“Beyond 1984, Beyond 2004, Beyond Love, Beyond Death!”
It’s the year 2293 and Zed, leader of a band of pony-tailed red-diaper–wearing mutants known as The Exterminators, has become concerned that his god, Zardoz, no longer wishes him to kill the sports-coat-wearing Brutals, but rather teach them to farm instead. To learn why his god has betrayed the gospel of the gun and returned to the evil ways of the penis, Zed stows away inside Zardoz’s giant floating stone head and travels beyond the invisible barriers to a land full of telekinetic bohemians known as the Eternals. (See, if I reviewed stuff like Pixar movies on this site, I would never EVER get to write sentences like that.) Zed is immediately captured and condemned to death before he can pollute the Eternal’s utopia with his savagery, however, the sentence is delayed for a few weeks so that he can be studied. Over the following days Zed’s presence does indeed disrupt the docile society of the Vortex as he doggedly pursues the secrets of Zardoz, the origin of The Eternals, and ultimately, the reason for his very own existence. As the Vortex erupts into civil war and The Exterminators breach the barrier, The Eternals begin to understand that Zed’s arrival may not have been an accident, but rather the machinations of a higher power so that Zed might bring The Eternals the one thing they have longed for the most, death.
There’s three huge problems with the above synopsis of Zardoz. The first is that it leaves out about 95% of the movie. The second is that it just barely makes sense. The third and worst problem is that if you were to actually start adding in the missing 95% of the movie, it would probably stop making any sense at all.
You don’t have to take my word for it, just watch the thing. The film opens with a monologue given by a disembodied head which identifies itself as Arthur Frayne, aka the puppet master, aka Zardoz. Arthur, who for some unknown reason sports a moustache and goatee drawn on his face with a magic marker, questions the audience’s concept of reality and free will and wonders "Is God in show business, too?" From there the movie transitions into a shot of the giant floating stone head of Zardoz lecturing a bunch of men in diapers about the evils of the male reproductive organ before vomiting hundreds of guns on them. As the head of Zardoz floats off, we cut to its interior where our hero Zed emerges in meaningful slow motion from a pile of wheat. He stares at a bunch of Real Girl dolls wrapped in cellophane until he spots Arthur Frayne, for all intents and purposes his god, whom he immediately shoots dead. The head descends to a rustic mill where Zed discovers plants in baggies, green bread, and charts depicting the evolution of mankind with a question mark at the end. Zed eventually wanders outside the mill where he sees some pastel wearing hippies, a topless woman on a horse, and what is without a doubt the world’s most freckled human being who glares at him until he collapses in a heap. See what I mean? At this point, we’re only about ten minutes into the movie, and thanks to the way the narrative is unfolding, there’s simply no way to know what’s going on. There’s mystery and then there’s madness. After that, there is Zardoz.
Now, none of this is really the fault of John Boorman, who wrote the story. After the movie is over and you have time to think about it (if you have the desire and the strength), you’ll discover the basic plotline of Zardoz actually presents a pretty straight forward tale about a secular-hippy-baby boomer attempt at creating a utopia drawn out to its logical bad conclusion. (Yes, I’m assuming any secular-hippy-baby boomer attempt at creating a utopia will end badly. Don’t you?) Instead, the problem lies with John Boorman, who also directed the film. What the heck was that particular John Boorman thinking? (Or taking!?!) You would think, after making a number of excellent small films like Point Blank (remade by Mel Gibson as Payback) and just coming off the surprise hit Deliverance, that Boorman was poised to unleash a cinematic blockbuster. But armed with only one million dollars ($200,000 of which went to a self-proclaimed underpaid Sean Connery), a bunch of nutty English actors, and complete freedom from studio interference, what Boorman instead attempted to create was something far more insidious. Boorman tried to make a piece of art.
It’s the only feasible explanation for some of the things you see in Zardoz. (Okay, drugs are also a distinct possibility, but we’re trying to give Boorman the benefit of the doubt here.) Along with the stuff already mentioned, this movie also includes such visions as a room where the glass walls and ceilings are lined with live contorted nudes and baby dolls. ART! There’s another room full of hippies dressed in Logan’s Run hand-me-downs viewing a power point presentation on the workings of the male sexual organ. Not satisfied with the lecture, they try to get the bestial uncivilized Sean Connery to provide a live demonstration by showing him a video of two women mud wrestling. ART! You have the same group seated around a circular dining table silently voting on Zed’s impending execution by vogueing. They follow this up by making jazz hands at a hippy named Friend while the man screams maniacally, “I will not go to second level with you!” ART! You get a scene of people standing in a darkened room speaking in tongues (the foreign language kind) while slides of random images are projected onto their semi-nude bodies. ART! There’s even a scene involving Sean Connery wearing a wedding dress. ARRRRT!!! Or drugs. Definitely could be drugs.
Still, before we write Zardoz off as just another early 70s LSD trip gone horribly wrong, maybe we should explore the art option just a wee bit further. In the introduction to his book Art In The Seventies, Edward Lucie-Smith writes “The art objects produced in the 70s have to be looked at in a variety of ways… perhaps the most fruitful of all, is to classify works of art, not in terms of style, but in terms of the ideas and feelings they are trying to communicate. Essentially, this leads to the thought that the work of art is not absolute, but has a fluidity of meaning and even of value which is related to the fluidity of the social context within which we find it… A fruitful ambiguity is in fact one of the great strengths of the art of [the 70s].” Or to put another way, by the time the 70s were in full swing, it was getting to be next to impossible to figure out exactly what artists were trying to say with any given piece of art. To that effect, we saw the rise of that bane of art students everywhere, the “artist’s statement”.
