Thursday, February 11, 2016

Into the Vortex

As promised in my curmudgeonly Star-Wars-flogging post, here are reviews of two more from the seventies.

Zardoz (1974)

If you ever have a hankering for a film whose opening scene depicts a generously mustachioed Sean Connery wearing an orange diaper and cowering before a giant floating stone head that booms "THE GUN IS GOOD! THE PENIS IS BAD!" while spewing heaps of firearms through its stone teeth into the arms of worshiping orange-diaper-clad warriors, then, my friend, this is the movie for you.

My brother apparently thought it was the movie for me, because, after he caught it as a midnight cable flick last spring, he immediately ordered me a copy in anticipation of Christmas. (I got him The Thing and They Live.) Admittedly, we do share a warped taste in movies, which makes sense, seeing as we rented videos together during our formative years.

But I digress. Amazingly, Zardoz was directed by John Boorman, fresh from his success with Deliverance (1972). I've never seen Deliverance, though my understanding is that it involves, er, hillbillies. I have seen another Boorman effort, Excalibur (1981), so many times that I'm embarrassed to attempt a count. It's as clunky and awkward as its knights, who insist on wearing their big, shiny suits of armor while relaxing and eating dinner around the Round Table, but, oh, how I love it. The Grail sequence and closing scenes are simply sublime, and redeem much that has gone before.

But I digress again. After Deliverance, Boorman was given free rein to make the movie of his heart's desire. Zardoz was the outcome. Because it jumps around a lot and doesn't explain itself, it can be a little hard to follow. It's one of those movies that you suspect are best enjoyed in small doses while high on some controlled substance. With only my staid and sober brain to guide me along, however, I seem to grasp the following:

It is the year 2293. The world, unsurprisingly, is a whacked-out place. Mankind is divided into two groups: the Brutals and the Eternals. The Brutals are grimy peasants who live in a sad wasteland. The protagonist, Zed (Sean Connery), is an Exterminator, a Brutal whose job is to ride around shooting extraneous peasants. But there's a bit more to him than that, as we later discover: secretly, he's a super-intelligent mutant not over-fond of the works of L. Frank Baum.

The Eternals are immortal, though sometimes they're aged a few years as a penalty for rule-breaking. They're very pretty, both men and women, with the men wearing little crocheted sweaters with low-cut necklines. They're also quite impotent. They spend all their time eating fruit and getting mellow in small-group sessions. Their society is run by the Tabernacle, an A.I. resembling a talking Wikipedia, which they can access through their mood rings. They seem very smart and have mind-control powers, but there's something of the Eloi about them.

The Eternals live in the Vortex, a beautiful green valley enclosed by a force field, where they manage an old (Irish?) farmstead. It has one building painted blue to make it look futuristic, some plants growing in plastic bubbles, a mirror door leading to a complex filled with famous statues and paintings, and a bunch of groovy interiors whose spacial relation to the farmstead buildings is never elucidated, including an orange one that looks like the set of an old TV game show and another with sloping crystal walls behind which nude women float through space.

Not all is well in the Vortex. The Eternals have stagnated. Some, overcome with ennui, have become Apathetics who just stand around looking at one another all day. Others, recalcitrant troublemakers, have become Renegades, who are made old and senile but can never die. They're housed apart, whiling away their days in mawkish fancy-dress parties.

Zed rides the floating head into the Vortex. He becomes a domesticated animal and symbol of male potency. In time he's revealed as a messiah-figure come to bring the gift of death to the Eternals, which arrives in a crazy tragicomic bloodbath, the victims gleefully crying "Kill me! Kill me!" to their murderers. It ends with Zed siring a child with Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), an Eternal who had wanted to destroy him but now loves him, in the giant floating head, which is no longer floating. Their son leaves and they grow old and turn into skeletons, all to the tune of Beethoven's Seventh.

Visually, this movie is actually quite beautiful. Certain images and scenes definitely stick with you. On the other hand, it is horribly awkward in parts, beginning with the prologue, in which the cut-out, barely-mustachioed head of one Arthur Frayn (the voice of the stone head) floats around on a black screen, saying things like, "In this tale, I am a fake god by occupation, and a magician by inclination." Then there's the part where they show Zed some weird porno films to see if he'll get an erection, and the part where…well, you get the picture.

All in all, it's one of those trippy and highly symbolic but opaque movies they made in the late sixties and seventies, that leave you with a feeling of wondering what you just watched. The nuttiness of its plot as I try to summarize it reminds me of the fictional movie described by Philip K. Dick in VALIS, which for some reason remains one of my favorite science fiction novels. Dick himself was inspired by The Man Who Fell To Earth, starring the late David Bowie, which is another of those movies.

So, is Zardoz worth watching? Well, I enjoyed it, so I'm going to come down on the side of...yes.

A Boy and His Dog (1975)

A Hugo-winner based on a story cycle by Harlan Ellison, this one is genuinely worth watching, if you have the stomach for it. It's crass and brutal, and there's arguably a misogynistic slant to the whole thing, especially the ending, so be warned.

Taking place in the post-nuclear wasteland of Arizona (as opposed to the pre-nuclear wasteland of Arizona), it centers around the titular teenage boy, Vic (Don Johnson), who roves the landscape in search of canned food to eat and women to rape, and his titular dog, Blood (voice of Tim McIntire, who also sings the main theme), with whom he communicates telepathically. Vic is vicious, shallow, and not particularly intelligent; Blood is the real leader of their team. (There's an unsubstantiated rumor that the dog is Tiger from The Brady Bunch, which I dearly wish were true, but strongly suspect is not.)

The only civilization shown on the surface is a camp where wanderers can trade food for the opportunity to watch surreal pornographic films. There Blood sniffs out a female human, whom Vic follows with ungentlemanly intentions. But after he saves her from scavengers (shown) and mutants (not shown), she seemingly falls for him, and they proceed to do things that bore and disgust Blood. In reality, the girl, Quilla June (Susanne Benton), has been sent by her father (Jason Robards) from their underground city ("Topeka," a bizarre totalitarian parody of Midwestern culture) in order to entice Vic down so that he can be captured and impregnate all their females. This is not as happy a fate as Vic at first imagines...

The movie remains genuinely interesting and darkly humorous throughout. While horrifying in a way, there's a certain hilarious justice to the end, although Mr. Ellison objected to the last line, which he characterized as moronic and chauvinistic. The whole thing has a low-budget feel, but does well with what it has, and evokes classic science fiction literature in a way that most movies do not.


To read more of my rambling yet uniquely entertaining and insightful reviews of seventies science fiction movies, start here:

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