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The Future’s Stranger Than He Thought: An Interview with Zero Theorem Director Terry Gilliam

“I’ll always be anti-authoritarian, as long as I live,” says Terry Gilliam, the comic provocateur who’s been taking aim at the establishment for over four decades. The only thing that changes: his targets. In Life of Brian, it was religion. In Brazil, the government. And in his latest film, The Zero Theorem, it’s the biggest oppressor of all: big business. Says Gilliam, “Governments are second rate compared to corporations when it comes to power and influence on our lives.”

The Zero Theorem stars Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth, a reclusive computer drone whose life is at the mercy of his employer, MANCORP. His boss, a godlike figure named Management (Matt Damon), and his underlings dictate everything from Qohen’s therapist (Tilda Swinton) to his sexual fantasies, thanks to a virtual-reality geisha (Mélanie Thierry) they’ve hired to keep him complacent. Like Sam in Brazil, Qohen is a ticking time bomb of frustration. The difference is that Gilliam’s realized that the future he envisioned 30 years ago was wildly off base. Instead of a monochromatic dystopia that drowns people in paper, he now predicts a sensory overload of colors and pixels and bleeps. “We’re going to drown in nice clothes and workplaces that are like playrooms,” he says with a giggle. “It’s fun!

“We are creating a giant brain that is all of humanity,” says Gilliam. He admits, “That you can access the information that you need is just fantastic, it’s extraordinary.” But it’s also loud, oppressive, and isolating. On the sidewalks of Zero Theorem, ads and information tickers stalk citizens down the street. At parties, people crowd together but socialize alone, isolated by their headphones and iPads. Only Qohen, with his bald pate and black robes, stands out like a burned-out bulb. He can’t take the chaos, hastily scurrying back to the old stone church where he lives, his literal sanctuary.

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

Gilliam is no digital monk. Now 73, he tweets. On Facebook, he has 383,424 friends. “But I don’t actually want to talk to those people,” he admits. Still, the lo-fi creative who once invented a new cartoon language from scissors and cut-out illustrations has succumbed to internet addiction. He spends whole days before his 32-inch computer monitor. “I sit there and I’m checking the news as if I’m going to find something interesting suddenly,” says Gilliam. “I have to physically pull myself away from it, go into another room and grab a bite — anything to escape the power of my computer.”

With film budgets shrinking by the year, he’s had to use social media to self-advertise. “Despite Sony’s best efforts at non-publicity, Zero Theorem is now available in the U.K. on DVD and BluRay!!” he dashed off in a recent self-deprecating post. “My advice is to watch the film sitting as closely as possible to your home screen to experience what you might have experienced had you seen it in the cinema.”

For years, he at least forbade himself from owning a smartphone. But last year, he gave in and took one home from The Zero Theorem set. Recently, the phone broke for a few days, and he panicked. “It’s black and it looks like the monolith from 2001 and I’m the ape there worshipping it.” (Not that he’s into worship. The former Minnesota seminary student managed to ditch religion and the U.S. government by reinventing himself as a British atheist: “America’s winning the war of bureaucracy,” he sighs).

Zero Theorem was supposed to be made for $20 million, but was slashed down post-handshake to $8.5 million. “It doesn’t look like an $8.5 million movie,” says Gilliam, “and I don’t seem to get any credit for that.” His reputation as a spendthrift has yet to recover from the financial disaster of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. (Maybe it will next year, when the ill-fated The Man Who Killed Don Quixote finally — hopefully — starts shooting in the Canary Islands.)

He’s aware that he’s become one of the plugged-in promoters his own film rails against, though he tries to keep it in check. “It’s the me-ness that drives me crazy,” says Gilliam. “It’s almost like people aren’t individuals, they’re just saying I am here, and then once that message goes out to the world, they can relax for a few seconds before they have to say I am here again. If Descartes was alive now, it would be, ‘Je tweet, donc je suis‘ — I tweet, therefore I am.”

No wonder, then, that his out-of-step Qohen Leth insists on referring to himself with the plural “we.” And Qohen is terrified of the youth of the future, in particular a scarily efficient post-post-post-millennial who insists on calling everyone “Bob” because he refuses to waste mental space by memorizing names.

Yet Gilliam, who has raised three kids in the internet age, celebrates rudeness. At least, it’s better than the inverse — that interconnectedness and insta-gossip will pressure people to guard their online reputations by being cautious and polite. “That’s the beginning of a really nice form of fascism,” warns the unflagging firebrand. “The right to offend is important.”

