This essay was originally written as my final paper for my Advanced Topics Media Theory class, taught by Eugene Thacker, in Spring 2015 at The New School.

The world now laughs, rent are the drapes of fright,
The wedding is at hand of dark and light—

-Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil, “From High Mountains: Aftersong”

“We’ve all been used!” “And re-used!” “And abused!” “And amused!”
-Friend (John Alderton)/Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy), Zardoz

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            If I discover an interpretation of a complicated work and then realize that this interpretation is a perfect explanation of this work, is this just a self-fulfilling prophecy? Perhaps the interpretation is well-founded, but my new reading will inevitably be colored by my knowledge of this theory. But maybe its rightness or wrongness is beside the point, at least in absolute terms. I do not have to agree exactly for my eyes to see anew. It could be the ramblings of a madman, but it may still be a message that is worthwhile. Discovering that Zardoz, a film I have cherished many years for its singular qualities, had been declared the epitome of a Nietzschean movie, I was irrevocably changed. “The Lord is risen!” “God is dead!” Zed is the Übermensch! So speak to me, Muse of Surprisingly Useful Amazon User Reviews, and keep me on a steady path in this endeavor.

~

            My first contact with Mr. Nietzsche was diffuse. He is one of those towering figures of philosophy that permeates academia and bleeds into the culture at large. He never came up in any comparative philosophy class I took, and without a philosophy background, any influence he had on me came secondhand. I was vaguely aware of his influence on any entertainment that established itself as nihilist, and the Übermensch concept was familiar enough to stand as a Big Idea of modern thought. From what I could gather, the Übermensch was some sort of German version of Superman. I sensed that this was not quite right, but I chalked whatever I was missing up to the nuances of translation and the subtlety of the actual literature.

A sketch from the fourth season of Saturday Night Live only cemented my initial understanding of the Übermensch. I only watched it for the first time recently, though I first heard about it from a high school history teacher. The sketch is presented in the framing device of the fictional talk show “What If?” This program explores alternate versions of historical events, and this particular episode posits the question of what would have happened if Superman had not landed on a farm in Kansas but instead in Nazi Germany. Instead of taking on the identities of Clark Kent and Superman, Kal-El (played by Dan Aykroyd) grows up to be Klaus Kent/“Uberman,” fighting for “untruth, injustice, and the Nazi way.” The sketch never explicitly indicates any Nietzschean influence, nor is there a particularly nihilist tone, but it is not too hard to make that leap on one’s own mind.

I was exposed to more nihilist entertainment throughout my adolescence and young adulthood, but I rarely sought it out because it just did not fit my disposition. I recognized the satirical brilliance of South Park, for example, but I was never devoted to it because it was just too overwhelming. I was also familiar with “God is dead,” in the way that certain quotations become part of the culture without their source material necessarily being so. I knew that its meaning was often misinterpreted, and I am fairly certain that a TV or movie character had explained its true meaning to me at some point. I can imagine Lisa Simpson lecturing someone about it. Indeed, there have probably been many fictional know-it-alls, wizards, scholarly types, and mentors who have done so. The point is, through my mid-twenties, my Nietzsche exposure was minimally useful.

As such, at the time of my first viewing of John Boorman’s 1974 film Zardoz, I was not equipped to notice any Nietzschean influence. It was a summer afternoon in between my junior and senior years of high school. My brother Rob and I and were hanging out with our friends Marc and Dan Dickerson on a blazingly sunny afternoon. After lunch at a local diner (where I had burnt the roof of my mouth), I wanted to head straight home while Rob wanted to stop by the Dickerson house. I allowed it, but I did not want to spend too much time there, as it would throw off my eating schedule. Returning any later than 4:00 would not have been conducive to my daily mid-afternoon yogurt.

Marc and Rob had been discussing this cinematic oddity about a dystopian future with Sean Connery wearing nothing but boots and a shorts-and-suspenders getup. There was one particularly notorious scene they wanted to check out before we headed home. While beholden to my dietary patterns, I was still intrigued by Zardoz. A childhood weaned on Mystery Science Theater 3000 had fostered in me a love of campy sci-fi and other classic “bad movies.” My curiosity was further piqued when Rob pointed out a Wizard of Oz poster and covered up the “Wi” and “of” in the title. The twist may have been spoiled for me, but it was such a mischievous reveal that it did not matter.

wiZARDofOZ

We began about a half hour in, with the infamous erection scene. In the future of Zardoz, a race called the Eternals paid for immortality with the price of sterility and thus did not understand the stimulus behind penile enhancement. When Zed (Connery) of the mortal Brutals invaded their society, they studied his arousal to answer this question. A monitor represented his manhood with waves and soft plucking whose intensity corresponded to his excitement. Thus was revealed to us the concept of the boner guitar.

