Terry Gilliam’s Latest Sci-Fi Adventure The Zero Theorem Serves Up Wild and Wonderful Images

Terry Gilliam is a gifted, ambitious filmmaker who, sadly, may now be more famous for being misunderstood and underfunded than he is for actually making movies. The Zero Theorem isn’t likely to reverse that equation. In this half-squirrely, half-torpid sci-fi adventure, Christoph Waltz, with a shaved head and a face devoid of eyebrows, plays Qohen Leth, a lonely, put-upon programmer who toils away for a megacorporation known as Mancom. Qohen is unraveling emotionally. He’s been waiting for years for a phone call, one that he’s sure will magically change his life. He’s so obsessed that he puts in a request to work from home, so he won’t miss it when it comes. After a number of humiliating medical evaluations and an encounter with Mancom’s big cheese (Matt Damon), his wish is granted — though his immediate boss, scrawny, weedy manager-type Joby (David Thewlis), essentially punishes him with a programming assignment that’s 1,000 percent impossible.

There’s lots more, if you can stand it, including a whiz-kid computer brat who also happens to be the big boss’s son (Lucas Hedges) and a Kewpie-doll vixen who’s been paid off to distract Qohen sexually (Mélanie Thierry). Tilda Swinton shows up, as Dr. Shrink-Rom (pretty much the same pinched, shrill character she did in Snowpiercer), the efficient psychiatrist in charge of assessing, though not improving, Qohen’s mental state. The story goes off in a dozen directions, with very little in the way of satisfying, or even unsatisfying, resolution. And it riffs on the same old
Gilliam-esque themes — we’re all just helpless drones in a mad, inhospitable world — without adding much that’s new. (Gilliam has said that The Zero Theorem is the final installment in a trilogy of dystopian satires, following Brazil and Twelve Monkeys.)

It’s possible, though, that at this point nobody goes to a Terry Gilliam movie for the story, and that’s probably wise. His visual inventiveness is the thing we’re all interested in, and The Zero Theorem does serve up some wild and wonderful images. Qohen’s home — he explains, at one point, that he bought it at fire-sale prices — is a former monastery that looks like a desiccated Italianate mansion, with checkerboard marble floors and grand religious paintings dotting its vast walls. And in our first glimpse of hotshot boss Damon (his character goes by the simple and highly descriptive name “Management”), he’s wearing a zebra-print suit while reclining in a zebra-print chair, an amusing example of trompe l’oeil magic. That’s the sort of bonkers visual drama at which Gilliam excels. Too bad the story tucked around all that production design is such a futuristic drag.


On Russia, With Love

They say Jews and Italians are basically the same, but with different food. I think it’s really Russians and Italians who are the same—or rather, one Russian in particular, writer Gary Shteyngart. The celebrated author commemorated the publication of his second novel, Absurdistan, at the Russian-themed bar Pravda last week, getting his guests drunk on Russian vodka and handing out CDs of him reading a chapter (“Gary sings the blues!” he said cheerfully). Shteyngart is prone to waving his hands in the air and saying “Ey!”—like my Italian grandmother. He did write the follow-up to The Russian Debutante’s Handbook while living in Rome, which led me to wonder: Which other foreign place will he live in while writing about all things Russian? Thailand may be next but, he exclaimed, “I just got back from Brazil!” which he accompanied with the hand gesture. “Everyone is hot!” he added, fanning himself. Maybe he is my Italian grandmother.

I tried to extract embarrassing stories about Shteyngart from our mutual friend, his high school pal Adrienne Day. She started to tell me a tale involving barter money, the Mafia, and Robert De Niro—which confirmed my Guido theory—but was interrupted when his editor, Random House bigwig Daniel Menaker, read a letter from Gary proposing a book called A Million Little Da Vinci Codes of JT Leroy, adding that the new novel resembles something called Anna Karenina, in which life in Russia is Very Hard. “I stole some of that. I admit it. I stole it. I’m sorry.” Busted.