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Epic Charms, but in the Most Traditional Manner

Is calling a film’s narrative structure “airtight” a compliment or a pejorative? Clockwork storytelling can entertain, yet such mechanisms can also seem overly constructed, like one of those essays that gets high scores from the SAT folks. If one of those essays became an animated movie it might be Epic. This rather average-scaled adventure concerns a young woman, MK (voiced by Amanda Seyfried), who visits her father, Bomba (Jason Sudeikis), with hopes of talking him out of his reclusive lifestyle. Bomba’s life’s work is attempting to prove that a fantastical society of miniature people lives in the nearby woods. MK’s cynicism turns to belief when she is shrunken down to thimble-size and winds up a player in the battle between the forces of good and evil in the forest world. Christoph Waltz has tons of fun in his role as the chief baddie, surely the best-cast voice here. Epic, presented in 3D, is noteworthy for its depictions of characters flying (birds are the energy-efficient vehicles of this green society) and swinging through the woods, with image depth that practically hypnotizes. With its array of goofy sidekicks (Aziz Ansari as a slug almost runs away with the whole picture) and carefully crafted relationships, Epic certainly manages to tell a compelling tale. Yet in a post-Up era where animated films can pulse with profound truths, the question remains: Is mere entertainment enough?

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Robert Pattinson Looks Smoochable as Reese Witherspoon Emotes in Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants falls in the grand line of star vehicles designed to pull back the curtain on the Hollywood sausage-making process just enough to remind audiences that stars—particularly the fresh, young, fuckable variety—are totally awesome. This story of “pretty much the most famous circus disaster in history” features Robert Pattinson—tween-bait marquee-topper thanks to Twilight, but basically untested as an actual, like, actor—as Jacob, a Depression-era veterinary student who joins a B-grade circus run by the volatile August (Christoph Waltz), whose dazzling younger wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), headlines the show’s animal-heavy spectacular. When Marlena’s favorite horse dies, August, who treats his staff like indentured slaves, acquires an elephant and forces vet and wife to figure out what to do with it; furtive romance ensues. Beautifully designed, sufficiently choreographed, insipid but watchable, Elephants stresses that showbiz is about the maintenance of an illusion by any means necessary. And as far as it exists to pull a hot young thing out of the minor leagues, the film itself feels like a desperate ploy to keep the star system churning in the face of looming disaster. Oscar winners Witherspoon and Waltz’s heavy emoting pads many shots of R-Patz looking smoochable, but what his role really needs is an actor who can think and hold a close-up at the same time. Someone like Paul Schneider, who gets about a dozen lines in a framing story, and deserves much better.

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Why Bears Are The New Twinks!

Are twinks gradually becoming the world’s most endangered species since the kangaroo rat? Sure, their trim forms, asymmetrical hairstyles, and piercing squeals whenever a Lady Gaga song comes on are as adorable as ever, but it seems it’s bears that are currently rising with a fiercer bullet in the hierarchy of gay body types. Bears are trumping chicken!

The chubby, hairy gays are way better organized as a community and, as gym fascism wanes a bit, they’ve ratcheted up their acceptance as available sexual objects (which is good news for my own trajectory, especially if I gain just five more pounds and a hint of taint stubble). They’re more in tune with the earthier, less narcissistic era we’re apparently entering (though their occasional distaste for effeminacy makes me fear for just the kind of internal LGBT oppression they’re supposedly running from). And now, they’re heading toward the big screen in BearCity, a fictional feature co-written by entertainment journalist Lawrence Ferber and director Douglas Langway, who are shooting everywhere from the Ramrod to the Eagle.

Ferber’s known for his shorts Birthday Time and Cruise Control, while Langway did the lavender action film Raising Heroes, in which a gay kicked some serious mobster ass. Sensing that most bears are far from grizzly, they pitched BearCity to TLA as a series of beefy webisodes about the romantic adventures of a pack of abs-less friends, with the tagline: “Romance can be hairy.” TLA felt it seemed more panda-licious as a feature film, so here it comes—a sort of full-length Sex and the City with body fur instead of the other kind.

The cinematic bear-backers submitted to my (bi-)polar line of questioning just the other day:

Me: Hi, guys. Why are bears so sizzling right now? Why is ursa so major?

