“I'll always be anti-authoritarian, as long as I live,” says Terry Gilliam, the comic provocateur who's been taking aim at the establishment for more than four decades. The only thing that changes: his targets. In Life of Brian, it was religion. In Brazil, the government. And in his latest film, The Zero Theorem, it's the biggest oppressor of all: big business. Says Gilliam, “Governments are second-rate compared to corporations when it comes to power and influence on our lives.”
The Zero Theorem stars Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth, a reclusive computer drone whose life is at the mercy of his employer, MANCORP. His boss, a godlike figure named Management (Matt Damon), and his underlings dictate everything from Qohen's therapist (Tilda Swinton) to his sexual fantasies, thanks to a virtual-reality geisha (Mélanie Thierry) they've hired to keep him complacent. Like Sam in Brazil, Qohen is a ticking time bomb of frustration. The difference is that Gilliam has realized that the future he envisioned 30 years ago was wildly off-base. Instead of a monochromatic dystopia that drowns people in paper, he now predicts a sensory overload of colors and pixels and bleeps. “We're going to drown in nice clothes and workplaces that are like playrooms,” he says with a giggle. “It's fun!
“We are creating a giant brain that is all of humanity,” Gilliam says. He admits, “That you can access the information that you need is just fantastic, it's extraordinary.” But it's also loud, oppressive and isolating. On the sidewalks of Zero Theorem, ads and information tickers stalk citizens down the street. At parties, people crowd together but socialize alone, isolated by their headphones and iPads. Only Qohen, with his bald pate and black robes, stands out like a burned-out bulb. He can't take the chaos, hastily scurrying back to the old stone church where he lives, his literal sanctuary.
Gilliam is no digital monk. Now 73, he tweets. On Facebook, he has 383,424 friends. “But I don't actually want to talk to those people,” he admits. Still, the lo-fi creative who once invented a new cartoon language from scissors and cut-out illustrations has succumbed to Internet addiction. He spends whole days before his 32-inch computer monitor. “I sit there and I'm checking the news as if I'm going to find something interesting suddenly,” he says. “I have to physically pull myself away from it, go into another room and grab a bite — anything to escape the power of my computer.”
With film budgets shrinking by the year, he's had to use social media to self-advertise. “Despite Sony's best efforts at non-publicity, Zero Theorem is now available in the U.K. on DVD and Blu-ray!!” he dashed off in a recent self-deprecating post. “My advice is to watch the film sitting as closely as possible to your home screen to experience what you might have experienced had you seen it in the cinema.”
For years, he at least forbade himself from owning a smartphone. But last year, he gave in and took one home from the Zero Theorem set. Recently, the phone broke for a few days, and he panicked. “It's black and it looks like the monolith from 2001 and I'm the ape there worshipping it.” (Not that he's into worship. The former Minnesota seminary student managed to ditch religion and the U.S. government by reinventing himself as a British atheist: “America's winning the war of bureaucracy,” he sighs).
Zero Theorem was supposed to be made for $20 million, but was slashed down post-handshake to $8.5 million. “It doesn't look like an $8.5 million movie,” Gilliam says, “and I don't seem to get any credit for that.” His reputation as a spendthrift has yet to recover from the financial disaster of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. (Maybe it will next year, when the ill-fated The Man Who Killed Don Quixote finally — hopefully — starts shooting in the Canary Islands.)
He's aware that he's become one of the plugged-in promoters his own film rails against, though he tries to keep it in check. “It's the me-ness that drives me crazy,” Gilliam says. “It's almost like people aren't individuals, they're just saying I am here, and then once that message goes out to the world, they can relax for a few seconds before they have to say I am here again. If Descartes was alive now, it would be, ‘Je tweet, donc je suis' — I tweet, therefore I am.”
No wonder, then, that his out-of-step Qohen Leth insists on referring to himself with the plural “we.” And Qohen is terrified of the youth of the future, in particular a scarily efficient post-post-post-millennial who insists on calling everyone “Bob” because he refuses to waste mental space by memorizing names.
Yet Gilliam, who has raised three kids in the Internet age, celebrates rudeness. At least, it's better than the inverse — that interconnectedness and insta-gossip will pressure people to guard their online reputations by being cautious and polite. “That's the beginning of a really nice form of fascism,” warns the unflagging firebrand. “The right to offend is important.”