Brazil (1985) Retro Review

Terry Gilliam is my favorite movie maker. No doubt this has something to do with the residual magic of Monty Python. He was the lone American of the troupe, an extra when they needed an odd face, and the creator of their animated transitions. I have often wondered how much influence one had over the other, for of all of the Pythons (living), his career is the only one to carry on their strange legacy.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a distinctly British piece of art, irreverent and curt, sometimes vulgar and always subversive, and had Gilliam started his career in America he may have eventually enjoyed great mainstream success – for it is these attributes that have defined his work ever since, a freedom of thought and precise intent that have time after time ruined his ability to function in the Hollywood film system. A piece of his soul is bonded to that early surreality that was the 1970s and the rest of it has evolved – better to say mutated – into something far odder and destructive.

Frankly, Gilliam makes the kind of films that I would like to make. They are rambunctious farces as exuberant as dreams. Gilliam’s protagonists are artists of one kind or another, often trapped, hemmed in by Gilliam’s tatterdemalion effects, their most wicked conflicts with themselves. They are cartoons with flesh and the results are messy.

I am reminded of the ink sketches of Ralph Steadman, the British illustrator for Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. His canvasses are covered in his splotches and filled by bloated animals with razor grins. Every stroke of the brush bears witness to the act of creation, and it is a very deliberate mess. That Terry Gilliam was chosen to bring the novel to the big screen makes his madness seem downright practical. That he was J.K. Rowling’s first choice to adapt Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is the most maddening kind of “what if.”

There are directors more technical, more clever than Terry Gilliam, more charming and certainly more profitable, but no other director temerariously stitches himself into the guts of his creations. There is never any polish on a Gilliam film. His works are unvarnished and rough and queer.

In 2006 I was invited to Seal Beach to see a movie I had never heard of and whose title evoked nothing of its intent. The film was Brazil and the first time I saw it was in a theatre on its twentieth anniversary (I have my old friend and fellow Screwhead Casey Moriarty to thank for the invitation). By the time it was over, I was left dumbfounded. I kept asking myself, Why have I never seen a movie like this before?

There is a powerful magic to it and an even more powerful pain that exudes from it like ashes over an oil field. My favorite book and favorite food change with the seasons and adapt to the ages I pass by. Since that day in Seal Beach I have only one favorite film, and it is Brazil. The song follows me wherever I go and its images have tunneled deep into my dreams.

Explaining the film’s appeal has never been difficult; it’s figuring out when to stop talking about it that’s the trouble. But I have one description that has never failed me and I will use it to open my review: It is a horror film masquerading as a comedy.

Brazil (Where Hearts Were Entertaining June)

Brazil follows the humdrum life of Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) in the mega-bureaucracy of a future Britain, somewhere in the twentieth century. He has deliberately derailed any chance for his advancement, despite the manipulations of his well-connected mother, in order to remain as innocuous as possible. Sam lies when he tells people he doesn’t want more for himself and he lies when he says he doesn’t have dreams, for Sam does have dreams. He dreams that he is a winged hero taking flight in a perfect sky, a juvenile fantasy studded with monsters and one beautiful damsel in distress, while his reality is – just as it is for everyone else in his city – something he’d rather not think about, much less confront.

Sam’s Britain is a totalitarian mess studded with rules and receipts, a victim to terrorist bombings or plain mechanical incompetence – it’s one or the other or perhaps both but no one knows and after thirteen years the country’s leadership can only call it “bad sportsmanship.” Sam’s Britain is a world in which everything is wrong and no one is right. And Sam, unfortunately, wants to be a hero.

We Stood Beneath an Amber Moon

Unlike any other film sporting a “hero,” Sam’s heroism is completely internal and it gradually destroys him from within. When Sam plays at being heroic, he does so with the same juvenile jubilance of his dreams; when he meets the girl of his dreams he does not really know her, thinks he can save her, recklessly endangers her. It may not be clear on a first viewing but despite the trappings of a Man v. Society story, Brazil does not offer us a heroic protagonist. Sam Lowry is a good person and intelligent, but the greater conflict is that which is going on inside himself and the greater story is what acedia – willful blindness and ignorance, not oppression – eventually does to the human mind and soul. Sam’s world is awful, but no one mentions it. It is considered impolite.

And Softly Murmured Someday Soon

Science fiction’s best offerings present us with outlandish trappings to cloak their modern themes. Brazil’s meditations are on the mechanization of society as well as its futility.