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We ended up watching the entire remainder of the film, yogurt responsibilities be damned! It proved impossible to turn away from the striking imagery, the pastoral landscapes, the atonality of super-serious mixed with hammy acting, the casual seventies sci-fi nudity, and a culmination that resembled a Monty Python sketch. I was now a Zardoz devotee for life.

~

            For the Spring 2015 semester, my last in The New School’s Media Studies M.A., I registered for Advanced Topics in Media Theory with Eugene Thacker. I had wanted to explore philosophy of media more than I had thus far in the program. It was one of the main reasons I had returned to school – to research and develop interpretations about film and television content. I went into the course a little blindly, not knowing what the specific topic for this semester would be, but reasoning that whatever it was, I would not have much trouble benefiting from it.

With the focus revealed to be Friedrich Nietzsche, I was somewhat heartened. I had enjoyed True Detective a year ago, and its heavily Nietzschean bent had brought nihilist ideas to the fore of the cultural conversation. But the syllabus appeared to mainly cover Nietzsche and his writings in and of themselves, without directly addressing how they apply to media theory. Furthermore, an introduction to a major philosopher at the post-graduate level felt daunting. Luckily, the first reading, “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” proved to be much more playful than I would have expected given Nietzsche’s dour reputation.

~

            I do not know if I am a latecomer to the trend of podcast listening, or if it is still a fringe hobby, but once I gave a few programs a try, I committed to it hard. For several months beforehand, my sister persisted with her recommendation of How Did This Get Made? The first handful of times she mentioned it, it sounded like an NPR program about how complicated machinery is assembled, which sounded interesting enough, but not exactly my thing. Eventually I got it down that its hosts were comedians Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas, and June Diane Raphael, and its purpose was discussing bad, weird, and/or crazy movies, i.e., the likes of The Room (2003), Crank (2006), and Birdemic (2010).

Of course, I deeply and immediately desired that HDTGM? would cover Zardoz, and in February 2015, my wish was granted. The regular crew and guest host Brett Gelman were just as amused and engaged as I hoped they would be, but more disturbed than I ever was, though understandably so. Zardoz can be a brutal psychological experience – I thank my steely disposition that I can bear such movies like it.

At the end, this episode granted me a further gift, with an exploration of an interpretation of Zardoz as a perfectly Nietzschean film. I had yet to settle on a final paper topic for my Nietzsche class; I prefer starting that process as early as possible in the semester. By the grace of serendipity, an ideal proposal presented itself.

In its segment “A Second Opinion,” How Did This Get Made? discusses five-star Amazon reviews of the films being covered. One such review of Zardoz by “S. Maruta” declares the film “a sci-fi interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy.” It goes on to mention the Übermensch, “who will shake off the sterility of the last men to push them back into the meaningful and necessary movement of history.”

Suddenly, there was the hook! There was the thesis! Based on his influence on the Eternals, it was clear that this reviewer was calling Zed the Übermensch. Thanks to the presence of this Nietzschean concept, I could focus my research on a film I love, thus guaranteeing that I would actually enjoy putting in the work, which is always the goal.

Just who was this “S. Maruta” though? He (or she) was located in Bristol, England and had an Amazon reviewer ranking of 5,900,340. He hardly appeared to be a Nietzsche scholar, or a scholar of anything, at least not professionally. The syntax was a little odd, but from what I could gather, he admitted that he lacked an MA in philosophy. Was it justifiable to base an entire graduate-level paper around the theory of a person whose identity could not be verified in any meaningful way? My answer is, of course it can. No matter the quality of the work I am influenced by, I am the one responsible for doing work I am willing to put my name on. Still, it felt odd starting from such an unlikely source. That can be a good thing, though. I enjoy and value playing the madman.

~

            As I looked over the syllabus to determine what works I should focus on, I came to the dread realization that we actually had not covered the Übermensch very much in class. But it seemed like we must have! I felt like my understanding of this concept had been internalized. I flipped through the indices of The Gay Science and Beyond Good & Evil to find the entries on the Übermensch, but the number of results was surprisingly minimal. So I resorted to Google and Wikipedia. (My own notes were not necessarily useful, as they had not yet been specifically geared for this topic.) They gave me the same answer, while also indicating that the most significant appearance of the Übermensch is actually in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This was frightfully daunting – reading yet another selection from Nietzsche’s bibliography for a successful paper? This was not too difficult in and of itself, but it was a bit impractical within the time frame of a busy semester.

