Crystal Phallus


In his tantalising book Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Gilles Deleuze proposes that when actual and virtual images become indiscernible from each other, they form a ‘crystal-image’. As an example, he chooses the famous ‘palace of mirrors’ shoot-out sequence from the 1947 Orson Welles film, The Lady from Shanghai, in which ‘the principle of indiscernibility reaches its peak: a perfect crystal-image where the multiple mirrors have assumed the actuality of the two characters …’[1] Deleuze’s choice of textbook masterpiece is disappointing, given his espousal of ‘minor literature’, when an equally bamboozling mirror shoot-out sequence can be found in John Boorman’s 1974 cult classic, Zardoz, a film bristling with literal crystals and their figurative modes in kaleidoscopic vistas, plot involutions and multifaceted relationships to time.

Zardoz’s mirror shoot-out is between the ‘Exterminator’ Zed (Sean Connery, with long, plaited hair, a porn moustache and mutton chops, thigh-high red boots, red bandoliers and red underwear) and his tormentor, the ‘Eternal’ Arthur Frayn. Frayn is a theatrical dilettante who controls starving, beleaguered masses known as the ‘Brutals’ by creating Zardoz, a false idol for them to worship. Zardoz visions class warfare through the lens of psychedelic sci-fi; it is Ireland in the year 2293, and the proletariat Brutals live in the Outlands, growing food for the Eternals. Frayn recruits the cream of the Brutal crop to become Exterminators, practising a violent form of population control. If Deleuze’s criterion for crystal-image formation is that the virtual and the actual become indiscernible from each other, Zardoz is the ultimate shell game. Is Frayn controlling Zed or vice versa? Which of them dreamed up Zardoz, whose name is a mnemonic device destined to unleash the floodgates of anamnesis, like the ichthys in Philip K. Dick’s 1981 novel VALIS? Indeed, in a commentary released in 2001, Boorman admits that the film’s most arresting image, a giant stone head representing Zardoz, a concrescence of bearded father figures from Zeus to Christ Pantocrator to Marx, was modelled on his own face.[2] Thus, Boorman takes his place in the phallogo-pantheon.


[1] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (trans.), University of Minneapolis Press, Minneapolis, and Athlone, London, 1989, p. 73.

[2] Come to think of it, why didn’t Deleuze use the Zardoz head to explicate his concept of faciality? The oversight is regrettable, to say the least.


Image: Amie Siegel, Winter, 2013. Film screening with live performance, Ratio 3, San Fransisco. Photo by Jay W. Jones. 


This is a preview of 'Crystal Phallus'. The full article can be found in Art + Australia Issue Five.

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Tessa Laird is a writer, artist, and Lecturer in Critical and Theoretical Studies at VCA School of Art. In the late 1990s she co-founded and edited two important New Zealand art magazines: Monica Reviews Art and LOG Illustrated. Since then she has been a critic for various publications including the New Zealand Listener, Art New Zealand, and Art and Australia, and has written countless catalogue essays and chapters in artists’ monographs. Her speculative enquiry into colour A Rainbow Reader was published by Clouds in 2013, and her book Bat, as part of Reaktion’s celebrated Animal series, was released in 2018. Tessa is editor of Art + Australia Online.

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