Originally Terry Gilliam wanted to call his film 1984 and a 1/2, as in a twist on Orwell’s fascist nightmare 1984. Thankfully he was dissuaded (perhaps by co-screenwriter Tom Stoppard, author of the charming and existential Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). Not only would it have been too blunt, and disingenuous (Gilliam had not actually read the book before beginning the film), but also it would detract from the unique slant of Gilliam’s vision. Brazil shares many parallels to Orwell’s novel but it fixates on the most average citizen in a fascist society, one who can blend in and drink the Kool-Aid.

Brazil is that type of film, bane to locksmiths, that changes radically with repeat viewings. The key turns until it unlocks more than one thing, and Sam is much more than our dystopian protagonist. He is a point of view. He is the foolish philosophy that love conquers all, that the good are untouchable, that ignorance falters when confronted by passion.

The ducts which pervade Sam’s city (to no clear purpose) fill the homes of the downtrodden and hang from only the ceilings of the rich. But this is not entirely a class statement. When Sam’s passive defense begins to waver, his home is swamped by coils and ducts. His mechanical apartment becomes a sweating, gulping beast, eager to swallow him up. Those ducts can be ignored by the rich because they can afford to live above the truth – as Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro) says, “It’s the shit. We’re all in it together.” Sam falls prey to this mechanical invasion literally in the form of a flawed system and metaphorically as the barriers he’s built for it break down.

Sam’s world is stuffed to the gills with paper and forms and pneumatic tubes and robots that don’t do anything, but these are all, like the ducts, a means of keeping humans from interacting. Sam’s eventual fate is the result. [SPOILERS BELOW]

We Kissed and Clung Together Then

The futility of an inhuman system is personified by Sam’s mental breakdown. Though the final twenty minutes of the film are all a mad dream, that dream is the refuge of a desperate man. Brazil achieves a terrible apotheosis in Sam’s exoneration, at once beautiful and tragic. The tragedy is obvious: The woman Sam risked everything for (though barely knew) is dead, his colleagues and family have abandoned him, and he is tortured to insanity by a friend. The beauty is in what his torturers reveal: “He’s gotten away from us, Jack.”

The human mind, perhaps soul, is an untortured land where imagination rules. Sam’s insanity is its own form of rebellion. He refuses the world he is presented with and lives – as the song “Brazil” says – “miles away with still a million things to say.”

It is not a hopeful ending but it is not totally bleak either. What Brazil posits is that you can inure people to the shit but you cannot eradicate their humanity. Bureaucracy is apathetic and people can be inculcated into that system – but only by denying what they really are. Sam fails utterly as a real hero but he never stops being a man. It profits him nothing in the end, but, well, there it is.

The true story of Brazil has nothing to do with Sam trying to save a woman he hardly knows but about how one mistyped letter causes chaos in a mindless system. It is a system that has no dreams, not even juvenile ones. All of Sam’s dreams and struggles mean absolutely nothing to it, but we the audience are fooled into thinking such things matter. Ultimately the impersonal nature of Sam’s bureaucracy reasserts itself, and no rebellious handyman, no reborn femme fatale can save him. Sam is wiped out by a clerical error. There is no good or evil.

Tomorrow Was Another Day

The brutality of studio interference with Brazil is legendary, and I could have easily dedicated pages to that creative struggle. But that story can be found in Jack Matthews’ The Battle of Brazil and I prefer to focus on the essence of what sets this film above its peers. I have done a poor job of explaining what is so funny about it, that the black comedy is brightened by moments of slapstick and even its nonsensical technology is no more absurd than ours (even twenty years on).

Return, I Will, To…

I can no longer say that there are surprises in store for me when I rewatch the film (I have seen it too many times), but the surprises it holds for first-time viewers are so manifold that they cannot be spoiled here. What is unfortunate is that Brazil was made in the 1980s and remains exceptional. Few films broke the conventions of storytelling with such vicious whimsy then and few films do now. It is, as its director intended, like a strange dream that follows your waking days.

Brazil is supposed to fit in the middle of Gilliam’s “Dreams Trilogy.” Time Bandits represents the dreams of children, Brazil of men, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen capping it all off with a reflection that truth does not matter, our stories matter, what we tell each other matters, what we believe matters. In truth, Gilliam is eternally circling such conceits.

I consider The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, a work of daunting tenderness, the spiritual successor to Brazil. It is either a vindication or savage refusal of the director’s philosophy – and I’m still not sure which it is. Appeasing the investors has never appealed to Gilliam and his career has been one bloody fight after another for control of his dreams; his films are practically allegories for his professional woes.

Gilliam’s great skill as a director is his ability to showcase the creative mind in freefall, freeze it, and play it back to you step by step. He offers few works that do not crash upon completion.

Brazil is a beautiful smash.

Brazil (1985)
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Universal Studios
143 Minutes (varies depending on version)

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