A Great Eye & A Tin Ear
This is going to be a column about two Terry Gilliam movies; ‘Brazil’ VS ‘The Zero Theorem’. But don’t let the geekiness put you off – I’m trying to make a point about how we experience things.
In my old job I saw a lot of films accompanied by artists. After, we’d compare notes. I’d say the story was flawed, they’d say they loved all the blue, or the bit in the mountains. We zero in on the parts we can read best.
There was always something that worried me about director Terry Gilliam, and I finally figured out what it is. Right from his early days on Monty Python and before, his rich imagination overtook his sense of timing, which was often very slightly off. The joke set-ups went on too long because, like Ridley Scott, he was more interested in the visuals more than the structure of humour.
And like Scott, Gilliam is only brilliant when he’s matched with a brilliant script. So when you’ve got Chris Marker writing ’12 Monkeys’ or Tom Stoppard writing ‘Brazil’, you’ve an almost perfect combination. But when the writer is inexperienced (as Pat Rushin writing ‘The Zero Theorem’) you’re in trouble because the rich, dense visuals are not matched by an equally rigorous structure.
‘Brazil’ surprised from its opening line; ‘Hello there. I want to talk to you about ducts.’ It felt – and still feels – prescient, with its combination of Kafka and Orwell, set in a world where we’re sold shoddy dreams to cover up an increasingly fascistic society that’s terrified of terrorists.
Although ‘Brazil’ is closely modelled on ‘1984’ it still shocks, especially in the light of Guantanamo Bay and 7/7. Sam Lowry is doomed because he tries to act as an individual, because he asks questions, because he has dreams that run against state control. He defies his boss and his mother and starts to wonder about his place in the world, but we can see that the very dreams that set him free will doom him – it’s a classic Stoppard paradox that holds the story together and makes it deeply satisfying, no matter how strange the visuals become.
Unfortunately, in the much later ‘The Zero Theorem’ almost everything about this dystopia is reversed. Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is unlikeably sociopathic, cold and remote, and his quest to find out the truth about the Management, who run our world, doesn’t make any sense, either to his character or to us. His love interest is fetishised and sidelined, whereas the equivalent role in ‘Brazil’ was empowered and central to the story. For all the talk about the computation of the universe, Leth solves his dilemma with – a hammer. And most harmfully, the film has only the vaguest of denouements. Leth may escape into his mind, but at no cost to himself or to anything else. There are more plot ideas left dangling than in ‘Brazil”s errant cabling. We’re left a backdrop of intrusive public advertising and ugly fashions, all of which we’ve seen before.
I desperately wanted to love this film, but right from the start ‘The Zero Theorem’ is in trouble, with a self-consciously whacky party scene stuck where the story advancement should be. There are nice touches, like the Boris Johnson ads on the buses exhorting people to ‘Drive on the Right’ (for overseas readers, he’s our right-wing mayor), but when you start staring at the set design instead of thinking about the story, you know the film’s in trouble.
Gilliam always seeks out top-notch actors – here he has Matt Damon (appearing in chameleon suits for no apparent reason), David Thewlis and Tilda Swinton turning up – so why doesn’t he seek out the most experienced writers? Oddly, ‘The Zero Theorem’ feels as if it precedes ‘Brazil’ – it’s less sophisticated, less witty, less disciplined, more cliched and confused. And that’s just the wrong way around. Visual sense has to be coupled with purpose and plot, or it’s simply something pretty to look at.