It’s been something of a strange couple of weeks, which has ranged from various incidents, both little and large.  From a suddenly positive change in job security, to a negative change in job security, to discovering a co-worker dropped dead at the weekend, to the dropping of The Zero Theorem into cinemas.

That’s just life, I suppose.  You take what you get and you cope however you can.  Personally, I like a nice big dose of Gilliam whenever I can get it.  This outing, a sort of Philip K. Dick by way of Futurama-lite, will probably cause a grump among the usual types who whinge about Gilliam’s movies having “problems with the fourth act”.  Experienced Gilliam fans will find it like slipping into an old coat.  A form of retreat, that’s just maybe a bit too familiar?  Certainly, one of the things that sprung to mind as I left the movie, which has a feel of the bastard offspring of Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, was the anecdote I once heard Stephen King tell about how he passed his wife, Tabitha, the draft copy of Bag of Bones (I think).  She returned shortly to complain something along the lines of “Steeeeeeve, it’s another book about a writer writing a book!”

“No, honey”, he countered sheepishly. “This one’s about a writer who can’t write”.

So, initial impressions are odd, compared to say plunging in to, say, Tideland or the storybook worlds of Parnassus or Munchausen.  Back, again, to the five minutes into the future dystopia where Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) obsessively waits for a phone call back from may have been God, to tell him what to do with his life.  While he avoids all human contact as much as he can, and processes mathematical data on behalf of an information processing company headed by Management (Matt Damon).  Successfully arguing that working from home will provide less distractions (but more importantly allow him to be near his phone in case his call comes), he is granted this leeway, but only so that he can work on cracking the titular Zero Theorem.  The proof that everything equals nothing.

So, it goes without saying, if you’ve previously found Gilliam’s body of work to be meandering and lacking in obvious point, you’re not going to be swayed by this one.  If Brazil was a movie about a guy with too much inner life and not enough outer, and Twelve Monkeys was a movie about a guy who couldn’t tell where inner and outer separated, The Zero Theorem gives us a guy with no inner or outer life.  Going through the motions, convinced that the answers will be presented to him by some kind of divine providence.

Qohen doesn’t dream of heroism, or even, necessarily, an escape out of dystopia.  Instead he pictures the maw of infinity gazing into him and hopes he can find something to fill it.  Going by the trailer, this is going to be one of those affairs where someone smashes the system and escapes to the arms of their true love, yeah?

So, experienced types know we’re in the hands of a guy who might not try and sell us on the idea that Love Conquers All.  In Qohen’s case, the flirtations of the kooky sexpot, Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) are initially lost on him as a distraction he cannot afford while he waits for his call.  In truth, it doesn’t matter to him that she actually is a paid for virtual playpet, until she finally gets under his skin via the means of virtual reality.  Bainsley’s assurances that cyber-sex is so much better than the real thing, because it’s safer and less messy, carries a fairly obvious double meaning, as it becomes apparent that the disease she briefly transmits to Qohen is one of genuine affection.  The even more obvious imagery follows of the man with a previous aversion to taste suddenly needing relish on a hot dog.

Ultimately, Qoehn rejects the romance on offer because it doesn’t fit his equation.  Not the everything equals nothing proposition of the Zero Theorem, but the everything should equal something equation of the world of movies.  His taste may return, but it’s not enough to convince him that he’s any more whole.  Bainsley’s real-won affection isn’t enough to sway him from the promise that Management can trace the source of his call.  Qohen is waiting to hear that he’s special, that he has meaning, so he closes off an avenue of human emotion because the uncertainty of a real relationship won’t resolve his own, personal, incomplete equation.

So, if it’s a movie about the lone cog going through the motions and facing the prospect that nothing really can save him, isn’t Gilliam just going through the motions?  If so, why should you bother?

