The Zero Theorem (2014)

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Terry Gilliam is one of the most insane directors we have currently working. There’s nothing he won’t do, it seems, and every movie feels like an effort to top himself. Sometimes that creates greatness (12 Monkeys, Brazil, parts of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) and sometimes that way leads to madness (the little of Tideland I could watch, and parts of The Fisher King). Say what you will about the actual quality of his films, he rarely holds himself back. The Zero Theorem, his first movie in five years, is no exception as he gets as philosophical as he has ever been when he ponders the meaning of life and what happens if everything is nothing.

Of course, a bunch of movies have these kinds of questions in mind, but they hardly ever have the pluck or sense of humor that Gilliam at his best brings to a film. I know it’s probably blasphemous to say this, but The Zero Theorem might be his best work. I’m probably super biased, as I love these psychobabble movies, but I can’t deny that the movie really really worked for (on?) me. A large part of that credit goes towards the story, written by Pat Rushin, which constantly straddles the line between comprehensibility and insanity, between profundity and pretentiousness, between mundanity and exoticness. It’s a delightful script, too, as it allows Gilliam his usual playful exuberances visually and tonally. Although the film is pondering the Deep Thought-type questions of the universe, Gilliam and Rushin never allow it to get too serious. The actors, led by Christoph Waltz who proves for the first time that he can carry an entire movie on his back, perform their own silliness extremely well. It must be difficult to get all of these ideas, both intellectual and emotional, across while not delving into parody or archness, and from David Thewlis as a hapless middle manager to Lucas Hedges as a hardware whiz-kid to Matt Damon as the possibly malicious corporate head with a chameleon wardrobe, all the actors are wonderful. A special mention must go to Mélanie Thierry, who performs her semi-Manic Pixie Dream Girl role as admirably and charmingly as such a role has ever been played. She’s wonderful.

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If this all ended poorly, it might be an interesting failure. It would join Tideland as one of those movies which has its supporters but never found the success it deserves. Heck, I might very well be one of those crazies shouting from the hilltops about its glory. But damn, does it stick the landing. There’s a lot going on in this movie, and some of it involves some complex-ish literary theory to grasp fully, but suffice it to say that it revolves around the author’s we and performative utterances, plus some Bible knowledge (thanks Wikipedia!) and some heavy lifting. I guess The Zero Theorem probably won’t be a huge hit, and it is very likely going to divide audiences with its deliberate insanity which masks the film’s loftier intentions. I really fell for it.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

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With The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger concoct a war film which features almost no acts of war. There is not a shot fired nor a saber rattled. They pull the camera up and out of the one fight scene in the film in favor of showing a nice, peaceful shot of a model of Berlin in winter, with idyllic snow falling via an overlay that makes everything look like a snow globe. The film cares more about the in between bits than it does the macho adrenaline stuff. It favors a more ideological look at the concept of what war does to a man, or what man does to war.

Made while WWII was still raging on and the Blitz still an open wound to the British soul, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is an odd duck and a controversial one. It features as its most intriguing character a “good German” who grows to be friendly with the film’s main character, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey). Livesey is fine, great even, at portraying the bluster of his proper English soldier as he climbs the martial ladder from the Boer War through WWI and into WWII. It is in a furlough from that first war that he meets the heart of the film, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). They are the participants in that duel that happens off-screen, and in their recovery process, they become fast friends. Walbrook plays his good German with a reserved dignity that allows him to absorb all the bravado from Livesy and reflect only his good elements. It’s a performance not at all similar to his in The Archers’ later The Red Shoes, but equally great.

I admit to being more than a bit confused in the early goings and I mistakenly believed that to be the fault of the film. In fact, it is actually a highlight. There are three sections to the film and each starts in media res, so it took me up to ten minutes each time to really orient myself in the situation. This feels deliberate, though, as it was almost always at this point that the “war” stuff was over and the character stuff began. I’ve gotten to paragraph three and haven’t even mentioned Deborah Kerr, who plays three roles over the course of the film’s three time periods. The first becomes the model for the following two, as she marries Walbrook and leaves Livesey to realize she’s his perfect woman only after he lets her go. Later, in WWI, he spies a woman who looks and acts just like her in a convent-cum-hospital and later still she plays his army chauffeur. Each role is not quite like the last, but Kerr imbues all of them with a life and verve that befits her 20 years but also a grace that belies them. It’s no wonder that Powell and Pressburger went back to her for Black Narcissus four years later.

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The last section, in World War II, syncs up at a certain point with the opening of the film. It is here that all earlier confusion is given context and meaning, and it brings the entire film into clarity. This is not just the story of a man, it’s the story of the British Military. From “right is might” proving that following the rules will undoubtedly lead to winning the war in WWI to the bombed out shell of Livesey’s decadence filled with water while he languishes in the Home Guard and is made to look like a fool by his younger, brasher comrades. Clive Candy is a man who doesn’t change, and his way of life has been made obsolete by forces beyond his control. Whether this film is a lamentation or a celebration of that fact is probably left up to the viewer, but there is no doubt about its powerful effect, its effortless charm, its love of Britain, and its compassion for people of all backgrounds.

Being a snob and a slob

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Those 80’s high school movies were full of snob vs. slob stories. On one side you had pure animal instinct. The slobs were maybe not the cleanest of the high schoolers on display, but they made up for their general sweatiness with a raw physicality that attracted – at least at first – all the pretty girls. The snobs, on the other hand, were decidedly unathletic. They relied upon their brains to make up for their lack of physical prowess. There was never a snobby slob, or a slobby snob. You were either one or the other and never the twain shall meet. Luckily, in this golden age of enlightenment, we have realized that you can be both. Or, at least I can.

