Wednesday, August 29, 2012

South American Way, Part I

Film: Brazil
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I'm spilling the beans a few hours early. My podcasting partner Nick Jobe is running/ran a review tournament at the Large Association of Movie Blogs. Under duress, I participated (I was Nick's third back-up for people who dropped). I made it to the third round. I'm posting two of those reviews today and tomorrow, since they are a part of The List.

I’ve always been fascinated by the work of Terry Gilliam. Like David Lynch, Jean Renoir, and a few other directors, Gilliam is a director who makes auteur theory look like a real thing. Everything goes into the vision of the film, and Gilliam—regardless of any legendary battles with the studio—always shines through in the end product. Brazil is one of his first non-Monty Python efforts, and is legendary in terms of struggles for creative control and vision. Like Blade Runner, there are multiple versions of this film. For this, I watched Gilliam’s Final Cut.

That vaunted vision is best summed up as George Orwell’s “1984” on hallucinogenic drugs with a side order of Kafka. The film portrays society as a logical fallacy in which only the insane can survive and the only escape is through fantasy. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a low-level bureaucrat who exists in the real world only because he has to, and retreats into a fantasy world at every opportunity. This fantasy dreamland features Sam encased in shining silver armor and equipped with wings allowing him to fly into the pink-tinged clouds.

This is contrasted with his real world, a drab nightmare of files and gray little men. Sam works in the Records Department of the government, and it’s soon evident that the bulk of the workforce is, in fact, employed by the government in some capacity. Everything is bureaucracy and suspicion. Everything is done only with the proper application of the proper form. It has the appearance of (at least to the many involved in the upper levels of the hierarchy) working properly, but of course is a true nightmare. Things are done one way simply because they are done that way, and the entire society revolves along rigid adherence to “the rules.” These rules, certainly written down within the society in endless codices and codebooks, exist to regulate every aspect of existence, and mistakes do not happen. When they do, they simply don’t, and correcting any mistake leads to an endless bureaucratic loop. Mistakes do not happen.

Naturally, the film opens with just such a mistake. A man named Archibald Tuttle (Robert De Niro) is sought by the government for unknown reasons. As the forms go through the machinery, a stray dead insect falls onto one form and changes the last name to “Buttle,” and the wrong man is arrested. Sam gets involved in multiple ways at the same time. He is first pushed into an unwanted promotion from Records into Information Retrieval (the combination police/interrogation/military/Gestapo) by his mother (Katherine Helmond). Second, he meets the real Archibald “Harry” Tuttle, who operates now as a rogue heating repairman, showing up when Sam’s air conditioning goes on the blink. Tuttle’s interference in Sam’s air conditioning creates its own problem with Central Services and authorized heating repairman Spoor (Bob Hoskins).

The Buttle/Tuttle problems results in a refund check to the Buttles. People are required to pay for their own interrogations and incarcerations, and Buttle was overcharged. The problem is that something needs to be done with the check, and Archibald Buttle was killed in his interrogation, meaning that there is no way to have the check cashed or cleared. Sam agrees to take it to his next of kin, and there he meets Mrs. Buttle’s upstairs neighbor, Jill (Kim Greist). Since she is involved in the Buttle/Tuttle error, she is now wanted as well, and likely to be eliminated as a potential terrorist and troublemaker. She is the woman who appears in Sam’s dream visions; because of this, he gets involved for her sake and risks his entire world to be with her.

Brazil explores a number of themes, including dehumanization for the sake of bureaucracy and illogic posing as logic. The most important, as it incorporates both of those, is the idea of rampant, backwards technology. Gilliam’s world here is full and complete—since nothing happens without the bureaucracy, nothing changes without it. Heating ducts and wiring fill walls, because repairs entail only fixing, not the removal of obsolete technology. Additional pipework and wiring multiply and become less functional and more prone to breaking. Conveniences are specifically inconvenient. A telephone requires multiple plugs to operate, and a simple toaster or coffee maker contains so many moving parts designed to put the toast into a tray or automatically pour the coffee that breakdown is inevitable. The few seconds saved from the additional parts immediately cause problems and reduce efficiency. Nowhere is this better show than the computer monitors, which are tiny. Because they are tiny, each is fitted with a massive magnifying glass, again, a cobbled solution necessary because of red tape rather than the simple logic of creating a larger monitor.

Dehumanization also plays into Sam’s mother’s addiction to plastic surgery under the knife of her doctor (Jim Broadbent). As the film continues, she goes through more and more extreme procedures and gets younger and younger while her friend, under the care of a different doctor specializing in acid, becomes more and more decrepit as her procedures backfire. The idea of rampant dehumanizing bureaucracy also crops up in the character of Jack (Michael Palin), a state-sponsored information retriever (read: torturer), who performs his function while wearing a disturbing mask in the form of a child’s face.

I watched this film originally at a strange time in my life, and my primary reason was because of Gilliam’s Python connection. I was at a strange point in my life in the sense that I knew how the real world worked, but still thought that movies were different. I looked to films as an escape from reality, where a happy ending was assured. Brazil dashed that from my reality, and I can remember being really upset by this film the first (and until now, only) time I watched it. I loved the vision, I loved the visuals, and I understood the point of the end. I got it intellectually, but it hurt me emotionally. But it did move me—years later, I was able to recall entire scenes intact despite more than a decade between viewings.

I’m made of sterner stuff these days. I not only understand the ending on an intellectual level, but I get why Gilliam went in the direction he did. I not only understand it, I appreciate it for what it is. I can even perform the mental gymnastics necessary to give that earlier version of me a happy ending from the emotional gut punch that Gilliam presents. That’s the sign not just of a great film but of something that qualifies as a piece of art. Brazil has presented different meanings to me at different points in my life, and both are equally valid. It’s still not my favorite Gilliam to watch (that’s 12 Monkeys), but I wouldn’t be amiss if I call it his greatest achievement as a director.

Why to watch Brazil: Because Terry Gilliam went through absolute hell to get his vision on the screen, and he was right the whole time.
Why not to watch: It’s massively depressing.


  1. Good review.

    I saw this film not long after I got out of college. Rather, I started to watch this film on cable and switched to another channel after a little while because it just wasn't for me. 10-15 years later I'm working through the IMDB Top 250 and this is on the list. I rented it and watched it. I got why critics liked it, but I've never had the urge to watch it again. I've watched other Gilliam films more than once, so it's not the director; it's the movie. I just remember feeling like he was hitting me over the head about how bad beaurocracy was, when I had gotten his point much earlier in the movie.

    1. I think I see that. I went 20 years or so between viewings, and I think I'm good for awhile before the next one. I'm not sure this is a film that needs to be watched that often.

      It is a little ham-handed, but I like where it goes, so I forgive it quite a bit.

  2. I own the film, and have yet to give it a spin. Your review has definitely pushed me in the right direction Steve.

    Well written my friend.

    1. I think you'll like it. You will find a lot here that you will appreciate, at least based on what I know you look for in a film.

      This would make a good companion piece with any political dystopia. 1984 would be ideal.