The Zero With a Thousand Faces

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Terry Gilliam ought to, by rights, be exempt from criticism — he’s done enough great work and suffered enough appalling misfortune and interference to merit being left in peace — a mighty Prometheus regularly torn apart by vultures ought to at least be spared mosquito bites. Noble as these sentiments are, I’m not going to abide by them, since when was the life of the film blogger a noble one? I would place THE ZERO THEOREM abaft TIDELAND (2005), belonging in that category of undiluted Gilliam films, unscarred by tragedy or disaster (of the external kind, anyway) which nevertheless feel a bit insubstantial.

Beautiful, lively and as eccentric as you could ask for, TZT is also somewhat familiar — I remember at the time of THE FISHER KING, Michael Palin remarking that it was a little disappointing when someone as wildly original as Gilliam repeated himself even a little — he was thinking of the Black Knight — and in this case the disappointment is a little greater since quite a bit of the movie derives from BRAZIL, and even a key image that isn’t in Gilliam’s 1985 masterwork is actually the source image Gilliam had for that film — a man on a beach with a song playing. There’s a dream girl who is also real, and floats nude in the sky at one point, there’s a threatening fat-one-thin-one duo, a needy manager, a limp desk jockey hero, vast bureaucracies, plagues of commercialism, weird nuns, sideways monitors, tubing, homeless persons as set dressing, and a multinational cast that gives the movie an Everywhere quality. Welles’ film of THE TRIAL hovers somewhere between the director’s eye and his viewfinder.

Gilliam also has to contend with the generation or so of filmmakers influenced by him — when Tilda Swinton turns up, chuntering through a wig, false teeth and an extreme regional accent, it irresistibly recalls SNOWPIERCER, whether or not Gilliam’s film did it first.

And what do you do when your best film, BRAZIL, has since come true? Gilliam has suggested suing Dick Cheney for plagiarism, but that doesn’t solve the artistic problem.

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Freshening the mix somewhat are the dayglo colours, which give the movie a unique, painfully intense look, and a vein of porno sexiness/sexism which is at times difficult to make sense of. Well, in fact the whole movie is difficult to make sense of, whether because Gilliam has obfuscated the narrative with excess decoration, or because it never was clear, is impossible to say. So the pleasures have to be snatched from incidentals, or rather the incidentals become central — David Thewlis’s desperate bonhomie, Melanie Thierry’s accent (putatively French but seeming to have made a tour of every major European country and a few of the municipalities), and the way Matt Damon’s suits always match his background precisely. Also the ways in which Christoph Waltz’s home has been adapted from a church.

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Most of the film takes place in that church, which is the film’s solution to the problem of a low budget. Apart from having to confine itself to its quarters, and a slight tendency to repeat its computer animations on Waltz’s screens, it never betrays signs of cheapness. But a film stuck in one place needs some other form of momentum to compensate for the limited ground covered geographically. We never seem to be getting anywhere, in terms of narrative, character, theme or anything else. This inertia means that the movie can actually end with a sunset and still not feel like it has a proper ending.

 

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13 Responses to “The Zero With a Thousand Faces”

  1. Viva Gilliam. I think if I was 13 I would have loved this film. It seemed written by a 13-year-old – all the stuff about mispronouncing a made-up name was pretty adolescent. But it also reminded me of the hectic, poetic, sweary, garish comics of Milligan and McCarthy, which is a good thing. There were some excellent visual puns: CCTV Jesus, the cluster of thou-shalt-not-signs, Damon sporting a PSHoffman hairline. I’ve long wondered what a sex scene directed by Gilliam would look like and I wasn’t disappointed. My biggest problem with it I think – beyond it not making sense – is Waltz. His character was supposed to be a cypher, but instead he was sweaty, nervy and skittish. And annoying. As was poor Tilda Swinton. But it’s brilliant seeing Thewliss in anything. One of these a year please.

  2. It’s the first thing I’ve seen Waltz not work in. Yes, he’s somehow too interesting for the role, and not in good ways. Plus nothing about his character makes sense or pays off. Nonentity would be a good way to play it, and if he were a youngish Jonathan Pryce there would be less to itch against.

  3. I’m a longtime member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and am proud to say was with the group when we voted Brazil Best Picture of the year thus forcing Universal to release it stateside.

    When you make an Absolute Masterpiece like Brazil it’s rather churlish to ask for more.

  4. Gilliam was the most able and energetic performer in the recent Python reunion concerts, and so I believe he’s still Got It. He just needs a worthy project that he can get made. Unfortunately I don’t believe his Don Quixote film will be either — somebody distract him with a good screenplay, quick!

  5. Gilliam is comparable to Lester I many ways. Both Americans who became British, plus Monty Python = The Beatles.

  6. I liked it. I’m kind of love with the idea of a sci-fi filmed play, most of it taking place in one location. but then there’s this fascinating world just outside you catch glimpses of. More films should be made in this genre

    I was fine with Waltz, I think with the name, and the “We” habit, he couldn’t be that much of an everyman, as much as a strange tortured soul. Waltz is one of those actors I can just watch for hours. I’m glad it wasn’t originally cast Billy Bob Thornton (who quit because of his fear of antiques)

    What did I also like? I liked the way Lucas Hedges character Bob started off deliberately irritating but slowly that peeled away. For me the later scenes were the most tender thing Gilliam has done since Fisher King. Melanie Thierry’s character was probably undewritten, but reminded me of the female characters in several Philip K Dick short stories (wise, sexy, not what she seems, possibly dangerous, possibly not real) It’s also the most I’ve enjoyed Thewlis in years, I’ve forgotten how great he can be when he just talks.

    I liked the way the ending was similar to Brazil, but different. For me it seemed Qohen had found some kind of meaning to his life. Even if it was illusory, it meant something to him.

    Basically when I stopped comparing it with past triumphs, I loved it. Show interesting things and make me feel something. That’s all I’ve asked from Gilliam. This is the first since Fear and Loathing to pass both those criteria

    Abaft is a great word. thanks for that

  7. Lester is even more closely comparable to Gilliam because Spike Milligan > Monty Python.

    I believe Lester was approached to take over Baron Munchausen when it was shut down due to the budget overages. He declined, saying that a film where the main character denies reality was dramatically unworkable.

    I never understood what Waltz’s character wanted or why it mattered, so the ending meant nothing to me, apart from looking nice. I would say that I mainly enjoyed it while it was on, too, but ultimately it seemed an attractive waste of time.

    Abaft is a word I owe to PG Wodehouse, along with much else.

  8. I’m with James S on this one. I thought it was very good (though probably not as good as TIDELAND, which I consider one of Gilliam’s masterpieces), and I thought Christoph Waltz was very good in it. How could you not understand what Waltz’s character wanted, by the way? He wanted a purpose in life. He states it very explicitly multiple times. He believes he will receive a phone call from God telling him what his purpose is.

    This one is interesting to me for all the religious themes. Far from being a low budget set solution, the church setting resonates with this theme of searching for a spiritual purpose. The protagonist’s name, Qohen Leth, is a reference to the Hebrew name for the Book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is about searching for meaning and not finding it and learning to enjoy the pleasures of life despite the vanity of all seeking and all knowledge.

    That said, I find the ending ambiguous. Gilliam says this isn’t a comedy but a tragedy. That would seem to imply that Qohen in the end has slipped off into a solipsistic fantasy of godhood, having lost the chance to connect with the problematic Bainsley. I’ve been mulling over the differences and similarities with the ending of BRAZIL, where Lowry escapes the torturers into a fantasyland in his own mind. The ending of ZERO THEOREM doesn’t seem so grim to me, and yet it seems true that Qohen has become one with nothingness. He has become a zero. Gilliam has always been a champion of the imagination over reason, but in this case perhaps it’s easier to see that Qohen has been defeated and has simply accepted his defeat. Perhaps the irony is that Qohen has made himself important only by making himself singular.

    I dunno. It still seemed pretty funny to me, in a typically dark Gilliamesque fashion.

  9. The character wants something — to receive a phone call — but this does not give him an active purpose, since all he can do is wait for it, and try and make sure he’s at home. But he doesn’t even do this consistently.

    And he wants to solve the zero theorem, but we have so little idea of what this entails that it’s impossible to feel any concern.

    He also thinks he’s dying but there’s nothing he can do about this either. He’s pushed into passivity by every element of the story.

    While I accept that there’s a reason why he lives in a church, the reason the film spends so much time there is clearly budgetary. If the reason was his phone call, he’d never leave at all.

    But all this is irrelevant if you enjoy the film. I found it somewhat diverting but ultimately frustrating.

  10. Well, in any event, it’s been a great year for Tilda Swinton, between this, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (a film I have mixed feelings about, but she’s great) and my two favorite films of the year so far: SNOWPIERCER and GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.

  11. It’s a good thing for OLLA, because otherwise we might start to think of her as a comedy grotesque, depending on prosthetic makeup like some kind of Eddie Murphy… the Jarmusch (which I liked better than most of his recent films) reminds us how beautiful and eerily ageless she is, and how subtle she can be.

  12. True that. She’s absolutely luminous in OLLA (which I also liked better than the last Jarmusch film I saw, which was LIMITS OF CONTROL). But that was also true in I AM LOVE.

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