Sep 7, 2013


After re-watching The Wicker Man (1973) with my girlfriend, she asked if me if I could think of another somewhat similarly themed film to watch and my first response was Zardoz (1974) directed by English auteur John Boorman (Excalibur, The Emerald Forest). Of course, we watched Zardoz and my girlfriend absolutely hated it as she ultimately found the film’s retrograde 1970s aesthetics and proto-Star Wars wardrobes to be absurdly outmoded and found the work’s storyline and themes to be nothing short of pretentious and convoluted, thereupon summing up the entire viewing to be one of the most greatly grating cinematic experiences of her life. While I concur with most of her criticisms and find the work to be an innately flawed celluloid epic akin to an aborted bastard Aryan Lebensborn baby that somehow survived a horrendous ordeal, I still consider Zardoz to be one of Boorman’s interesting and intelligent films, as well as one of the most inventive and idiosyncratic dystopian flicks ever made. Made right after Deliverance (1972), which was Boorman's first true box office success and probably the film he is best known for today, the director was undoubtedly afforded a certain degree of artistic freedom that few mainstream directors have the luxury to acquire. Made as a rebound after his noble attempt to cinematically adapt The Lord of the Rings failed due to monetary reasons, Zardoz is an insanely idiosyncratic cross-genre post-apocalyptic sci-fi-fantasy flick of a quasi-Nietzschean nature that shows what happens when a mortal caveman-like mutant barbarian of the superstitious sort enters a superlatively soulless and feminized ‘utopia’ where people are immortal but are also sexually impotent, pathetically passive, and pedantically over-intellectual. A deranging dichotomous dystopian flick depicting the two extremes of humanity—the brutal, barbarous, irrational, and spiritual “natural man” and the effete, passive, deracinated, rational, and irreligious “postmodern man” (or what Nietzsche described as the “last man”)—Zardoz ultimately depicts what happens when a barbarian mutant ‘exterminator’ named Zed (Sean Connery) ‘kills’ his god after realizing his god is a fake and his religion is nothing more than a literal ‘pie in the sky’, thereupon becoming an Übermensch of sorts who begins to establish values by force after accidentally stepping into a technically and socially advanced Vortex of banal democratic nihilism, asinine equality and commie-esque collectivism, spiritual and emotional deadness, and sapless sexual sterility. A sardonic and somewhat absurdist allegorical attack on hippie/counter-culture clichés that dominated both real-life and science fiction films of its time, Zardoz zealously satires commune life, feminism, empty environmentalism, contrived equality, New Age nonsense, and idiotically idealistic intellectual masturbation in its depiction of a ‘progressive’ futuristic world where people are so bored to death by equality and immortality that some people (named the “apathetics”) fall into a sort of catatonic state from said boredom and inevitably the entire population welcomes their own demise via barbarian extermination. Despite it oftentimes outmoded visuals and curiously cultiviated ‘acidhead’ aestheticism, Zardoz is an exceedingly thematically and aesthetically audacious and ambitious work that has only become all the more philosophically pertinent today than when it was released almost four decades ago. 

