Thursday, January 24, 2008

Review of A Zed and Two Noughts

Peter Greenaway has been one of my favorite directors ever since I saw “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” early in college. His “A Zed and Two Noughts” is one of my all time top ten favorite movies. A couple months back I promised to dredge up an essay I wrote on Greenaway, and I finally got around to re-editing it into an essay/review on “A Zed and Two Noughts.” It is probably best read after having viewed the film, but I’ve stuck a plot summary in the next paragraph just in case.

[Image: A swan-related car accident.]

“A Zed and Two Noughts” is the tale of two separated Siamese-twin zoologists (Oliver and Oswald) whose wives are killed in a swan-related car accident. The two become increasingly obsessed with the decay of dead organisms, the evolution of life and the car’s driver (Alba Bewick), who lost a leg in the accident. As the twins conduct experimental time-lapse photography videos of rotting animals, they begin to look more alike and to withdraw from society. The plot itself is willfully eccentric, and the cast is populated by oddball characters like Venus de Milo (a prostitute, seamstress and collector of bestiality stories) and Van Meegerin (a bizarre surgeon who is obsessed with the Dutch painter Vermeer and amputation).

A strong degree of self-reflexivity can be seen from the very beginning of the film. On the simplest level, Greenaway finds several chances to reference his own works. The insidious, scheming Van Hoyten (a meat-procurer and animal-feeder at the zoo), for instance, is a reoccurring villainous entity in several of Greenaway’s early shorts beginning with “Vertical Features Remake” (1978). The director even hints at his future plans: when the car crash image is dissolved into a newspaper spread, we see an article on the side titled “Architect Dies” which anticipates Greenaway’s next film, “The Belly of an Architect” (1987). Indeed, a meta-narrative network of interrelations is generated throughout Greenaway’s oeuvre and more than a decade after its release, “A Zed and Two Noughts” gained further complexities through its connections with his epic multimedia project “The Tulse Luper Suitcases.”

[Image: Look on the bottom right to find the “Architect Dies” headline that foreshadows Greenaway’s next film, “The Belly of an Architect” about an architect dying of stomach cancer.]

Multiple references to Vermeer also serve as a self-reflexive play on image-making, since Vermeer was the first known artist to use the camera obscura to create photorealistic perspective effects. Complicating the plot is the surgeon, Van Meegeren, who shares his name with a real life artist who brilliantly forged original works and sold them as authentic Vermeers, successfully fooling even professional art historians and experts. Within “A Zed and Two Noughts” Van Meegeren is the fictional great nephew of the forger, and continues his relative’s obsession with deception by staging and photographing living versions of Vermeer’s work.

[Image: (Top) Van Meegeren recreates the dress and piano from (Bottom) Vermeer’s painting, “The Music Lesson.”]

The nature of reality and authenticity comes up a lot in Greenaway’s film, often in the form of unanswered (or unanswerable) questions. The twins engage in a fruitless attempt to understand the evolution of life as a means of bringing meaning to the senselessness of death. By watching David Attenborough’s evolution documentary “Life on Earth,” Oliver hopes to “separate the true clues from the red herrings” and to find some meaning in the demise of his wife. However, as Van Hoyten points out when viewing the documentary later, “He’ll not find it here. This is just a straightforward account. God, it’s all such a dreary fiction.” Greenaway seems to suggest that science is as much at a loss as anything else, a single unsatisfying source of truth in an ever-shifting sea of relative truths.

Time-lapse decay experiments are another way the two men try to understand death, but it already shows a move away from pure science and towards a form of mysticism and ritual. The resulting footage of each experiment is presented in maggot-ridden morbid detail, set to an exhilarating Michael Nyman score and repeated with the regularity of a chapter break or a religious rite. Though the recordings appear to perform some sort of cathartic grief release for the brothers, their success in finding concrete answers is negligible. In fact, the supremacy of science is directly interrupted by nature in the film’s final scene [Spoiler Alert], in which a plague of snails short-circuits their post-mortem experiment on human corpses.

