Film 2019: The Zero Theorem

After his splendid trilogy of films in the Eighties, I tended to drift away from Terry Gilliam. I’d loved Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen so much that I couldn’t shift with Gilliam into the kind of films he next wanted to make. Only Twelve Monkeys was closest enough to what I wanted for me to relish it, though I never saw it in the cinema.

I didn’t even learn about The Zero Theorem until I wrote about Twelve Monkeys for Film 2018. It is, and it isn’t, supposed to be the third in a trilogy of films comprising Brazil and Twelve Monkeys and I bought it immediately to view when I came to the right point for Film 2019. This, like the other three film remaining of the first phase, is the first time I have watched it.

In that all three films depict a future society that is chaotic, confusing and deeply disturbing in how it has developed, The Zero Theorem sits well beside its supposed companions (Gilliam has suggested both that they are and aren’t a trilogy). Yet it differs from them in that the future society in which Qohen Leph (Christoph Waltz) is much more of a background element to Qohen’s neuroses, and more superficial in its contribution to his predicament.

Nor does Qohen have a purpose. Jonathan Pryce is in pursuit of his dream girl, who exists in real life, Bruce Willis is on a mission to find and foil the Twelve Monkeys, Qohen is a severely inhibited, multi-neurotic individual who is trying to solve the Zero Theorem because his employer has told him to. He has no personal stake in it. This immediately undermines any sense of meaning to the film, especially as the Zero Theorem is an attempt to find a mathematical proof to the proposition that life in meaningless.

Having total nihilism as your goal makes the film’s goal tendentious to say the least, and it removes a further layer of potential meaning for those members of the audience who, like myself, have no religious involvement in requiring a supervening level of existence and therefore a ‘purpose’ to life. I have long been content to believe that we exist because we exist, because we exist in a Universe that supports life, and not need to ask Why?, let alone require an answer.

To someone like me, the film then becomes a study of a clearly deeply disturbed man, with overt neuroses piled upon neuroses, whose ultimate desire is a complete delusion long before it’s spelled out as a complete delusion. Qohen, who shaves his head, wears black in a garish plastic colour society, refers to himself as plural, hates being touched, or eating or drinking anything with any taste, is waiting for a call to tell him what his purpose is in life: he’s self-evidently insane.

Qohen’s life is invaded by three people who it’s possible to see as attenuated echoes of Scrooge’s three Ghosts. First there is Joby (David Thewlis in an obviously and deliberately awful wig, channeling David Brent), his Supervisor, a former cruncher like Qohen, an awful intrusion into anyone’s life. Joby is the Past, his imbalance self-admittedly caused by the Zero Theorem. Yet he has pull and influence, getting Management (Matt Damon) to see Qohen and assign him to the project.

And Joby, who insists on calling Qohen Quinn, is responsible for introducing Qohen to Bainsley (Melanie Thierry). The bright, bubbly blonde is a sex therapist, at least in her private interactions with Qohen are concerned, though she’s later exposed as a web-stripper. She attaches herself to him, clears his home (an abandoned, burned-out church, symbolising Qohen as a Christ-figure who has escaped religion), and leaves him a VR suit which takes him to an idyllic tropical island beach enjoying a permanet sunset, where he has hair and she wears a bikini, and the two enjoy a degree of physical pleasure. Bainsley is the Present, an alternate Present that Qohen can have if he rejects his programming. She tries to tempt him away in real life, but he refuses.

By now, Qohen is undergoing Bob, the Future. Bob’s a teenage programmer, officially a summer intern, an annoying fifteen year old already bored with too many things and an ability to conceive of things being any way other than he wants them. Bob’s also Management’s son. He’s a teenage computer whizz multi-cubed, he’s the future that you want to reject because you know you’ll have no place in it. He’s assigned to help Qohen, until he falls ill and everything is shut down.

