May 4, 2015

The Zero Years

While David Lynch has long been one of my favorite American filmmakers as the man behind singular masterpieces like Eraserhead (1977) and Blue Velvet (1986), among other notable works, I felt his most recent feature Inland Empire (2006) was not much more than a conspicuously convoluted mess of steaming digital diarrhea that seems like a perversely prosaic parody of the director’s own signature ‘Lynchian’ brand of filmmaking, albeit shot on a bargain bin budget using the hopeless artificial anti-art medium of MiniDV. Needless to say, after learning that Lynch decided that he would never shoot on real film again because of how much ‘artistic freedom’ he felt that digital video gave him while shooting Inland Empire due to it's cheapness, I ultimately came to the conclusion that the auteur filmmaker had fried his brain on too much Transcendental Meditation (indeed, the doc David Wants to Fly (2010) directed by David Sieveking makes it quite clear that Mr. Lynch has become a virtual slave of the Hindu cult). When I discovered absurdly underrated Greek auteur Nikos Nikolaidis (Proini Peripolos aka Morning Patrol, Glykia Symmoria aka Sweet Bunch) had shot his most recent feature The Zero Years (2005) was shot on digital video (and later transferred to 35mm) and the director publicly revealed after its release that he was giving up on filmmaking altogether because the work failed to achieve the same success as his earlier work Singapore Sling (1990), I naturally assumed the worst. Notably, not only is the film Nikolaidis’ celluloid swansong, but also the final chapter in the director’s glorious three-decade-spanning ‘The Shape of the Coming Nightmare’ trilogy (preceding the director’s two masterpieces Evrydiki BA 2O37 (1975) and Morning Patrol). While not reaching the self-defiling extremes of Inland Empire in terms of a great auteur anti-cinematically shitting on his own oeuvre via digitized labyrinthine lunacy, The Zero Years is most certainly Nikolaidis’ most overtly kitschy and aesthetically flaccid work, thus indicating that digital video can make the work of a seasoned master seem like that of a broke ass amateur with more ambition than artistic prowess. A sort of compulsively claustrophobic dystopian chamber piece set entirely in a government-run S&M brothel that is occupied by four madly melancholy pussy-peddlers of the regrettably sterilized sort, the work was described by Nikolaidis as having an intentionally shitty ‘realist’ aesthetic as it is not supposed to be depicting some ungodly future but the pernicious present, or as the director stated himself, “It would be a mistake to interpret this as a futuristic story. No matter how harsh it may appear this movie is about the shape of things that are already here and established, along with the set of things that are just starting to be applied, while we already feel their consequences. Therefore, the attitudes of the actors, the camera frame, decoupage in general as well as the light, must all provide for the particular atmosphere of the movie, yet they must move within entirely realistic levels.” Indeed, I would be lying if I did not admit that The Zero Years, not unlike Nikolaidis' greatest works, induces a sort of malignant metaphysical sickness in the viewer that falls in somewhere between melancholia and weltschmerz, which should not be a surprise considering it was directed by a man whose first film was titled Lacrimae Rerum (1962). Set in a world were forcibly sterilized prostitutes hopelessly dream in vain about having children to the point where they practice changing diapers yet they live their lives in an innately anti-sexual way where their bodies are used for just about everything and anything besides reproduction, The Zero Years is ultimately an allegory for the death of the Occident as a work that depicts Greece as a post-industrial toilet inhabited by spiritual and sexual cripples. 