Matt Siber, writing for the art department of Columbia College Chicago, gives as good an explanation as any as to what that is. “An artist’s statement is a short written piece accompanying your artwork that describes what you do as an artist. Artist’s statements are used to help communicate the artist’s ideas, concepts and motivations to the viewer… As visual artists we rely on our art to communicate our ideas, but visual art communicates much differently than written language. By this token, it is not expected that the artist’s statement explain every detail and nuance of the artwork. If it did, we wouldn’t need the artwork. Instead, it should provide insight into the artist’s concept and motivation behind making the work.” In short, an artist’s statement is a hint. When you’re standing in front of a piece of art and wondering what the heck was going through that guy’s mind when he made it, you can read the artist’s statement and possibly get a clue. Sometimes. On the commentary track provided with the DVD, John Boorman relates how he tacked on the monologue delivered by the head of Arthur Frayne (which is basically the equivalent of an artist’s statement) to the beginning of Zardoz after test audiences didn’t quite understand what the film was about. “It didn’t work” a bemused sounding Boorman quips. Even he seems to realize the movie is just too much of a mess.
If I had to take a guess, (which is about all you can do with this movie) I would suggest the main reason for this (assuming it wasn’t drugs) appears to be the serious disconnect between the way the movie was filmed and the ideas it was trying to communicate. You see, Zardoz was shot in that hallucinatory avant-garde visual style which permeated counter culture films of the late 60s and early 70s. Unfortunately, the typical audience for that style of film was composed mostly of young secular-hippy-baby boomers, the very people whom Zardoz paints as well intentioned, but ultimately misguided, idiots. You can just imagine that crowd filing in, ready to grok on some trippy visuals, and getting instead a treatise on the notion that their ideals, if given free reign, would only lead to an effeminate, impotent, barren society. Probably worst of all, especially to the more secular members of the audience, was Boorman’s solution to the problem his movie presented. As the ending of Zardoz suggests, the ultimate salvation of mankind does not lie in eternal youth, non-gender specific relationships, clothing-optional bohemian communal living, uber-pacifism, vegetarianism, blah blah blah, etcetera, ad nauseum. Instead, Boorman reaches the shocking conclusion that if mankind is to have any real future, it will lie in restoring the one thing which had been totally exorcised from the “enlightened” society of the Eternals; the natural proclivity for human beings to form a traditional heterosexual family focused on cranking out children.
You can almost hear the cries of “anathema” ringing out from auditoriums across the nation, can’t you? One can imagine that for the secular artsy crowd, this idea amounted to something of a heresy. After all, Boorman was one of them, a secular humanist to the core who believed religion to be a myth and found the Catholic Church in particular to be “a very repressive force, very stultifying.” So how could he possibly be putting forth an idea that sounds suspiciously like something released in 2003 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger? “The Church's teaching on marriage and on the complementarity of the sexes reiterates a truth that is evident to right reason and recognized as such by all the major cultures of the world. Marriage is not just any relationship between human beings. It was established by the Creator with its own nature, essential properties and purpose. No ideology can erase from the human spirit the certainty that marriage exists solely between a man and a woman, who by mutual personal gift, proper and exclusive to themselves, tend toward the communion of their persons. In this way, they mutually perfect each other, in order to cooperate with God in the procreation and upbringing of new human lives.” Now why would a non-Christian like Boorman promote something remotely resembling this idea taken from the precepts of natural law?
Well, as Pope John Paul II, an actor before he entered the priesthood, wrote in his 1999 Letter to Artists, “In producing a work, artists express themselves to the point where their work becomes a unique disclosure of their own being, of what they are and of how they are what they are.” So, if Boorman really was trying to make art with Zardoz (and not just on drugs) then, basically, he just couldn’t help himself. Boorman admits as much in the commentary when he relates “I was somewhat criticized here for having as a conclusion the notion of attraction and love between a man and a woman. It perhaps seems rather a simple notion in the face of all these other ideas, however… I happen to believe it to be the case.” Now perhaps Boorman’s acceptance of this notion is just one of those odd convergences where an atheist comes to accept on his own something Christianity has taught all along. Or possibly its some stray bit of deeply ingrained philosophy left over from the days his non-Catholic parents forced him to go to Catholic school. But maybe, just maybe, it’s a truth he just couldn’t find a way to talk himself out of no matter how much it angered his pals. As the Catechism notes, “The natural law is immutable and permanent throughout the variations of history; it subsists under the flux of ideas and customs and supports their progress. The rules that express it remain substantially valid. Even when it is rejected in its very principles, it cannot be destroyed or removed from the heart of man. It always rises again in the life of individuals and societies".”
For whichever reason is the correct one (and I actually don’t think it’s drugs in this case), what we ultimately have with Zardoz is a card carrying secular-hippy-baby boomer attempting to make a movie which visually appeals to his peers, but at its core has a message repulsive to them. There’s no way they were gonna make it a success. Regrettably, especially for Zardoz’s ticket sales, the mainstream audience who might actually agree with and appreciate that message… well, they probably tuned out the second Sean Connery showed up in a diaper. If only there were an audience which could revel in both the weirdness and the message… waaaait a minute!
I promised Xena, the nice reader who requested this review, that I would reveal my secret to surviving a movie like Zardoz. Elementary, my dear Xena. Art school. After enduring week after week of listening to artist’s statements containing sentences like “My piece invokes the inherent irony present in the application of plastic art forms thereby allowing me to conceptualize and explore the expressive potential within the realistic representation of a bowl of fruit.” watching Zardoz is a walk in the park.