[Images: Some of the many plays on twins, symmetry, B&W animals and decay. (Top) A mirror placed underwater creates two identical angelfish. (Bottom) A stop-motion clip shows the rapid decay of two angelfish (no mirror) being eaten away.]

The investigation and rejection of traditional notions of knowledge, reality, meaning and truth is a guiding principle for Greenaway’s film. In a somewhat unusual and alienating fashion, Greenaway invites the viewer to relate to his characters through a philosophical goose chase and to share in their repeated frustration. Near the beginning of the movie, Oswald references Adam and Eve and soon after clips from “Life on Earth” begins describing the creation of life. The early juxtaposition of two opposing creation stories immediately introduces the friction of truth. The very struggle to understand our roots (historically, genealogically, philosophically, spiritually and so forth) is central to the ambiguity that saturates “A Zed and Two Noughts.” Reoccurrences of the knowledge/reality/meaning dilemma come up over and over again:

1) Venus de Milo proposes a reinterpretation of the Sphinx’s riddle about man, the earliest recorded abstract puzzle.
2) References to Vermeer and Van Meegeren engage with the authenticity of authorship and art.
3) Beta successfully disproves that the brothers’ scientific training is equivalent to omnipotence (by humorously showing that they can’t identify the color of a woman’s knickers).
4) Oliver endlessly questions the disturbing role of coincidences in modern life.

The film is conspicuous in the number of questions and mysteries it poses without ever offering answers. We are deprived of the resolution we have come to expect from traditional films and even the art-house habit of open-endedness is pushed to the limit.

[Image: The brothers discover the dangers of an uninhibited (heh) pursuit of knowledge when Alba’s daughter challenges them to discover the color of a woman’s knickers.]

The structure of “A Zed and Two Noughts” is closer to an elaborate puzzle-box then than a traditional narrative of the 19th century literary mold, which Greenaway vocally despised. The film is not driven by plot or character, but instead, it adopts pre-existing organizational systems, lists and taxonomies. Some examples:

1) The alphabet: the title, the names of Alba Bewick’s children, Beta’s interspersed listing of an animal beginning with each letter.
2) Numbers: the reoccurrences of “26”, particularly in relationship to the number of letters in the alphabet.
3) Colors: Van Hoyten’s unhealthy obsession with black and white animals.
4) The evolution of life: Attenborough’s “Life on Earth,” the choices of animals for the time-lapse experiments, the zoo.

The arrangement and rearrangement of animals by different categories is a running motif, with each character defined by their preferred version of zoo:

1) Fallast owns the zoo as it currently stands.
2) Oliver and Oswald strive to return the animals to the freedom of nature.
3) Alba Bewick owns a gated-off snail-only zoo called L’Escargot.
4) Venus de Milo pens a story about a sexual fantasy zoo called “The Obscene Animal Enclosure.”
5) Van Hoyten constructs an exclusive zoo for black-and-white animals because he is color-blind.
6) Felipe Arc-en-Ciel proposes a zoo of mythological beasts.
7) Van Meegeren runs the zoo/human veterinarian/hospital as an excuse for “scientific experimentation and art theory.”

[Image: Felipe Arc-en-Ciel (wearing white) and Venus de Milo (wearing black) discuss a zoo of mythical creatures while sharing a cell next to a surly zebra.]

This obsessive plethora of living taxonomies is reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’s “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge,” which divides animals into categories as such:

“(1) Those that belong to the Emperor, (2) embalmed ones, (3) those that are trained, (4) suckling pigs, (5) mermaids, (6) fabulous ones, (7) stray dogs, (8) those included in the present classification, (9) those that tremble as if they were mad, (10) innumerable ones, (11) those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (12) others, (13) those that have just broken a flower vase, (14) those that from a long way off look like flies.”