See, I have this thing about movies. I like all of them. Give me a Bergman meditation on the problems of religion or a slasher with a huge body count and I’ll be equally happy. Well, maybe not equally, but it’d be close. The visceral enjoyment I can get from something like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is hard to replicate in a slow-paced drama about a failing marriage. So if we can separate the way a movie works into two categories, brain and body, we can come to some kind of understanding of what kinds of movies you might like. Brain movies, those for the snobs among us, will attack our beings with ideas and words and pictures that make us think about things. They stay with you long after the film has finished and maybe even change the way you look at the world. Body movies for the slobs skip straight past the brain and go to our primal instincts. Fight or flight kicks in until we realize that the things we’re reacting to are just on the screen. And it’s not just horror that usually works in this territory. Look at most blockbusters and you’ll see a general dearth of ideas and a massive outcropping of titillation, be it in the form of half-naked bodies or explosions. Musicals, too, are usually slob movies, at least the ones that heavily involve dance. If there’s sweat somewhere, you can be sure you’re watching a slob movie. Liking either is fine, great even, and plenty of people are perfectly happy to entrench themselves into either category and rarely venture into the other realm. For me, though, the place to be is in the middle.

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Let’s look briefly at my top 100 list from last year. Out of the 100 movies on the list, I would categorize only 9 as primarily slob movies: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Alien, Halloween, North by Northwest, Girl Walk//All Day, City of God, Fantasia, The General, and The Proposition. All these films aim primarily at your body, hoping that you’ll feel excited or happy or scared and they don’t really care if you think about much while you do it. Sure, Alien can be seen as a rape allegory and The Proposition is about lawlessness as much as it is about the people who are lawless, but those ideas are secondary to the visceral reactions you have to the events in the films. Still, 9/100 is a pretty low percentage.

And now let’s turn our gaze to the other end of the spectrum, the snob movies. These are the ones that don’t care about your body, they want to attack your mind with ideas or emotions to make you feel and think about things. By my reckoning, I can find only 5 movies that fit this category, and some of them are on the edge: Before Midnight, Manhattan, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, In the Loop, and The Fountain. By all rights you could exclude all comedies from the snob list, since there’s a distinct instinctual reaction that humor invokes. I’ve laughed at the dumbest things for reasons I can’t understand other than that it was funny. But then this list would be even shorter, and we can’t have that. It’s already only 5 percent of the whole list.

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Any mathletes out there have already done the calculation, but for the slobs in our midst, these extreme ends only occupy 14 of the 100 total spots, leaving 86 movies which play in both realms. That’s an impressive number. Let’s take a closer look at a few of them, shall we, and where better to start than at the top? Fanny and Alexander made its triumphant debut at the number one spot last year and shows no sign of losing it when I remake the list this year. It is primarily a snob movie, being five hours long and in a foreign language will do that to most things. But the slob factor doesn’t ever stray too far from the film. One of the first things people think of when it comes to Fanny and Alexander is the fart joke. It’s an epic one, involving some vigorous exercising to work up the gasses necessary for such an explosion, and it also marks the end of the happy times in the film, when a fart joke is enough to entertain the kids for a while and send them to sleep with a smile on their face. All that remains in the first hour is a bedtime story and some squabbling grown ups, but if it weren’t for the silliness of the fart joke the movie might have veered into the sadness sooner and lost a moment to finalize just how carefree the family was at that time. Several hours later will be the confrontation between Alexander and the mysterious Ismael, a scene which evokes both a physical reaction to the strange sensuality of the character and a thoughtful reaction to the weird things he says.

Horror movies make up a large-ish percentage of my list and at first blush they might all be categorized as slob movies until you look closer. Black Swan is a movie about perfection and identity, The Thing‘s paranoia is a snob undercurrent to the slobish physical effects and both are equally potent, the same goes for Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and An American Werewolf in London has an outsider literally turning into a non-human entity, plus he has a walking reminder of his guilt in the guise of his murdered best friend. There’s a three hour documentary about the weird theories that surround The Shining, and that’s just the extra-textual stuff. The weirdness of that film works on your brain as the blood rushing from the elevators mimics the adrenaline that pumps into your body when you see shots like this:

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I won’t go into all 86 of the movies that straddle the line here, feel free to ask me about any that I haven’t covered, but let’s wrap it up with a few that seem like snob movies but which use moments of slobishness to amplify and punctuate the ideas they’re playing with. Never Let Me Go involves a lot of love and sadness and melancholy, all of which is called into clarity by Andrew Garfield’s outburst in the middle of the road bathed in the light from his beat up old car. He is isolated in a visual echo of his larger situation, and his scream digs deeper than the mind into our body, anchoring his emotion with ours. The Tree of Life goes in the opposite direction. The best scene in the film features a quiet duet with a son and a father. Brad Pitt’s character is cold, distant, and angry, but he is able to connect with his son through music, that age-old slob machine. Music cuts out all the pretext and the ideas until only the gut remains. It allows for people to just be with each other.

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Finally, Metropolis basically wrote this whole thing 90 years ago. “Between the mind that plans and the hands that build,” it argues, “there must be a Mediator, and this must be the heart.” The movie dramatizes and visualizes this conflict in a fantastic expressionist manner which features the snobs lording over the slobs, who can’t stand their oppressors. In the end, though, the snobs and slobs are brought together by the robotic woman at the center of the film. She is our middle ground. I don’t care if a movie is trying to get my blood pumping or my brain working, I just want it to do things to me. Change me. People talk about thinking about a movie long after it ends, and that’s usually a snob reaction, but the slob horror film can cause a sleepless night or two, and if that’s not basically the same, I don’t know what is. George Saunders writes about the way art can change us, “Now I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters. He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to ‘real life’ — he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit.” Give me something undeniable and nontrivial, and I won’t care if you’re a snob or a slob or something in between.