Is there anything funnier than religion? Religion is like dancing with penguins. The hilarity never stops. Unless you yourself are religious, in which case every religion but one, yours, is hilarious. Fortunately, to those who believe in stacks of turtles, the great green Arkleseizure, or god’s dead son wandering about pulling fish from the air, yours is a laugh riot.
Especially hilarious are religions from the past. Those people didn’t know anything about anything, least of all which invisible superbeings are running the show.
But truly the apex of absurdity are religions of the future, which are by necessity invented by mere humans. How could it be otherwise? They’ve yet to exist. Unlike all the real gods, gods of the future are by definition fakes. What could be funnier than that?
The problem lies in those people who don’t find religions funny. They tend to take matters quite seriously. They might, for example, if you were to bad-mouth their god, murder you. Which I admit is rather less than humorous. Especially for you. You’re dead, and according to they who iced you, suffering eternal fiery torments.
In this week’s Mind Control Double Feature, we will experience the joys of an ancient religion found thriving in our present, and an imagined one far in our potential future.
Fail to believe in them at your own peril!
The Wicker Man (1973)
Oh, much fabled Wicker Man, how you are beloved by your followers, and dismissed by those unable to see your beauty, your wisdom, and your hilarity for what they are: movie gold. I was once one of your detractors, having seen you on videotape in my youth, likely one of the many butchered versions long circulated of this masterpiece.
Lucky for me, I recently saw a screening of director Robin Hardy’s original cut of the film, thought forever lost, newly restored and, with any luck, coming soon to blu-ray.
In the meantime, I’m led to believe that current DVD copies contain almost the complete version, though certain sequences were sourced from poor prints.
The Wicker Man is billed as a horror film, which is a bit disengenuous, considering what is normally called “horror.” No goopy monsters show up. No one is hacked to pieces. However, it is by all means psychologically violent, so what the hell, let’s call it horror after all.
The movie opens with police sergeant Neil Howie (a stern and stick-up-the-ass Edward Woodward) at a Catholic church, deeply involved in one of that particular religion’s wacky ceremonies, during which he stands before the congregation reading something or other.
No sooner does this end than he’s on a boat, approaching Summerisle, one of the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. The locals, some old crusty fisherman, tell him he can’t come ashore, but he’s quite demanding, this upstanding policeman. They have no choice.
Howie says he’s received an anonymous letter claiming that a girl, Rowan Morrison, of whom he has a photo, is missing. The crusty old guys claim not to recognize the photo, but do so in a way where we the audience know immediately something very fishy is going on, and so does Howie. We know this kind of story. The island is covering up something awful.
Howie goes to see a Mrs. Morrison, who has one very present daughter, and claims to have no other.
But at the inn, in the bar, there are photos on the wall of the yearly May Queens, all teenage girls, with one photo, the most recent, missing. Surely it was a photo of Rowan!
As Howie comes to see, the islanders are not good Christians. They are, rather, something like Celtic paganists. Young men and woman have sex outside on the lawn, or in the cemetery. The inn-keeper’s daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland), seems to happily sleep with anyone, and is in fact in charge of deflowering young boys at the behest of Lord Summerisle himself, played with marvelous gravitas by Christopher Lee (who has said this was his favorite role).
Young schoolgirls are taught the power of the penis, as represented by the Maypole, teenage girls frolic naked, leaping over ceremonial fires, and other generally kind of very fun looking activities take place all over the island, much to the utter horror and dismay of poor old sergeant Howie.
In one nice exchange with Lord Summerisle, Howie rants and rave about the lunacy of naked girls frolicking to better the year’s crops, asks if these children have never heard of Jesus Christ. Says Lord Summerisle: “Himself the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost…”
Indeed. In the contest of whose religion is nuttiest, tis ever a tie.
In one of the most memorable scenes, Willow dances a seductive naked dance in the room adjacent to Howie’s, calling him to her. It’s equally sexy, alluring, and funny.
