Big Head, Little Brain: Small Thoughts on ZARDOZ
- Zardoz is a movie (thus ends the list of everything about this movie that I’m sure of) that divides reviewers into two camps: Those who think it’s a laughably stupid, nearly-incomprehensible movie that features Sean Connery in a red diaper, and Those Others who think it’s a laughably stupid, nearly incomprehensibly movie that features a giant flying head made of stone. I’m using the Top Ten List format for this to keep my own thoughts organized; Zardoz inspires messy thinking.
2. To get the story out of the way, Zardoz is about Zed, a hunter/rapist in a post-modern world divided into Brutals like Zed and everyone else. Zed and his pals ride on horses and rape people and kill them for a flying stone head they know as Zardoz. One say after the giant stone head vomits up more guns and ammo, Zed hides inside the head, which takes him beyond the invisible force field around a commune inhabited by The Immortals. The matriarchal Immortals capture and examine Zed. Most of the movie depicts Zed’s learning about this society and how it works. The Immortals see their situation as cursed. Their community is actually a storehouse for books and art, all the good stuff left over from the end of the rest of the world, but they are dead inside, lacking in good times. The Vortex is your average American college, filled with young-looking educated people who are anti-fun, anti-sex and definitely anti-Sean Connery, who dresses funky and is all man; speech codes are strictly enforced, and when one of the “students” talks out of turn, everyone points at him and shames him into unconsciousness. I’m serious, all of this happens in a movie released in 1974.
3. I just changed my mind: John Boorman’s Zardoz is one of the genius works of science fiction, a far-seeing work of art that has been mocked and laughed at by the pea-brains who cannot recognize its greatness.
4.People call Zardoz “pretentious,” a word used to describe many expensive science fiction films that try to be about more than just a wisecracking hero and his pals battling The Evil Galactic Rulers. The word “pretentious” is a critical switchblade, whipped out with the intention of a fast kill, often taken away by a more cunning opponent and turned on its user. Calling a work of art “pretentious” is meant to show the critic is one of us down-to-earth types who’s popping a rich movie director’s uppity ‘tude if he tries to rise above his station, like he thinks he’s smarter than the rest of us, and how dare he! The balloon popper likes something with a plot, cool dialogue, blah blah, while the director is trying to make something more than mere entertainment. What a jerk, huh? When I see “pretentious” in a review of a science fiction movie, I think “ambitious.” Often you do find such pretention in science fiction movies that have value but are ultimately crippled by the movie maker thinking he’s got something to say that no one before has tried to say in this way. Moon is a good example, a well-made movie that ultimately collapses under the weight of the effort to Say Something which amounts to “Corporations are evil.” Yeah, guy, we knew that, you got anything else?
5.More on ideas and pretentiousness: Boorman’s big idea here seems to be that the dream of immortality is a sham, that you should be glad you’re going to die someday because living forever would be a real bummer, man. Immortality is one of those ideas that seems appealing for about one sentence — Imagine living forever? Imagine if a robot wanted to be human? Imagine if a woman won the presidency in 2016? — that get boring almost immediately — Yeah, but you’d end up being a dullard. Yeah, he’d be a real pain whining about it all the time. Yeah, but the noble democrats would be calling for investigation into her Russian ties, including large sums of money paid to her, and then President Tim Kaine. And Chuck Schumer on the T.V. all the time. I kid the democrats, because they love having their beliefs challenged, not like republicans. Anyway… Immortality doesn’t seem to be a great subject for a movie. With the exception of the oh-my-GOD-how-pretentious The Fountain and Lost Horizon, no one has figured out a way to deal with immortality VISUALLY. Also, The Fountain isn’t a science fiction movie about immortality, it’s about a guy who finishes writing his wife’s book. But you knew that.
6. After a big hit, Hollywood has given many directors their chance to make their Big Personal Statement, with the results ranging from Apocalypse Now to Pearl Harbor to Avatar. This was 1973/74, so Boorman’s blue Gumbies were just skinny Brits wearing tie-dye. But so many directors who make piles of money feel the need to make these huge movies, and some just aren’t up for it intellectually, so the movies become visually bloated while the screenplays are “honest” in stating routine bromides like “You shouldn’t take stuff from the natives,” or, in this case, “Enjoy life, the faculty break room gets dull after a few hundred years.” Most directors don’t have anything to say, or they’d have been writers. Boorman made a hippie movie that attacks hippies, reaching a crescendo in that thought-shaming scene where everyone points and hums at someone for breaking the commune’s speech code. Didn’t someone see that in dailies and think, “Is it too late to pull the plug and put him on The Exorcist?” This might make for an interesting co-feature with A Clockwork Orange and The Man Who Fell To Earth: Hit Directors Tackle SF.