I soon came to understand why I had overestimated my familiarity with the Übermensch. The Nietzsche section that had most resonated with me – aphorism 125, in Book Three of The Gay Science – was the parable of the madman. It had the same sort of prophetic caliber that I was now recognizing in the Übermensch and Zardoz. The derision directed at the madman (“Did he lose his way like a child?”) was much like the reception Zed experienced from the Eternals upon his arrival in the Vortex, observed as he was like a lesser remnant of humanity’s past. But despite the shared culture shock, Zed was not aware of the prophet role he was playing. Or at least, he did not appear to be when he first arrived.

zardozvortex

The madman made his journey to spread the truth; Zed made his to uncover it. But Zardoz does reveal Zed as a bearer of knowledge, if not quite as much as the Eternals, with their intelligence stored in the omniscient Tabernacle, than at least more so than any other Brutal. Zed and the Eternals are really in much the same position as the madman and the market-goers, but their dispositions are different. Even though the madman is insistent about his message, his audience just about completely ignores him, whereas Zed is the source of great unrest in the Vortex. Some want to study him, others want to kill him, while others are just happy to have “anything to relieve the boredom.” There is also an effort to dismiss him, as his disruptive power is recognized, unlike the madman, who is dismissed out of ignorance. Zed is an unwitting prophet, or at least he begins that way. Through some rather mystical logic, by inhaling knowledge that has essentially recurred throughout history, he comes to fully understand his role. But to infiltrate the Eternals’ society, he needs to at least appear unassuming. The madman calls too much attention to himself for it to be his time, and his audience is too content with the way world is to change by his influence. In Zardoz, the immortal people are so content with the way the world is that they do not care anymore and are thus not aware of the oncoming change to put up a fight against it.

In making the connection to the parable of the madman at the inception of my project, I believe I may have been conflating or automatically associating two of Nietzsche’s major concepts: the Übermensch and “God is dead.” While I may have been a little overenthusiastic, that connection did not and does not feel wrong. While Nietzsche may not have paired them explicitly, it just felt right to make that extension myself. Now that God is dead, it would seem to be an ideal time for the Übermensch to do his work. The madman’s “time is not yet,” but in Zardoz, it is time. The film begins with the death of a god – Zed shoots Arthur Frayn – and then gets to work from there. But of course, the death that Nietzsche speaks of is not a literal murder (even though the madman says, “we have killed him”). But no matter, as the death of any Eternal is followed immediately by the constantly recurring resurrection in the Tabernacle. This death is symbolic of the real divine death that is just as metaphorical as Nietzsche’s. Arthur is not a real god, except insofar as he plays one. But his death does portend the death of the rule of Zardoz over the Brutals and the death of the rule of the Tabernacle over the Eternals. He is a puppetmaster, luring Zed to the knowledge that makes him fit to be the Übermensch. But if the Übermensch should be fully formed as the Übermensch for his whole existence, then Zed does not fit the role perfectly. As the protégée of a man playing and killing god willy-nilly, though, messiness and not perfection is to be expected.

~

            In my time as an amateur, semi-professional, or professional, writer, I have flirted with many book ideas that have yet to come to fruition. Notable among them is a list of the “Best Bad Movies Ever,” on which Zardoz would be firmly established as number one. A great bad movie is one that is entertaining despite objectively poor production: hammy acting, distracting editing, jarring tonal shifts, unconvincing sets, etc. Usually, their ambition greatly exceeds their reach (sounds like a philosopher I know a little bit). Zardoz for many years has epitomized these qualities to me. I have described it as fascinating, but way too pretentious. Regardless of its shortcomings – and this is the key – I am always happy to watch it.

I have recently begun to re-think my definition of great bad movies, though. If a movie is entertaining, even if not for the reasons its creators intended, then I don’t know that it can rightly be called bad. So is Zardoz a good or bad movie? Or is it both? The fact that I am having such conflicting reactions to it only bolsters my sense that it deserves a Nietzschean interpretation.

~

“Did you need wheat?” “No! We ate meat.” – May (Sara Kestelman)/Zed, Zardoz

~

            My re-watch of Zardoz for the sake of the paper was my first complete viewing in seven years. I was surprised at how many details I remembered, but even considering how much I recalled, plenty of nuances were newly revealing themselves. The connections to Nietzsche came hard and quick; my notebook was already filling up within 15 minutes. The opening message from the stone head of Zardoz tells the Brutals, “you have been raised up” – will to power! He speaks of making new life, in relation to “as once it was” – the eternal recurrence! He caps it off with, “Zardoz has spoken” … just as Zarathustra spoke? Sure, a lot of characters have spoken over the centuries, but not all of them have done so as definitively as Zardoz and Zarathustra. And their names do sound similar. Clearly, my excitement was prompting me to notice more connections than I would have if I were bored. But it was nonetheless a promising return. Still, the realest work was yet to be done.

