Monday, December 14, 2009

Brazil (1985)

Is it coincidence or fate that Terry Gilliam's brilliant, tragicomic, anti-utopian vision of the future was filmed in the iconic year of 1984? Gilliam's film, like Orwell's book before it, is a nightmare fairy tale, decades ahead of its time, about the epic struggle of the dreamer in the modern cookie-cutter age. It's a search for love and humanity in a world of paperwork, office drones and the utter sameness of it all. Terry Gilliam has amassed an amazing body of work (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, 12 Monkey's, The Fisher King and the recent outstanding and misunderstood Tideland amongst others). I don't hesitate for a moment to call Brazil my favorite of them all, and I'm sure it would be in the top 5 somewhere if I ever made an all time favorites list.

So, where we once had "Big Brother" and the Ministry of Truth, we have The Ministry of Information. Where we once had Winston Smith, we have Sam Lowry. Where we once had Julia we have Jill. The similarities between the novel 1984 and the film Brazil don't end there, but I won't spoil the plot twists of either magnificent work. Brazil, with the gift of hindsight, can also be seen as the story of Terry Gilliam's film career. He's an insanely creative and talented visual artist and storyteller (a dreamer if you will) cursed by his opposing forces. He’s cursed by his own stubborn belligerence, the inevitable soulless corporate suit or two and forces of nature so god-like and personal that you can't blame him for laughing maniacally at the cosmic irony of it all. And thank god that's his reaction! A ratio of 90% humor to 10% despair within our hearts is something many of us can only aspire to. He was, of course, most recently impacted by the tragic demise of his leading man Heath Ledger while filming the upcoming Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, there's the well documented failures to make his Don Quixote film (as chronicled in the amazing documentary Lost in La Mancha), the disastrous trials and tribulations surrounding Baron Munchausen and of course "The Battle of Brazil" (this is the name of the feature length documentary on the Criterion version of the film which details the epic battle Gilliam fought, and thankfully won, against Universal who tried to remove him from the project and release a more happy upbeat version of the film with about 45-50 minutes cut out of it...I've seen this version and it's Brazil minus the balls).

Back to the film though, a series of short sequences open the film and introduce the future world in question. We open on a display window populated with "modern" television screens and reflections of neon which block the view of the golden Christmas tree's stuffed in the corners. We are watching a commercial from Central Services for fancy new air ducts for the home (a visual motif throughout the film, symbolic of the endless consumer quest for things we don't really need). An explosion violently shatters the facade and the neon title card for Brazil illuminates the screen. One of the TV's is still broadcasting, a talk program that is being watched simultaneously by a man in his office. A buzzing fly upsets the man and we watch as he comically navigates the claustrophobic office trying to swat the insect. He successfully squashes the little pest who falls into a machine. The machine is spitting out arrest warrants (as we soon find out) and this simple, ever so human error causes a typo wherein a warrant is created for Archibald Buttle instead of Archibald Tuttle. This seemingly insignificant moment comes and goes in about 60 seconds, but its consequences are severe and immediate.

We watch as an idyllic family evening at the Buttle household is shattered by a dozen or so machine gun carrying police officers in full swat gear who come smashing through the doors, the ceiling and the windows and stuff the unfortunate Mr. Buttle into a creepy burlap sack. As a pompous official of some sort calmly and impersonally explains, Buttle "has been invited to assist the Ministry of Information with certain inquiries". The official has the shell shocked wife sign a receipt for her husband and keeps the carbon copy as "my receipt for your receipt." This scene also introduces Jill, who lives above the Buttle's and watches the terrifying events unfolding through the freshly created hole in her floor/the Buttle's ceiling. Jill insists that a mistake has been made and there's a nice bit of irony here as two Department of Works employees (there to promptly fix the hole) laugh and reply that "we don't make mistakes" as the replacement piece they brought goes crashing down into the apartment below (measured incorrectly it seems) and they can only shake their heads and say "typical".

I mentioned my love of complex tracking shots in my Rules of Attraction piece. The two back to back shots that introduce our hero's office are not as long as the one's I discussed previously, but they are incredibly busy with people moving in and out of the shot from all directions, like so many worker bees. We meet Sam's boss, Mr Kurtzman (the always delightful Ian Holm who modern audiences will recognize most as Bilbo Baggins from the Lord of the Rings series, or the prior generation may remember him as Ash, the evil robot of the first Alien film). Kurtzman has a problem with his computer and needs his best man to fix it. His repeated shouts for the absent Sam Lowry finally bring us to our protagonist, who has overslept (Sam is played by the splendid Jonathan Pryce, who has livened the proceedings of a great many films, from Glengary Glenross to the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy where he played Keira Knightley's father). More specifically, we first meet his idealized dream self, who soars through blue skies in a shiny metal suit with wings, both beautiful and splendidly cheap and homemade looking (I've seen the term "retro-futuristic" thrown around to describe the look of the sets and costumes). He hears the sound of a woman's voice calling his name in the distance and flies toward the beckoning call. He briefly kisses his angelic dream girl, gracefully weaving in and out of the fluffy white clouds, before a dreadful alarm noise rouses him back to the world of mechanical and personal failures he has grown accustomed to. This is, you see, a future where nothing works properly (while proudly insisting that it does).

