I’m in the thick of a suddenly & viciously busy week, but I could never, for any reason, bring myself to pass up this week’s edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot: of all the deliciously random movies Nathaniel could have chosen, he’s decided that this week, we’re to pick our favorite image from John Boorman’s 1974 hallucination Zardoz, which features legendary tough guy Sean Connery dressed like this:
And also this:
Neither one of those is my choice for the best shot of the film, but it would be an obviously failure on my part if I didn’t explain to you why exactly it was so deeply important that you see Zardoz at the earliest conceivable moment, at which point you will discover that it is set in a nightmare future where bored “Eternals”, a nigh-immortal descendant group from humanity, sit in a valley and blandly work through a disaffected, sexless life, while the “Brutals” grow food in the charred remains of the world, offering it to the Eternals in the form of a giant flying stone head called Zardoz. It is a metaphor, for lots of things, and one starts to suspect that Boorman lost track of them by the midway point of the first draft.
The fascinating thing about the film is that it’s beautifully shot by the great Geoffrey Unsworth, so its nonstop deranged visual concepts look absolutely great on top of being absolutely weird; this makes it, among other things, extraordinarily hard to pick a single favorite shot. I thought for a while that I might pick this great one-frame encapsulation of both how confusing and confused the movie is, as well as how Connery can never figure out what the hell he’s supposed to be doing:
But I didn’t want to have to go in for the kind of context necessary to describe what the hell the movie is up to at that point, assuming I even could. It comes awfully near the end, y’see.
So instead, for my actual pick for the film’s best shot, I turned all the way back to the beginning, where the opening credits pause to show the Brutals’ primitive subjugation to Zardoz, with Connery breaking away from the general anarchy to take notice of the camera behind him. He then pulls out his gun, and-
-cut to black, resume credits, and only a few moments later do we realize that Connery’s Zed has managed to sneak onto Zardoz itself.
It makes to sum up a movie that’s a violent attack on sense and the senses with a direct, violent confrontation with the audience. That’s part of why I chose this. Part of it was also that I love the dramatic exaggeration of depth here, and the uncomfortable way the gun goes out of focus. But mostly, it’s because any movie that has a character point a gun directly at the camera is, intentionally or not, directly engaging with The Great Train Robbery, Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 masterwork, and the film that, if we can be too reductive for just a minute, birthed the entire history of narrative film as we now think of it. And yes, despite its all but complete absence of a meaningfully comprehensible plot, Zardoz is part of the history of narrative film.
It comes, also, from a deeply ambitious (or high as a goddamned kite) impulse to do something really different with narrative film, using images and editing in some, let’s be polite and say “unusual” ways. This comes from the most experimental, radical period in mainstream English-language filmmaking, a time when it really did seem like there might be a completely new phase in cinema’s expressive capabilities for the first time in generations. Was Boorman’s visual reference a way of signifying that he expected his movie to stand in the new film history in the same place that The Great Train Robbery stood in the old? It is at least possible. Was Boorman simply thinking “ohmygod Sean Connery SO BADASS when he shoots the gun right at the audience bang! bang!” with no more than a child’s attention to what the hell was going on around him? It is far more possible than the other thing. Anyway, it’s the right way to open a movie that feels like the crazy dreams you might have as you lay bleeding to death.
And remember, boys and girls, the Gun is good; the Penis is evil.