Once upon a distant UK future, or stretch of its past long buried in the bog and/or under small beach pebbles of Stonehenge-y time, savages in maskies roamed and rode, shooting and raping all they may survey, and worshipping a giant stone head that floated gamely o'er the rolling green Irish hills and occasionally spat them new guns and ammo in exchange for bags of wheat. And when it could get no weirder, the head would sprachen in a booming manly voice a kind of population control mantra, about how shooting semen from your gunny cock is bad and shooting death from a cocked gun is good, or raping must come with killing, lest more bullets in the future from thy future gun expend, and all like something passionately scrawled on the bathroom wall by a horny sophomore who'd just read Jung's "Man and his Symbols" while watching Wizard of Oz on acid.
One of these masked savages, Zed (Sean Connery), is smarter and more dangerous than the others --rather than bowing to the head, gamely sneaks into its agape mouth, to go for a ride, killing the 'man behind the curtain' inside it, thus having the whole head to his own, only to have it touch down behind a force field and land him in the presence of a group of intellectually advanced immortals, eternally young and smart, living off the land in a perfect encounter group breathing exercise one-mind mime troupe sense of order.
Adorned only in taffeta robes (so clearly demarked 'Eloi' as to affront any rambling Bevin Boys' morlock-ish cognizance of couth), these fey libertines don't quite know what to make of our young thug from the other side of the bubble. Zed's mind has, it seems, been wiped in advance by some unknown power, so they can't "scan" him for what happened to their friend (the guy Zed killed). They have the psychic power to play a person's memories back like rewound tape and show them on the wall screen (very Black Mirror). They suspect the worst, but that part of Zed's tape has been erased!
They must investigate. Some of the girls--especially in the scientist ladies, and particularly lovely Consuella (Charlotte Rampling)--react with hostility to Zed's sexy shirtlessness. His pheromone-and-hair dye musky musk has upset the zero point population growth balance (no children for thousands of years) and gotten their eggs started all up again. Conseulla demands his immediate destruction, but other head scientist, May (Sara Kestleman) wants to probe his, ahem, "mind" first in case some part of the memory is still retrievable, so to speak.
To access this information, May may need to take Zed literally under the sheets. Shall we go then, you and I?
If, on paper, all this sounds randy and oh so 60s-early 70s sci-fi, with its mix of pulpy lurid adult sexuality and high-concept speculation, what's wrong with that? Unlike the smirky post-Porky's 80s and the inevitable feel-bad-about-smirking 90s, ZARDOZ is from an era all about psychedelic openings (especially concerning free love and eastern philosophy, the far-out writings of Castaneda, Jung, Leary, Watts, Dass, and Burroughs). If, after awhile, these free love soul openings became reduced to a giant universal mouth of macho hungry ghost gimme gimme, it's not to say it wasn't a noble experiment. For a time, when sex was plentiful, man--at his best--could finally move beyond sex. Before the hordes of leprous joneser seagulls descended, for a glistening period of around fifteen or so years, this beautiful eastern openness led to a form of macho beyond Freud's "one direction" sense of phallic symbolism, a kind of Jungian Arthurian 'good' macho, exemplified by Sean Connery's manly chest, Charlton Heston, James Bond, Don Draper, and Billy Jack. Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces led to Iron John and the men's movement. Yeah, the real men's movement, not dopey Alt-right trolls gone pale and blind and hunched over from too much time clicking in mom's basement, but hairy bigfoot-style dudes banging drums in the woods. Ugh. Maybe even then, it was a little lame, but man, did man need it.
Our psychology lacks even today, we're mired in Freud, not enough Jung. To Freud, a gun was just a penis, but Jung's break with Freud went the opposite way too, stating that the penis was also 'just' a gun (or a sword), i.e. neither was the be-all-end all, any more than a Tarot card is only paper and ink. "You can't fool me, this card isn't a Hierophant, it's paper and ink!" More than Freud's, Jung's symbolism is more enlightened, a less sex-obsessed frame of thinking. Jung's idea of "the phallus" wasn't necessarily tied to some infantile anxiety formed at the first sight of mom's "missing" genitals, but something truly mythic down to the DNA of life itself, the phallus as pure signifier, en par with the yoni / circle / zero, i.e the phallus was the '1' and the yoni the '0' of a binary symbolic code.
You can tell John Boorman knew and was heavy into all Jungian archetypal psychology. More than any other Arthurian filmmaker, he felt the connection; he was spearheading a new self-aware sexist macho psychedelia, one beyond the duality of shame/pride; lust/disgust, and even death/life. In fact, Boorman was so badass about it he'd even adorn Sean Connery in an orange diaper! He didn't give a shit, bro.