Reply the first: Because watching Gilliam go through the motions will still be a hell of a lot better than sitting through the latest shite effort from a generation of filmmakers obsessed with the same dozen films you also grew up with.  Lacking in the ability to engage with any real sense of inner life, they crap out multi-part borefests, where they are unable to communicate a darkening in tone without mentioning The Empire Strikes Back in interviews. Asking themselves “how can I get my wife to watch this?” and realising that the only thing they know about their wives is that they mothered their children, so that’s what they have to add to the film.  How are those morning spoilers on Io9 helping with the fact that you secretly feel dead inside?

Reply the second: Well, Gilliam going through the motions… Isn’t that actually what we’re all doing?  Gazing into the abyss of our own lives, and hoping something will make it better.  Is that what Terry Gilliam’s doing here? Just trying to pass the time until death with an amusing distraction?

Indulging in the usual post-movie banter with Illogical Volume, and the poor soul we’d roped into to accompanying us, we, the indoctrinated were asked “what was the point?”  Not necessarily in a harsh fashion, but you could detect the feeling of cinematic malnourishment in our companion’s heart.  It’s not for everyone, is it?  That trailer for The Raid 2 didn’t help, either, I’ll bet.

Illogical Volume and I spent the next few days in precarious mental states, pondering over the function of art that trades on nihilism, the fact that no one ever really escapes in Gilliam’s world view, and wondering what does it say about us that we embrace this brightly coloured memento mori tighter than any number of the grandiose finales available, telling of the one-in-a-million kids who stick the landing, get the girl and get to go home.  Meanwhile, jobs were won and lost, people died, the wind howled and the rain fell.  We furiously stole moments in-between crunching the numbers to remind ourselves we weren’t entirely happy not having all the answers, while maintaining the façade of the average.

 In the end, isn’t it just nice to know that someone else gets it?

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One Response to ““We Are Dying” – The Zero Theorem – Mister Attack At The Movies”

  1. Illogical Volume Says:

    There’s a bit in the first episode of Richard Herring’s Meaning of Life where he’s interviewing the New Scientist’s cosmology correspondent Marcus Chown, and when they get to the question of why there’s something instead of nothing Chown ends up suggesting that something is just a slightly more stable version of nothing – my first thought was “Try telling that to Qohen!”

    “In the end, isn’t it just nice to know that someone else gets it?” – as you know, for me this was both the most immediately pleasing aspect of the movie and the most troubling. Was this, as I feared, just the Dick-head’s version of a Michael McIntyre routine? Is it really just a broadcast that will seem perfectly correct and reasonable to those who have already received it and totally pointless to those who haven’t?

    Which is to say: is this a form of something that runs perilously close to saying nothing?

    And yet, the more I thought about the film, and about its two most obvious artistic predecessors (you can tell this one’s like Twelve Monkeys and Brazil because those are the movie titles that flash up in giant letters in the trailer), the more obvious it became that The Zero Theorem isn’t simply giving me something I agree with. Sure, Gilliam’s depiction of society as it exists Qohen’s head fits my pastel-toned nightmares (you say “Philip K. Dick by way of Futurama-lite”, I say Nathan Barley by way of Idiocracy), and the way the film situates Qohen as a man trying to wrestle some sort of broader meaning from his assigned quest to prove his own meaninglessness plays to my own prejudices too.

    (Shout outs to the beautifully dilapidated church Qohen lives in – setting really is half the story in this one!)

    Anyway, the Bainsley plot’s the thing here. As you say, Gilliam’s not one for the love conquers all ending, and there’s a sense in which Qohen’s refusal to even try for that particular happy ending actually cuts through several of my basic operating principles – the reality of that outcome wouldn’t match Qohen’s solipsistic fantasy, but in the same position I can’t pretend that I wouldn’t think it better to give it a try. “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” still seems like a decent principle, even if it does make you more open to being duped.

    As in Twelve Monkeys and Brazil, then, Gilliam creates a bustling nightmare of a puzzle, the only solution to which can be found in the world of private fantasy. To find oneself agreeing with the construction but disagreeing with its uses implies that you need to revise one of those opinions, and like you I’m grateful to the movie for giving me the opportunity to work that out.

    Good work Mister Attack. More like this for longer please.

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