The eternal recurrence is one of those concepts in Nietzsche’s writing that comes up again and again that he does not provide a strict definition for. He sets out a fairly vibrant description in aphorism 341 of The Gay Science, but he does it with a conceit that suggests it is secondhand knowledge: the explanation of “the eternal hourglass of existence” comes from a demon that might “steal after you into your loneliest loneliness.” In Zardoz, the Tabernacle is “indestructible and everlasting.” The Eternals realize the centrality of the Tabernacle in their society; it is equal to a metaphysical construct writ into concrete reality. But they do not know its origins nor how to escape it. In fact, that was a feature of its creation. Nietzsche’s ideas point to a feature of a reality that people do not realize they are stuck in. Zardoz presents that feature as unmissable. It is not a way that literally captures reality, but it could have been intended to the audience as a warning. Or it could just have been a bunch of drug-fueled nonsense.

ZardozTabernacle

Zed threatens the security of the Eternals’ lives. Because the Tabernacle defines that society, he threatens the Tabernacle. The Eternals immediately recognize this upheaval, and a few key players groom him towards how they want his status to play out. Consuella sees him as a threat and leads the charge to kill him. May prefers to study him, compelled by a motivation that is hard to define. She seems to instinctively recognize in him a chance to break free from the current world order, going so far as to be overwhelmed into coital bliss, a pleasure that has been absent from the Eternals for generations. Friend is just sick of the rules and the boredom. He knows that Zed offers an alternative, and he prompts him to go even further in that direction. Effectively, as he is led to his destiny to rise above the way the world is now, he is being groomed to be and/or become the Übermensch.

I could now not un-see it. Whether or not John Boorman had intended the connections to Nietzsche, they were there.

As this latest re-watch wound down and the Nietzschean qualities were piling up, there were still no explicit, unmistakable references. I appreciated that. Obviousness can make intentions clear, but it can also doom to failure. Besides, I was prepared to allow for complications in my argument. But then, with the climax, Zed decided to show off the book learning that was the crux of his story in a very revealing manner: “He who fights dragons always becomes a dragon himself – Nietzsche.” There it was, aphorism 146 from Beyond Good & Evil, undergirding the entire endeavor. If I was still thinking the parallels might be unintentional, this immediately disabused me of that notion. Although, I must say it is possible that this quote was just meant to apply to that one scene and not the entire movie. With an auteur like Boorman, though, chances are details like this were very much meant to be there. But I like to keep in mind that when it comes to criticism, this conventional wisdom should not always be taken for granted. With Zardoz, it seemed especially important to remember this. Or not. Zardoz is a weird movie.

The translation that Zed uses is worth examining. Walter Kaufmann renders it, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” The difference between monsters and dragons is not that profound, but what is striking is the degree of certainty about the transformation. By Zed’s reading, the change borne by the encounter with the beast is inevitable, but the Kaufmann take suggests that it can be avoided if the effort is taken. Zardoz uses this line to explain the behavior of Consuella, who inexplicably turns from Zed’s hunter to his lover once the hunt is over. It is part of the film’s m.o. of mystical motivations that exist outside of normal reality.

The dragons quote notwithstanding, Zardoz is effective with its philosophical underpinnings because it does not go so far out of its way to state its points as often as possible. It is not that its ontological aspirations are easy to miss, but they are also not annoying in their literalness. This movie may be a bit of a pretentious mess, but my time with Nietzsche has led me to believe that that may be a feature and not a bug. I am not convinced, though, that it wasn’t meant to better organized and turned out the way it did only because of copious acid trips. But Nietzsche has shown that a digressive, aphorism-focused approach can be influential. But it may be one that works better in a lifetime’s worth of writing than in one narrative film.

~

            As a poet-philosopher, Nietzsche is a spirit animal for me – someone so at home in a theory-production hybrid program.

~

            For the thesis I chose (or the thesis that chose me) to work, Zed had to fit Zarathustra’s description of the Übermensch. What I had gleaned secondhand seemed to be working, but I still had to come to Thus Spoke Zarathustra late in the process. The Übermensch “shall be the meaning of the earth” and faithfulness to the earth must be maintained (Zarathustra 13). Zed brings salvation, and it is not of the celestial sort. “The soul looked contemptuously upon the body” (13). The Eternals had forgotten all bodily pleasures and separated from the physically focused Brutals. This talk of the man as a bridge (15), the last man as opposed to the overman (17), giving birth to dancing stars (17): the logic of my thesis was not so much confirmed here so much as the feelings and the images proved compatible. For just as Zarathustra left his home for the mountains and the woods, so did Zed leave the Outlands for the hilly English countryside of the Vortex.

