Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Zero Theorem

Year 9, Day 158 - 6/7/17 - Movie #2,653

BEFORE: There's no real road-map to which movies I watch, no rules other than those that I make up and impose upon myself.  That's why it's so great when my plans seem to be in sync with Hollywood's release schedule, or when something I watch coincides with the news of the day or the other events in my life.  Like, nobody is MAKING me watch this particular film by Terry Gilliam today, but I was looking up and down the filmographies of the cast of "Wonder Woman", trying to find a connection back to my chain, and I hit upon this one, a film I've been curious about for several years, but never had a chance to watch, because no premium cable channel has run it.  But it's there on Amazon Prime, I could watch it for free AND it provides a link to the next film I was going to watch after "Triple 9" - so I'll be back on track tomorrow without messing up my plans, other than delaying them by 2 days, which helps me get closer to linking my chain with the upcoming "Spider-Man" movie anyway.  So, it's a win all around.

I bring this up because the news about Terry Gilliam broke today, that he's finally finished his version of "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" that's been in production for only the last 17 years, and seemed to be a cursed production, with many shooting disasters and false starts, as depicted in the 2002 documentary "Lost in La Mancha".  There were also reports online today that Gilliam had accidentally deleted the only copy of the film by accidentally reformatting a drive that he had NOT backed up, but since this news came from a very suspicious web-site I'm going to assume that this was someone's idea of a joke that accidentally got mistaken for a real news item.  So fake news. 

David Thewlis carries over from "Wonder Woman", and he's popped up a LOT this year already, this will be the 5th movie in Year 9 with him in it, so even though Fred Astaire's a near shoo-in to have the most appearances this year with 14, Thewlis is on a pace to give him a run for his money, with appearances in "Anomalisa", "Seven Years In Tibet", "Legend", and now two films this week.   And he's prominent in the current season of "Fargo", so it feels a bit like he's everywhere I turn. 


THE PLOT: A talented but socially isolated computer operator is tasked by Management to prove the Zero Theorem, which states that the universe ends as nothing, rendering life meaningless.  But meaning is what he already craves. 

AFTER: To fully understand this Terry Gilliam film, I've got to draw a parallel to David Lynch and the recent return of "Twin Peaks", which is currently confounding TV viewers like me who were expecting something more narrative, something akin to the original ABC series, which did venture into some strange symbolism and other-dimensional stuff like the Black Lodge and demons controlling peoples actions, but for the most part was a linear, soap-opera story about the residents of a small town in Washington State.  The new series, however, is full of confusing material like evil doppelgangers, a tree with a brain on it that claims to be the evolution of the dancing dwarf from the 1992 series, and most prominently in the first episode, a man paid to monitor cameras that are filming an empty glass box in a NYC skyscraper.  The first 10 minutes of this eagerly-anticipated show, no lie, were focused on this glass box with NOTHING IN IT - and the shots went on so long it was hard to believe that this was what the director chose to focus on for such a considerable amount of time, until the audience at home eventually came to realize that the director was opting to dispense with any conventions of narrative altogether, and instead was choosing to defy all expectiations with footage that one might easily mistake for dadaism, or essentially nonsense.

Gilliam's oeuvre parallels Lynch's, in that they both started out in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy ("Time Bandits", "Dune") but then dipped into more conventional narratives ("Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", "Blue Velvet") before deciding to focus on stories that are a mix of reality and impossibility ("Tideland", "Lost Highway") that defy rational explanations.  This opens up some story possibilities - a character can choose to live in a fantasy world, or one character can turn into another - but can also be confusing as all heck.

With "The Zero Theorem", Gilliam returns to a "1984"-style future world similar to one he's shown us before, namely in "Brazil" - the central EveryMan is just a cog in a wheel, someone for the unseen Big-Brother style "management" who can't see enough of the big picture to fully understand what his role is in all of it.  Instead he chooses to beat the system the only way he knows, which is to excel at his job in the hope of pleasing his unseen masters.  He dreams of things like love and joy, but since he's socially awkward, he has no idea how to obtain them.  The EveryMan here is named Qohen, with a "Q" and no "U" as he says many times, so it's pronounced like "Cohen", except his supervisor keeps calling him "Quinn", and Qohen ends up correcting him, many times over.  (Is this repeated many times because it's important somehow, or just because there weren't enough other things for the characters to talk about?  Does it even matter?)