The similarity in playful, list-style structure is not accidental; Greenaway is an outspoken admirer of Borges work. It is also interesting to note that Borges himself is a key figure in postmodern literature and that his list of animals, similar to “A Zed and Two Noughts,” skirts the boundaries between fiction and reality, functionality and whimsy. Borges attributes the list to a Chinese translation by real-life translator Franz Kuhn though no evidence has been shown to support the claim. Such unwillingness to aid the audience in distinguishing fact and fiction is immediately familiar to fans of Greenaway’s work.

The list/taxonomy format is one way that Greenaway tries to break with traditional narrative form as defined by classical literature. Other methods he employs include:

1) Depriving viewers of the conventional means of relating to characters; they are drained of emotional expressivity, heavily stylized and never shot in close-up.
2) The music is a blend of high and low culture, ranging from the experimental minamalist tracks of Michael Nyman to the child-friendly recordings of “Teddy Bear Picnic” and “Elephants Never Forget.”
3) The story revolves around word-play, coincidences and composition where aesthetic choices are given priority over realistic ones.
4) The composition aims for a symmetrical unity, disregarding the typical “rule-of-thirds” framing.

Greenaway and cinematography Sacha Vierny even exploit the lead brothers for their natural on-screen symmetry. Not merely a stylistic flourish, the effect lends itself to a wealth of thematic interpretations on duality. In both content and subject matter, the film is split into dichotomies:

1) Black and White
2) Birth (life) and Death
3) Growth and Decay
4) Science and Religion
5) Science and Art
6) Zed (the last letter) and Nought (the first number)

[Images: Examples of the many unusual symmetries.]

In the first half of the film the giant blue letters “ZOO” loom in the background, but in the second half we see them from behind as “OOZ.” This reversal echoes Oswald’s comment when viewing the rotting prawns that they are “on their way back… to ooze,” referring to the primordial soup previously described in Attenborough’s documentary. In keeping with this theme, the first times we see the words the foreground holds the variety of life associated with zoos (we see a dalmation, a tiger, etc.) and the last time we see “OOZ” is in the sequence where Venus de Milo is presumably killed off-screen. These oppositions and doubles defy any single unifying “answer” to the film.

[Images: ZOO and OOZ[E], from near the beginning and end of the film respectively.]

Viewed within the scope of British cinema, it is notable that Peter Greenaway rejects objectivity and particularly the documentary realism that Britain is so well-known for, as represented by the David Attenborough documentary. In fact, Greenaway’s first feature length work, the fake BBC documentary “The Falls” (1980, four years before the term “mockumentary” was even coined), openly threatens the format’s legetimacy. The film presents 92 interviews with the victims of a VUE (Violent Unknown Event). Though permeated by a quirkiness completely outside of reality, the director and interviewee’s play the entire premise straight, mimicking the style, tone and supposedly detached observer status of BBC documentaries. “The Falls” creates a reality that is tangental to our own, one that obeys many of the same rules but with frequent bursts of artficiality and ambiguity. For example, although we are given some evidence to suggest that a conspiracy of birds is behind the VUE, we never find out for sure.

[Image: Oliver and Oswald, while three-legged jogging in preparation for a reverse Siamese-twin seperation operation, discover a dalmation killed in a hit-and-run accident (later revealed to be an assassination).]

I don’t think Greenaway’s purpose is to present a pure fantasy for our amusement. As in “A Zed and Two Noughts,” too much time and effort has been put into its internal consistancy while the comedy remains underplayed. The ultimate effect is to highlight the inherit subjectivity and even absurdity in a genre that almost intrinsically claims infallible authority.