And that’s how the film ends. Qohen has his delusion over his call called out for a delusion. He loses the Zero Theorem because he’s proved it correct when Management wanted him to disprove it. Joby’s been sacked. He’s sent Bainsley away. Bob’s critically ill and unlikely to recover. Qohen destroys all his surveillance and its associated high tech but is still sucked into the Neural Network for Management to fire him. Hi last act is to fall into the black hole of his own subconscious.

This takes Qohen to the beach, alone. All there is of Bainsley is the salt-encrusted bikini top he pulled off her. He reaches out for the sun, juggles it, then sets it. In the darkness of the credits, we hear her voice calling him.

Perhaps in part because the underpinning of the film lies outside my private parameters, I don’t (yet?) find this film worth bracketing with my other Terry Gilliams. It’s more confused, without the ultimate coherence that comes from careful, absorbed watching, which is perhaps down to Gilliam having no official inputto the script. But it comes on another Sunday morning, as the clocks go forward and spring officially comes upon us, and I’ll watch it again, perhaps with better appreciation.

Heroes in Crisis 7

How much of this story has been a waste of space? How many of the pages of this issue are pointless, an abuse of the audience by getting them to read a lazy, needless fight between Harley Quinn and Booster Gold, observed in couch potato fashion by Batgirl and Blue Beetle, until the four decide to pool their approaches? How many pages are wasted by Batman and The Flash using very different approaches to locating Blue and Gold, The Flash dashing off for microsecond searches of areas of the world where they’re not to be found, and Batman sitting in his Batcave chair, watching his alarms, which are hidden in every safehouse either of the pair have ever had, knowing that sooner or later, being Beetle and Booster, one of them will do something stupid and trigger their alarm? How many pages are given over to the Watchmen grid of Wally West talking to Sanctuary, updating himself on the number of weeks he’s been there and his evidently false belief that he’s been improving?

The answers to these questions are 11, 3 and 4 respectively. That leaves 6 pages (including a double page spread) that might, we hope, actually advance the story, although not in any way that makes sense up to the end of issue 7. These involve Wally and Poison Ivy and a field of beautifully drawn and brilliantly coloured flowers that are a genuine aesthetic delight, and they seem to be leading towards the suggestion, which has been suspected by a lot of people for quite some time already, that the Sanctuary killer is Wally himself.

I really hope that this is still red-herringing.

Art this time around is split between three artists, twelve pages drawn by series artist Clay Mann, nine by Travis Moore and the remaining three by Jorge Fornes, whose more primitive style stands out like a sore thumb against the other two.

I mean, there’s not really that much else I can say about this issue. The main cover, an exasperated Superman shouting ‘Enough!’ and thrusting Booster and Harley out of the picture has nothing to do with this episode. The only thing I can applaud is that it’s coming out on time, and as Doomsday Clock 10 has now been pushed back into May, my prediction that I’d get to the end of Heroes in Crisis before DC’s premier fuck-up crossover is going to come true in spades.

Given that Tom King’s current arc in Batman, ‘Knightmares’, is as boring as fuck and seeming interminable, this is not a period in which I am favourably inclined towards him. I’d like that to improve.

Lou Grant: s01 e16 – Hero

It’s not difficult to tell that Lou Grant is a show with a theme, a message, and that it is, to use the description I’ve used before, impeccably liberal. That suits me. It always has, it always will. Were it a product of 2019, it would be impeccably castigated as a show for SJWs – Social Justice Warriors. A telling phrase that, a catchphrase for those who hold only contempt for those who think that things should be better for everyone, and who try to influence things to be that way.

The series was created in 1977, and its five year, five season run spanned two Presidencies, that of the liberal Democrat, Jimmy Carter, and that of the hard-right Conservative Republican buffoon, Ronald Reagan. If I can source the series as far as its end, I’ll discuss the ongoing rumours that its demise was partly political, in a changed social and political climate.

But despite being both liberal and Liberal, the series was also a product of Network mainstream TV, and therefore it was also small-c conservative. It had a soft core, the desire to make things work out right, because it wanted the world to be that way. ‘Hero’ was a perfect example of that.