Doug: The gay community is looking for a more natural look, and, as we become more accepted, it feels like it’s more mainstream. We’re building a new generation of gay people who have options to look any way they want, whether that be drag queen or muscle bear. I think beards and hair and masculinity are becoming more powerful than sleek and slender and smooth. The bear sensibility allows gays to not have to act as anything but themselves.

Me: Speak for yourself! What’s the funniest and/or wildest thing that has happened on the set so far?

Doug: The boom operator let his pants come down during booming, and nobody is sure if it’s because he wanted to get some attention or they were loose. They dropped, and he almost got a mauling! The bear scene has found a new pick-up joint, and that’s the set of BearCity! Numbers are being exchanged!

Me: Booming, indeed!

Lawrence: Another time, we were shooting inside an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, and a veritable VIP party seemed to be taking place outside. I’m told over a dozen celebrities walked by, including Anderson Cooper and Justin Kirk. I asked the production assistants to chloroform the next celeb to walk by so we could get a “cameo” from them. Drag them upstairs to the camera, and prod them to say, “Bear!” as they wake up, and we’d use that for a dream sequence or something.

Me: I bet Anderson would have done that without prodding.

Lawrence: Other than that, it seems like everyone’s cuddling all the time. I can’t imagine a film about circuit queens being so full of cuddling between takes. And funny to me is how many chasers are hidden among our cast and crew—even the females!

Me: I guess it brings out the Goldilocks in them. Does the movie have lots of hairy nudity and sex?

Lawrence: Yes! But it’s Sex and the City–style, so we have “modesty patches” for the actors—they’re flesh-colored patches that you pack your junk into. But that doesn’t mean everyone has been using theirs!

Me: Girl, I’m heading to the set right now!

Where The Wild Things Are

Since other body options are OK, too, I checked out Too Ugly for TV, the monthly drag revue at the Christopher Street bar Pieces, hosted by salty Vodka Stinger and vampy Tallulah DeBayous, both accessorized with stiff hair and stiffer cocktails. Last week, the show was highlighted by a lovely performance of “The Rose,” accompanied by an autoharp, an audience game of “Are You Stupider Than a Straight Girl?” (it ended up as a tie), and Tallulah announcing, “It’s been a year since I was beaten by a colored person and called ‘faggot’ by the police. Applause!” Most of the crowd obliged, but avant-garde theater legend Everett Quinton promptly sashayed to the exit. If you can appall him, you’re pretty special.

The week’s other holes were filled with the Fringe Festival’s exercises in oddball entertainment, like How Now, Dow Jones, a game enough revival of an extremely so-so ’60s musical. The plot—a false report of a Wall Street boom spurs economic chaos—is extra relevant, as witnessed by the fact that this production has only eight performers and a piano player. But the show is most notable for the occasional dark touches, like a suicidal wacko singing about the girl he impregnated: “You’re no lady/You’re a dirty trick.” So much for modesty patches.

Hotsy-totsy Nazis are revived in the fun-tastic Inglourious Basterds, only to be clubbed with a bat by “the Bear Jew.” (I think I’ve seen him at the Eagle.) The film is part transplanted spaghetti Western, part screwball comedy, and all Tarantino. The Holocaust has never sold this much popcorn! At a Q&A after the movie, Christoph Waltz wouldn’t talk about his S.S. colonel character, but he would address his director’s, saying that while Quentin is “the wild and crazy enfant terrible” you’d expect, he’s also an “immensely well-educated and polite gentleman.” He is? How disappointing! Co-star Mélanie Laurent fervently agreed with Waltz; in fact, she didn’t even seem that annoyed that her backstory (revealed in a filmed scene with Maggie Cheung) was totally cut, as was a saucy shot in which she pees herself.

Want to crap yourself? An even bigger screening of the film last week was hosted by Hugo Boss, the company that once famously did some very chic uniforms for actual Nazis. Discuss.

The son of a holocaust survivor who built a banking empire, Sir Ivan is the caped rich man (or rich cape man) with a Shrek-like castle in the Hamptons. On Saturday, he bused tons of us there, where the grounds were studded with giant plush rabbits (if not bears) and the pool was surrounded by fiery cauldrons and bubbling with dry ice. It was Castlestock, a kitschy, PR-driven benefit/homage to Woodstock (if it had been organized by Bret Easton Ellis, I guess).

