Zardoz – Oblique Hell and Bleak Heaven

Zardoz

It opens with a meta-commentary of the illusory nature of film itself, and a giant stone head spitting guns from its mouth before Sean Connery rises from the dirt inside the head, in a red loincloth and shoots God with a revolver. That’s within ten minutes.

If you take Zardoz (1974, Dir. John Boorman) seriously, it’s a strange and disorienting fantasy journey through, philosophy weirdness and sexual politics. If you look at ironically, it’s a blithering mess filled with ridiculous and embarrassing moments bursting from it in every frame.

If you’ve read any other essay on this site, you’ll know which lens I saw this film through. But I’m not blind. This movie is baffling and weird and there are design choices which have dated it to sometime before dinosaurs existed, even if it is set in the future. Sean Connery does indeed wear a loincloth. If you don’t get on-board, it’s a prominent and uncomfortable reminder of the film’s failings. Luckily it only took me about six seconds to get on board, and once I did I was locked into one of the films which most deserves the adjective “crazy”.


Zardoz is about…lots of things if I’m honest. Immortality, death, God (or Zardoz’s equivalent, the “Tabernacle” which google also tells me was the Hebrew portable meeting place to communicate with God, so it’s kind of God anyway?), human nature and all the fictions and facts which come with it; class conflicts, ethical conflicts, aesthetic conflicts and more. If there was ever a film designed to collapse under its own ambition, this is it.

In a future where Earth has essentially reverted to pre-industrial living but with guns, we are following Sean Connery, a “mutant” human from the class of Executioners (who essentially rape, kill and pillage the “Brutals” in the name of Zardoz, their “God” who travels in a massive stone head), who kills Zardoz and lands in the heaven of the “Immortals”, humans who figured out how to stop dying. But Heaven and immortality are actually not perfect, sex doesn’t exist and people want for nothing except for the ability to die. Which they can’t do because the technology they built has (on their orders) erased their knowledge of how it works, so they can never go back. Instead they continue on in “bliss”, become so numb that they are the “Apathetics”, or cause trouble and are aged significantly (without dying) and become “Renegade”.

I don’t want to walk you through the entire plot of Zardoz, because for those of you who have seen it, you know what I’d be spoiling, and for those who have not, know that you are still in for considerable labyrinthine twists and turns before its 106 minutes are up. Explaining its narrative density and elaborate structures is only one part of its madness however,  as so much of what makes Zardoz arresting is in its visuals; its psychedelic sets, it’s de-saturated pastel colour palette (worked on extensively by the film’s cinematographer,  Geoffrey Unsworth who shot 2001), it’s absolutely insane sequences of touch teaching and inside the Tabernacle’s hall of mirrors.

Not just that, but its thematic elements and philosophical implications are really worth engaging with. Questions of immortality and the strange “death drive” that psychology has so concerned itself with really are on display here. This isn’t just a “high-concept” film, a film that has structural intelligence but still remains at its core a very simple story (read: Inception 2010 Dir. Christopher Nolan). Zardoz refuses to compromise any kind of narrative simplicity, as Zed undergoes a philosophical evolution throughout, taking him into mythic proportions by the end of it.

Even if you consider the film a spectacular failure, my admiration of Boorman at least attempting to grapple with these themes is commendable as it is admirable. Film’s don’t always have to be easily digestible, easily understandable and easily consumed. Sometimes they’re allowed to be difficult, ambiguous and confusing because often life is too. Cinema is not just escapist entertainment, that’s cheap and it does a disservice to what cinema could be. Cinema which fails spectacularly playing a bigger game will always be respected and remembered more, even if it takes time.

It’s a bleak film. It’s an oblique film. It’s hard to keep up with it, elements continue to get introduced pretty much from start to finish. It never stops whizzing by, and if you get off the train it all falls down (according to a story told by the production designer, at one point during a break one of the sets did fall down). It’s a walk through a singular, surreal and chauvinistic vision on a threadbare budget, and the modern psyche can split you into thinking its just campy trash with severely outdated sexual politics. The critical narrative will tell you to watch this film with a keen eye to take the piss, that there’s not much here besides silly sci-fi trash and the mad whims of an indulgent director. And that interpretation is valid if you want, but you cut so much of the meat of the film away just to enjoy scraps.

Good films take you on journeys you remember. It has not aged well, but I won’t forget Zardoz, its good and its bad. It’s ambivalent, bored heavens and it’s bizarre, weirdly engrossing hells.

-Alex

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Zardoz – Oblique Hell and Bleak Heaven

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