In these precarious times for auteurs, many have had to find new home on the very edges of the system, tinkering away, experimenting on low budget and seemingly minor works that require much more context to be found as major. The first person to come to mind is probably Steven Soderbergh, who post-retirement is making more films than ever, each little genre movies with big formal swings, but no example is more extreme than Abel Ferrara. A long way from directing big, flashy, pulp-art classics like Bad Lieutenant (1992) & King of New York (1990), his films are now increasingly small and obscure, often starring his wife and sometimes even shot in his own home.
Zeros and Ones (2021) was made under the most impoverished, dire circumstances yet. Shot in November 2020 it was some of the darkest days of Covid-19 and few films have captured the feeling of that moment more precisely: both a total confusion, everything seems ambiguous and drenched in fog, but with an undeniably powerful sense of portent; something is happening, whatever it is. Images of soldiers and face masks linger together in a way that might suggest some reactionary connection, that fear of authoritarianism cited by many ‘Anti-Vaxxers’ and indeed the more extreme. There’s even a shot of solider holing an infrared thermometer, a temperature gun, up to Ethan Hawke’s head. But no connection in this film is so clear and if anything Covid is shown as largely irrelevant compared to these conspiratorial rumblings, when Hawke is dragged into a car and kidnapped, the driver jokes that he shouldn’t worry, everyone has tested negative.
Despite being marketed as another ageing actor DTV action movie (if you want to read some very funny and very confused reviews, look at the user ones on IMDb where the film has a rating of 3.4/10), there certainly isn’t any real action and this conspiracy is never given shape. We see Russians, Chinese, American, Muslims, all of them interlocking in some way or another in the dark Rome streets. Hawke’s musings about Jesus, that “[he] was just another solider […] but on whose side?”, applies to everyone. We see all the great symbols of Rome, perhaps the symbolic centre of ‘The West’, we see the Colosseum and the Vatican, and they seems totally barren, empty of any weight they may or may not have once had.
Hawke has some kind of semi-real Brother, he watches him, through a screen, ranting incoherently about Marxist strippers, Hailing Caesar with a familiar salute and singing that this land was made for you and me. He’s described as an anarchist, a communist and a revolutionary, as if he represents all ideology at once, as if they’re all boiling inside him at maximum intensity, he memorably screams “How come no one is setting themselves on fire anymore?”, over and over. He’s killed off-screen and the Vatican is blown up, who did either of these things is unclear, all that’s left are these empty streets and a living Brother who seems not much more than a husk.
Whether these symbolic destructions truly mark the end, or if we should consider them a tragedy of some kind—the former seeming more valuable than the latter to me—the film is mostly concerned with showing us an aftermath; these shaky, often illegible images, dark and grainy and often losing frames, it’s a world without structure, without shape or form. Not only is this not an action movie, it’s hardly a movie with cause and effect, every action dissipates into powerful but totally disassociated images.
It reminds me of Ferrara’s approach to history in Pasolini (2014), where the titular director’s final day is rendered with a kind of flatness, in that it’s not aching with the emphasis of a historical moment: his murder. That’s only one of many equal and living threads, his relationships, his sex life, his ideas for future films, they don’t matter more because he died, they matter because they matter, because he was an interesting and rich person. The difference in Zeros and Ones is that all these threads feel important, maybe even more so, but they each mean nothing.
In that way I think Ferrara hits on the feeling of the internet, of existing on it and through it—the Zeros and Ones of binary code—after all, that’s where we spent most of our time in these locked down days. The film is bursting with layers and layers of screens and screens within screens, showing images of sex, images of violence, torture even, and images of the idle rich, watching them voyeuristically and judgementally as they live their banal lives of luxury. An endless blast of decontextualised images, some of them real, some of them probably not, and all of them pointing towards nothing.
Hawke finds himself adding to these layers, both as himself in the bookending webcam talks that he winkingly tells us “is part of the movie by the way”, and as his character as he starts carrying a camera around for no discernible reason, just for the sake of filming, out of some residual compulsion. Maybe like Ferrara himself, whose films have leaned further and further into the instinctual and abstract—Hawke in those talks describes what he was sent before production as hardly a script at all—there’s still a sense that this is important, even if he doesn’t know in what way.
The film is always in flux, always trying to interpret itself, literalised in a sense where Hawke is shown another video, images of maybe a forest that are so grainy, so low quality they can hardly keep themselves together, and drenched in this ugly green that bleeds into the rest of the film (until in one scene, mid-shot, where it disappears) and based on Hawke’s blank stare, his lack of any response, the man showing it to him through Skype, says he’ll do some more work on it, presumably to make it more legible, to turn it into something. Neither these threads, nor the film at large, seem to come to much of a conclusion. Near the end of the film Hawke monologues that to understand what’s outside, you have to look in, but as in Ferrara’s previous film Siberia (2020) based on Carl Jung’s inner dreamscape from his Red Book—a film as psychological as this one is literal—it seems neither of them make much sense at all.
1 — I wrote about Soderbergh's latest film, Kimi (2022), here.