ZARDOZ, Zardoz, King of the emasculated Brittons!
Clearly, Boorman understood, deep down, some of Zardoz was plain crazy. Yet it's stood the test of time. A loopy satire on the vanity at the heart of masculine identity, this fuck-all fractured crystal light show has proven mad prescient. Had anyone been listening to it at the time, instead of snickering at that diaper, Zardoz may have woken us up to the value of death as the only key to life.
But at the time, which was 1974, we weren't necessarily ready to have our yarbles handed to us with a stern warning and an extra magazine cartridge. We just saw Sean Connery with his black ponytail and traffic cone orange diaper riding a horse and a big stone head flying around, and--unless we were stoned--rolled our eyes in embarrassment. Of course, Connery would play the only fertile still-erect male in an isolated society of enlightened hot chick immortals --his big red bulges gazed upon lustily- flanked by a sparse sprinkling of symbolically neutered male elders and Bellamy-ish escorts. Of course the immortals stand around him, like buyers at a boat show, all in multi-colored robes that evoke one of those planets on Star Trek where some alien Aeschylus reads poetry aloud and the wardrobe person has a chance to air out the studio togas (in mothballs since the 50s biblical epic heyday). Add to that the kind of randy tosser pulp premise used already in everything from Ulmer's Beyond the Time Barrier, to Queen of Outer Space, Cat-Women of the Moon, Missile to the Moon, Invasion of the Star Creatures, and so forth. Not that I'm complainin!
But time has shown us that what really spooks us (in the US especially) about ZARDOZ is that it delves deep into zones that castration anxiety has deemed verboten --and it's perhaps that anxiety that kept us (okay, me) away from the film so long in the first place. Emasculated in jumpers, "them panties", or even (below) wedding dresses, the Boorman male protagonist never shies from (figurative) crotch shots (as in Walker's final punch to the gangster's crotch in Point Blank ) or squealing like a pig. In facing the dread of castration anxiety so astutely, Boorman's films have Freudian breakthroughs right there on the screen, but first one must endure the squirming: before Burt gets a chance to shoot arrows at rednecks--or Richard Burton gets to throw Linda Blair against a wall and start to strangle her while half-molesting her at the same time-- there must be all sorts of humiliation and threats, from demons, rapists, and immortal hotties with brain freezing crystal rings. Running from the problem just gives it more juice--you got to clamp down hard and don't let go, like a pit bull on the schvonce.
Taken as an infantilizing hybrid of anal phase fixations then, Zed's macho hairy chest and that orange outfit might somehow tap into into the kind of revulsion most children feel for their own diapers by the age of three -- I know it turned me off at the time (I was seven in 1974). But now, grown into middle-age, Zed's infantile garb is as bemusing and unthreatening as it is for the immortals within the sanctuary. SSRIs have removed 95% of my sex drive and I couldn't be happier about it. Maybe that's why now I understand how the UK's weird macho fey switcheroo makes boys into men: by first making them women. Connery's Zed is somehow now all the more masculine for being so feminized, so objectified. Cleaning up the table and setting out dishes as the 'adults' discuss his fate at lunch (whether they should ice him or let him live), he's like disaffected puppy, his sexual heat is the equivalent of soft black velvet painting sad eyes. He doesn't have to do anything--he's like a woman on a pirate ship where only half the crew are 'gentlemen.'
DEATH BEFORE DISHESWatching nature shows as a kid I remember I regarded all the death as merely fascinating. It seemed remote and cool (my friends and I 'playing dead' all the time), but now the endless stream of fear, hunger, death and birth that is the ecosystem of the ocean--my poor krill--makes Earth seem a brutal prison, one that takes hundreds of thousands of lifetimes to escape--if we ever do. With every gulp some whale is devouring enough little lives to populate a country. But it doesn't end there, for gobs of krill come alive in little eggs again, just to be eaten by something that will itself be eaten. How many times have we all died as tiny little krill or shrimp or plesiosaurs? How billions of deaths have we experienced? How many traumatic rebirths, all within that same salty gross ocean?
ZARDOZ helps us indirectly wonder whether our slow poisoning of the seas has been something the sea (as in the collective consciousness continuum of all marine life along the vast, endless food chain) wished upon itself, programmed into us back in our squid years and which has remained dormant in our DNA, moving us unconsciously towards our rabid pollution and destruction of our accursed, death-ridden ecosystem. Is man's pollution is the sea's reverse-Zed deliverer from endless centuries of fear, pain, heartbreak and hunger? Zed is named thus for a reason. Man is here, screams the ocean, there shall be no more arrivals! Our pollution is a liberator that will free the blighted hungry, scared, and dying from any more than another century of endlessly reincarnating woe.
