characters have been manipulated by some unseen force, represented by a powerful computer called the Tabernacle. He seems to argue that the inarguable fact of death is nothing to lose sleep over; the Eternals either become Renegades punished for negative thoughts with extreme old age or Apathetics who stand silently, indifferent to the world around them. Zed begins to change the order of things by reintroducing bloodlust and carnality into the Vortex (casting James Bond as a singleminded killing-and-screwing machine was an inspired move). Zardoz is also curious as an affirmation of the patriarchy; the Vortex is mostly populated by women and effeminate men who are fascinated and disturbed by Zed's ability to achieve erection. But eventually, Zed teaches the women, particularly the man-hating Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), to respect the cock. It's loopy stuff, for sure, but Boorman never lacks the courage of his conviction, achieving a delicate balance of solemnity and knowing humor. The cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth, who also shot 2001, the meandering pace and gloomy, understated score by David Munrow create a dreamy, soft-focus vision of the future that proceeds inexorably to its violent climax - the audience, like Zed, has been carried along by unseen hands.
Ultimately, though, Zardoz is an affirmation of humanity, for all its limitations and flaws, as noble. There's plentiful nudity of the free-spirited early-70's variety on display, and the performances are gleefully unhinged (particularly Niall Buggy, who plays the demented genius behind Zardoz). Not all of Zardoz works, and it's extremely questionable if read as an angry response to women's lib (which it very well might be). But this is what it looks like when a filmmaker takes genuine risks, and it's intriguing to see Boorman, who would later dive into the Arthurian legend with his masterpiece Excalibur, create his own skewed mythology here. The film ends, as Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 soars on the soundtrack, with a sweeping demonstration of the passage of time that is at once devastating and hopeful. And to achieve that sort of insight into the human condition, sometimes you have to put Sean Connery in a diaper.