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Monday, August 5, 2013


John Boorman, then acclaimed as the director of Deliverance, wrote, produced and directed Zardoz. He was given a free hand, and a pretty good budget (over a million dollars) for an eclectic art film, which is more fantasy than sci-fi. Zardoz had great cinematography, lush landscapes and even a big name star: Sean Connery. It also occasionally suffers the common one-man-band foibles. The story was just too much for the mass-market movie audience to warm up to. Zardoz was likened to Kubrick's 2001 for it's overly-cerebral montage of obscure tangents. As such, Zardoz gained a reputation as one of those "worst films ever." Yet, it has also developed a zealous cult following.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A little man named Arthur introduces the story as his story, though it might not happen. The year is 2293. A huge stone head lands on a desolate hillside. A band of natives on horseback come to worship the head. The head says he is their god, Zardoz. Guns come flying out of the stone mouth. The natives are to kill "the brutals". The head flies away, but one of the natives (Sean Connery) hid inside it. While flying along, Zed (Connery) meets Arthur -- the voice of Zardoz. Zed shoots Arthur, who falls from the head to his death. The head lands a bucolic (Irish) country villa. People in short colorful outfits go about agrarian tasks. He is eventually captured (via mind powers) by a woman named May. She demands that he explain how he got into the Vortex. Zed says he does not know. He was "an enforcer" who's Zardoz-given job was to kill humans (the brutals) and keep the population in check. May wants to study him, because his mind isn't simple like the other brutals. Consuella worries that he is dangerous in the Vortex. Zed is put under the care of "Friend", another immortal. Friend shows Zed where the immortals bake their daily bread. They take bread to an old folks home, of sorts, that houses The Renegades -- immortals who rebelled, or just went senile. Friend also shows Zed a farm that houses The Apathetics -- immortals who've lost the will to live (so they just stand and stare). The immortals can't grow enough wheat to feed these non-workers. That's why Zed and the enforcers make the burials grow wheat. Consuella explains that once people were immortal, the need for sleep and sex vanished. The immortals tried advancing themselves in science and knowledge, but became bored. They actually long for death, but the Tabernacle prevents death. Scientists created this Tabernacle super computer 300 years ago, then had it erase all knowledge of it from their minds. This way it would never be broken by them. Zed is fed all the knowledge that the immortals acquired. He learns that Arthur taught him about the truth -- there was no god, just like the Wizard of Oz was just a man. wiZARD of OZ -- get it? Zed wants to disable the Tabernacle so people can die. Eventually, he solves the mystery of the crystal and breaks the Tabernacle. The old Renegades die first, of old age. The younger immortals are standing around a fountain humming New Age tones. A band of natives with guns runs up, shooting them. (the protective dome disappeared when Tabernacle was shut off. Amid all the carnage, the immortals are eager for death. The natives oblige. Zed sends away to safety "in the east", May and a band of other no-longer-immortals. Zed runs away with Consuella and hides in the big stone head. They have a baby. The baby grows into young manhood and leaves. Zed and Consuella grow old and die. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
There are so many tangents and sub-topics, that one could muse over Zardoz for weeks. Things happen so quickly that the story doesn't have time to get boring -- or predictable. There is a lot of symbolism in Boorman's production, which can be fun to muse on too, such as how the Eternals were usually scantily clad (if clad at all), but when the leave The Vortex, they're wrapped up in heavy quilts. Adam and Eve, naked while innocent, left Eden clothed.

Cultural Connection
New Age Xtreme -- Much of what fills the complexity of Zardoz is best seen in the light of of the New Age movement. While the actual roots of New Ageism are quite old, it's more modern form began in the late 60s, invigorated with all the youthful energy of the "hippy" generation. Boorman did not just explore one or two of these New Age facets, but seemed intent on including as many of them as he could: vague self-centered spirituality, environmentalism, back-to-the-land, communes, psychic energy, crystals, egalitarianism, etc. Zardoz is a concentrated stew of New Age notions.

Well-Trodden Ground -- Much has been written about Zardoz already, some of it favorable, some of it critical. These few notes below don't pretend to be exhaustive. These are just a few more points.

Too Much Meat -- What often puts people off about Zardoz is its complexity. Audiences conditioned to movies with a single story thread are stymied by Boorman's complex medley. Boorman himself admits to a bit of hubris in that he included too many ideas to really do most of them any justice. Many viewers who experience a "what was THAT all about?" moment will likely agree.

Subtle Technophobia -- The Tabernacle is the all-powerful supercomputer in Zardoz. The old ones made it to run their lives better than mankind tends to. Like other technophobia movies, the human creators cede authority to the computer. True to form, things go bad: The Krell, Hal, Colossus, etc. Mankind cannot super-compute his way out of a fallen world.

Everything's Better With Beethoven -- For his score, David Munroe made much use of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, mostly the second movement. Second movements were traditionally slower, more somber (or stately) and in a minor key. Beethoven's 7th, 2nd movement was "Allegretto" rather than "Adagio" but still the slower movement. The melancholy motif seems a perfect choice for the dystopian tale.

Sophomore Manifesto -- In his commentary, Boorman recounts how the idea for Zardoz began in his teenage years. Many of the themes and "morals" of his many threads read as an anthology of sophomoric mottos. Civilization (rules by elders/elites) exist to repress sexuality. Religion is man-made and exists only to control people -- with empty promises of eternal life. And, a telling trait of youth -- that eternity would be boring. More than five minutes of anything tends to be boring to many teens. Also a trait of youth is the inability to accept that whatever their current values are, that they might not be universal or even long lasting. What is fascinating to a kid (Pokemon? Power Rangers?) eventually gets replaced by something else -- usually something more valuable. C.S. Lewis used an analogy of chocolate and sex. When a kid is young, chocolate is the ultimate delight. A young couple on their honeymoon tell that kid that they've not had chocolate for a whole week, and never even once wanted any (having something far better on their minds). The kid is horrified at life without chocolate and announces that he wants nothing to do with girls and marriage because there's no chocolate. Boorman's notion of eternity is that of a chocolate-loving kid (and one easily bored).

Bottom line? Zardoz is not for everyone. It's jumble of story sub-threads are usually not well developed, so can be confusing. If one tends to like simple story lines and straightforward action, Zardoz is probably not a good film to watch. For the patient, however, many of those sub-threads are interesting food for thought.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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