Around the turn of the millenium there were a number of places in when I used to live in Vancouver where you could go to seek out the far fringes of cinema, rent out a few films for a couple of nights and then cram in watching them all before having to return them by the due date. And by that I mean a lot of less accessible stuff that you wouldn’t be finding at Blockbuster or any of the standard rental places. As the years increase between the time now and the time back then, I’ve forgotten the names of many of these places although Black Dog Video and Videomatica still stick strongly in my mind. It was a few years after settling into Vancouver that I think my interest in film really started to pick up so I’d frequent these places and started expliring . There was a growling list of films I’d read about, had been recommended or that I found was an influence for any particular musician that I was into at the time so I’ll go through them one by one.
On this list there was director Peter Greenaway, whose films I was lead to based on one of the aforementioned reasons. In the rental shops the covers for Greenaway’s films struck you with images of incredible costumes, sets, and with colourful titles such as The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and Her Lover and Drowning by Numbers. They seemed somewhat exotic, and well, very English, at least by the standards of what was considered popular for films in both mainstream and underground cinema in Canada.
Where the classic Hollywood approach to making films would be to bring a screenplay or novel to life, Greenaway took a different approach by taking influence from the world of painting and visual arts, even with a lot of his film’s subjects relating to the arts. His first mainstream film, The Draughtsman’s Contract, in fact was about a skilled artist (a draughtsman) hired by a wealthy family estate in the 17th century. It is essentially a crime film but its approach to that genre is miles away from convention.
Greenaway’s most popular film of this run would be The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, which is the most emotionally engaging of the bunch and works the themes of dysfunctional relationships, forbidden love and of course revenge really well. It also contains probably one of film’s most nastiest villains, the brutish Albert Spica, played terrifyingly well by actor Michael Gambon. It’s an intense film to watch with it’s stylised violence and brutality heavily contrasted by amazing sets, frame composition and soundtrack which all come to a delicious end, making for a unique and memorable revenge tale.
A Zed and Two Noughts, released in 1985, is probably the most clinical and abstract of his 80s films and on the surface the one that’s most detached emotionally. My main reason for focusing on this one is that the imagery and concept is the one that’s stuck in my head, as well as that I’ve sampled some dialogue from that was used in my set for the Soft Riot live show, the idea being to use various samples and interludes to allow enough time to set up the synthesizers for the next track.
Right from the opening the striking cinematography and frame composition of A Zed and Two Noughts come straight to the foreground. The first shot is nighttime where two children are trying to pull a rambunctious dalmation across wet paving stones, illuminated by giant neon blue letters reading “ZOO” (the film’s title is a long form way of spelling out the word “ZOO”). The second scene is of a man using a stopwatch to time a large restless tiger pacing about in a cage, around what appears to be a severed zebra head. And that’s just the start of it.
The plot itself is a bit of a strange one to follow. At the beginning of the film a car crashes into a swan right in front of the ZOO sign. Two of the three women in the car are wives of two of the zoologists that work at the zoo. These two zoologists happen to be identical twin brothers: Oliver and Oswald Deuce, whose surname is a play on their duplicity. The third woman is the driver responsible for the car accident, Alba Berwick, and is at first unknown to them and manages to survive the crash despite having to have one leg amputated. The two brothers visit Berwick in hospital become acquainted with her during their initial stages of grief.
The brothers at the beginning of the film are two different personalities: Oliver more emotionally unhinged and Oswald being more reserved, with these personalities shown by their appearance, demeanour and the interiors of their own respective homes. Oliver’s flat is full with a lot of natural plant life, organic furnishings and warm orange and earthy tones. Oswald on the other hand lives in a flat that’s almost a catalogue model of sleek, minimalist 80s interior design: monochromatic colours and minimal, geometric furnishings.
To deal with their grief they start becoming fascinated with decay and death. In fact, the whole film could arguably be about death and decay, with a interest in missing body parts. This fascination is depicted by numerous time lapse sequences of fruit and animals rotting under the brother’s supervision, as well as interludes of David Attenborough’s Life On Earth, complete with Attenborough’s recognizable voice. There’s also lot of themes dealing with symmetry as well — from the brothers being twins to a lot of the shots composed to be quite symmetrical.
As the film progresses the brothers become more and more similar in mannerisms and appearance, and start to become more emotionally interconnected with Berwick. The fascination with decay and death grows stronger and their decisions with how to deal with it become more bizarre and grandiose. At one point Berwick opts to amputate her second leg and the film ends on a rather strange conclusion. As mentioned before, with this being Greenaway’s most abstract and austere film from his 80s period, there’s almost similar obsessions with science and the body that are reminiscent of some of J.G. Ballard’s work, such as Crash or The Atrocity Exhbition.
Anyway, that’s about as best I want to get into describing the plot at this point. It might not be the strongest, nor the most engaging for a lot of viewers out there but as with most of the work of Greenaway, the plot is only one aspect of the film. The visuals and cinematography are a different character on their own. Every shot seems carefully composed, overflowing with textures, colours and detail. Overall the result is something that comes across as a mesh of drama, black comedy, art film and body horror.
And finally, at least for me, the third main pillar of A Zed & Two Noughts is the musical compositions by British composer Michael Nyman, whose music soundtrack work give that extra dimension of emotional impact to what we’re seeing on screen. Nyman has scored the majority of Greenaway’s first decade of full-length, cinematic output and with his work is characterized with a staccato, metronome-like quality that has a strong baroque influence.
For me there’s some striking similarities in feel and aesthetic that could be compared to a number of indie chamber/classical groups, notably the group Rachel’s; a Kentucky-based chamber music group that was closely related to a number of post-rock type bands including June of 44 and Codeine.
Greenaway’s influence can be seen in a lot of cinema today, however one of the most interesting examples I’ve seen of this was in an unexpected place. Around a year or so I watched the official VHS video collection by Arcadia, the more goth-tinged, arty synth pop side project consisting of three members of Duran Duran. This collection contained the official videos from the band’s only album, So Red The Rose. Stringing the videos together were random clips of interviews and other visuals, including a segment below that showcases a very obvious Greenaway influence, right down to the Nyman musical piece that accompanies it.
Clip from Arcadia promo VHS