 After a less than narcotizing and fairly anti-erotic opening montage featuring women fiercely masturbating and people locked in cages, The Zero Years introduces the decidedly dejected quasi-protagonist Vicky (Vicky Harris, who previously starred in Nikolaidis’ See You in Hell, My Darling (1999)), who has “come all the way from hell” and has just arrived at her new home-cum-workplace at a government-run whorehouse that is rarely frequented by patrons, who are mostly shadowy government figures with serious sexual problems. In fact, things are so bad in terms of business that the girls that live there only sometimes have water and lack a steady supply of food. Upon arriving at the rather dark and ugly dystopian brothel, Vicky first meets Christina (Eftyhia Yakoumi), who is surely the most crazed and hopelessly neurotic of the girls as demonstrated by the fact that she pathologically quasi-‘masturbates’ with one of her breasts while looking outside with binoculars at people she seemingly schizophrenically believes are stalking her. The leader of the bordello is the eldest member of the group and she goes simply by the name ‘The Leader’ (Jenny Kitseli of Nikolaidis’ The Loser Takes All (2002)). The leader is unquestionably the most forlorn of the group as demonstrated by various suicide attempts which include slitting her wrists with a straight razor in a bathtub. The youngest and most naively hopeful of the girls is ‘Maro the Whip’ (Arhontissa Mavrakaki) who incessantly fantasizes about having a baby, even though she is well aware that she, like all of the brothel babes, is sterile. Undoubtedly, Maro’s delusions of motherhood are partially induced by the fact that her water regularly breaks and she suffers ‘projectile miscarriages.’ To fund money for the child she will never have, Maro regularly steals money from the group that she stashes away. Maro cannot have orgasms, but she is proud of the fact that every dirty man that she comes into contact with wants to defile her. In terms of her personality and behavior, Maro seems like the ugly extreme of contemporary toxic femininity as an insanely impulsive chick that probably suffers from a nasty case of borderline personality disorder that is only compounded by her comorbid nymphomania.  Ironically, despite her glaring psychological problems, Maro is indubitably the sweetest of the girls, though when one of her chick comrades dares to draw a mustache on her icon of Mother Mary, she is thrown into an angry and violent rage.  Unlike virtually all of the other women at the brothel, Maro is hardly cynical and has yet to completely lose faith and hope, but the viewer assumes it is only a matter of time before she becomes just as metaphysically dead as her friends.

 Notably, the brothel has a sort of bureaucratic ‘Supervisor’ (fittingly played by Michele Valley, who played the eponymous lead of Evrydiki BA 2O37) who makes sure the girls are turning enough tricks and bringing in enough dough. When the Supervisor mentions the fact that Christina did not service a single customer during the entire month, the Leader covers for her by claiming she engages in threesomes involving Maro (of course, considering that Christina seems like a crazed cunt of the carpet-munching sort, the Leader's explanation seems totally plausible). To give her a sort of therapeutic release, the Leader regularly smashes raw eggs on Christina’s rather small bare breasts. As assumed punishment for her half-ass work habits, an invisible entity with a foul smell that is assumedly unleashed by the government violently rapes Christina in front of the other three women in an unsettling scenario in the quasi-supernaturally sleazy spirit of Sidney J. Furie's The Entity (1982). When these bizarre incidents of phantom sexual pillaging occur, the women calmly and somberly state, “The children are here again,” as if they are totally used to witnessing and/or experiencing such bizarre and inexplicable phantasmagoric rape scenarios. When the Leader gets extra violent with a customer sporting a gimp mask and business suit while stating poetically sadistic things to him like, “ [You] might as well forget your God down here. God is me, and this. Got it worm? I’m gonna put you in my infected juices... Empty cocoons are all you produce,” the fellow is knocked unconscious and nearly dies, so the girls decade to lock him up in a cage and make him their slave.  Ultimately, Maro makes the slave her own personal pet and feeds him mush while talking to him about how she is going to have his baby. Needless to say, the authorities eventually come to the brothel looking for the girls but they are far too loyal to one another to say anything. 

 Unlike the rest of the women in the film, protagonist Vicky once gave birth to a healthy baby girl, as well as a mutant baby no with fingers and nails growing out of its knuckles that was eventually taken by the authorities.  In fact, The Zero Years features incessant black-and-white flashback scenes of little girls walking through a post-apocalyptic wasteland that seem to hint at Vicky's past life as a mother.  Vicky plans to leave the whorehouse as soon as possible and tells the other three girls that they should all reunite at a seemingly imaginary ethereal beach called ‘The Sea’ (which was also the dream destination of the protagonist of Morning Patrol).  In fact, Vicky oftentimes daydreams about her and her three new friends living a wonderful life of ultimately intangible happiness and ecstasy at the Sea.  When Vicky eventually receives a letter with some important news from one of her friends, she leaves the brothel and says her goodbyes to her discernibly sullen sadomasochistic sisters, but it does not take long for her to come crawling back because, as she somberly, states, "I’m back because…I looked around for old friends out there but there are none. They’re scattered, lost or in hiding…So I didn’t get very far.” In the end, all four girls and Maro’s pet gimp have a sentimental family dinner with one another and while sharing a toast, the Leader happily declares, “I was just thinking how beautiful it is…that we’re all back together again.”  Indeed, simply judging by the bittersweet conclusion of The Zero Years, one might assume that the director is a crypto-feminist of sorts of that loves nothing more than the thought of a group of gals bonding as a sort of hermetic sisterhood where stereotypical negative female behavior like jealousy, deceit, and vanity are nonexistent.