For ninety-five percent of the time, the episode was dark, fractured and, dare I say it, depressing. It was about two principal stories, compared and contrasted, with a third and personal subplot, making it a complex script.

The titular story involved a man named William Danvers (Jim McMullan). Rossii’s covering a story about a right-wing Judge, a hang-’em-and-flog-’em merchant, about to announce he’srunning for Governor, when someone pulls a gun on him. A bystander intervenes, forcing the gun down, saving the Judge’s life, but disappearing before anyone gets a proper look at him or getting his name.

Lou loves the story but wants the guy’s name.

At the same time, Billie’s doing a story about the struggle to keep up a Halfway-House for women  ex-cons (ex-hookers, mainly). Magnum House is doing sterling stuff, providiing support, a place to stay, cameraderie  and chances to get into legitimate jobs. It is genuinely making a difference as only one-third of its people wimd up back in jail, as opposed to a national average of two-thirds. Biillie believes in it passionately. But its funding has been cut and it can no longer pay the rent: Magnum House is to close.

Which is the classic ironic juxtaposition to Rossi’s story about William Danvers. Because Danvers is an ex-con, hard time in Folson Prison, served, self-educated, and now the leading partner in an investment management firm in San Francisco. From rocks to riches (cheap joke). It’s a great story: ex-con made good saves life of ‘once-a-crook-always-a-crook’ Judge, and even better when set against effective anti-recidivism scheme closes for lack of funds.

Except that whilst Bill Danvers’ partner knows his past, the general public didn’t. His clients didn’t. His fiancee didn’t. However well-meaning Lou had been, the story he pushes for has destroyed Danvers’ life. And there’s nothing he can do about it, except send Rossi out again to do a follow-up that will set Danvers’ story in a better context. And how well does that go down with Danvers, or his ex-fiancee Leslie Williams (Doria Cook)?

She comes to Lou himself to complain abut the damage this invasion of privacy has done to everyone. Lou detects that sshe still has feelings for Bill, sends her back to tell him what she wants to tell Lou about how great Bill is. Perhaps I shouldn’t spoil the dramatic tension at this point, but there is no answer, literally no answer, to the most central point she makes: she’s known Bill a year, she was going to marry him next month, she thought she knew him: it wasn’t the story that he’s an ex-con but that he didn’t tell her himself, that he didn’t trust her.

Where the episode spoils itself is in its insistence on happy endings. Billie’s passionate but ineffective stories about Magnum House turn out to be effective afterall, when a charitable foundation upon which Mrs Pynchon has worked her influence guarantee funding for at least six months: one woman has slipped, gone back to hooking rather than work on an assembly line, but the project has been saved. The liberal outcome has outcomed.

And Bill turns up to tell Lou that the follow-up articles have rescued his business and he’s got more customers than ever now and he wants to buy him dinner. Leslie wants nothing to do with him any more but hey, his Mammon has been served. The show couldn’t give itself up to an unhappy ending that might show the paper as being anything less than wholly positive, and in doing so they killed a tough but important episode.

I did say there was a subplot, which spun out of Billie’s story, and that was the brief period in which she and Art Donovan, the free-wheeling, fun-loving, commitmentophobe with the sharp threads. Donovan fell hard for Billie, seriously hard. She was wonderful, she was perfect, she was everything he wanted. She was just dating him because it was fun, until he proposed to her.

What followed was highly dubious. Billie went on about the pressure to conform, to marry, to stop being single and settle down (the words ‘grow up’ were left to be implied). She hadn’t previously realised this affected men as well. All Donovan’s doing is to cave in a little under this pressure at long last. It’s not her he ‘wants’ permanently, she was just the one there when it struck him. It’s cogent, reasonable and, from my personal perspective, a cop-out. It’s simplistic sophistry and a cheap cheat, constructed to make us feel ok about Billie hurting Donovan as she clearly does, by elevating a case of not-into-him-that-way into a personal philosophy to be admired. Hooey, I say, hooey.

