Tuesday, May 20, 2014


Qohen Leth hates life. He believes he is dying, anyway. While he gets some satisfaction out of the high level software engineering he does for a living his infuriating workplace (a kind of logical extension of the open plan office to the point where it looks like a game centre) makes it almost impossible to concentrate. He would rather work at home. He thinks he once got a call from the Universe itself but was cut off and thinks it might be the Universe trying again. But every time it rings it's just another voicemail reminding him of his deadlines. He formally requests a physical exam and takes another shot at getting assigned to work from home. The big boss, the one on all the banners who's just called Management, listens and pretty soon "it's Q-without-a-U O-H-E-N" (a shaven headed Christoph Waltz) is working from home (a cavernous ex-church) with a dream system on the zero theorem.

The zero theorem is a means to prove that everything is nothing ("zero must equal one hundred percent" nags the voicemail). This is done by playing a massive Mandlebrot-Rubics cube simulation which partially collapses when the wrong cube gets inserted into a space. The other installations are the boss's son, a computer whiz, and a call girl who is sometimes real and sometimes simulated. This is frequently interrupted by psyche sessions (with an onscreen dizzily psycho-babbling Tilda Swinton) which were the origin of Qohen referring to himself third person plural. Moments of reflection that suggest escapes into privileged pleasure are delivered through the VR sessions with Bainsley (call girl).

But Qohen's cosmic loneliness seems tougher to solve than the theorem itself, if indeed the two aren't the same thing. It is suggested that he is in this position (the misery of awareness) because he has faith or a soul but his insistence on the call-back from the Universe always comes across as naivete. If that is the point it places this in a strange place on the Terry Gilliam shelf. The individual against the world and his (usually his) means of escape have been central to Gilliam's films. Whether it's massive yarn spinners like Baron von Munchausen, inner party cogs like Sam Lowry, melancholic time traveller James Cole or Tideland's Jeliza, most Terry Gilliam's pieces throw us into this loneliest of conflicts and make the most intimate aspects of the universe intolerably mechanical, loud and abrasive. Escape can be fugal (Tideland or Brazil) or physical (12 Monkeys) but escape is the goal.

Qohen, as hairless as Cole and as machine smart as Sam, is drawn from his languid resignation by teenaged Bob's intellectual stimulation coupled with his even more undeveloped sexuality and by Bainsley and the life affirming intimacy she offers. Whether real or virtual, she is aware of her part in his mental life unlike Brazil's Jill who is unaware of Sam's fantasy version of her. this time, perhaps, the stakes are cosmic and require the extra conceptual metre. Qohen's decisions toward achieving what might as well be oneness with the ever expanding dust and dark matter as much as godhead will involve dealing with these other factors/interruptions/diversions/people.

The Zero Theorem looks like a Terry Gilliam film the same way that Inland Empire looked like a David Lynch film: perhaps a little too much. There is the clash of digital technology with the scale of high-industrial, the Rube Goldberg overcomplication as a joke, the unsafe-for-diabetics colour palette, the exaggerated but intricately constructed soundtrack, the golden oldies on the score, and the delight in the absurdity of the formal which reminds us of how important he was to Monty Python (David Thewlis' role is easily imagined played by a younger Eric Idle) and more. Is this like relaxing into the notion that TISM's disco sound was not an obsolete parody but ... their sound. Gilliam has subverted this on occasion (Tideland doesn't scream his name and a lot of 12 Monkeys looks like any feature film of its time). Can we really complain that he is working from a script that was designed for his trademark? And what of the trademark, anyway; I did eventually like one Wes Anderson film and that wasn't remotely out of characteristic style (except for the bits he lifted from Guy Maddin but that's not why I liked it).

The only danger is that while it looks and feels like a Terry Gilliam film it plays a little closer to the emotional core of Tideland, the one that even hardline fans turn from. This makes it feel a lot flatter than Dr Parnassus or Fear and Loathing and that combined with the art direction give off the feel of a failed attempt, however deliberate it all is (and it all is). There is humour (even Tideland has that) but this is easily eclipsed by the sombreness of the theme and its mounting presence on screen.

A lesser Gilliam or a veiled masterpiece? Who cares, there's a lot in it and if it's a choice between the next three hour Michael Bay fx porn or this 1 1/2 hour meditation on connectivity that goes down like dessert choose this. It will be better for cinema and better for you because those two are eventually the same thing.

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