Saturday, January 08, 2011
My Favorite Movies: Brazil
BRAZIL is one of my favorite movies, one I love so much that years ago I begged my way into a screening when I found myself out of cash. (Still not proud of that.) It’s a film that, often going in, I don’t feel I’m prepared for, because it’s a dark and heavy experience; however, it’s also an exhilarating and cathartic one. BRAZIL is hard to describe; the magnum opus of visionary director Terry Gilliam, it’s known almost as much for the initial controversy surrounding its release as for the actual picture.
It’s possibly a science fiction film, though it doesn’t take place in the future or concentrate on technology per se. It’s obviously a dystopia, but without the political or sociological focus with which such things are normally put together. It’s a jet-black comedy, but with a little more heart than usual. It’s a vision of all the horror and insanity of our world, filtered into an alternate reality. However BRAZIL defies genre and description, it’s one of the very best films of its time.
The film takes place “Somewhere in the 20th Century”, in a messy, overbuilt Art Deco world run by an overgrown bureaucracy and besieged by constant terrorist bombings. A dead fly falling into a government computer causes a warrant intended for a man named Tuttle to be placed for a man named Buttle, who is arrested, and dies during a brutal interrogation. The Ministry of Information’s attempts to cover all this up ensnare records clerk Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), the humble son of a wealthy widow (Katherine Helmond) who’s constantly getting her face redone. Sam has a rich dream life, seeing himself as an angel flying to the rescue of a beautiful woman, and in the course of trying to get a refund check to Buttle’s wife he catches sight of Jill Layton (Kim Griest), a trucker who lives above the Buttles, and a dead ringer for his dream girl. Obsessed, he tries to track Jill down, and since she’s been making noise about Buttle being falsely arrested, she’s now in real danger and he feels compelled to try and save her.
While most dystopias like to draw a clear indication of what went wrong, and whatever alarming social trend was taken to its ultimate extreme, BRAZIL’s world defies easy political labeling. There’s a huge central government which runs everything inefficiently, a Tea Party nightmare, but also an aggressive consumer culture and a downright Dickensian division of classes. Technology is everywhere, but it’s creaking, retrograde technology- computers with monitors so small they need magnifying lenses to be properly read, clacking teletype machines, pneumatic tube systems, and ducts in every room like the guts of a living organism. One starts to get the feeling that the world of BRAZIL, like our own, cannot trace its ailments down to one bad decision or even a series of them, but simply the worst of human nature. It’s all the insanity and banal evil that we encounter in everyday life, amplified and given a new context so that it becomes universal, like THE PRISONER’s Village. It’s a staggering creation, beautiful in a sick way.
The title of the film refers to a familiar old song, which is used as a leitmotif throughout. It represents the desire to escape, and the fantasy of doing so, which is always out of reach. Sam Lowry is a dreamer, for better and for worse; his romantic fantasies about Jill only make things worse when he tries to translate them into reality, drawing attention to them both and jeopardizing her subtler plans of resistance. Despite his idealistic visions, Sam is a cog in an evil system, and defying it is not something he’s used to. But for all his missteps and awkward moments we like Sam, and empathize with him; this is partly down to Jonathan Pryce being terrific (it’s odd that he has so rarely played “everyman” parts), but also because his imperfections are ours. We’re never as good or virtuous or heroic as we want to be, but we keep dreaming. Everyone in this film engages in some kind of escape at some point, from Jill watching the Marx Brothers to a roomful of thuggish guards singing Christmas carols.
A similar ambiguity exists for the true rebel in the system, Harry Tuttle, as played by Robert De Niro; a rogue heating repairman, he does the jobs that take Central Services forever to do, but in helping Sam, he inconveniences him later. CS- as represented by two rude mechanicals played by Bob Hoskins and Derrick O’ Connor- eventually gets to Sam’s apartment, discovers the scab work, and tears the place apart in a revengeful act of repair. Tuttle’s heroism doesn’t seem to make much of a difference to the system overall.
While Sam’s fantasies are a liability for him, the film doesn’t make much of a case for rationality either. Had Sam not gone after Jill, the system would still have sought to eliminate her, and her logical approach of trying to report a wrongful arrest would get her killed. Buttle would still be dead- the great injustice has already happened, and everything else is collateral damage. There are a few times where Sam, a whiz with computers and savvy to how at least some parts of the system works, tries some very logical techniques to accomplish his goals, but the system always finds a way to fight back. Dreaming is no solution to the problems of reality, but neither is reason; it’s a chaotic world, and the film’s rambling, chaotic feel reinforces that. The film doesn’t offer a solution, as such; it’s a despairing picture in some ways, but the anger and sadness are tinged with a wistful quality that borders on outright sentiment.
A word about the editing. There are a few different versions of the film, but fortunately you’re unlikely to come across studio head Sid Sheinberg’s “Love Conquers All” re-edit unless you specifically watch it as part of the Criterion boxed set of the film. The American, original international, and final Director’s cuts of the film all retain Gilliam’s basic vision, but have a number of minor differences and subtle tonal shifts. The Director’s Cut takes the best of both worlds for the most part, though I mourn the loss of a truly hilarious line at the end of the scene where Sam first visits his mother.
We dream, ere we die; ultimately, Terry Gilliam’s work is about our need to fantasize, not because it actually fixes anything in this broken world of ours, not even because it might actually help us, but because we can’t help it. Despite the sadness of the film’s message, it’s a thrilling experience, a white-hot jet of rage at all the pointless and horrible things we encounter in our lives. It’s realized with remarkable craftsmanship, from the stunning visual design to a superb music score by the great Michael Kamen (an extract of which was the go-to movie trailer music for a few years). The cast sparkles, and the dialogue is laden with all sorts of clever word-twisting. Though not quite perfect in any of its incarnations, BRAZIL is a masterpiece and one of the greatest films of its time and genre. Now if we could only work out what specific genre it’s in.
Written by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown
Directed by Terry Gilliam