I recently had the chance to watch Terry Gilliam’s film, The Zero Theorem. I gather that some have called it the final piece of the Brazil trilogy (following Twelve Monkeys), and that makes some sense: in all three films, we find the same harrowing mix of Kafka with Orwell, the same conflicts among imagination, reason, love, and despair, and the same clear plastic raincoats. In this case, the main character is Qohen Leth, an “entity cruncher” who pedals furiously at a stationary bike while solving math problems, handing the solutions in tubular form through a slot to another set of hands. He petitions to work at home because he has been expecting a phone call that will reveal to him his purpose. His home is a burnt-out cathedral, complete with pigeons and rats. The most powerful image in his mind, to which he frequently returns, is a terrifying and beautiful black hole. He eventually is granted permission to wall himself inside his cathedral in order to work on Management’s big project: the Zero Theorem, which proves that all of existence sums to nothing.
Complications ensue, and Leth begins to care about other people, and the story ends with the sort of dreamy but nihilistic conclusion Gilliam fans can expect. I had thought that Leth was named after “Lethe,” the ancient Greek’s river of forgetfulness, but Wikipedia tells me that the screenwriter Paul Rushin was “was inspired by Ecclesiastes to write the film (the Hebrew title of which is קֹהֶלֶת, Qoheleth, meaning “Gatherer”, but traditionally translated as “Teacher” or “Preacher”), which he felt suggested such questions as “What is the value of life? What is the meaning of existence? What’s the use?”” It’s a marvelous film, and I’m resolved to teach a class on Gilliam’s films and philosophy. We’ll see the films I’ve mentioned, but also The Fisher King and Baron von Munchhausen (this latter one being still my favorite of the Gilliam ouvre).
Coincidentally, I also came across today an interesting article by Steven Poole in the Guardian about M. C. Escher. The following passage helped me to see the common strain running through Escher’s paradoxical etchings and Gilliam’s worlds of cartoons:
Most dazzling, perhaps, is the celebrated Ascending and Descending (1960), with its two ranks of human figures trudging forever upwards and eternally downwards respectively on an impossible four-sided eternal staircase. It is the most recognisable of Escher’s “impossible objects” images, which were inspired by the British mathematician Roger Penrose and his father, the geneticist Lionel Penrose. Fascinated by House of Stairs, the Penroses published a paper in 1956 in the British Journal of Psychology entitled “Impossible Objects: A Special Type of Visual Illusion”. Receiving an offprint a few years later, Escher wrote to Lionel expressing his admiration for the “continuous flights of steps” in the paper, and enclosing a print of Ascending and Descending. (The paper also included the “tri-bar” or Penrose triangle, which is constructed impossibly from three 90-degree angles: in 1961 Escher built his never-ending Waterfall using three of them.)
The mathematical trickery in Ascending and Descending’s staircase is not the subject of the image. Escher was never a surrealist. But in this picture, it becomes clear that he was a kind of existentialist. He had long admired Dostoyevsky and Camus, and in a letter to a friend while he was working on Ascending and Descending he explained: “That staircase is a rather sad, pessimistic subject, as well as being very profound and absurd. With similar questions on his lips, our own Albert Camus has just smashed into a tree in his friend’s car and killed himself. An absurd death, which had rather an effect on me. Yes, yes, we climb up and up, we imagine we are ascending; every step is about 10 inches high, terribly tiring – and where does it all get us? Nowhere.”
This dreamscape of futility is perfected by the two figures who are not on the eternal staircase. One gazes up at his condemned fellows from a side terrace; one sits glumly on the lower stairs. “Two recalcitrant individuals refuse, for the time being, to take any part in this exercise,” Escher commented. “They have no use for it at all but no doubt sooner or later they will be brought to see the error of their nonconformity.”
Gilliam’s films are all about a figure who does not wish to be on the eternal staircase. But in The Zero Theorem, the depiction of the figure is as direct as a Zen master’s lesson: for here is a man who believes in a purpose, expects it to ring up at any moment, and yet whose day job proves there is no meaning.