Tag Archives: Joss Ackland

340. A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS (1985)

“The film contains three absurd propositions that aren’t impossible but are highly improbable: 1) Siamese twins who don’t want to be reunited; 2) a woman fascinated by zebras who dreams of being raped by them; and 3) a crippled woman who gives birth to twins whose fathers are also twins. These are deliberately bizarre notions that we’ll be trying to render believable using all the artifices of cinema.”–Peter Greenaway on A Zed and Two Noughts

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Brian Deacon, Eric Deacon, , Frances Barber, , Agnès Brulet

PLOT: The wives of two zoologist brothers are killed when a car driven by their friend Alba Bewick strikes a swan outside the zoo where they work. The grieving brothers question Alba, now missing a leg and bed-ridden, trying to find answers to the tragedy, while simultaneously documenting the decomposition of various animal corpses with time-lapse photography. Eventually both brothers fall for Alba, forming a strange menage a trois.

Still from A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)

BACKGROUND:

  • This was Peter Greenaway’s second theatrical feature, after The Draughtsman’s Contract (1980’s The Falls was made for television). It was partially filmed at the Rotterdam Zoo.
  • Zed was the first (of an eventual eight) of Greenaway’s collaborations with cinematographer Sacha Vierny. Vierny’s other projects included Last Year at Marienbad, Belle de Jour, and The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, making him arguably 366’s favorite cinematographer.
  • In keeping with the alphabetic sub-theme, Greenaway and Vierny worked out twenty-six different ways to light a set.
  • Painter Johannes Vermeer inspired the film’s look. The character named Van Hoyten is a reference to van Meegeren, the famous Vermeer forger.
  • On its original American release A Zed and Two Noughts was sometimes screened alongside “Street of Crocodiles.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Peter Greenaway films each scene like a painting: static, with characters arranged in precise visual relationships, moving very little. That technique creates a multitude of memorable tableaux: two children dragging a dog past the enormous blue ZOO sign at the Rotterdam Zoo, Alba with her head sticking through the car windshield while a swan’s hindquarters decorate the hood, the twins flanking the legless woman in bed. For something with a bit of motion to it, you could pick one of the slightly nauseating time-lapse experiments, such as the decaying  zebra corpse (which heaves as it is swollen with scurrying maggots, then deflates as they consume its guts). We decided on the image of the legless man standing erect on crutches, a character who suddenly shows up in the film for no other reason than to provide a masculine symmetry to maternal amputee Alba.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Accident on Swann’s way; sex for corpses; snail suicide sabotage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Greenaway’s highly structured, artificial movies often come off as strange simply because of the complicated intellectual conceits behind them; but this tale of amputees, carcasses, and cages played out in the stylized zoo of his mind might be his weirdest, right down to its decaying bones.


Brief clip (opening) from A Zed and Two Noughts

COMMENTS: A Zed and Two Noughts begins with death and climaxes Continue reading 340. A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS (1985)

LIST CANDIDATE: A ZED & TWO NOUGHTS (1985)

AKA ZOO

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Brian Deacon, Eric Deacon, , , Frances Barber

PLOT: After the deaths of their wives in a freak car crash, the brothers Oswald and Oliver, both zoologists, pursue different paths of obsession in an attempt to cope with their losses.

Still from A Zed & Two Nougts (1985)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As an art-house film, A Zed & Two Noughts succeeds with its precise interiors, high-minded dialogue, and a cavalcade of mise en scène goodies. Smashed into its philosophizing and clever conversation are decomposing animals, two differently unhinged brothers, a surgeon with an unhealthy obsession with Vermeer, and a borderline-spastic score from long-time Greenaway collaborator, Michael Nyman.

COMMENTS: Taking the idea of in medias res to its logical conclusion, A Zed & Two Noughts (hereafter to be referred to as ZOO) starts with a flash of photography and a smash of a white swan onto a white car. Inside, two women perish—and a third survives, only to have had her leg crushed beyond repair. So far, so good—but not so “art house”, I hear you think. Yet this unlikely (and grisly) beginning somehow morphs into one of the most precisely arranged specimens of film I’ve had the pleasure to watch. After climaxing in the first few minutes, the remainder acts as something of an extended dénouement, culminating in a comparably macabre, though more peaceful, conclusion.

Stylistically, ZOO is like nothing more than a painting. Every shot is impeccably staged, suggesting that director Peter Greenaway could give even a lesson or two on orderliness in the frame. Scene after scene exhibits meticulous use of vertical and horizontal framing: doorways, windows, mirrors. Those who know a thing or two about Greenaway will be unsurprised: he trained as a painter before beginning his career as a film-maker. The precision of the film’s look is mirrored within it by the surgeon Van Meegeren, who obsesses over the Dutch painter Vermeer, going so far as to try and recreate the latter’s masterpieces Lady Seated at Virginal and The Music Lesson, using the fiery-haired Alba Bewick (the survivor of the opening car crash) as a template. During her first surgery we see him lightly caress her exposed body; after convincing her that her second leg needs removal, we see the surgeon’s assistant provide Alba with a new hair-do and earrings to make her look more like the young women in the Vermeer paintings.