HOOLIGANS OF SATURNALIA
Luckily, the hour of their deliverance is at hand. The specter in Masque of the Red Death fuses with Conan the Barbarian and Alex in Clockwork Orange to bring a needed violence to paradise. Zed is a tool that frees these liberals from their own peace, returning them to a time when hedonistic amphetamine-amped savagery simplified all our decisions. Fracturing itself along fault lines that fuse the grim black humor of Dr. Strangelove to the horny camp of Barbarella, Zardoz has endured as a continually renewing announcement to the world that he, Boorman, can be as much a macho priapic/cold misanthropic--less geometrically precise-but-still bonkers to the point of mind expansion/Dark Heart of Conradian consciousness--"genius" as Kubrick.
Maybe not, but you can tell he 'gets' it, and he gets down into the same deep well of repressed shit Kubrick made so indelible. Boorman doesn't peer over the fence into Kubrick's backyard well so much as borrowing a shovel to dig his own. He doesn't need to peek at his neighbor's work, the testicular vein is deep and connects all men. He doesn't even need Terru Southern to come over and point out the lewd savagery. Boorman's the sole writer of Zardoz. Boorman follows his own drummer and if that drummer should veer of a cliff, Boorman's macho enough to beat him all the way down
|We're all hooligans in the pre-empathic nursery
Soylent Green had come out the year before Zardoz and fared better, made a lasting impression et al, but that film was American, with Chuck 'Moses' NRA Heston as the star--so even your bible-thumping aunt couldn't argue against it - and it had a 'gotcha' ending as potent as the Statue of Liberty in Heston's big Apes. Zardoz was far too much of too many things--too intellectual for the pulp crowd, too comic book priapic for the intellectual crowd, and it came out too late to catch the acidheaded 'enhanced' midnight movie crowd (PS - see comment at end of this post!), yet was too trippy for the pop dystopia pre-Star Wars crowd (Logan's Run, Omega Man).
Well, it's still a film without a double-digit cult, but it's found a fan in me, at last --it only took me ten tries, over the years. I guess I was waiting... for the key moment--I finally made it to the livin' end--not even noticing Sean's ill-advised dyed-black chest hairs and douche pony tail. I just had to be in the other room for the first half, listening while it played on TCM, writing and folding laundry. Not fully paying attention, not seeing the diaper. Just absorbing my way inward, like a louche amoeba.
And lo and behold, I really relate to a lot of the crazy split-subjectives and all the mass mind meditation and heavy breathing. I mean I really REALLY relate. (Imagine me saying that last part while pulling hungrily at your collar). The Immortals' whole vibe is one of those 70s theater encounter groups, or any tight-knit acting class or troupe that does little weird everyone vocalizing and waving their arms in unison outcasting or accepting one of their number into the group mind via encounter group touching exercises. It's soooo 1970s. It doesn't get any better.
DON'T DERIDE YOUR MAN'S ARCHAIC REVERIE
Zardoz expresses it, while at the same time undoing it, and that's maybe the thing that keeps audiences away. Our secret memories of those old sci-fi tales and Heavy Metal comics mustn't be exposed to the air and sniffed over by super intelligent women who could kill us with a wink.
On the other hand, if we don't flinch from their stinging gaze, we just might get lucky. Biology is a peculiar thing.
Dig this groovy statement by the iRing (their male version of Siri or Alexa) when discussing Zed's propensity for laying around in his cage, dreaming, a hobby which the Immortals find to be a huge waste of time: "Sleep was necessary for man when his waking and unconscious lives were separated." Any artist or writer or filmmaker longs to be free of sleep --inspiration always comes at bedtime, and in the morning it's gone. For the Immortals, their longevity is a clear explanation for their enormous power, their group mind telepathy enables them live in a life of perfect order and balance.
This utopia is the dream of every loving group of 'awakened' individuals who've ever collectively fallen in love over a psychedelic outdoor weekend together (set and setting being so crucial). If they have achieved 'total consciousness," then meditation takes the place of sleep and almost every other need. "Second Level" as the Immortals call it seems to be a communal shared alpha state of bliss. Upsetting this bliss through bad vibes can lead to your arrest and aging of up to five years. Ah laddie, there's always one wally or murph trying to drag the zeppelin down. If only my tribe back in the 80s could have spooked them off with collective humming, I might be immortal to this day. Unless of course, my own bad vibes leaked out. They often did... sigh.
