Friday, December 31, 2010

Zed's Dead, Baby

The first film I saw in 2010 was Avatar. Somewhere, somehow, I got it in my head that the last movie I should watch in 2010 should be Zardoz (1974, directed by John Boorman). A to Z, as it were. Zardoz turned out to be pretty available, so I gave it a shot...

Wow. I had forgotten just how bad Zardoz really is. I remembered--correctly, as it turns out--that it was beautifully shot. It is. It's gorgeous. Kudos to Geoffrey Unsworth. I had NOT remembered, however, just how obsessed it is with Sean Connery's cock, and with cocks in general. You want a phallocentric movie? This is your huckleberry. It's arty enough and literary enough for me to class this with the work of an entire generation of male literary lights who spent most of the 1960s and 1970s writing about their penises (I'm looking at you, Philip Roth, John Updike, and John Irving). This is that impulse made flesh. One of the first lines of dialogue in Zardoz makes this explicit: "The Penis is bad!" the big floating stone head of Zardoz tells his Brutals. Then it elaborates that "The gun is good" before vomiting forth guns and ammo. My first thought upon seeing this scene was "Wait? You're displacing the phallus with a phallic symbol? Explicitly and by name?" Ho-kay...

Anyway, the story here finds runaway "Brutal" Zed, played by Sean Connery, loosed among the "Eternals," a decadent class of Eloi who can't die, but can't get it up, either. The presence of Zed, who can get it up pretty much on command, sends a shockwave through Eternal society. The only downside to this is that it's not explicitly a porno movie, because, let me tell you, this set-up could have been an EPIC porn movie. Instead, we get John Boorman noodling through his various private themes of marginal men in culture clash, overlayered with the notion that god is the man behind the curtain (pay no attention), and that religion is an elaborate scam. There's a Marxist impulse at work here, too, methinks, but that seems self evident in the division of labor. One wishes it were funnier. It all has a sense of its own absurdity. You can't listen to the pronouncements of Zardoz and come away thinking it's all sincere. It's a put on. All of it.

Connery, for his part, seems visibly uncomfortable in the movie, with his long braided wig and his orange loincloth. Charlotte Rampling, on the other hand, seems entirely in tune with the set-up, like she's in on the joke, and she takes the whole thing seriously. The production itself looks cheap and expensive at the same time, no small feat and one that Boorman repeated in Excalibur, though that was a better movie than this one. Great chunks of this are visually dazzling to the point where you can almost forgive the film's pretensions, but the weight of it all comes crashing down in the end.

One thing that this movie really got me to thinking about, though, is how John Boorman seems to have paid no real price for it. I mean, this would be one of the legendary bad movies if it weren't overshadowed by Boorman's own next film, The Exorcist II: The Heretic. And yet, Boorman went on to make Excaliber and Hope and Glory and continues to have a career to this day. Why is that, I wonder? Surely, Deliverance didn't give him THAT much cover, did it? It got me thinking about other directors who made legendary bombs. The two who stand out are Michael Cimino and Elaine May. Cimino took down an entire studio, and still managed to get work (for what it's worth, Heaven's Gate isn't all that bad, really). May, on the other hand, hasn't directed any more movies at all following Ishtar (which is also not that bad, really). This doesn't have anything to do with Zardoz, I guess, but it's what got to rattling in my head after I watched it. It happens sometimes.


- said...

I love Ishtar, actually. True story on that:

Warren Beatty had final cut on the film and much to Columbia Picture's dismay, he allowed in a shot where the hapless heroes are offered a Pepsi. The problem was, Columbia was a Coca-Cola Company at the time. Beatty was sued (by my father, representing the interests of Columbia and Coca-Cola).

You know, you could have watched any of the Zatoichi films, or, better yet, Zorro, The Gay Blade :)


Vulnavia Morbius said...

You tell the most interesting stories, Natasha. It's a pity Elaine May took the fall for Ishtar. It's not a bad movie (though I will argue that it's miscast) and a lot of what's wrong with it isn't her fault to start with.

Yeah. I could have watched a Zatoichi movie, or Zorro, or Costa Gavras's "Z", but Zardoz has the benefit of having two instances of the letter "z," so it's bang for your buck. Plus, I had an urge to watch it. Don't ask me why, because I don't know.

Deborah said...

You have inspired me to dig up a four year old review I wrote:

Ivan said...

Dr. M,
I actually like Zardoz (while acknowledging that it's, well, bonkers), but rather than get into a difference of opinion, I'll go into why I don't think Zardoz killed Boorman's career: money. The flick cost practically nothing (I think it was filmed at Boorman's estate in Ireland; and according to Boorman's DVD commentary, Connery was even his own driver), and unlike Ishtar or Heaven's Gate didn't come with a lot of extra baggage that makes the critics and public start to sharpen the knives. Meanwhile, although I haven't found any factual data to confirm this, I do think the flick made money. And that's why John B. gets a pass and Elaine May and Michael Cimino don't.
Look forward to your entries in 2011!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Ivan. I expect that you're probably right. And, for that matter, The Exorcist II made $30 million in 1977, which was a lot of scratch back then. Only money talks in Hollywood.

Mitchell Craig said...

Zardoz is that rare film which happily obliterates the fine line between stupid and clever.