As Sam arrives at the office we see a statue in the lobby the closely resembles his winged dream self. It is all too clear that, as he passes this each day, he dreams of taking flight beyond the confines of a dullard's existence, away from the all too common assembly line feeling of the grown-up world. I love all the Ministry of Information advertisements that show up here and throughout the film. They feel like the kind of creepy, satirical messages that we would see some 5 years later when Rowdy Roddy Piper puts the glasses on in John Carpenter's They Live (a guaranteed future blog entry). "Be Safe, Be Suspicious" they proclaim, "Suspicion Breeds Confidence" and "Information is the Road To Prosperity".

Jill is arriving at the office at the same time as Sam, being endlessly spun from one department to the next while trying to file a false arrest report on behalf of her neighbors, the Buttle's (anyone who's ever visited the BMV or a city courthouse will relate). We also meet Sam's old friend Jack (fellow Monty Python alum Michael Palin, who adds a wonderful bit of warmth that turns into a deeply sinister edge of malice as the film progresses) who chides Sam for not moving up through the ranks at the speed he should (a theme endlessly repeated by his mother and the owner of the company throughout the film). Sam briefly see's Jill's face on one of the numerous security monitors and recognizes it as the face of his dream woman. He looks around but she's already gone...

The Buttle's are the crisis of the day for Kurtzman as well, it seems. He is terrified to his core of making a mistake or attaching his name to any sort of official document in a world where paperwork is King (and he should be...VERY afraid). You see the Buttle/Tuttle discrepancy has shown up and we learn a few scenes later that Mr. Buttle has already been killed. Kurtzman takes the heat off himself by dispatching Sam to issue a refund check to Mrs. Buttle (the system's cold way of apologizing for the mistaken arrest and subsequent torture and death of the Buttle patriarch). It's an ugly terrifying regime that fancies itself a utopia, full of dazzling technological distractions and outright lies. This society has managed to use the language of corporate double speak as a replacement for the principles of the constitution, let alone basic human decency and morality. As much as Sam instinctually rails against this system, it is still all he knows in many respects and accordingly, he is surprised by Mrs. Buttle's lack of gratitude (she shouts "what have you done with his body" at him until he runs away). Sam spots Jill again and chases after her but is again, too late.

The movie from here starts merging the dream world and real world stories with increasing frequency. The obstacles, within the concrete jungle which has sprouted up in Sam's increasingly dark dream world, echo the real and metaphorical walls that are closing in around him in reality. There's a shocking revelation when Sam unmasks his dream foe and sees himself inside. Like Luke Skywalker in the Dark Side cave, Sam is battling his own lesser impulses as much as he is fighting the very real outside threats.

We also meet Public Enemy #1, Archibald "Harry" Tuttle, who, it turns out, is nothing more than a renegade heating engineer (a wonderfully wacky turn by a mustached Robert De Niro, you'll barely recognize him!). Tuttle is so bothered by the endless forms and bureaucracy of Central Services that he lives like Jason Bourne just to be able to practice his trade. As he's quickly and efficiently fixing a mechanical problem at Sam's house, a knock on the door brings us to the incompetent government counterpoints Dowser (I don't recognize this actor) and Spoor (Bob Hoskins in a brief but memorable cameo) who are responding to the original service call and are only stopped from entering Sam's apartment by his quick thinking request for a 27B-6 form (the mere mention of which causes a small seizure in Dowser who obviously has the same paperwork issues as Tuttle, without the courage to break out of the cage). I don't want to spoil the way this sub-plot plays itself out, but it leads to what may be the only real victory over "the man" in the whole film.

Sam finally accepts a promotion at work so that he can have the increased security clearance needed to find out who his dream girl really is. This leads him through a series of misadventures until he finds himself partnered with a very confused, hostile and reluctant Jill as a pair of fugitives on the run. Gilliam manipulates us brilliantly as we allow ourselves to be swept up in the adventure and the hopes and dreams of our hero's futile quest. A component in this manipulation is the highly effective musical cues which are just variations on the famous Ary Barroso song "Brazil" (which is itself used briefly at the beginning of the film and once while Sam is in his car driving to the Buttle's). The same catchy melody works as a love scene, ominous looming score, action music, etc. Lyrically, the song echo's the sentiment of our lead, a dreamer longing for escape to a better place. This song has resonated within my own mind for years as has Tuttle's simple eloquent mantra that "we're all in it together". Sam sadly doesn't realize quickly enough that he's fighting the business suit wearing equivalent of Star Trek's chilling villain's "The Borg". Will Sam and Jill's blossoming love indeed conquer all? Will good triumph over evil? "Resistance is futile" my friends...or is it??