 A culturally apocalyptic celluloid slumber party from hell set in a Greek diva whorehouse equivalent to the home featured in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), The Zero Years ultimately feels like a tribute from auteur Nikos Nikolaidis to the countless barren women and old maids in contemporary Greece and the rest of the Europe. While Nikolaidis was certainly not a right-winger, his patently pessimistic views regarding the death of sexuality and motherhood in Europe are not all that different from those espoused by French New Right figure Guillaume Faye in his work Sexe et Dévoiement (2011) aka Sex and Deviance.  Indeed, for a variety of reasons that range from insane taxes (which absurdly partially go to the funding of the children of large and mostly Islamic illegal immigrant families) to feminist-inspired careerism to the seemingly perennial war among the sexes, women are no longer having children in Europa and the indigenous populations are steadily dying out (the Mediterranean has arguably been the region that has been the most deeply impacted by this perturbing phenomenon, with Greece and Italy having especially low birth rates that signify a suicidal people with no future), but of course the death of motherhood is only one of the major themes of Nikolaidis’ film. As the director insightfully revealed regarding the film’s importance in terms of his ‘The Shape of the Coming Nightmare’ trilogy, “In terms of chronological order, this script was conceptualized before both Euridice BA 2037 and Morning Patrol. We are at the decadence of the New World Order. Silence, chemical suppression, state fascism, broken communication, fear and apathy have all been installed for good. That’s why the surveillance cameras are not in use anymore… they are no longer needed. Everything is settled.” Aside from his misguided statement regarding “fascism” (do any contemporary leftists even know what the word means?!), Nikolaidis’ remark certainly does justice to The Zero Years, which depicts a society that is so sick that people are fully complacent with their slavery, which is covert and takes both psychological and metaphysical forms yet is nonetheless unmistakable. 

 Indeed, the characters of The Zero Years are the ugly extreme of Nietzsche’s prophecy of the anti-Faustian ‘last man,’ albeit much worse. While the ‘last man’ is at least comfortable in his pathetic passivity, the women of Nikolaidis’ film live in virtual sexual servitude yet are still too pathetically passive to fight back in any meaningful way with their enslavement of their customers arguably just being an extension of their eccentric erotic dysfunction as melancholic madams of sadomasochism. After watching the film, I could not help but think that Greek certainly needs political parties like Golden Dawn lest the ancient nation completely succumb to it's own suicidal decadence. After all, the dying Greece of today is not the result of some imaginary “fascism” as described by Nikolaidis, but the sort of neo-liberal nihilism that has been eating away at the soul of Europe after the Second World War. While nowhere near as artful and intricate as the first two films in Nikolaidis’ dystopian trilogy, The Zero Years was certainly a fitting way to conclude his strikingly singular filmmaking career as it takes the director’s love of female characters to the extreme and demands that the viewer share their misery, thus making for a film that is not only S&M-themed but also demands that the viewer engage in a little bit of sadomasochism, at least on the spiritual level. In terms of the film's highly intimate and even claustrophobic chamber piece oriented approach to female bonding, Nikolaidis’ swansong is like a Greek dystopian take on Fassbinder's early masterpiece The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), albeit in a totally idiosyncratic form that manages to create an aesthetically aberrant marriage between the women-in-prison film (WiP) exploitation subgenre and the strange realm of artsy fartsy sci-fi. Indeed, it is not often that one happens upon a fairly recent film that seems like it was directed by a man who loves Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966) and Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) just as much as Roger Vadim's Barbarella (1968) and Chopper Chicks in Zombietown (1989), hence why The Zero Years, like most of Nikolaidis’ oeuvre, will remain a celluloid oddity that is only appreciated by those cinephiles with a special love for cinema where the typically fine line between celluloid trash and high art has been ruthlessly ripped to shreds. While Nikolaidis did not conclude his filmmaking career in the most glorious of fashions (how many filmmakers do?!), he at least stayed true to his highly personalized weltanschauung and aesthetic vision and never succumbed to the influence of dubious gurus or corporations, which can hardly be said of David Lynch, who thrives on the reputation of films he created decades ago and who uses his celebrity as a means to whore himself out to one of the most preposterous pseudo-religions since Scientology.

-Ty E

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