Thursday, March 29, 2007

Twin Peaks

Here's a project waiting to happen: an in-depth comparison of Peter Greenaway's A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) and David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (1988). I've just finished watching the latter, having at my disposal during the holiday the University's massive DVD collection, and half-way through the movie it suddenly dawned on me that I'd seen much of what was happening on screen before. Dead Ringers tells the story of twin gynecologists, Ellie and Bev Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons), who slowly become psychologically unraveled as they both engage in an affair with an actress (creepily, one whom they meet at their clinic). Irons does a fantastic job giving the two characters fully developed personalities, and the taut script and plot move things along nicely. Unlike some of Cronenberg's more famous gross-out films, like The Fly and Scanners, Dead Ringers is slow, subtle, and less overtly disgusting. (That's not a rip on the other two, however.) As usual, Cronenberg fulfils his obsessions with flesh, metal/human organics, and, let's be honest, vaginas (anyone seen eXistenZ?).

But having seen A Zed and Two Noughts already, I was a bit disappointed by the movie's psychology. The concept of twins is a goldmine for exploration. Not that real-life twins necessarily exhibit any of these qualities, but in the movies we expect some sort of probing of the relationship between twins' genetic identity (meaning, of course, bodily identity as well), self-awareness, and sexuality (both towards each other--they shared a womb, after all--and towards women, usually with some recursive reference to the mother). In psychoanalytical parlance, the figure of the Father seems to be absent from the twin relationship, probably because it is displaced from the beginning by the presence of the other twin, starting with antagonism in utero. If anyone knows if the classic psychoanalysis literature has anything to say about twins, I'd be interested.

Greenaway is one of my all-time favorite directors, and it's not for nothing that he's a faculty member at the uber-theoretical European Graduate School. (God, it's a sickening faculty list--Agamben, Badiou, Butler, Zizek, to name a few.) Whereas Cronenberg's films often set their weirdness against a straightforwardly realistic backdrop, Greenaway let's you know from the beginning that he's taking you into a different reality altogether. The sets, costumes, and symbols are extremely prominent and often disorienting, but the viewer comes to make sense of the intricate world Greenaway's created in short time. If anyone's seen it, Brazil might be a good example. The best thing about Greenaway's movies, to me, is the fact that the players in them tend to act normally, as if nothing were particularly odd about their surroundings, but are actually part of a larger scheme of complex designs and metaphors. Thus, in Drowning by Numbers for example, a little girl skips rope and calls out the names of the constellations, which she's apparently learned by heart. Nothing could be more mundane, but in a Greenaway film nothing could be more loaded with meaning. Similarly, in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, the dishboy in the kitchen of the restaurant sings while working, which could be considered usual, but in a bizarre choirboy-esque fashion, and in the context of a highly stylized, artificial-looking set. It's completely offputing, but in the best way possible.

Greenaway brings this sense of the surreal to A Zed and Two Noughts in spades. The story is again about twin brothers, this time zoologists, played in this case by actual twins. At the opening of the movie, one of the brother's wife is killed in a car wreck. The brothers take in the surviving driver (whose legs are both eventually amputated), and, as in Dead Ringers, they both develop a relationship with her, but this time openly. Much weirdness ensues, wherein one brother makes time-lapse videos of various plants and animals decaying. Again as in Dead Ringers, the brothers eventually come to face together sex, identity, and death. I'm pulling this all from memory and so I can't remember all the details of the movie, but even if I were fully informed I couldn't do justice to all the great instances of twinning and wordplay. For example, the brothers are named Oliver and Oswald Deuce (two noughts, for a start), and they're of course ZOOologists (there's the Zed).

What's odd is that Cronenberg never mentions Greenaway's earlier film in his director's commentary, even when he brings up the fact that he's doing the "twin" motif in a different way. He either hadn't seen the movie or he's just been dishonest, but that's all right because his movie isn't as good. Still, it's worth seeing and, as I originally said, comparing with Greenaway. The whole point of this pretentious, long-winded post is WATCH THE MOVIES. As for me, I'm going to enjoy an everything bagel and watch The Cook, The Thief, etc. again.


Blogger The Sheriff said...

I just saw The Belly of an Architect recently, and while I have to say that it's much more straightforward than The Cook, The Thief... it's similarly gastronomical, biological, and amazing. These are definitely two of my favorite directors, kudos smimey.

7:21 AM  

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