Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Zed and Two Noughts

Superior resources: lights in the dusk

There are some subjects which are tackled so often and in so many ways that it seems like the potential for exploring them in any new way has been completely exhausted, and then Peter Greenaway explores them in a way which partitions the great, great majority of the previous attempts off into one small subset of approaches and exposes the confines of previous approaches as little more than self-segregation. Take grief, for example: There are innumerable approaches toward the psychological experience of grief, but what of the anthropological significance? I can name but one, A Zed and Two Noughts, at the moment. Perhaps there are films which broach the philosophical question, and perhaps A Zed and Two Noughts has as well, and perhaps such an approach is more esoteric and not quite as easily recognizable as a psychological one, but the anthropological one is quite apparent here, and by no means definitive. After all, Vermeer has little to do with the anthropological significance of grief, as far as I can tell, and perhaps this is even more disconcerting: this film opens up uncharted territory in a subject which isn’t even its sole focus whereas there are an innumerable amount of films redundantly exploring at great redundant length the psychological aspects. It’s not a surprise, of course, but sometimes it’s fun to imagine that the world’s most creative people are given an abundance of chances to exhibit that creativity.

An unimportant question: Is it possible to make a painting about grief without featuring a grieving person in the painting? However ardently you stand by your rejection of the possibility or however creatively you craft an answer to the affirmative is quite irrelevant, to my mind, but it does call to mind three significant ideas: This film is in many ways about grief, this film has a lot to do with painting, and whether or not it appears at any given moment to be about either or not it most certainly will have sprung out of a fatal car crash in a film by a filmmaker obsessed (as if this is even a question at this point in time) with painting. Perhaps obsession is too great a term; are the brothers in the film obsessed with grief or merely occupied by it? They certainly turn their occupation, whatever it may have consisted of beforehand, into a study of the many facets of the aftermath of death and loss in much the same way that the filmmaker has turned his occupation, whatever it may have consisted of beforehand, into a study of the many facets of painting. Maybe this would be viewed by some as an odd instance of foreshadowing if the habit weren’t already apparent in his previous films or if those things featured in his earlier films, like references to an architect and drownings, didn’t inevitably show up as the central premises of his future films. Then the question becomes, and this one is no less important: Is there anything surprising or interesting in the films of a man whose life and work is so clearly laid out beforehand? Given that I hold him in an esteem that few others can even hope to approach the answer to this question is rather academic, but it does bring up a more interesting point: If there is any filmmaker who truly knows himself and is able to express that which he knows about himself it is Peter Greenaway. I have already explained how I think what he knows and shares shows most other filmmakers to be lacking in creativity, so whatever he knows about himself is something I am immensely interested in. Which brings me to one such film, finally: the one this post is supposed to be about.

Whether making light of amputation is a sign of the brightest minds in comedy, by ‘flesh wound’ or any other name, or whether it is simply a pastime of the British I cannot myself verify, but I will always be thankful for it. I must here voice my appreciation for the construction of a film in such a way where it is nothing short of an artistic mandate that each amputated leg be met with its symmetrical equal. Mark that down as another way in which this film approaches a heretofore rarely explored aspect of a subject: amputation as a glaring aberration in the face of symmetry, with only the casual implication of physical and psychological trauma. I’m sure there are more, but I can’t be bothered to catalogue them all. There are far more typical elements to the film, as well, like being drawn to time lapse photography of decaying animals as a natural recourse for grieving a dying spouse, along with the attempt to trace the evolution of life on Earth in order to derive some explanation for a freak accident involving an automobile and a swan. If you don’t believe me then you obviously have not seen P.S. I Love You or any of the many films it derives from. And if you haven't seen it, how do you know I'm lying? 

The end of the film speaks for itself, surely, but there is a moment directly preceding it which I feel deserves a mention: After a prolonged and enthusiastic wrangling for the possession of the corpse of the symmetrical amputee, between the two Noughts and the inhabitant of the corpse-to-be, the family of the fresh corpse quickly provide an anti-climax to the proceedings which is, out of the blue, actually emotionally affective if still staged surreally, something which perhaps is not meant to color the preceding events as a grand farce but does so in my mind anyway, and I adore the effect this simple inversion has both in its immediate context and in its retroactive reverberations.This is the first instance where other grieving people enter into the frame, and their reaction is no longer one of unobstructed pacification. All of their bizarre action up until that point had been wonderfully cinematic, but once the problem that the brothers are facing turns up for someone else their own efforts are contextualized as self serving and unhelpful. This is not to say that their efforts are inhuman, but it does establish that the freedom their grief affords them extends only to a point, whereupon they become an exhibit themselves. The film is not a flippant examination of two brothers in grief, it is a symmetrically inventive examination of two symmetrical brothers' inventively flippant approach to grief. The film summarily ends on another anticlimactic note, of course, so these two moments of anticlimax also work in symmetry with each other (could the film really end once?), and I feel like the final anticlimax of a failed experiment is similarly unexpectedly emotional as it reflects the futility of their experiments in science to solve the metaphysical problem of death. It is a fittingly futile end to a wonderfully twisted Sisyphean struggle against the problem that death poses to the living.

1 comment:

  1. “the final anticlimax of a failed experiment is similarly unexpectedly emotional as it reflects the futility of their experiments in science to solve the metaphysical problem of death”

    Yes. Perfect.

    I just re-watched this one. Such an amazing film! And, I couldn’t agree more with your enthusiasm about Greenaway, my favorite director and my entrée into the world of film. As for the movie, while I don’t disagree with what you say about the confrontation between the twins and Alba’s family, I do find that my empathy is all with the “self serving and unhelpful” side. Grief is as individual and unpredictable as genetic recombination. Sure, there may be people who fall into the “seven stages,” but there are far more struggling through processes as unique as griever and grieved. My own grief didn’t take the form of grand gesture, or art, or sacrifice – but it’s strangely satisfying to watch as theirs does (futile or not). It’s catharsis.