Monday, 22 June 2009

A Zed & Two Noughts

An obsession with symmetry - of repetition and mirror images; of a creation and creativity suggested by the continual contrast between the theories of Charles Darwin and the artistic expressions of Johannes Vermeer - and in the recurring juxtapositions between light and dark, loss and longing, composition (visual) and decomposition (physical), to tell an engaging and often curiously appealing story about the mindset of bereavement and the ultimate unification that resonates on a level far more personal and emotionally rewarding than many viewers might expect given the director's sometimes justifiable reputation for cold, intellectual dissertation.

On the surface, the film presents its "two noughts" of the title as Oswald and Oliver Deuce (played by the real-life siblings Brian and Eric Deacon) - a literal expression of the "double-oh two" as alluded to in the reverse shot of the film's title, "OO2" (OOZ/e), etc - who offer yet another representation of the theme of twinship that will reoccur throughout. We also have the theme of anthropological study, as we examine these characters as one single facet of a much larger tapestry of ideas and ruminations that Greenaway is using in order to explore the various themes behind the film; while the characters themselves, in turn, examine the objects within the film - such as the various decomposing organisms that hold the secrets to life after death - as well as their own thoughts and feelings brought on by the deaths of their respective wives in a horribly macabre road accident.


A Zed & Two Noughts directed by Peter Greenaway, 1985:

From this, the actual presentation of the film, including its title, A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), works on several levels of interpretation; as Greenaway cleverly explores elements of meta-fiction, self-reference and intertextuality to continually construct, deconstruct and eventually reconstruct the film in a deliberate approach that seems designed to take apart the very basic thematic components of the narrative in order to draw a greater attention to their own manufactured artificiality. This involves the natural juxtaposition between his flat, tableau vivant compositions, and the bounding, highly intricate score by the always inventive Michael Nyman, which here, as indeed in the majority of these early Nyman-Greenaway collaborations, enlivens the film in a rhythmic sense, without losing that notion of the repetitive, highly formal approach to experimentation.

This particular combination, or contrast, as one contradictory element is placed against the other, can also be found in the director's bold use of narration (or the appropriation of such). In a brilliant stroke, Greenaway rejects the spoken text as literary mode as it is most often used in the cinema - brilliantly, for instance in Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975) or Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) - and instead takes the audio directly from the groundbreaking television series Life on Earth (first broadcast, 16th January, 1979) - in which the famed naturalist and documentary-maker Sir David Attenborough travelled the globe in order to trace the evolution of life on this planet. As a result, the use of narration, particularly in such a knowingly ironic way, seems designed to turn the events of the film into some kind of postmodernist post-mortem study; in which the characters become subjects, watched with a detached scientific curiosity, in a clear attempt to place them within a much larger and more intricate sphere of existence beyond our natural comprehension.

This dry, scientific investigatory device is again contrasted by the opulent production design of the film and the lush cinematography of Alain Resnais's frequent collaborator Sacha Vierny; as he and Greenaway experiment (primarily) with various film-lighting sources, including (but not limited to) bright fluorescents, flashlights, car headlamps, sodium bulbs, television monitors and, in one particular sequence, the reflections of an artificial rainbow.


A Zed & Two Noughts directed by Peter Greenaway, 1985:

These techniques are mostly used in an attempt to add a separate layer of interpretation to the compositions; which naturally, given the secondary themes explored within the film, draw on the presentation of the twenty-six featured paintings of the aforementioned Vermeer. It also ties in nicely with Greenaway's own interests in visual symmetry, twin ship and the interplay between light and dark (all of which relates explicitly to the themes and ideas developed within the script itself). There are also further obsessions with the number 26 and how it relates to the (English-language) Alphabet - which is recited throughout by a character as part of a game that is used to list the names of various zoo animals - as well as the twenty-six ways of lighting a scene, as previously alluded to.