I've told you about those glorious stretches of time I've experienced (this much later in my fisher king solitude) when unconscious and conscious lined up perfectly, as if in sublime eclipse, and I could see with my eyes closed or open, all was illuminated and inseparable. It's clearly what Boorman was going for that total consciousness of dreaming third eye / consciousness two eyes - all open at the same time. Of course, too much of that leads straight to the psych-ward unless you're so charismatic you're covered head-to-toe in protective cult underlings who make sure your every step is strewn with roses... and if that happens just try and keep your ego from running amok and becoming 'that' type of cult leader, the male lion who boots the young men out of the tribe so he can marry all the young hotties. Boom, his clarity is gone in a smoke cloud of self-adoration.
Either way, no eclipse lasts forever, not in our short life spans, surrounded on all sides by petty droogies and dimwit doctors. Such openness of mind relies on a complete suspension of all judgment, fear, and avoidance. This leaves you very vulnerable to oncoming traffic.
(Clockwork, Goldfinger: Paradoxically, these Brit cock-and-ball stories are way
more macho than Leo avenging (yet again) his murdered child and/or wife (below)
in The Revenant:
YARBLES, AND HOW TO LOSE THEM
Let's return to the subject at hand, castration or fear thereof. Successfully completed reproduction, from the 'gleam' in your father's eye to your firs sharp inhale, spanked by a hand almost as big as you are, kick-started into the world like a wonky television-- it's one looong castration. The schlong goes in, bur it don't come out. Welcome to the rat race, sonny.
Emasculation and neutering affect our British macho man at every turn, from the laser coming right at Bond's crotch in 'ahem' Goldfinger to Clockwork's Aubrey Morris clasping hard down on Alex's niblik back at the house where he's spatchka-accruing to be right as dodgers for this after. In America, home of the wee narcissist manchildren who need to stand on crates hidden under the frame and have ramps built for them to kiss their willowy ginger co-stars, our balls are so precious that we refuse to even mention castration, as if the word is serrated-edged. Puer aeternus complexes rouse Maria von Franz from a stone sleep; the ginger beer equation, set up by half-dead spouses, advocates a tired guilt over rowdy strutting. Just making flirty eye contact dooms a girl either to smash cut to foreplay-less rutting (on HBO or AMC) or stalking (HAIR, FEAR and whatever's on Lifetime). The only guys badass enough to 'go there' as in castration are Tarantino and Rodriguez (as in RR's Planet Terror). (2)
As Leland says Mesa of the Lost Women, this is my order: The good I will protect. Be nice unto all ages, and sans sexual advances. Believe me man, if the girl likes you that way, she'll let you know. If not - presume she doesn't. The problem facing most guys is that when they're most desirable is when they're less likely to realize it, but also that--thanks to media--they confuse being attracted with being attractive, and the first problem invades the second, so that hearing a girl you like doesn't like you the same way makes you furious, for it forces you to be aware you're misreading signals. In other words, your ego is such a bitch it uses your own insecurity to turn you into a persistent douchebag. It makes it harder for every other guy and girl to get together when genuine attraction is constantly misconstrued and confused with random 'hitting on' girls by guys who just figure they'll play the numbers.
That this extends to middle age is what's most perverse, for filmmaker and artist males often have younger women mentees/assistants/lovers. My theory is that there's the person who says no to his drive to go cavort with the younger generation, and the guy who trusts the inherent goodness within himself and is willing to ridiculous to his wife and every other girl his own age in pursuit of artistic and aesthetic realness. He'll see the sour bitches his own age sulking on the sidelines, glaring from behind strollers as he walks with a girl young enough to be his daughter if he'd had kids at 20. Who does that old dude want to be with, a sulky harridan berating and belittling his every word and missed dish dirt spot, or some starry-eyed waif who thinks he's charming and sexy, even if it's only because she has an unresolved Elektra complex? The kitchen sink Leighs and the Loaches trundle home, not forgetting to pick up bread and the Guardian--reading in bed to the knots that they keep in a jar by the door, pursuing the 'reality' of the situation like good little aging males, while Kubricks and Boormans stay up 'til all hours dropping acid with these precocious hot geniuses and contemplating not their crags and sags and graying hair,--but their eternal faces--neither old nor young, neither virile nor withered, neither growing nor shrinking, nor strutting nor cringing, but the eternal face, as frozen as the angry godhead in Zardoz as blank and meaningless as the Godhead in you know what (I shan't spoil it if you haven't seen it.)