 It is the year AD 2293 and the world is now a post-apocalyptic wasteland where the majority of humans, who are called ‘Brutals,’ have reverted back to primalism and are essentially enslaved by a small left-wing matriarchal hippie-like aristocracy called the Eternals who are the only people that understood how the world used to be before civilization failed. The population of the Brutals is kept in check by a special warrior class of alpha-Brutals called the Exterminators, who worship a large floating stone head named “Zardoz” that provides weapons for the savage soldiers to kill their Brutal brothers, declaring, “The gun is good. The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds, and makes new life to poison the Earth with a plague of men, as once it was, but the gun shoots death, and purifies the Earth of the filth of brutals. Go forth ... and kill!,” which the brazen brutes do with gusto.  Essentially, the Exterminators are a swarthy and sadistic Comanche-like tribe that takes great pleasure and spiritual feeling in raping and killing the Brutals, as if their deleterious death campaign is divine, which they certainly believe. When one of the Exterminators, Zed (Sean Connery), secretly boards the flying Zardoz for an initially unspecified reason, he kills the pilot of the god head Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy) who, as revealed in an introduction (which Boorman later added to the film after audiences found the work too confusing) at the beginning of Zardoz, is a “fake god by occupation” and “magician by inclination” whose hero is mischievous trixter wizard Merlin. After fraudulent ‘god’ is killed, the floating Zardoz head, with Zed still inside, flies back to the Vortex, the civilized and technologically advanced realm populated by the Eternals. Upon arriving in the Vortex, Zed runs into two Eternal women, Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) and May (Sara Kestelman), who enslave the warrior via psychic powers and gaze inside his mind like pedantic professors, re-watching his excess-ridden Exterminator experiences as a rapist murderer who drives great ecstasy from his man-hunting pursuits, which rather disturbs the two liberal ladies. Zed is eventually ‘befriended’ by a fellow named ‘Friend’ (John Alderton), who against Consuella’s insistence on exterminating the exterminator (she rightfully believes he will disrupt equilibrium and send the Vortex into chaos), manages to convince the rest of the Eternals via democratic process that the Brutal warrior should be kept for further studies and used for menial labor. Zed is initially stationed in a sort of massive museum containing all of the great art of the pre-apocalyptic world, so he naturally does not think twice about poking his finger through and ultimately destroying an original self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh.  As the great Prussian philosopher prophet of Western decline once wrote, “One day the last portrait of Rembrandt and the last bar of Mozart will have ceased to be — though possibly a colored canvas and a sheet of notes will remain — because the last eye and the last ear accessible to their message will have gone,” and such can be certainly of not only Zed, but the soulless Eternals as well, who despite possessing all the artistic riches of the world, are ill-equipped to understand such artistry.  

 Initially virtually speechless upon his arrival to the Vortex, Zed—the physically and philosophically iconoclastic neo-caveman—soon finds himself questioning the seemingly soulless Eternal way of life. Although kept immortal by a form of mysterious artificial intelligence called the Tabernacle, the Eternals barely live in the figurative sense and really have nothing to live for as a sexless people that belong to a highly restricted and emotionally vacant community where everyone can read each other’s thoughts, no one sleeps but mediates like deluded hippie scum instead, exaggerated and dogmatic WASP-like social contracts are the only form of worship, and even the most benign forms of dissident behavior are punished with a peculiar artificial aging that induces physical and mental degeneration. The most extreme offenders of Eternal social contracts, the “Renegades,” are condemned to an eternity of senility and are totally isolated from the general Eternal populations. Things are so patently prosaic in the Vortex that some of the Eternals, who make up a social class called the “Apathetics” and who look like they have taken too many acid trips and/or spent too many years at an American university, have fallen into a form of catatonia that makes them seem like spiritual zombies. When Zed is given the grand opportunity to vaginally pillage an Apathetic girl and the languid lady just lays lifeless without putting up a fight, he becomes so enraged that he starts destroying things. A marvelous man of innate will to power, passion, and sexual potency, Zed even confides in Friend and his friends that he finds their passive and pessimistic attitudes to be quite revolting, stating, “You stink of despair. Fight back! Fight for death, if that’s what you want.” Luckily, Zed is an intemperate Übermensch and he is on a mission to restore vitality to the soulless and sapless Vortex as he is the mutant result of a eugenic experiment carried out by Zardonz pseudo-god Arthur Frayn and is technically racially superior to the high-class Eternals. After women leaders May and Consuella do a brain scan of Zed, it is revealed that Arthur Frayn encouraged the Exterminator to read, eventually turning the macho murderer into a barbarian bibliophile of sorts, whereupon he discovered L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and came to the conclusion that Zardoz was as big of a fraud as the wizard behind the curtain in the book. After reading Baum’s book, Zed realizes the Zardoz is a fake god and magnificent manipulator and that his name is taken from the Wi(zard) of (Oz) book. After realizing his god was as good as dead in his own mind, he sneaked inside the Zardoz head and attempted to kill poser god Arthur Frayn as revenge.  Meanwhile, a uncivil civil war begins among the Eternals, with one side being led by Consuella, who wants to kill Zed and aged Friend (who has already aged partially) into oblivion, and another led by May and Friend, but the hatred stirred by the battle gives the Eternals passion and they are finally able to have sex for the first time ever, erupting in erupting in Dionysian orgies of sorts. Zed manages to escape from Consuella's wrath and with the help of May and Friend, the Exterminator absorbs all the Eternals' knowledge, which gives him the power to destroy the Tabernacle. Ultimately, Zed helps his Exterminator comrades invade the Vortex and they massacre virtually all of the self-loathing Eternals, who welcome their deaths as people who see immortality as a banal curse because, after all, humans are not built to live forever. In the end, Zed takes his former enemy Consuella, who has fallen in love with him and vice versa, as a mate and they produce a child that will carry on the race and thus begin a new culture and cycle for humanity. In the end, Zed succeeds where the National Socialists failed in carrying out Friedrich Nietzsche’s prophecy by restoring values after the death of god and the reign of culturally and spiritually devitalized nihilism. 