The film is consistently hilarious though as well. Terry Gilliam deeply understands the dry humor and wordplay games of the Brit's (as I alluded to earlier, he is an alum of Monty Python) but is himself an American, with the birth rite of fear and paranoia that comes with it. The impact of this story comes with the realization that the over the top, surreal, exaggerated society we're being shown is a shockingly poignant reflection of our own. There are a couple small details in an early restaurant scene that I particularly enjoy. The first is the waiter's use of numbers for items on the menu. He walks to each patron and whispers conspiratorially that "today Madame, I suggest the #1", while advising the next that "between you and I Monsieur the #11 is especially fresh". I don't know for sure, but I don't think they were doing this in real restaurants back in 1984 but it's the norm in 2009. The waiter even gets furious with Sam when he refuses to use the number instead of the actual name of the meal he wants. I clearly recall a surreal "life imitates art" moment at a Wendy's drive thru where my request for the Big Bacon Classic combo was met with a long silence and eventual reply of "Do you mean the #4 sir?". Oh yes, I apologize you fucking robot, I meant the #4, I know you're absolutely lost without knowing which button to push. The same restaurant scene, when interrupted by yet another explosion, jumps to a soot covered orchestra who collect themselves and continue playing as burn victims and first responders run around in a panic. Whether Gilliam intended this specific reference or not, the moment makes me think of the famous story about the musicians on the Titanic who graciously played on while the ship sank. That moment is kind of touching in the Titanic story but in this context it makes me laugh and think "I guess the upper crust always reacts the same to crisis and pretending it doesn't exist".

You see, George Orwell felt this kind of trouble brewing in our society back in the 1940's, Gilliam felt it still in the 80's and 25 years later it's all continued to come true. It stings to see a world where government misinformation has us fearing our friends and neighbors as potential terrorists. It stings to see humanity stamped out by lust for status. It stings to see leadership that would kill and torture just to bury a mistake, rather than admit a mistake had been made. While I still feel a sense of optimism in the age of Obama, it's too early to say whether we've stopped the cultural degeneracy or if we've merely given ourselves a better actor to sell it to us. My own inner winged dreamer hopes it's the former, but it's disturbing that this was such a real and present issue for Terry Gilliam when I was barely born into this world and so vividly true of our country and culture some 27 years later. It's troubling that these thoughts, feelings, disappointments and fears are not unique to one time and place. They are, it would seem, ingrained in the way society has developed, ingrained in how people choose to relate to each other and the tragic impulse, within the majority, to follow society's unwritten handbook on how to live.

What it also tells me is that the rebellious spirit that cries against the dying of the light is still with us and always will be! Here we are days away from 2010 and the dreamer has refused to die, I see it reflected in artists like Gilliam, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, musically with the Mars Volta or Tool or the many faces of Mike Patton. There are artists and regular Joe's worldwide, clinging to the dream. It makes me think of the dreadful cliché of what "kids these days" are like and how much better it always seems to have been "when I was growing up". One could argue that the world has gotten more dangerous perhaps and the creeps have more tools at their disposal, but the bugs have always been under the lush green lawn, the tree has always oozed sap and every town has a Lincoln Street. But we'll save that story for another day...

Grade: A++


  1. Okay, the pictures alone are freaking me out. Yet, Fisherking is on my all-time favorites list, so I will have to check it out. Of course, I also read 1984 back in the day, but your post makes me want to re-read it, then watch the movie. Thanks for another brilliant posting about a movie I need to see.

  2. This one, I don't hesitate to recommend that you watch. It's not graphic or violent or anything like that (one or two creepy moments but nothing terrible, I promise). I do still have it on DVD so I'll trade you for The Office Seasons when you're finished with those.

  3. I have to say that Brazil, though an indisputable work of genius, left me with an icky feeling that puts it on the periphery for me. Somehow, Tideland -didn't- do that to me, strangely enough, and that film is my preferred of the two! Go figure;).

    P.S. On a totally random note, you should review Young Guns!!!! I watched it last night, and *gasp* saw a young John Locke?!?!?! Who knew? Did you???? Of course you did;)

  4. Yeah, I did know that Terry O'Quinn was in Young Guns as the kindhearted lawyer. He's actually in another of my favorite westerns Tombstone!!

  5. Crazy! I knew his face was familiar to me, but couldn't think of anything else he'd been in!

  6. I almost forgot; While I haven't seen it yet, there's a movie series called "The Stepfather" that stars Terry O'Quinn as well! Part 1 just came out on DVD recently but it's not available from the library and I'm not paying for rentals right now. But if you can find it in your area it sounds like a real gem!! They just made a remake of it though so make sure you're getting the right one!

  7. Love Brazil! Kind of hard to follow since Gilliam uses almost no form of exposition. But once it ends your left with allot to absorb. Wonderful sci-fi. Oh and I was reading the comments above.. Did you also notice Terry O'Quinn as Howard Hughes in The Rocketeer?

  8. I haven't seen The Rocketeer in probably 15 years or so. I did enjoy it though. I remember Timothy Dalton was the bad guy but I don't remember Terry O'Quinn (but I didn't really know who he was at the time). Have you seen The Stepfather Cassidy??

  9. I’ve recently discovered your movie blog, and I look forward to revisiting.

    I would appreciate it, if you, and others, would become a “follower” and/or link on your site to my new movie + music blog, just to help get it going:

    We can help each other discover new movies that we might not otherwise have heard of ( :