The crowd was filled with serious- seeming literary types, and since I only read Gawker, Star, and my e-mail, I couldn’t identify anyone who wasn’t Carlos D., and had to be told. On hand: novelists Gabe Hudson and Chang-rae Lee, Slate peeps Jacob Weisberg and Megan O’Rourke, The Paris Review‘s Philip Gourevitch, and New York mag’s David Amsden, who is on the exact opposite beat as me (he’s Poor Little Rich Kids, I’m Fake-Poor Little Rich Kids). “I’m sorry I don’t have anything snarky to say,” apologized Amsden. (That’s OK, I just took care of that.)

The next night, I went to a Tribeca Film Festival screening of Brothers of the Head, about conjoined twins fused at the lower chest who are sold into a punk band by their father. Co-directed by Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton (the duo behind the doc Lost in La Mancha), it’s a pitch-perfect mockumentary of the rise and fall of a band—audience members walk out thinking that the band, the Bang Bang, is actually real. No, no.

Yes, yes, said Pepe at the after-party thrown by Tokion at the Motor City Bar. “I hear people saying, ‘I think I’ve got their CD at home.’ ” Like the makers of another recent musical mockumentary, It’s All Gone Pete Tong, they’ve helped along the fake-real-band thing. In England, merch was for sale on eBay, white-label records were pressed up, and naturally, the band’s got a MySpace page. Coupled with the sepia-toned images and the unvarnished songs written by Clive Langer, the film feels very Iggy Pop Raw Power.

Insert ill-gotten segue here: Speaking of bang bangs, Hot 97 is facing eviction by its landlords, the Carpenters Pension Fund, for a series of altercations and shootings inside or near the building. The court doc is unintentionally hilarious—it explains how rappers arrive with “so-called posses or entourages,” mocks 50 Cent and the Game as “two crack dealers turned ‘artists’ ” (note the quote marks around the word artists), and actually has a section titled “Promoting ‘Feuds’ or ‘Beefs’ Between Rap Artists.”

Among the “shocking allegations” (note the quotation marks, mine):
Puff Daddy
and his 15-strong entourage arrived at the station “noticeably smelling of marijuana” on one occasion and were “rude and disrespectful” to security on another. But any business—let alone a radio station— that’s been the site of three shootings should
probably move to a desert island. And to think they shut down clubs for having “illegal” dancing. (Quotes mine.) Lame, lame.


Unsung Visions from a Softcore Surrealist

Walerian Borowczyk, master Polish animator turned softcore surrealist, we barely knew ye. Dead at 82 last month, Borowczyk was widely considered an international master (he warranted a 1981 entry in David Thomson’s infamously insulated Biographical Dictionary of Film, when Chantal Akerman, Mikhail Kalatozov, Mikio Naruse, and Stan Brakhage did not) but was rarely screened, and few media mouths in the English- speaking world knew enough to sing him an elegy. Truth be told, he was never an easily digestible figure, and the later (and most easily found) live-action films were overtaken with a witty salaciousness that seems risibly dated today. But he is always mentioned as an influence on the Brothers Quay, even if his earlier postwar shorts—like Les Astronautes (1959), co-directed with Chris Marker and the sole sample of the filmmaker’s earlier stop-motion work in this box set—were the obvious source-well for Terry Gilliam’s subsequent achievements with archival images, 2-D movement, and perspectival gaggery. The box otherwise contains Borowczyk’s first feature, Goto, Island of Love (1969), an absurd and free-associative parable (starring the ethereal Mrs. Borowczyk, Ligia Branice, star of Marker’s La Jetée, later remade by Gilliam!) about a fascist royal government on a secluded island that dissolves due to lust and betrayal. Composed flatly in an ancient factory like a tabletop animation but peopled by humans, Goto may’ve presaged the Quays’ Institute Benjamenta in style and Gilliam’s Brazil in thrust. Also included are The Beast (1975), which explodes out a Grimm-style black-forest legend-cycle of maidens and horny beasts with an endless parade of faux phalluses and monstrous ejaculations, and Love Rites (1988), Borowczyk’s final film and a modern tale of lusty obsession (starring Mathieu Carriére) that comes in two lengths (“director’s” and “complete”). Trailers, essays, postcards.