And Art rapidly came to agree with her, though I did wonder how much of that was masking his dejection so as to make it easier for her to get over hurting him (shedid say she wished he hadn’t spoiled things by saying that), and how much was genuine acceptance of her principle and relief at getting to go back to being shallow. Commendably, the scene didn’t tip its hand.

But like the main stories, it was the soft outcome, not the hard one. The good guys will always win, just because they’re the good guys, not because they’re in a winning position.  That’s a given with Lou Grant. This week, it was particularly egregious.

A Tale of Two Crags and a flash of red

Eagle Crag – the challenging way

It’s a sunny day today, so I don’t know what’s triggered this particular memory, but on the way to the bus I found myself reminiscing about the day I climbed Eagle Crag, in low cloud and rain.

Eagle Crag is not a very high fell. Geographically, it’s nothing but the abrupt terminus of a long spur extending north east from High Raise. It’s an umbilical twin of the similar Sergeant’s Crag, and the two form the southern wall of Langstrath for much of its lower length.

But Eagle Crag is one more of those lower Lakeland fells that present a fierce aspect far outweighing its mere height. It’s a terminal cliff with an exciting escarpment that is really the only method of approach. The only other routes of access are dull and unworthy and, in the case of the one that goes really round the back, look tedious beyond belief and dangerously lonely.

I left Eagle Crag a long way into the Wainwrights, because I wanted to tackle it the direct route, but I was nervous about it. It was a direct assault on the in places near vertical face of the fell as seen from the Stonethwaite valley, and it had a few awkward, or potentially awkward spots from which it might prove a bit difficult to retreat. Even Wainwright had said that this was not a route to descend by unless it had been ascended very recently, which I took to mean the same day, and within no more than a couple of hours.

That’s the thing. I am, or rather was, even then, a very experienced fellwalker, but when it came to the more difficult routes, I had very little confidence in my ability to tackle anything other than the straightforward.

You’ve got to test your boundaries sometimes, so with great trepidation, on a dark and overcast afternoon, I drove to Stonethwaite for only the second time, changed into my anorak and boots, and set off on the Greenup Edge path.

Langstrath enters the Stonethwaite valley from the west, but there is a difference in levels making it impossible to see into the valley from the path. I dropped down to cross the valley at a footbridge, and follow a path on thhe other side of Greenup Gill through enclosures of bracken so as to ascend towards the tricky stage of the ascent. There was a steep but tedious walk up a sloping field of bracken, most of it waist height and wet from previous rain. My walking trousers slowly soaked through, making the ascent unpleasantly damp as well as draining. I stuck to the wall as much as possible, as an easy guide to the mini-ridge before the climb started to get serious.

From here, the way to the top is relatively short in comparison but the relatively nervous walker will find their nerves aquiver at every step onwards. Once I’d circled round to reach the mini-ridge where the wall abutted the cliff-front, there was a rickety and unconvincing stile over the wall at this point, that held up under my scrambling my bulk over it, conscious of its fragility.

From there, the route clings to the cliff face as you work across the Langstrath side to the foot of a steep, semi-grassy gully. This is relatively narrow, protecting the vertiginously-inclined from too much empty space. I worked up in by hand and foot, exiting to the left at its head and having to circle that head to proceed right along a grass ledge.

This was the worst part of the ascent. The ledge was pretty level and reasonably wide, but I would have felt much happier with a banister rail of some sorts along the right hand side because this was pure space. Wander too close to that edge – and anything within twice the width of the ledge constituted too close for me – and the next step was a doozy. I went carefully along the ledge, wondering how far it would go, where it ended, would it get any narrower, all the time aware that any retreat would mean putting the drop on my left side, which would have overloaded my senses more than a bit, and then having to go down that gulley, which I would not relish at all.

Just as soon as it was physically possible, when the wall to my left had declined to where it was only a short scramble up onto another, shorter grassy ledge, and then to a series of ledges each of which took me higher and further from that precipitate drop, I got off hat big ledge with gratitude and an increasing sense of safety. Above me, a small heap of rocks came into view, and I headed for it to discover that this was, by luck and not judgement, the summit.