On the side of the castle was a gigantic American flag with a peace sign in the upper left corner and “Sir Ivan” spelled out in big letters on the bottom. At the height of the evening, our patriotic host—who sort of looks like a Smurf on acid—performed a ritual dance to “Kumbaya” while twirling big glow sticks, as his girlfriend pranced around him in angel wings.

My jaw dropping was interrupted by an attendee from a stripper pole company telling me her employer is pissed that Miley Cyrus‘s recent antics at the Teen Choice Awards were labeled pole dancing. “She didn’t do tricks!” the woman exclaimed, appalled. But I bet she turns them.

Elsewhere in the Hamptons, I recently ran into Kelly Klein and the wife of Florida Governor Charlie Crist at a store party. What was it, National Beard Day?

And now I’m back in the city, waiting for National Bear Day.

musto@villagevoice.com

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Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds Makes Holocaust Revisionism Fun

Energetic, inventive, swaggering fun, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is a consummate Hollywood entertainment—rich in fantasy and blithely amoral.

It’s also quintessential Tarantino—even more drenched in film references than gore, with a proudly misspelled title (lifted from Italian genre-meister Enzo Castellari’s 1978 Dirty Dozen knockoff) to underscore the movie’s cinematic hyperliteracy. Tepidly received in Cannes, and thereafter tweaked, Inglourious Basterds may still be a tad long at two and a half hours and a little too pleased with itself, but it’s tough to resist the enthusiastic performances and terrific dialogue—if you’re not put off by the juvenile premise or cartoonish savagery. (See Ella Taylor’s interview with Quentin Tarantino here.)

Not the year’s preeminent genre exercise (The Hurt Locker is a superior war film, as well as a serious reworking of the Hawksian group drama), Inglourious Basterds is something sui generis—a two-fisted Hollywood occupation romance, in which a Jewish special unit wreaks vengeance on the Nazis. It also has the best Western opener in decades: The first of five chapters nods to Sergio Leone with the title “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France,” and to the genre in general with a shot of a French farm family hanging their laundry as a Nazi convoy approaches in the distance like a Comanche band. Violence is not immediately forthcoming—Inglourious Basterds is as much talk-talk as bang-bang. Or rather, as Andrew Sarris described the characteristic Budd Boetticher Western, it’s a “floating poker game,” in which characters, many of whom have assumed false identities, take turns bluffing for their lives.

The first of a half-dozen one-on-one verbal jousts pits a taciturn salt-of-the-earth peasant against a loquacious Nazi colonel, Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who, humorously officious, hypnotizes his prey with a twinkling eye, giant grin, and steady stream of civilized chatter. Landa, the S.S. functionary assigned to rid France of Jews, is not only the movie’s villain, but also its master of revels. Waltz’s turn isn’t the lone showy performance—Mike Myers has a ripe cameo as the British general who conceives the film’s convoluted Operation Kino, and Diane Kruger is convincingly unconvincing as a German movie diva channeling Mata Hari. (Her exasperated “Can you Americans speak any other language except English?” brought down the house at Cannes.)

But there’s a reason why the hitherto unknown Waltz was named Best Actor at Cannes, appears on the current Film Comment cover, and is the subject of an “Arts & Leisure” profile. Waltz’s elegant and clever S.S. man is the movie’s most crowd-pleasing creation—another in the long line of glamorous Hollywood Nazis. (See: Tom Cruise in Valkyrie for a recent example.) Indeed, this smooth operator is Eichmann as fun guy! He’s also a European sissy whose “barbaric” antagonists are a squad of Jewish-American commandos led by wily hillbilly Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). The Jews are out for blood, and Raine promises his eponymous Basterds that, under his leadership, they will terrorize the Germans with “Apache tactics,” demanding only that each contribute 100 Nazi scalps.

Given its subject and the director’s track record, Inglourious Basterds has less mayhem than one might expect. There’s nothing comparable here—either as choreographed violence or virtuoso filmmaking—to the D-Day landing that opens Saving Private Ryan. (But neither is there anything as false, sanctimonious, and emotionally manipulative as the rest of Spielberg’s movie.) Inglourious Basterds is essentially conceptual and, as with any Western, all about determining the nature of permissible aggression. Operating like a cross between the Dirty Dozen and a Nazi death squad, the Basterds take no prisoners—designated “survivors” are shipped back to Germany, swastikas carved in their foreheads to spook the brass. The rest are sent to Valhalla, most spectacularly by Sgt. Donny Donowitz (exploitation director Eli Roth), who uses a Louisville slugger to bash German brains. “Watching Donny beat Nazis to death is as close as we get to the movies,” one of the Basterds exults, tipping Tarantino’s hand.