 Undoubtedly, what makes Zardoz strikingly different and a standout work amongst most dystopian flicks is that it depicts an apocalyptic scenario as a natural and necessary process for humanity to rejuvenate itself, thereupon depicting civilization itself as a cyclical occurrence in the Spenglerian sense. Sort of like Planet of the Apes (1968) minus the monkeys and leftist subtext meets an iconoclastic barbarian The Wonderful Wizard of Oz meets H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (1960) meets a heterosexual Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), Zardoz is assuredly a uniquely unclassifiable and thematically and aesthetically unhinged cinematic work that director John Boorman even had to admit himself in regard to inordinate artistic ambitiousness, “You could say there were too many ideas in this picture.” Of course, like oh so many great and revolutionary cinematic works, Zardoz is an unwaveringly self-indulgent auteur piece as confirmed by Boorman himself, who said of the film in a DVD audio commentary, “I put in all my favorite bits here…Blake and Eliot…and the music that I like…so it was a very indulgent and personal film…I just included only things I like myself.” Undoubtedly thinking in the context of his own generation when he stated, “I did want to show the society being so lacking in zest and passion that they become effete this way” regarding his intent in portraying the hippie-like Eternals in Zardoz as sort of overly intellectual spiritual eunuchs, Boorman was a rare filmmaker of his time who had the glorious gall to reject not only New Agism, sterile egalitarianism, and hopeless humanism, but also capitalism, colonialism, and cosmopolitanism. Neither a phony feel-good fantasy nor a nihilistically sickening piece of celluloid negativity, Zardoz is a rare example of the filmmaker assuming the roles of cultural historian, philosopher, metaphysician, anthropologist, and prophet of doom. Eccentrically mirroring the Oswald Spengler aphorism, “The question of whether world peace will ever be possible can only be answered by someone familiar with world history. To be familiar with world history means, however, to know human beings as they have been and always will be. There is a vast difference, which most people will never comprehend, between viewing future history as it will be and viewing it as one might like it to be. Peace is a desire, war is a fact; and history has never paid heed to human desires and ideals ...,” Zardoz depicts humanity and human history in an unwaveringly unsentimental manner that so-called ‘progressive’ and insipid idealists do their best to ignore in its aesthetically delightful, if not fittingly decadent, depiction of man as a born murderer, rapist, and religious fanatic who, when forgetting these things and becoming deracinated from his origins, devolves into a passive, apathetic, and effeminate creature whose pronounced intellect makes for a sad replacement for vitality and who ultimately seeks his own destruction as demonstrated by culturally corrosive 'progressive' ideas like multiculturalism, feminism, humanism, and other forms of social syphilis.  While not a 'masterpiece' in the traditional sense, and riddled with aesthetic puffery and more than a couple convoluted ideas, Zardoz is undeniably a singular work of cinema history that deserves the cult status it has obtained over the decades as a strikingly sophisticated and sometimes psychedelically salacious science fiction work that, despite featuring Sean "James Bond" Connery wearing anything from a tight, red leotard to a dainty country girl wedding gown, is a rare cinematic work of fantasy-driven intellectual testicular fortitude.

-Ty E

No comments: