>> Saturday, April 19, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, I subjected the Scatterkat to Barbarella, Roger Vadim's incomprehensibly poorly-made tribute to his wife's tits.  And I think I broke her.  The Scatterkat, I mean, not Jane Fonda.  The Scatterkat has a very, very high tolerance for terrible movies, but this one left her with a baffled expression that had to be shared with friends via Facebook, and that led to someone asking me if I'd exposed her to John Badham's 1974 opus, Zardoz; which I had to admit I hadn't seen all the way through, though only seeing bits and pieces of it over the years didn't keep me from suggesting Zardoz was a male version of Barbarella with more drugs involved.

I was wrong about that last bit.  Easy enough mistake to make, I suppose, having seen bits and pieces and noting that Sean Connery's Zardoz ensemble--a red diaper, matching bandoliers and thigh-high boots--is more than a little akin to the various kinds of outfits Fonda is forced to wear in Barbarella.  But it's a superficial resemblance.

Oh--we rented Zardoz from Amazon Instant Video last night.  And watched it.  All of it.

I didn't think I'd pop up a post about it, but I'm still trying to process how and why Badham's epic failure--and Zardoz is a failure--isn't a movie I hate or find amusing in a "so-bad-it's-good" way or even a disaster-rubbernecking kind of way.  Maybe you can help me with that.  It's undeniable that Zardoz is a supremely ridiculous movie when taken at face value: Sean Connery (weirdly hirsute, with more hair on his face and chest than on top of his head, yet somehow sporting a ponytail) in the aforementioned fire-engine red diaper; a giant floating stone head that booms things like, "The Gun is good! The Penis is evil!"; a talking diamond; Connery hopping/bouncing/running/floating through scenes shot through a kaleidoscope or inside a mirror funhouse; psychic battles involving jazz hands... I think I'm barely scraping the surface of Zardoz's utter, baffling weirdness.  And yet... it's a movie that's terrible in an engrossing way, a movie that's highly competent in its badness, if badness is even the right word for it.  Zardoz is, for all its insanity and flirtation with camp, a surprisingly smart and serious and thought-out movie; it's in that category of movies that die for their ambitions.  I think.  Maybe.

The plot is... well, sort of simple to the extent it's comprehensible.  In the year 2293, diaper-wearing bandits called "Exterminators" ride around the post-apocalyptic wasteland rounding up people who are oddly well-dressed in business suits and the like (though the suits are dirty and torn, presumably from the rigors of post-apocalyptic life and being chased by Exterminators and all).  The Exterminators are easily recognized by their red diapers and guns, which they get from a big floating stone head, their god, Zardoz, who flies around spitting guns at the Exterminators, who happily pick them up and shoot wildly.  (None of the non-Exterminators ever seem to grab for a gun themselves, despite the fact Zardoz spits out more weapons than there are people.  I guess they're too cowed.)  An Exterminator named Zed (Sean Connery) sneaks onto Zardoz during one of the deity's visits, and rides back to where it came from: a lush, green Irish estate inhabited by immortal psychics who grow food in inflated condoms and dress a little like the space hippies in "The Way To Eden" would have if Star Trek's costume designers had had even a fraction of Zardoz's costume budget to work with.  Shenanigans ensue, with Zed becoming a pawn in a political game being played out by Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), May (Sara Kestelman) and Friend (John Alderton).

And then things get weird.

Okay, it's all very ridiculous when you set it out like that, because it is very ridiculous.  It's also not entirely fair, because director/writer John Badham, who at the time was fresh off Deliverance, and therefore probably at the height of his (considerable) gifts as a filmmaker, shoots the hell out of this movie (with a camera, not a gun or penis; the camera is good).  Zardoz is just a fine looking film, even if what you're looking at is something you're having a hard time figuring out why you're looking at it.

I think this is one of the things that bears special mention just because of the asinine comparison to Barbarella I made several weeks ago.  I don't think I've seen any of Roger Vadim's other films, I don't know if any of them are any good; but Barbarella isn't, and not just because of a lousy script and bad acting.  The nearest thing to competence you can give Vadim for in Barbarella is that I don't think there are any boom mikes popping into the frame; the rest of the time, actors walk in front of things the audience is supposed to be looking at, actors are framed weirdly in shots, the pacing is completely off, etc.--it's hackwork.  It's just lousy direction.  Barbarella would still be a terrible film if you watched it with the sound down, because it's terribly made on top of being terribly written and cast.

But good gravy, Zardoz, on the other hand, is pretty.  Even with a red-diaper clad Sean Connery dominating the foreground of a gorgeous shot of the Irish countryside where the film was shot.  (At least he's dominating it in accord with the rule-of-thirds.)

But okay, a badly-shot film might still be acceptable with a clever script and/or decent acting, right?  And the converse is true--a gorgeous film can stink to the heavens if the script and acting are lousy enough.  So what about Zardoz?  Is it pretty but stupid?

Weeeeelllllll--no, and this is the strangest thing ever and the thing I'm trying to put my finger on.  Zardoz isn't stupid; incomprehensible, kind of.  Incoherent, pretty much.  But it isn't dumb.

This reminds me (forgive the tangent): I recently read a softball interview with Zack Snyder in Forbes, and there's this exchange:
MH: That message was there, and I got it. You’ve said before that you think people misunderstood your films and that they don’t get credit for being as smart as they are. I absolutely agree and that’s the argument I’ve been making for years, including about Sucker Punch, which I think is great.

ZS: Did you see that SlashFilm thing that they did on Sucker Punch? The SlashFilm guy [Adam Quigley] did this little video, it’s about seven minutes long, I think it’s called, “You Don’t Understand Sucker Punch.” And he really breaks it down in a really, really cool way, and I was like, “ Wow!” …His thing is like, you can dislike the film, but you can’t dislike it because it’s “dumb.” That was his argument, you know — it’s fine to not like a movie, but you can’t not like a movie for something that it is not. And it is frustrating, I’ll be 100% honest. Sometimes I do get frustrated. I’m categorized as basically this visualist whose movies don’t mean anything–

Uh-huh.  Sure.  Right.  Y'know, I've seen Sucker Punch and I've seen Quigley's apologia, and Quigley's wrong: Sucker Punch is a stupid movie.  It may be a stupid movie that buries its aspirations to be a serious movie about sexism and fanboyism and objectification beneath a lot of sexism and fanboyism and objectification, becoming exactly the kind of movie it set out to parody, okay.  But even if I accept that premise (I think it's possible Snyder lucked into having people like Adam Quigley and Mark Hughes offer defenses for his film that the film is incapable of raising for itself), Sucker Punch is still a dumb, hamfisted approach to those themes.  I'm inclined to stand by my original post about SP and say that it really isn't anything more than "a big-budget grindhouse flick with no grind," and Quigley and Hughes and Snyder can say I just didn't get it.  My rebuttal, then, would have to be that I'm a fairly experienced and sophisticated viewer of above-average intelligence and feminist sympathies, and if I didn't "get it" the fault in this case is more likely with the messenger--and the message--than the recipient.

And this brings us back to Zardoz, which doesn't fail the way Sucker Punch fails (presuming you accept Quigley's argument for it); Zardoz... isn't actually a stupid movie, even when it's not making any sense and the message is getting garbled by weird editing choices and the surreality of the final third's chase scene involving old people in evening dress, half-naked neohippies and Sean Connery talking to a rock.

Zardoz is trying to say something about God, and the natural order, and technology, and sex, and mortality.  I'm not sure what it's trying to say is necessarily profound in the broadest context--lots of authors have tried to say that death is necessary to give life impetus and meaning, and that God is a social construct created to manipulate the public and channel aggressive tendencies--but it's also kind of deep for a Hollywood film, especially compared to our current era of stupid SF.

