All This Decay

Strange questions come to mind when watching Peter Greenaway's savage and delicate lyric on the nature of death (and therefore, life) that is A Zed and Two Noughts.

Alba asks the very pertinent question: "How much of oneself can a person lose and still recognize themselves?" In her case the losses are physical and dramatic, but looked at another way, we're all losing parts of ourselves all the time. I think that's one of the things Greenaway is suggesting in associating Alba with Oliver and Oswald; the men have also lost crucial parts of themselves, and their ever-more-frantic efforts to re-establish the identity they once possessed leads inexorably to decay.

What alternatives did they have, though? Or, why is it so important to recognize ourselves? Perhaps that need lies at Oswald's (or is it Oliver's) quest to understand the history of life as a deterministic process leading to his wife's death.

What's Vermeer got to do with it all, anyway? I'm no art historian, and I'm lazy, so I can't bring much Vermeerish knowledge to the question. But painting is always a means of freezing a moment in time, of announcing that this moment, this spot, this direction of view is IMPORTANT somehow. Van Meegeren, however, is obsessed not with reproducing the world he sees, but the world Vermeer saw. Is this just another expression of the drive to avoid decay? Artist seeking immortality -- and yet Van Meegeren ISN'T seeking immortality, is he? He's not painting under his own name -- he's painting as Vermeer. He is putting aside his own immortality in order to subsume himself into another's.

And yet, he believes that Milo's child is his. As does Van Hoyten, the foul cynic. Can they both be right? Or are they, like Oswald and Oliver, struggling, desperate to cling to something they themselves cannot identify or discuss.

What's the purpose of our struggling, our suffering, our urgency to live? There's a lot of urgency in this film, but it's a mindless, helpless sort of urgency, as single-celled organisms (and later, more complex beings, including grief-stricken zoologists) thrive and multiply. Is there any direction here, except towards entropy and irrelevance?

Why do we struggle so? Van Hoytens calls the struggle of life "A dreary fiction," and so... do we agree? Is all the importance we attach to what we do just that -- a fiction that we create? Venus de Milo tells erotic stories about animals, stories we never get to hear the end of. Van Meegeren creates fake paintings we never get to see. Alba imagines a family she can never have.

Loss and emptiness echo through the film, juxtaposed with frenetic action and striking contrasts (a white animal with black stripes, or a black animal with white stripes?). One of the great triumphs of A Zed and Two Noughts is how it resists purely story-focused analysis. The viewer is compelled to submit to a visual and auditory understanding that the story itself cannot encompass. Michael Nyman's tremendous score and the gorgeous photography of Sacha Vierny entrance us and carry us through to the film's shocking, hilarious, inevitable conclusion.

Summarizing this film is an exercise in futility. "What happens" here is far less important than what we see. What we hear. What we feel. Digust and arousal and sympathy and wonder.

It's as though the elements of plot and story are being exposed as the same sort of frantic, meaningless activity as those jumbled protozoa, those confused black/white/black animals, those teeming swarms of maggots and snails, and even those zoologists take desperate part in every day in the history of this little earth of ours. Perhaps Greenaway is asking us to consider that there is indeed something beyond that endless struggle: What we see. What we hear. What we feel.