Greenaway makes almost no effort to depict social, economic and political conditions as the really are, but that does not mean “A Zed and Two Noughts” is ahistorical or lacking in social conscience. For instance, one could read the character of Venus de Milo as a sort of capitalist critque, particularly in the era of the film’s production, which was then dominated by Thatcherism. A prostitute in more ways than one, Milo treats love, sex, information, art, stroies and material goods as commodities that can be bought, sold, traded and valued monetarily. She has a ceaseless habit of citing how much was paid for penning famous sexual tales. However, in Greenaway’s zoo, Venus de Milo is only the most extreme example of such behavior in an eccentric community that can be seen as a parody of our own society. By the end, even Alba Bewick observes that the zoo has taught the brothers how to bargain, and they bring the capitalist excess to its morbid conclusion by negotiating for her corpse.

“A Zed and Two Noughts” invites a lot of interpretations and ruminations, and the ones that I’ve considered above just scratch the surface. One could spend an equal amount of time just analyzing the visuals. It is the wonderful, imaginative depth of the film that brings me back again and again (I’ve seen the film eight or nine times now) and makes it more enjoyable with each new viewing. For those who love lists, puzzles and general arty weirdness, “A Zed and Two Noughts” is one of the most rewarding avant-garde films around.

Walrus Rating: 10


Patti said...


Also, read today's xkcd.

Mad Dog said...

I think the essay sort of explains why the film and I just couldn't connect. It's full of all these allusions and themes that I just didn't have the background to appreciate at the time, nor do I think I have it today. On top of that, I really LIKE a good narrative film. I can appreciate and genuinely like surrealist, avant garde stuff. My recent Holy Mountain article can attest to that. I suppose this just seems less like a movie and more like an intellectual exercise. I should clarify that I don't HATE or even really dislike this movie. But I don't really think I like it, either.

FilmWalrus said...


This was a triumph. I'm making a note here: HUGE SUCCESS.

Mad Dog,

I'd could argue that for background the only real movie you need to see before watching "A Zed and Two Noughts" is "A Zed and Two Noughts." It really is quite nicely self-contained, but needs many viewings to digest. All Greenaway films, however, have in-jokes for the fans.

Oh, and it isn't just an intellectual exercise. It's also an aesthetic exercise. That probably didn't help my case...

Marija Krtolica said...

Great essay. It elucidates the political and aesthetic paradoxes that Greenaway so courageusly, and with such a profound erudition-knowledge of both meta narratives,and social prejudice, engages with. Related to the Borges'fantastic enumeration is the following passage from 'Les Mots et les choses':
'The quality of monstrosity here does not affect any real body, nor does it produce modifications of any kind in the bestiary of the imagination; it does not lurk in the depths of any strange power. It would not even be present at all in this classification had it not insinuated itself into the empty space, the interstitial blanks separating all these entities from one another. It is not the 'fabulous' animals that are impossible, since they are designated as such, but the narrowness of the distance separating them from (and juxtaposing them to) the stray dogs, or the animals that from a long way off look like flies. What transgresses the boundaries of all imagination, of all possible thought, is simply that alphabetical series (a, b, c, d) which links each of categories to all the others.' (xvi)

Anonymous said...

Excellent, insightful post. Re. the number 26, Greenaway has said (and the inner case of my DVD confirms) that there are 26 'Unnamed' chapters in the film. These represent the 26 completely different ways that lighting was applied, using different methods, whether from natural or unnatural sources.

Crescentsi said...


That's a fun review of a fun film. I'm many years too late commenting on your post, but that gives me an interesting perspective. Briefly, the Postmodern questioning of science, knowledge, common-sense, Western thought, established religions, etc. that you note as a familiar Greenaway narrative (and plenty of other creatives) was more salient than art-sceptics would have us believe. In 2021, established Western modes of understanding have been well and truly booted out the back door and replaced with a fiscal imperative and asphyxiating legislation as the West tries to hold on to its dwindling power. Postmodernity has led to multiculturalism, globalisation, information overload, enhanced hyperreality/simulacra, societal isolation accelerated change and an increase in anxiety/paranoia.

It would have been nice if we had listened more to the insights of the artistic but, of course I have the benefit of hindsight...