7. Boorman loves putting images on other images, such as back projection of scenes from earlier in the movie, and slides projected on a woman’s face. Zed ends up in a Lady from Shanghai-like hall of mirrors, and we look to see the many Connerys moving around. Simple ideas we can’t help but find kinda cool, like when we were kids. Also, cheap.
8. Big reveal coming: Zed was out doing his raping and murdering one day and he came upon a library, where he found a book called “The Wizard of Oz” and figured out that Zardoz was a play on that. He then decided he would see who was behind the curtain by bravely sneaking into his godhead and investigating what was behind all of this cool flying and gun-puking. At the very least this gives the audience a handle on the story; well-executed, it would make for a fascinating hook. Everyone knows The Wizard of Oz, and imagine that, an all-powerful god…who’s actually based on that book that inspired that movie we’ve all seen. The audience would be carried along on this Hero’s Journey! Except that’s not how this movie opens. One piece of writing advice is “Start the story as late as you can,” getting to the Inciting Incident A.S.A.P. Boorman doesn’t start the story with Zed rapin’ and killin’ and then lead to the Shocking Discovery: We learn the Inciting Incident about an hour in. Instead of journeying with him as he explores this agrarian funeral home and understanding that his life has been a lie, we’re just shuffling along with this dude we don’t know at all. It’s an experiment without a control or even a petri dish. Zardoz is about the raising of Zed’s consciousness, Zed climbing into his own head. Zardoz is about the power of books to awaken the mind. But Boorman’s pointlessly-garbled story just makes it into a big mess. It’s an example of the necessity of a solid structure.
9. If Zardoz was released today, John Boorman would have to move to a lakeside estate in Ireland to escape the rioting hordes looking to string him up. It’s a startlingly retro look at male-female relations for a movie studio to release in the radical seventies. Zed turns on the charm and BOOM! the woman who’s been demanding he be executed for the good of the commune suddenly just decides she’s into him. Disaster follows. Zed learns that society is a sham, and it needs a he-man like himself to get in there, show these feminist man-haters (they really hate men) that sex with a guy is fun and leads to our heroine — the drop-dead beautiful Charlotte Rampling — tossing aside her lifelong sistren and leading the charge against the administration building, destroying a bunch of old art in the process. I told you this script was bonkers. After being angry and having her hair in a bun, Rampling lets her hair down and rides a horse in pursuit of her man. Rampling often plays placid, intelligent people, and she’s good casting for her role. She’s the one person who comes out of this without shame. (She’d be on the pyre, too, for comments on the sex scene with Connery. She didn’t use the term ‘sex scene’.)
10. Everyone calls this “the movie with Sean Connery in a Red Diaper.” Putting aside Boorman’s staggeringly-destructive attack on Communism, I’m surprised this isn’t known as “the movie with Sean Connery in a Wedding Dress.” The red diaper is believable in context as the outfit for a futuristic misogynist, while the wedding dress is inexplicable. I still don’t know what Boorman was thinking; more disturbing is why big movie star Connery didn’t give him a look and say, “You put me in that and they’ll be finding pieces of you in a lake in Ireland for decades to come, ya daft bastard.”
11. The use of Beethoven over the shots of the scary stone floating head flying through the clouds makes this the most depressing opening credits scene in movie history. It’s also the movie’s best sequence. The few shots of the post-apocalyptic world are effective, but I kind of wish Boorman had phoned up the makers of The Bed-Sitting Room and asked for tips. TB-SR has many scenes of destroyed British scenery, and the director said they found most of it as-is. Zardoz really needs more time spent in the larger world; the movie is heavy with scenes of the farm. I like the examination room with its big screen T.V. and the dead bodies being regenerated on the walls. Boorman and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey) do a lot with a small budget, but there’s only so much they could do.
12. Zed holds the tiny computer and it tells him “You have me in the palm of your hand.” I hear several theaters were burned down in protest; luckily, the movie was a bomb so there were few patrons to riot. Zed enters the computer by having Connery do the “Whoah, I’m falling!” mime and ducking behind a prop. The low-budget imagery, including a ‘time reversal’ that’s just running the film backwards, makes you suspect Boorman just wants to goof off, those scifi freaks will lap it up.
13. I’ve written almost two thousand words about this and could probably write more. This disturbs me that after all that, I’m no closer to understanding it that I’ve ever been. Zardoz is a terrible movie on many levels, but I’ve been thinking about it for years. I think Boorman’s dedication and enthusiasm come through the mess he’s made. I also wish he’d do a remake; with better funding and CGI, he could make an even bigger messterpiece.