The heroine of, and most artificial construct in, Inglourious Basterds is Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), Jewish survivor of a Nazi massacre, hiding in plain sight as the proprietress of a Paris movie theater. “We have respect for directors in this country,” she curtly tells the flirtatious German soldier who wonders why she includes G.W. Pabst’s name on her marquee. Shosanna articulates Tarantino’s own cinephile credo: His characters live and die in (and sometimes at) the movies, and only there. Tarantino can’t resist dispatching two characters in a John Woo–style slow-mo double shoot-out staged in a projection booth, or taunting Hitler (Martin Wuttke) and Goebbels (Sylvester Groth, re-creating his role in Dani Levy’s recently released My Führer) by forcing them to witness an allusion from their supposed favorite movie—Metropolis—in what could be their final moments on earth.

In a sense, Inglourious Basterds is a form of science fiction. Everything unfolds in and maps an alternate universe: The Movies. Even Shosanna’s Parisian neighborhood bears a marked resemblance to a Cannes back alley, complete with a club named for a notorious local dive. Inflammable nitrate film is a secret weapon. Goebbels is an evil producer; the German war hero who pursues Shosanna has (like America’s real-life Audie Murphy) become a movie star. Set to David Bowie’s Cat People title-song, the scene in which Shosanna—who is, of course, also an actor—applies her war paint to become the glamorous “face of Jewish vengeance,” is an interpolated music video. Actresses give autographs at their peril. The spectacular climax has the newly dead address those about to die from the silver screen. Operation Kino depends not only on Shosanna’s movie house and the German movie diva’s complicity, but a heroic film critic (!), played by Michael Fassbender.

Inglourious Basterds is hardly the first movie to place World War II in the context of American show business. (Each in his way, movie stars John Wayne and Ronald Reagan made a career out of playing soldier while the war was actually on.) Basterds‘ coarse, ranting, ridiculously caped Hitler certainly contributes to the war’s vaudevillization, but the notion of Hitler as screaming infant was more eloquently demonstrated several years ago, when a hilarious meme swept the Internet, subtitling a key tantrum from Downfall, the 2005 German drama of Hitler in the bunker: Bruno Ganz’s disheveled führer was made to browbeat his generals about everything from his lost Xbox to the Superbowl upset to Obama’s victory (in the guise of Hillary Clinton). With the evil genius of the 20th century already a joke everywhere outside of Germany—and perhaps even there—Tarantino’s particular genius has been to provide a suitably regressive scenario for the sandbox war that cost 50 million lives.

The Producers might seem an obvious precursor, but there’s a difference between victim and victor mocking Hitler. European Jews were losers; decimated by the war, their only victory was in individual survival. Where the Brooks scenario involves dancing on the monster’s grave (a contemporary Purim play), the Tarantino scenario is less cathartic than bizarrely triumphalist. Even something as untalented as Levy’s My Führer has a modicum of therapeutic value—if only for being created by a German Jew in Germany. Levy’s fantasy conceives Hitler as a grotesque brat, and a Jewish protagonist, plucked from the Auschwitz death mills for the express purpose of bolstering the führer’s confidence, as the lone adult in a world of Nazi buffoons. By contrast, Inglourious Basterds basically enables Jews to act like Nazis, engaging in cold-blooded massacres and mass incineration, pushing wish fulfillment to a near-psychotic break with reality.

Tarantino’s movie ends with its corniest character (Pitt) proclaiming that a particular Old Testament barbarism just might be his masterpiece. As I wrote from Cannes, this movie could well be Tarantino’s—if masterpiece is taken to mean the fullest expression of a particular artist’s worldview. At Cannes, Roth characterized the movie as “kosher porn.” Tarantino was less provocative and more grandiose—”The power of cinema is going to bring down the Third Reich. . . . I get a kick out of that!”—but he, too, was reveling in the compensatory, reductive aspect of the movies.

Here is an alternate World War II, in which Jews terrorize and slaughter Nazis—a just Holocaust. Schindler’s List comforted audiences with similar, albeit less outrageous, reversals (the list is life, not death; concentration camp showers gush water, not gas). However devoted to movie magic, however, Spielberg would never be so tasteless as to admit the excitement he experienced in asserting his will over history.

jhoberman@villagevoice.com