Judge Daryl Loomis isn't a scientist, but he thinks that a zebra is just a normal horse painted to look like a referee.
Is leglessness a form of contraception?
Peter Greenaway (Drowning by Numbers) is one of the most interesting filmmakers of the last 25 years. His work is unflinchingly dense and "arty," but his bizarre subject matter and lurid content are always attractive to viewers. I first watched The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover for no better reason than I knew it featured cannibalism, a subject of long-time morbid interest for me. While I got what I had sought, it turned out to be one of the most cinematically rewarding experiences of my life, and I've been a fan ever since. All the meticulous detail and symbolism in his films is accented by beautiful music, stunning cinematography, and a dark sense of humor. Few directors cling so firmly to the notion of "film as art," and his uncompromised vision puts him in a class by himself.
A Zed and Two Noughts, his second feature, contains elements that he has continued to explore throughout his career. This is by far his most ambitious film, though with three wholly individual stories jockeying for position in these two hours, he may go a little too far with this ambition.
Facts of the Case
Oliver and Oswald Deuce (Eric and Brian Deacon), twin zoologists, lose their wives when a swan collides with their car. The driver of the vehicle and only survivor of the crash, Alba Bedwich (Andréa Ferréol, La Grande Bouffe) lost her leg in the tragedy and is the only connection the brothers have to the deceased. They obsess over her and her story but, when she can't give a reason for the women's deaths, they turn to science for answers. They hole themselves up in the zoo to research the origins of life and its decay after death, hoping to find a clue to the human condition. They study the origins of life passively, by watching documentaries (narrated by David Attenborough) on evolution. More active in their study of decay, they acquire dead animals from the zoo to film their natural decomposition processes with time-lapse photography. As the animals get more complex, from fish to reptiles to birds to mammals, the method of acquisition becomes increasingly more difficult and more criminal. By using this research to cope with their grief, the twins become closer than they've ever been. They don't even know how close until Alba reveals that she's pregnant with her own set of twins and each of them is the father.
A Zed and Two Noughts is a beautifully flawed film. A whirlwind of detailed images, it never stays on one topic for too long, and the sheer amount of information thrown around keeps the film from ever completely focusing, but it is a mind-blowing experience nonetheless. The three subjects of the story—a study of twinship, an environmental essay, and a celebration of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer—are what make this film unique but, at the same time, show that Greenaway somewhat overreaches in his sophomore feature.
Zeitgeist's release of A Zed and Two Noughts is a welcome replacement for the original Fox Lorber disc, which had a badly washed out print and a bare bones presentation. While the transfer isn't perfect, it has been cleaned up significantly. Because the styles of lighting constantly change and a lot of stock footage gets used for the natural history films, the color levels and contrasts vary scene to scene. At its best, the image looks spectacular and worthy of all the detail placed in the image. Occasional grain in some scenes is distracting, but never too bad. The sound is unspectacular. The dialog and Michael Nyman's amazing score are both completely clear, and there is no real hiss, but it is a no-frills audio presentation. The extras, though, make this release. Greenaway's commentary on the film is one of the best I've heard. There are no pauses in the conversation, and while he gives a few anecdotes from the film, he mostly uses the scenes at hand as a jumping off point on his philosophies. Also, for those morbid viewers who didn't get enough decay, more gore from each of these scenes is available in the extras. The footage is amazing but still quite gruesome.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Greenaway, in that fabulous commentary, says that if he could remake one of his films, he would redo A Zed and Two Noughts. He additionally writes in an essay with the liner notes, "A parent often reserves his greatest affection for the most troubled and troubling offspring." For all the beauty and intelligence in the film, it is just too ambitious to maintain consistency. The three stories constantly fight for position and there's not enough time to flesh out any of them completely. Each could be its own film, and while Greenaway takes us on a heady ride, he would go on to explain himself more coherently in later films.
Flawed as it is, the sheer beauty and substance makes A Zed and Two Noughts a must-watch film. Gorgeously shot and structured with an extremely dark sense of humor, it lays the groundwork for much of what Peter Greenaway would do in later films.
Peter Greenaway, Michael Nyman, and Sacha Vierny are exemplary members of the
film world. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
• Audio commentary with Peter Greenaway
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