Sergeant’s Crag in the sun

Getting through something like that successfully, i.e., intact, was always an adrenaline kick, but my arrival on the summit was closely followed by the arrival of rain and lowering cloud. Not so much as to trouble me at my modest elevation, but enough to require me to don waterproofs, though I’d got a hundred yards or two down the ridge before I had to make urgent adjustments.

There was never any intention to descend from Eagle Crag: the direct route was too fearsome, and the roundabout route too grim to consider, and besides, I was still collecting my Wainwrights and there was no way I would miss out on the chance to visit Sergeant’s Crag. I’d just come to the awkward step on the ridge when it was necessary to shelter myself, and then the clouds followed. I trudged along a path below the crest, on the dull side, in silence but for the hissing of the rain, the cloud close above, with no sense of how I was progressing along the ridge. Once again, luck came to my assistance, because when I decided I’d better check the ridge itself because the wrinkle I turned up to was Sergeant’s Crag’s summit!

I now had the issue of the return journey. Though the cloud was now lowering on High Raise itself, and looked likely to descend even further, I could see the greater part of the long, curling, grassy ridge towards the parent fell. It didn’t look in the least appetising. It looked much too easy to be lost in cloud before I could get too far in that direction, and far too easy to get off line.

More importantly, it was raining and it looked likely to get harder and I really did not want to get any further away from the car at Stonethwaite than was absolutely necessary. Technically, the descent from Sergeant’s Crag was in this direction and traversing over pathless territory towards the top of Stake Pass, and only then into Langstrath which, as you shouldn’t need reminding, means Long Valley.

Direct descent into the valley wasn’t feasible so I descended onto the ridge again, keeping to the Langstrath side, with my eyes open for any feasible line in a downwards direction, feasible here being a word meaning direct and safe. It wasn’t possible to see all the way down into the valley, so I had to take the lower portion of the descent on trust, but there seemed to be a possible route not too far from the summit, and I set off that way, between Bull Crag and the shattered rocks below the summit.

The rain, and the slipperiness of the grassy fellside were major obstacles, and I proceeded with deliberate speed, slow, steady, careful, constantly measuring the line and the angle in front of me. Like my long prior descent from Brim Fell, it was a very long time before the valley floor seemed to get any nearer. I just worked my way down, a few steps at a time, making sure my leading foot was firmly planted before I put any weight upon it. Though this was not yet even mid-afternoon, it was dark under the water-heavy clouds, and dismal of appearance.

It was a matter of concern that after I’d got over halfway down, the way ahead seemed to be interrupted by bluffs over which I couldn’t see but which suggested even steeper ground below them. But I’d committed myself to this course and after so long  steep descent, I was starting to feel the build-up of lactic acid in my calves, so the thought of abandoning this route and having to go back uphill – for what? – was doubly unwelcome.

So I stuck to my guns and to my concentration, and the lower slopes weren’t impassable, and I didn’t slip and I got to the bottom and the path – which was wide and commendably level – and headed for the valley end.

Langstrath from Stake Pass

Langstrath is not just a long valley, but also a very broad and empty one, and unless you’re walking towards Bowfell, it doesn’t have any scenic highlights. And Bowfell was invisible in the rainclouds so I couldn’t even turn round at intervals and admire that scene. It was trudge, trudge, trudge, under the rocks of the Sergeant’s Crag/Eagle Crag ridge, with very little inspiration.

The beck was wide and swift and didn’t look amenable to crossing it to the Rosthwaite Fell bank, but at Blackmoss Pot there was a footbridge I could use to get to the other side. Instead of having to match to and descend from the valley end to the Greenup path, I could cut a corner, through the woods, and make a more direct return to Stonethwaite.

