It starts with a crash. You do not see the crash. You hear it. You see the aftermath. Typical. A dead swan splayed over the hood of a white Ford Mercury. The first time I typed that, I typed Mercy. Different cars are very much different sorts of animals. Domesticated animals, of course. Crossbreeds. It is said that the different sorts of hominids did not, could not, cross. Put that in my zonkey’s ass. The woman driving the car, who will be accused of taking mercury to procure an abortion, is named Bewick. The Mercury is no longer produced. You could say it is extinct. It was Ford’s answer to the Buick, you could say it was a fake Buick, a car that would no longer be were it not for waning appeal among wealthy Chinese (the last Emperor drove one, so did my grandma). Rauschenberg was born in the same town as my mom. This scene, the first of A Zed & Two Noughts, looks like something he might have filmed in the sixties, if only he had combined his interests (visual & performance art) into film, the way he did with found objects, like his notorious American bald eagle (an animal that will be mentioned later in this film when a prostitute named Venus de Milo asks the zookeeper for the tail feathers of that bird in order to write a dirty story, the same zookeeper who will later threaten to tell the director of the zoo, who is in fact the director of the film, about the brothers bringing the dead dalmatian into the zoo because it is “an abomination”). But then Rauschenberg dealt with death in ways more conceptual, less actual. I remember riding in the back of my grandma’s Buick because it had a passenger-side airbag. I remember carefully visualizing my death. I remember oak trees. The accident happens on Swan’s Way. Way is one of the ten most common words in our language. Weeks ago, this surprised me. But it should not be surprising that the journey is more popular than the destination. We’re a restless race. We want tiggers in our tanks & Michael Nyman to speed up & O will he!
But this isn’t how the film starts. It starts with a word. ZOO, in big blue letters. I think my first thought was of Bluets, the way Maggie Nelson says blue is the most intense color, the true color of flame, and even though I don’t believe in truth, that’s what I always think of when I see the word blue, especially this particular hue. What looks like two kids, struggle with a dalmatian. The dalmatian is one of the least domesticated dogs. They are notoriously unreliable. The world is a zoo & the word will be with us till the end. Then there comes the red. The title. A herring? A herring looks a little like an x.
As you can see, the crash kills two women. They are the wives of two zoologists. One of them will say he is an animal behavioralist. A woman will ask what animal he studies & he will say all animals, ma’am. I always make a point to remind my pre-K class that we are all animals, just really smart animals, I say, that dress ourselves & drive cars fueled by old rotten dinosaur stuff & build buildings out of rocks & houses with nice short lawns that remind us of the savannah. Early on in the year, they did not believe me. But now they have no problem with the idea. They have accepted it.
Later in the film a woman will ask, Is animal surgery so different from human surgery & a doctor will say, There are similarities. A while back I read an Op-Ed in the Times that said an old joke among veterinarians is doctors are vets that only treat one species. Long ago, there was hardly a difference. The woman was calling for more cooperation between human & non-human medical science. In the film, the zookeeper asks Venus de Milo, Do you think a zebra is a white animal with black stripes, or a black animal with white stripes?
There are a couple of amazing things to know about zebra stripes. One is that, while stripes may not seem to camouflage zebras in tall grass that is obviously not black & white, but a sort of brown or yellow, this is false because the zebra’s primary predator is the lion. A predator is a selector & Lions are colorblind. The other amazing thing is that zebra stripes are all unique, exactly like a huge fingerprint. It is thought that this is how they recognize individuals. Another amazing thing to know about zebras is that a zebroid is a real thing. Yet the zebra is notoriously resistant to domestication. They are fiercely aggressive toward humanoids. Kind of like the ultimate bronco. So the fact that they are so common in zoos is actually a huge bummer. There is a lot of sadness in this film. So it goes.
When the zoologists give Bewick’s daughter an angelfish, they hint at some of the aspects of domestication, selection, explosions of symmetry, chaotic beauty.
This immediately put me in mind of Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. That sculpture is owned by a hedge fund manager. It is said in the film that it takes a human body nine months to decompose. When I recently told my kids about mummification the only one that had really experienced death, the death of her grandfather, thought about it for a long time.
What’s less known is that Hirst also did a zebra. It’s called The Incredible Journey.
I am about to make soda out of this fennel. My cat loves the smell of this fennel. It seems to calm him down. In some places, it is considered a weed.
These fennel roots look like legs. You can eat them. They are a little like parsnips. My cat looks a little like a tiger. A baby tiger. A cub, I suppose. His father was feral & I don’t think he’ll get any bigger. His name is Hobbes, after Thomas Hobbes & the subsequent character, a tiger who is sometimes real & sometimes not. Tomorrow is his first birthday. There is a cat in my neighborhood named Leviathan. Leviathan is a bully. Hobbes often cries in the night & runs away from Leviathan. When our door is open, Leviathan comes in & eats Hobbes’s food. It’s like he’s being haunted by his work.
In Leviathan, Hobbes famously said that without politics the life of man would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But because we group up and figure it out, we are supposedly unafraid of violent death. This is, of course, not true. The daughter of the woman who drove the car that crashed into the zebra pole, Beta — (another word for em dash is mutton) who will lose one of her legs, then the other leg — says there is no animal that starts with an X. But I set up Eric Carle’s ABC Game every day, so I know this isn’t true. Eric Carle uses the xolo, or xoloitzcuintl, a hairless Mexican dog, kind of a large chihuahua. But there are sixteen other animals that start with an X. There is even a fish called x, also known as the Somalian glass catfish. In Eric Carle’s game, U is for unicorn, the only mythological creature in the game. Games are the best way to teach a person anything.
In the film, a legless man named Arc-en-Ciel (French for rainbow, literally “arc in heaven”) tells Venus de Milo, If I had the money to start a zoo I would stock it with mythological creatures. In Eric Carle’s game, N is for narwhal. Sometimes I tell the kids the vikings sold narwhal horns as those of the unicorn. But then I have to tell them about vikings again & that means I have to get out the globe & that means we will end up talking about Antarctica again. Z, of course, is zebra.
In this photo, one of Frida Kahlo’s xolos could be mistaken for a snail. The one on the right. Snails are big in this film. In fact, you could say they are the film.
The garden where Buick was born is called L’Escargot. It is where the film begins & ends. In the film it is said that snails are said to hermaphrodite & satisfy their own sexual needs. But neither character believes this. Later, snails will crawl all over everything. They will appear to orgy. There are a lot of circles in the film. Some of them remind me of the first paragraph of Finnegans Wake. The zed, Z, comes from the sixth letter of the Greek alphabet, Zeta. It looks like a snake.
You can watch the whole film on demand at the Guardian.