The funny parts of the movie arise from the sincerity with which this carefree religion is practiced. Naked and lovely as it may seem, it’s all just so—ridiculous. Isn’t it?
In the end, the truth of what’s become of Rowan is revealed, and there are some serious surprises in store for Howie. The climax of the movie pulls no punches. What happens when a man of one god finds himself mixed up in a society that worships another? Nothing very pleasant, that’s for sure.
The Wicker Man isn’t so-bad-it’s-good, not by a long shot. It’s so-good-it’s-great.
Writer/director John Boorman had just come off of a massive hit in Deliverance, a wholly grounded, brilliant drama, and had carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wanted next.
What he wanted was Zardoz. The only question was: did anyone else?
Yes, I say! The world would be a far shabbier place without the wonder that is Zardoz.
From the very first scene, you will watch Zardoz with your jaw on the floor. A disembodied head floats against a black background. Dressed in a blue headscarf, with beard and moustache painted on theatrically, a rather obnoxious twit explains that he is Zardoz, and this is his tale.
Cut to the Brutals, a race of violent horsemen dressed in red diapers, led by Zed, an all too swarthy Sean Connery, as they race down a hillside to meet the giant, flying stone head coming to meet them. You read that correctly.
“Zardoz!” they cry in their excitement, for the head is their god. It lands, and speaks. It says the gun is good, and the penis is bad, for the penis shoots seed, bringing more life, which is bad, and the gun shoots bullets, destroying life, which is good. From out of the head’s gaping mouth fly hundreds of rifles and shells. Hooray!
Next thing you know, we travel into the mouth of the head, where Zed has hidden himself.
Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy, a name I did not just now invent), whose floating head opens the movie, appears, and Zed shoots him. Frayn falls from the mouth to his death.
The stone head arrives in the Vortex, a pleasant kind of pastoral landscape, where dreamy youngsters in wispy clothing, including the lovely May (Sara Kestelman) and—wait for it—Consuella (Charlotte Rampling, giving it her all), find the very confused Zed, and wonder at his presence. However did he arrive here, where his presence is forbidden?
For you see, these are the Immortals. They cannot die. And if they do, like Frayn, they are reborn into weird plastic sacks, and within days grow into their old selves, and by “old” I mean “young,” because they never grow old, unless they break the laws and are punished with artificial aging. Grow too old, and you’re banished to the crazy old folks refuge. Obviously.
The Immortals are utterly bored. They’re so bored the men can’t even get erections. All they do is eat weird green bread and bitch about how boring everybody is. The most bored of all are the Apathetics. With eyes glassy and mouths agape, they precisely resemble anyone watching Zardoz.
Well. Turns out no one knew what Frayn was doing with his fancy flying stone head. He said he’d handle the Brutals and they let him, unaware that he’d turned himself into a phony god and that, get this, he’d specifically bred Zed to be super-duper intelligent in order to fulfill his sneaky plans, the nature of which I will leave to you to discover. I guarantee you will find them, as you find every single second of this movie, totally bugfuck loopidy doopidy whatsa hubba hubba.
The key word for this film is: commitment. All the actors, and certainly director Boorman, are deep into this world. This is serious business. The Immortals continually amaze with their, to us, peculiar behavior, like how they zap one of their own into old age by gathering in a circle and wiggling their fingers at him dramatically. For example.
I watched Zardoz last night for the first time in years. It did not disappoint. I was riveted, just as you will be. Certainly there are weirder, freakier, more experimental movies out there. But with Zardoz, it’s almost as though, to someone, this all makes sense, as though it came from an alternate universe where this is what movies are like. It’s all of a piece. So much thought went into it. That it makes not a damn bit of sense feels like your fault, not the filmmakers’.
Is Zardoz bad? Is it good? I have no idea. All I know is, it demands to be seen.
Sergeant Howie and Zed, two men plunged into strange worlds governed by inexplicable gods, who learn that other religions aren’t necessarily as funny as they imagined. Yes, my friends, this is an important double feature for all humans. Watch and learn.