Qohen is a number-cruncher, which means that he spends his days moving equations around on a screen, but the pieces of the equations are on cubes, and he moves them through a virtual world of buildings made of cubes, similar to "Minecraft" perhaps, and putting the equations in place seems to destroy these buildings or constructs ("entities").  Do his actions add up to something in the long run, do they serve some kind of purpose for Management, or is it just something to keep him busy?  (Again, does it even matter?  We have no way to know.)

He does meet a woman, Bainsley, at the one party he attends at his supervisor's house, and this woman is some kind of internet porn-star (I think), but she won't have sex with Qohen unless it's in the virtual world, which requires him to wear a full-body interactive suit that projects his consciousness into a beach scene with Bainsley.  This way they can have contact with each other that's completely safe, because it's not really real.  Right?

Also at this party, he meets someone from the mysterious Management Department, who approves his request to work at home, provided he help work on the Zero Theorem, which postulates that since the universe will one day end, or return to the nothingness that it was before the Big Bang, therefore everything will one day be meaningless (The Big Crunch).  In math terms, this means proving that "zero equals a hundred", or that everything adds up to nothing (I think...).  And working on the Theorem tends to make even the best number-crunchers go a little cuckoo - but Qohen's ideal for the project, because he's already full of phobias and anxieties, and possibly insane as well.

Qohen allegedly once received a phone call that contained the meaning of life, and he's been spending his time waiting for the call to come again - as such, he's easily manipulated by any entity that assures him that they're going to look into this matter, to find out when he can get that call again.  In the meantime, he has visions of a giant black hole, which I suppose represents the antithesis of meaning, it's a force of destruction that seems to reinforce the idea that eventually everything dies or ceases to exist. 

So, what's the takeaway here? Is life meaningless, or not?  Or is it one, then the other?  Look, as a middle-age man who's probably closer to the end of my life than the beginning, I'm kind of on board with the entropy idea, but you've got to commit to one or the other, Terry.  And isn't it kind of contradictory, I mean, if you could prove that life had no meaning, wouldn't that revelation itself have some meaning?  So therefore the original statement is impossible, or else it's a paradox.  Or, do older directors just like to give the audiences a good mind-fuck by being "arty" without any intention of coming anywhere near a point?

Look, I see how it can happen.  You make a film like "Brazil" with some fantasy sequences that are filled with symbolism and metaphor, and the audiences and the critics go nuts for it - and the fantasy parts are all they want to talk about.  So, in your next film you figure, consciously or not, let's give them a little bit more of what they liked about the last film, and then in the next one, a little bit more, until you find yourself telling a story where the audience can't tell what's real and what isn't.  It's a seductive line of reasoning that results in utter nonsense, a few films down the line.

Plus, I don't mean to alarm anyone, but isn't there a giant black hole at the center of our galaxy?  It's not an imminent threat, and for all we know that may be perfectly normal, to have a black hole there. Astronomers and cosmologists just don't know enough about them yet - maybe galaxies form around them?  But the more I look at the images of black holes, I see the similarity in shape to both a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way, and water going down a drain.  I know where the water goes, but where does the stuff circling around a black hole go?  And does it mean that everything on our planet, everything we know, is essentially circling the universe's drain?  Something to think about.

Also starring Christoph Waltz (last seen in "Big Eyes"), Melanie Thierry, Matt Damon (last seen in "Mystic Pizza"), Tilda Swinton (last seen in "Hail, Caesar!"), Lucas Hedges (last seen in "Moonrise Kingdom"), Peter Stormare (last heard in "Strange Magic"), Ben Whishaw (last seen in "In the Heart of the Sea"), Sanjeev Bhaskar, Emil Hostina, Pavlic Nemes, with cameos from Rupert Friend (last seen in "Pride & Prejudice"), Gwendoline Christie (last seen in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"), Lily Cole (last seen in "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus")

RATING: 4 out of 10 electric cars

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