We in America don't have it, but we need it - DR. WHO and his companions --all much younger and cute but he's got no interest in sex. He's too old. But older women are a drag - their bones can't handle time travel. Is he a snake because of this? Or just free?
And when the going gets too weird and all the older women get out their claws, Zed eats a single leaf from Mama Mcree's psychedelic flower. One thing leads to another by a kind of parenthetical association that would be lost on American viewers the way it was me if I hadn't just seen High-Rise. But since I had, I felt awareness of some kind of weird British shared secret, the sort where psychedelic mind expansion, socialized education, and the BBC merge together to help the male psyche shatter, so that the phallus becomes the devouring vagina dentata instead of just being devoured by it, and this is truly the union. For your casual bullet had picked its immortal's brain pan destination before you were even born, my son.
IMMORTALITY, A CHUMPS' TICKET
Once inside its scaly tunnels, the 'I AM' part of the surviving soul realizes that even death itself is just a chimera, a tunnel on the endless looping track. Familiarity with acid's perspective allows this 'we are one thing, split into infinity to get a better look at itself' as almost a side effect to the experience of 'frisson.' We get to see how different it would all go down were we unfastened from the signifier-signified chain of structural indemnity and allowed to float free and easy in the zero gravity of Mad Hatter tea party disruption, where word association no longer has any relevance as a game or trick or strategy.
For example, in a game of word-association, the word 'chair' might provoke a 'sit' response, but the insane/hatter response would be "melon") / and 'milk' doesn't provoke "cow" but a terrified scream of "gloves!" (1) resulting from an archaic memory of touching Bessie's fleshy warm udder once with bare hands at the 4H Fair and how you cried and cried.
Half the time, they're not even real words, but two or three words Frankensteined together in a kind of accelerated overlapping wave collision between free association, bad puns wrapped into themselves like Russian dolls, and scrabble befuddlement. When given full controls of the voice, the subconscious can be terribly glib and--to a sober man--incoherent. To an incoherent idiot, however, cogent indeed, for the first time - he can understand.
If you can breech that structuralist surf, I'd say Zardoz is a film that's the story of a male psyche having a split dialogue with itself and its own adult sci-fi pulp roots--the kind of 'adult sci-fi' that's long gone but was all the 70s science fiction you could ever see, prior to Star Wars. Of course its a dialogue that has no ending. It goes on in the hearts of coded dykes struggling in the heavy mantle layers of some giddy fake-Earth ending to some mid-70s episode of Charlie's Angels (the girl football team episode). (3)
Why and why not are inevitably so linked as to be indistinguishable. Are you going to buy the next world a cup of coffee or are you going to act sulky, alone at the counter like a little bitch, until you're so old that it's considered obscene just for you to even hit on people your own age? A 990 year old in a 20 year old body we call a vampire, but a hit from the side -- end of knee -- end of career. We call that the 80s.
Are you 'winning' or are you awake? You can't be both.
Humility or cock swagger? That's a fine duality. But humble cock swagger? Now I know you're British.
1. Of course that's a reference to Crispin Glover in Wild at Heart!
2.We've already talked about this when I attacked the copouts in Hard Candy and Teeth.
3. I apologize that this ramble ends with a discussion of the dyke presence in a girl football team episode of Chaelie's Angels episode 41 (season 2), "Angels in the Backfield" but it seemed trenchant at the time, to merge a discussion of men evolving into a male/female whole soul into a female-starring detective series from the 70s chronicling the struggles of a female football team (entering a predominately masculine arena) and one of those rare, rudimentary appearances of lesbians on prime time TV. Alas, while liberated in some areas, it was still very much in to consider gays and lesbians as freaks, deviants, easy targets for stereotyping. It was only the mixture of Anita Bryant's hateful rhetoric (which so turned most of us off we became sympathetic to the gay cause) and AIDs / Rock Hudson, that turned us around more or less for (hopefully) keeps.
4. I love for example the party scene in Arthur Marks' The RoomMates, where the faculty and co-eds at a groovy college mix together, drinking and flirting but with no harm done, even when it gets down to the underwear. That scene would never play today - there'd have to be a sexual harassment or drug/date rape or some other sordid thing. But here in the 70s (and some of the 80s) sex wasn't so bi-polar, where it's either saintliness or demeaning rutting. Flirting and highbrow theoretics could mix over cocktails as everyone was adults, nothing had to lead anywhere. It was gorgeous.