My steps picked up in the woods, getting nearer to being able to get out of my soaked waterproofs. The rain was incessant and for a long time I’d been carrying my glasses in my hand, able to see better without them than with. Suddenly, in my myopic state, I glimpsed a red flash along a branch ahead of and above me, to my right. I crammed my glasses back on as quickly as I could, so that I could see more than mere shapes, but the flash had gone, and I saw neither it nor any of its colony. Sadly, that is the closest I ever came to seeing a red squirrel in its own fur.

Back in Keswick, I hung my waterproofs over the shower curtain rail in my bathroom to drain into the bath. because they were never going to recover if rolled up and stuffed in the bottom of my rucksack. It gave my guest room a funny smell all evening, but I survived.

And I survived the walk. More importantly, it gave me a new confidence. I’d gotten up without any difficulties except the self-imposed ones of my nerves. I took a long, hard look at myself and started to ask whether I’d been underestimating my abilities before now. I had always chosen to walk within my limitation, but Eagle Crag showed me that my perception of those limitations might very well not be the same as my real limitations.

I feel stupid that it took me that long to believe in myself, so that when I started tackling things like Sharp Edge, and Lord’s Rake, and Narrow Edge, I was so far along in my walking career. If I had believed in myself when I should have, I could haave done these much earlier, and left myself much more times for things I never got to, such as the High Level Route to Robinson’s Cairn, or the West Wall Traverse, or even the daddy of them all, Jack’s Rake.

Eagle Crag may well be a minor fell, but it had a major impact on me, and I remember it vividly, even on sunny days.

A flash of red

Oh, not again… Ranking Roger RIP

Any time two people who have meant something in my life die within a couple of days of each other, I flash back to that awful year of 2016, when at times it seemed we couldn’t go even a day without the cannonball impact of another loss. We lost Scott Walker only a couple of days and now the news arrives that Roger Charlery, aka Ranking Roger, has passed away. Once again it’s that bastard killer, cancer, coupled with brain tumours.

Ranking Roger was an essential part of The Beat, that Birmingham band that arrived in late 1979, in the immediate wake of the ska revival boom instituted by Coventry’s The Specials. The band top tenned with a sinuous, wriggly version of the Smokey Ronbinson classic “Tear of a Clown”, and went on to a three album career with a string of brilliant singles, including three other top 10 hits.

The band’s commercial impetus didn’t last that long, and by 1981 their singles were struggling to even reach the top thirty. There was a kind of musical schizophrenia at times: second album Wha’ppen? took their reggae/dance fusion into rootsier directions but third and final album, Special Beat Service, recorded with an expanded line-up that introduced a piano into their sound, was more bright and poppy, with a cold, formal production that didn’t suit their style, and with fewer great songs.

The obituries are describing Roger as a vocalist, but properly his role in the Beat was as a toaster. Dave Wakelin was the singer, and Roger interjected in and around his lines, in the classic form of the Jamaican MC style toasters. The contrast between his and Wakelin’s voice made The Beat’s sound unique.

I saw the band live once, at Manchester’s Apollo Theatre, and they were brilliant. After half a dozen straight performances, the band then began to slyly and subtly extend each song, effortlessly eliding from the ebullient song into a twisted, loose and darker sounding dub version, there on stage. I loved it. The second time I went to see The Beat, a year later, at the same venue, I arrived to find the Theatre dark and closed, the gig cancelled, no forewarning, no explanation given. I’m afraid I asumed it was cancelled because not enough tickets were sold. Remembering the performance I’d seen, I had been looking forward to the gig eagerly.

Roger went on to have a number 1 single with Pato Banton, but whilst it was good to see a goood guy do well, “Pato and Roger a go Talk” couldn’t for me be held up against his stuff with The Beat.

If you want to hear an example of Roger’s style, listen to this clip of the band in their earliest days, the 12″ version of their second single, “Hands off… she’s mine”. And regret. Dammit, he was seven years younger than me. That’s no age.


PS, forget to mention, the day Maggie Thatcher resigned, I couldn’t wait to get home, put on Stand Down Margaret and skank around my living room in joy.