Last night I forced some friends to watch John Boorman’s film Zardoz, which is a thing I like to do every once in a while. I think this was my fourth time viewing it, but it may be the first time I was able to get past the sheer nuttiness of it to see that there are some things going on in it that are actually pretty subtle. Spoilers follow.
The central premise is that in the far future (the year 2293), a small privileged class of people (the Eternals) has obtained immortality and sets itself up as the custodian of a dying culture (that, it’s implied, they’re partly responsible for destroying). Immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, though. Much like the Struldbrugs in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, immortality does not necessarily entail eternal youth—to become old is to become senile but unable to die, which in this film is a fate worse than death. However, aging only occurs as a penalty for breaking the law, so there’s an immeasurable amount of social pressure to stay on the straight and narrow, more so than for a merely mortal human. The result is a certain cultural stagnation (or stasis, if you approve of what’s happened) that’s borne from a deep-seated aversion to risk. When Sean Connery’s character Zed enters the hermetically sealed world of the Eternals, he upsets that stasis merely by his very presence.
I think it takes two viewings to get even that plot outline down, though—the first time through Zardoz is basically a constant assault of weird images of sometimes questionable taste (Connery’s costume in this is famous for the wrong reasons). But once you’ve got the basic plot in your head, images that at first seem nonsensical begin to display their own internal logic. The nude men and women sealed in plastic bags that crop up here and there turn out to be Eternals who are in the process of regenerating after their previous bodies have been destroyed. The reason that the camera’s eye seems to linger on the nude or partially clothed bodies of the Eternals, emphasizing the hairless chests of the men and the small bosoms of the women, is because time and genetic engineering have given the Eternals a decreased degree of sexual differentiation when compared to the humans that exist outside their sealed world. (And this might explain why Arthur Frayn, the “fake god” who opens the film, has to draw on his beard and mustache.) Even the title of the movie means something different when you’re viewing the movie a second time rather than the first time.
In short, for all its possible flaws (and whether those flaws should actually be considered features is nothing if not arguable—one of my friends said it was hard to say whether the movie was good or bad, and another declared it the best film she’d ever seen), the movie has what Jack Green in his analysis of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions calls “timegrowth”—that is, it’s a work that is deliberately designed to yield some aspects of meaning only after multiple experiences with it. Timegrowth is common to novels of a certain kind (and is easier to deal with in print, when a reader can easily flip back to an earlier part of a book to re-read it), but we don’t often expect it of films, and that might be part of why Zardoz gets a rough critical ride in certain quarters. (Part of that might also be that no one was expecting the director of Deliverance to make a film like Zardoz as a follow-up.) At any rate, there are better films than Zardoz that I’ve enjoyed watching less, and I’m sure I’ll end up revisiting the movie yet again once I find willing victims to foist it on. Perhaps next time it’ll be completely logical and sensible.
(Finally, I recommend Fredric Jameson’s essay on Zardoz for further reading. In the essay he claims that Roger Moore is a better Bond than Connery, but we’ll let that go.)