Zardoz is the kind of thing Damon Lindelof (a fairly bad writer) was unsuccessfully going for in Prometheus, and the kind of thing Ron Moore (a fairly good writer) unsuccessfully went for in the final season of the revamped Battlestar Galactica; an attempt to be provocative about faith and technology, only one gets the very, very clear sense that John Badham has read a book that wasn't by Syd Field or Blake Snyder.  Prometheus and BSG ultimately don't work because their ideas about their themes are so superficial that they never really grapple with them at all: "I'm a deep piece of pop art because I think about man's relationship with God--see, it's over there; now let's move on."  Zardoz, however, gets down in the mud and wrestles with it: "Man's relationship to God!  I'm going to kick the shit out of it!  Right here!  Right now!  Rrrraaargh!"  If, in the end, Zardoz drowns in the mud with its weighty issues pinning it... well, you have to hand it to Badham that he went down fighting.

Looked at this way, I think Zardoz becomes one of the last really significant pieces of literary science fiction to come out of Hollywood.  There have been other smart, literary SF films since, don't get me wrong: Primer, for a ready, recent example.  But these are, for the most part at least, smaller films--independently produced, unknown casts, etc..  Okay, that's not entirely true, either: Looper is a pretty smart SF film with Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Inception (Gordon-Levitt again!  Oh, and Leonardo DiCaprio, of course) is reasonably smart; though I don't think either of these two tries to go as deep as Zardoz (and, yes, that was a deliberate Inception joke).  But the norm in SF these days is non-literary, pulpy, space opera and toy franchises and comic books: it's kablooey stuff like Transformers movies and the embarrassment that Star Trek's turned into (which, considering how embarrassing Trek could be over the decades, is quite the dubious accomplishment) and the Marvel and DC Universes (which I enjoy, don't get me wrong, but they're ultimately all movies about godlike beings hitting other godlike beings with computer generated simulations of large heavy objects--they're really as substantive as Three Stooges movies were, it's just that Moe never hit anyone over the head with a truck or destroyed a major metropolitan area).

In its daft way, Zardoz is more like Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Philip Jose Farmer, Ursula le Guin, Frank Herbert, Michael Moorcock et al. than it's like any of the movies that came afterwards.  It's freakin' New Wave, for better and worse alike, is what it is; it's a goddamn Dangerous Vision on celluloid.   And I don't want to knock a lot of movies that I enjoyed more than Zardoz, like Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  But the unfortunate fact is that these more enjoyable, but undeniably dumber, summer blockbusters have become the template for the modern SF movie, moreso than the psychedelic, sexually adventurous, thematically ambitious New Wave.  There's nothing dangerous about Steven Spielberg's SF visions (not even the Philip K. Dick inspired Minority Report*), even if they're each and every one all more coherent than bleeding Zardoz (yes, AI included).

It's very possible I'd be harder on Zardoz if I had an embarrassment of riches to choose from.  The movie's a fiasco, I want to be clear; I'm not saying you should watch this thing.  But it's also a movie whose reputation for badness has eclipsed it to the point that you have to kind of say the reputation is actually a little unwarranted.  Yes, it's Sean Connery in a red diaper waving a pistol around; but he's making a total ass of himself in the context of making a statement that there's no living without death, that sex and violence are the primal urges that make creativity possible, that the idea that Man invented God is less interesting than the issue of what Man did with Him afterwards.  Again, these aren't really original statements or questions, but they're still serious matters, and Zardoz manages, somehow, to treat them seriously even while James Bond is running around in his underwear.

It's the most interesting failure I've seen in years.  Kind of makes me wish every movie was Zardoz.

*I keep finding exceptions to my rant about stupid SF films, though.  Minority Report, notwithstanding Tom Cruise and the fact that most of the movie is one long chase scene with occasional pauses for plot, is a serious and smart SF film.  It's enough to make me consider deleting the paragraph about dumb SF, at this point.  I'm not quite right about that....

And yet....

And yet I also know I'm not the only one who has this perception.  That if I asked most people about whether Hollywood makes smart SF anymore, they'd most likely shake their heads and perhaps rant about how Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich have destroyed the genre before they remembered Minority Report or Primer or District 9, all of which are fairly smart SF films even if they're vastly less mind-expanding than 2001: A Space Odyssey, or than Zardoz attempts to be.

I'm trying to talk my way through this until I understand any of it.  I may have changed my mind about all of it by the time you read it.  Or not.


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