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In an unplanned twist, it was Zarathustra, and not just the Übermensch, who started piling up the expys. With his astonishment that the saint of the forest does not know that God is dead and his lament that the people laugh at and do not understand him (12, 16), he is very much a kindred spirit of the madman from The Gay Science. But is Zarathustra also like my mad men? Certainly it does not take much of a leap to think of him as a mouthpiece for Friedrich Nietzsche. Then there are John Boorman and Arthur Frayn. Of course, it is natural to connect one man behind the curtain with another, but I had not originally considered that the artist-god Frayn, who rules his subjects with imagination, would align so closely with the prophets of nihilism. With him paving the way for the Übermensch-y Zed, he certainly fills the same role as Zarathustra, but not with quite the same temperament. But the parallels expand when connecting him to Nietzsche himself. The philosopher has more joyful tendencies than his reputation would suggest. His cultural legacy has often left his playfulness behind, but it shines through for those who look past the veneer. He is an iconoclast in the same manner that Arthur Frayn is the only one to look past the existential despair of 2293 and get by on mischief. Whether or not Zed fits the role, the message of the Übermensch is being proffered in Zardoz in a way befitting of Nietzsche.

~

            While researching the Übermensch, I discovered that it was referenced in an episode of the Joss Whedon-created sci-fi TV series Dollhouse. It was apparently notable enough to be mentioned in the Wikipedia page for the Übermensch. Dollhouse is one of my favorite shows of all time, but I did not remember this scene. I guess it did not make that much of an impression on me.

~

            Zed may fulfill a heroic calling, but he is suffused with qualities that could give potential devotees pause. He rapes and murders in the name of his god. When he arrives in the land of the Eternals, his first instinct is not to spread the truth but instead to feel up women who will just stand there and take it. The Übermensch may not primarily be a moral paradigm, but he is not known for failing in that area either. But about halfway through Zardoz, that characterization basically disappears. He decries the raping endemic to the rest of the Brutals. He no longer takes advantage of women and actually falls in love with one, and she with him. This change is never explained, which is either an insane oversight or a purposeful layering of surrealism. The existence of the Übermensch is complicated in and of itself, a mix of coming into being while always having been.

~

            In a weird twist, I think encountering Nietzsche secondhand is the best way to understand him. Or maybe not the best way, but a legitimate way. But I still would recommend engaging with him directly.

~

As for that ending … what do you do with that? Editing that shows the gradual passage of time is a relatively common trick in film, but it rarely goes from the time of a couple’s first child to their dying and withering away to skeletons together, all in the same cave. In the midst of this transpiration, Zed and Consuella’s son grows up and heads out into the world. He serves almost no narrative purpose, but his inclusion easily registers as significant. Perhaps he is the Übermensch, born as he is out of the bridge between a Brutal and an Eternal, and this has all has been a waste of time examining how the Übermensch may be Zed.

ZardozSkeletons

It is not as if Nietzsche is any stranger to strange endings. “Songs of Prince Vogelfrei” and “From High Mountains” are certainly odd inclusions in philosophical texts. They actually stand closer not to the final scene but to the dénouement of Zardoz, in which the Eternals ecstatically receive brutal deaths in an orgy of blood that is worthy of a Monty Python sketch. As much as this movie suffers (or challenges) with atonality, this switch to straight comedy reads as intentional. After all the heaviness of crushing ennui and philosophical battles, a jolly treat awaits at the end.

~

            I do not know if viewing and analyzing Zardoz through the vein of Nietzsche will inspire the world to heed the message of the Übermensch. Zardoz may or may not help with that message, and it may or may not be a message worth heeding. But I do know that Nietzsche made me think Zardoz is a better movie than I used to think it was, and for that, this can be considered a worthy endeavor.

Works Cited

“Amazon.com: S. Maruta’s Review of Zardoz [VHS].” Amazon.com. N.p., 7 June 2000. Web. 11 May 2015.

“Michael Palin/The Doobie Brothers.” Saturday Night Live. NBC. 27 Jan. 1979. Television.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Trans. Walter Arnold. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.

—. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Trans. Walter Arnold Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1974. Print.

—. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None. Trans. Walter Arnold Kaufmann. New York: Penguin, 1978. Print.

Scheer, Paul and Jason Mantzoukas. “Episode 103: Zardoz.” Podcast. How Did This Get Made? Earwolf Radio, 13 Feb. 2015.

Zardoz. Dir. John. Boorman. 1974. DVD.

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