As a result of this onslaught of onscreen information, it could be beneficial (either before or after seeing the film) to read up on the working life of the Dutch-born Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer; one of the central influences on the film and its aesthetic presentation. Throughout the film, Greenaway makes cryptic references to Vermeer's life and work, including his marriage to Catherina Bolenes and the existence of the infamous art-forger Han van Meegeren, as well as designing aspects of the film to match the actual interiors of Vermeer's own studio in Delft (or at least as it appears in his work). In fact, so fastidious was Greenaway in his attention to detail that he even made sure that the floor-tiling was smudged and slightly skewed in order to perfectly match the floors in Vermeer's own work - case in point, The Concert (Musicerend trio, 1664); one particularly good example of the "x-marks the spot" type effect.


The Concert by Johannes Vermeer, 1664:


A Zed & Two Noughts directed by Peter Greenaway, 1985:

[The two brothers, identified by their positioning beneath the Vermeer paintings, The Geographer and The Astronomer (1668/69), discuss their plans with the film's own faker (and a possible model for the director), Van Meegeren]


A Zed & Two Noughts directed by Peter Greenaway, 1985:

[A facsimile of Vermeer's masterpiece The Art of Painting (1666), with the physical model taken from his later piece, The Girl with a Red Hat (1668) being brought in to portray Catherina Bolenes, though here exposing her pubic hair in one of Greenaway's many audacious examples of artistic deconstruction]


A Zed & Two Noughts directed by Peter Greenaway, 1985:

The film also explores various ideas lifted from the theories of Desmond Morris, the author of the books The Naked Ape: A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal (1967) and The Human Zoo (1969); the particular adaptation of which can be seen in the character of Venus de Milo (Frances Barber) - who's eroticised nature and bestial urges find expression behind the barred gates of the Rotterdam Zoo - and in the odd relationship between Alba Bewick (Andréa Ferréol) and Felipe Arc-en-Ciel (Wold Kahler), who find themselves both without legs (symmetry/two noughts/e-t-c) and considering a romantic liaison, given the fact that they've essentially become an equivalent species.


A Zed & Two Noughts directed by Peter Greenaway, 1985:

["In the land of the legless the one-legged woman is queen" - Alba Bewick]



Naturally, there are the usual abstractions and games that Greenaway weaves into the drama, as well as the somewhat unconventional approach to the casting of the film; with the classically trained Joss Ackland appearing alongside the vulgar comedian Jim Davidson; the untrained child-actor Agnés Brulet alongside familiar television actor Geoffrey Palmer; and the lead casting of brothers Brian and Eric Deacon, playing twins, but actually born a few years apart. All of these devises are further examples of Greenaway's deconstruction of the preconceptions that many viewers might have in approaching a film that toys with the themes of loss and dislocation.


A Zed & Two Noughts directed by Peter Greenaway, 1985:

[Presentations of twinship: Oswald and Oliver bind themselves together using the tape that littered the crash-site where the car, driven by Alba, containing their wives, careened off the road and into a striped black and white lamppost; while below, the mise-en-scene of Greenaway and Vierny conspires to tear them apart]


A Zed & Two Noughts directed by Peter Greenaway, 1985:

As ever with Greenaway's work, there will be many who see it as an empty self-indulgence, or worse, pretentious self-satisfaction - as the allusions to art and creation are woven into a storyline with numerous references to science and evolution, all of which is used to foreground a very modest, almost melodramatic narrative about these two brothers reunited through grief. However, even if you cannot accept the idiosyncratic twists or deliberately deconstructive moments that are often at the forefront of Greenaway's creative intentions, there is simply no denying the enormous filmmaking ability that is demonstrated by the use of location and production design, the masterful shot compositions, the extraordinary use of sound and music and the sheer weight of ideas that the filmmaker is able to seamlessly layer into the proceedings; offering the usual esoteric, essayist predilections as the characters ponder and pontificate, and yet still managing to anchor the film to the obsessions and desires at the heart of these characters lives.

All of these various factors and ideas are brought together to tell the central story of the film, which in a precursor to the later film 8 ½ Women (1999), deals with the notions of grief and bereavement and how these various characters deal with such devastation; retreating into themselves and into one another to reclaim that connection to the world that has since been severed. Again, if we disregard Greenaway's intellectual experiments and visual eccentricities, the film can easily be approached as a tragic if somewhat reserved story about the collapse of these two related characters following the loss of their beloved partners, and of the eventual descent into both regression and obsession that is perfectly accompanied by the stunning mise-en-scene.