Seeking Salvation from Information Overload
Written on 09/22/2014, film first viewed by author on 09/19/2014
As any cinephile will attest, there are films that one simply goes to see, and then there are the films that one goes to experience. After a recent discussion with a fellow filmmaker and cinephile, this author agrees that there are three basic kinds of filmmakers: the entertainers, the intellectuals, and the rare type that can do both with a single work.
Terry Gilliam, director of such films as Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and The Brothers Grimm, has been known to be both, an entertainer with some films and an intellectual with others. This makes sense. Gilliam started his recognized body of work animating small cartoons for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which he was a member of. His zany, frame by frame animations firstly entertained, but often walked a tightrope that could lean towards satirical commentary. This led him to become a co-director with fellow Python Terry Jones, taking half of the helm on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It is as comical as it is thought provoking, making light of such subjects as class warfare, religious extremism, and historical tragedies. Since Gilliam started a solo career in directing, he’s had hits and misses. Brazil should be considered a classic, a warning against taking the paths towards a soul-crushing dystopia that likens the messages of George Orwell’s 1984. The Brothers Grimm is more of a purely escapism action film with a dark, fairytale twist. It has more style than substance. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas falls somewhere in between. It has intellect, with a subtext coming straight from source material by Hunter S. Thompson, but is also a drugged-out comedy that parallels the disillusionment of a generation that worked for peace and instead was spit out into a world of paranoia by the Vietnam War era.
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In his latest endeavor, The Zero Theorem, Gilliam returns to a dystopian world while applying his unique style of cinema. On top of that, his lead man is arguably one of the best living actors today: Christoph Waltz. The result is one of the rare gems of cinema in 2014. This film has a message, this film entertains, and this film moves. Some may call The Zero Theorem “futuristic”. Maybe this is so in appearance, but it is far from it in the themes.
Qohen (Waltz) is a number-cruncher, working for a company ran by the all-powerful and all-knowing Management (Matt Damon). In order to help Qohen try to solve the complicated Zero Theorem, where “zero must equal one hundred”, Management sends the teenage genius Bob (Lucas Hedges), and the seductive call girl Bainsley (Melanie Thierry). Bob helps with the hardware and programming, while Bainsley is supposed to be a “stress-reliever”. All the while, Qohen is waiting for an extremely important phone call.
Qohen has successfully convinced Management to let him work at home, where he is more comfortable. He no longer has to venture into the outside world, where he is constantly bombarded by loud, flashing advertisements, high-speed traffic, and distracting communication outlets. Sound familiar? It should. This is not the world of tomorrow. This is our world today. We cannot go a day without connecting to the internet, or texting on our cell phones. Most human beings are just like Qohen, worn thin by being pulled in every direction by social media and consumerism, whether they believe so or not. Much can also be seen inside Qohen’s home, an old gothic sanctuary that he has converted into a living and working space. The fact that it is a sanctuary says a lot. Not only is it a safe place in a religious sense, it is also Qohen’s place of salvation from the hectic, outside environment. In his sanctuary, he is the closest to being completely unplugged. A visual clash of Christian iconography and computers and microwave ovens makes an interesting world of old and new, ideas and materials. Another religious connection is Qohen’s phone call that he anxiously waits for, and he can only answer it in the sanctuary. Is he perhaps the modern spiritualist, looking for elusive answers from the divine?
The sanctuary is penetrated by the outside world in the forms of Bob and Bainsley. Bob attempts to get Qohen to conform, if only a little, to the new world outside, believing it will make him happier. Bainsley tries to satisfy Qohen’s personal life the only way she knows how, by a sophisticated form of cybersex. Qohen and Bainsley must wear special suits that connect to the computers, and then enter a website where they are downloaded into a virtual world where they can do almost anything without consequence. These sequences are thematically familiar, similar to the secret rendezvous of Winston and Julia in 1984, or Adam and Eve eating forbidden fruit in the Book of Genesis. Perhaps the virtual reality is the closest thing to heaven Qohen can dream of.
In The Zero Theorem, Qohen often refers to himself as “we”. Is this a sign of schizophrenia, because in his world it feels as if he must be in more than one place at one time? Or, is he imagining that he represents the lost people, an entire population where everyone has lost their individuality? Maybe Qohen is us, and we must be careful about where we are going in our lives. Are we still our individual selves, or are we just apart of another massive number to crunch?