Somehow I have as yet to mention the centerpiece of this refined ostentation, the Deuce brothers. Oliver and Oswald Deuce are, combined, the main character of ZOO. At the film’s beginning, they are obviously identifiable as separate people. Oswald is, so to speak, the left brain: he starts by trying to work out the facts, the tiniest specifics, leading up the deadly car crash that took his wife’s life. Oliver, on the other hand, is right-brained. He contemplates the greater role that the cosmos played in the tragedy as part of his mourning process, watching David Attenborough’s “Life on Earth” program. He feels he needs to start from scratch–the TV series spans some millions of years of natural history—in order to work his way to how events conspired to take his wife from him.

Events proceed in a sinister direction. The brothers’ work starts as time-lapse photographs of rotting fruit, then small fish, and finally works up to their penultimate project: the recording of a zebra’s decomposition. Thrown into this mess of decay, philosophy, paintings, and obtrusive music is an aspiring bestiality writer, a zoo warden who moonlights procuring exotic meats, and sundry “unexplained” escapes of animals. ZOO poses some tough questions, perhaps the most important of which is educed by the zoo’s chief administrator: “What valuable conclusion can be gained from all this rotting meat?”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Greenaway’s eccentric exploration of where all life’s absurd varieties must begin and end is, like a road accident, always fascinating, if not exactly pleasurable, to watch.”–Anton Bitel, Movie Gazette

CAPSULE: WATERSHIP DOWN (1978)

DIRECTED BY: Martin Rosen, John Hubley (uncredited)

FEATURING: Voices of , Zero Mostel, Richard Briers, , , Denholm Elliott, Harry Andrews, Nigel Hawthorne, Michael Hordern,

PLOT: Rabbits living in a warren called Sandleford leave their home when one of them, named Fiver (Briers), has a foreboding vision. Fiver and his brother Hazel (Hurt) lead their companions to a new hill, but the group finds even more acrimony and strife when they meet the imposing General Woundwort (Andrews).

Still from Watership Down (1978)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Because while often dark, violent and sad, this film is only weird if you think that “cartoons” are only for kids. Anyone who’s seen Yellow Submarine, or practically any anime from Japan knows better. Watership Down is mature, but not weird.

COMMENTS: :Since most audiences think of animated characters as cute, furry and musical (like in most Disney product) or incessantly wisecracking (as in the films from Dreamworks, and practically every other studio), it’s refreshing to mentally travel back to a time—1978—when animation was in the doldrums, and filmmakers would take a chance on something as melancholy and brooding as Watership Down. In this movie, based on Richard Adams’ 1974 bestseller, rabbits bleed, foam at the mouth and die—on camera. There are no pop culture references, no Broadway-style musical numbers, and no jokes about bodily functions. So it’s easy to admire and appreciate this British film—on an academic level– for doing something different. But, unfortunately, the movie is just not that compelling. The animation is… good enough, with the bunnies being still cute, but not excessively anthropomorphic. But some of the other supporting characters, like the annoying seagull Kehaar (voiced by the great Zero Mostel, in his final performance), seem to have flown in straight from a 1970’s Saturday morning cartoon. There are several impressive backgrounds, and effects like flowing water, which are particularly impressive when you consider that this was all done before the dawn of CGI. For a low-budget film, the animation isn’t bad. But the pacing is lethargic (it seems like the movie is almost half over before it really gets going), and it seems that trying to compress Adams’ 475-page novel into 92-minutes (which is only about as long as most conventional animated productions) is problematic.

With 36 years having passed since the release of this film, it’s difficult to watch it now without being reminded of other animated pictures with at least superficially similar plots. For instance, there was the admittedly much more light-hearted Chicken Run (another rare British animated film), about hens trying to escape a farm, as well as The Secret of NIMH, about a family of mice trying to relocate their home. Compared to those two gems, Watership Down comes up a bit short. On the plus side, the film’s music by Angela Morley is beautiful and haunting, as is Mike Batts’s song “Bright Eyes”, sung unmistakably by Art Garfunkel. When “Bright Eyes” is reprised during the closing moments of “Watership Down”, it’s genuinely affecting.

The DVD (there is no North American Region A Blu-ray) comes with a couple of behind-the-scenes documentaries that are arguably more interesting than the movie itself. In one of them, director-writer-producer Rosen explains how he–having never directed anything before–took over the reins after original director John Hubley left, and how Malcolm Williamson also bailed on the project after writing only two pieces of music for the film. Angela Morley then came in and adapted that minimal score for the entire movie.

One final bit of trivia. “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” called Watership Down “One of the best non-Disney animated films ever made.” While this is arguable in itself, the quote on the back of the DVD box eliminates the “non-Disney” qualification!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…filled with… extraordinary pieces of mythic imagery…”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Wormhead.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)