~ Brazil is the Blind Spot entry for June. Full listing here. ~
"It's been confusion from the word go!"
Terry Gilliam’s satirical exploration into the madness of bureaucracy sends Jonathan Pryce down the rabbit hole in search of the girl of his dreams whilst battling paper stacks in the bureaucrats ivory tower and air conditioning repair men.
The incredibly frustrating, convoluted and intrusive bureaucratic system is present in each and every scene whether in the form of hanging duct pipes, paper stacks or propagandistic posters. In a masterful stroke it is often most noticable when it is absent. Without Brazil‘s comic dialogue and Gilliam’s light touch it could easily have been construed as a piece of contemporary cynicism. The examples are endless but one that particularly caught my attention with a brief snicker comes from Jack Lint after Sam gently accuses him of picking up the wrong man. Jack simply retorts,
“Information Transit got the wrong man. I got the ‘right’ man. The wrong one was delivered to me as the right man, I accepted him on good faith as the right man. Was I wrong?“
In such a chaotic totalitarian society there is a distinct failure to accept responsibility. From the beginning of Brazil we’re made privy to this frightening reality when Archibald Buttle, an honest cobbler is picked up and dragged from his own home instead of Archibald Tuttle, public enemy number one, terrorist, heating engineer.
When the incompetent Mr. Kurtzmann stumbles into an error on his computer he calls Sam Lowry, a trusty employee of the state, to come and rectify his problem. It is in this instance that we first catch a glimpse of Sam’s angelic dreams. Floating high above the stifling incompetence Sam searches for the girl of his dreams. When he drags himself out of bed and into the office it is here when he first sees the woman from his dreams. After struggling to locate her in the giant room full of Gilliam’s whimsy and baffoonery he heads into work to solve Mr. Kurtzmann’s problem.
After unearthing the root of Mr. Kurtzmann’s problem Sam reluctantly agrees to deliver Mrs. Buttle a refund for her now deceased husband. The refund stems from a mistake by the shady bureaucracy but what really struck me was Gilliam’s unnerving satire. Mrs. Buttle is receiving a refund because she was overcharged for the wrongful acquistion of her husband. But in a striking moment later in the film we learn that the longer prisoners of the state hold out during torture the more they will be charged. The burden of a jeopardised credit rating is more threatening to existence than actual survival.
Heading out into the ominous grey plateau in a ludicrously sized Government car large buildings loom over Sam on his journey, a theme later explored in his dreams. When Sam arrives at the Buttle’s he isn’t quite sure what to make of the whole scene, at once confused and determined to fulfil his task the reality of the totalitarian society begins to percolate through his warped understanding of the world. But his trip was not all doom and gloom, he manages to catch another glimpse of the woman from his dreams and in a desperate pursuit only manages to obtain her name.
After rethinking his promotion offer Sam upgrades to Information Retrieval in order to abuse his new security clearance and locate Jill Layton. In a surreal spin Gilliam manages to blur the lines of reality that gradually begin to take a hold of the world surrounding Sam. Intriguing references to classic movies are both explicit and implicit. “What’s showing today?” – “Casablanca”, at once a link to Sam’s romantic desperation and 1940s cinema, but others are more unique. The famous Odessa Steps sequence shot by montage master Segei Eisenstein in Battleship Potemkin storms its way into the mix.
As Sam’s dreams are slowly polluted by his ongoing battle with the stubborn bureaucracy his reality becomes confused and Gilliam’s direction becomes suggestive. In one of the greatest scenes Sam wrestles with Jill in a department store behind a mirror. As the viewer only sees Sam it appears he is wrestling with himself and I found myself wondering what Gilliam’s purpose was in directly suggesting Sam’s madness (‘This Ruthless World’ also hints at this suggestion in more detail).
There is much specualtion around the meaning of Brazil. While I am sure that Gilliam had a certain, preordained vision in his mind I’m not even going to attempt to break it down in its entirety (I’ll leave that for other, more qualified spectators such as ‘This Ruthless World‘.) My discourse is purely observatory and man did I love this dystopian vision.
Terry Gilliam has mastered the art of mise-en-scène. You can see it in all of his movies, the sets are deliberately intricate, delicate and purposeful. I mentioned in my review of Twelve Monkeys a while back how there is an “omnipresent state of structural decay” that portrays a “foreboding image of social and moral decadence.” That same precise vision is on show once again in Brazil but instead of structural decay we’re privy to rarely explored retro-futurism. George Orwell’s 1984 is frequently referenced as an inspiration for Gilliam’s Brazil, largely because of it’s futuristic vision of a totalitarian society. Retro-futurism refers to a style of fiction that depicts, in this instance, the 1980s from the perspective of a 1940s film maker.
Reduced to totalitarian rule and the burden of bureaucratic practices, society perpetuates a dangerous consumer based culture that stifles all forms of expression, stagnating freedom and basic human rights. This theme is beautifully maintained throughout with constant references to classic films, music and fashion. With an incisive touch Gilliam permeates an image of stagnated cultural expression and imagination during the Christmas period, a period often characterised in cinema with bright colours, cheery dialogue, and generosity. With a subtle touch the same gift is wrapped in a neat little box and given to a number of people, furthering Gilliam’s satire of bureaucracy and stifled imagination. Heck, even the food lacks imagination.
In hindsight the evidence put forward to suggest Jill is Sam’s alter-ego is beginning to sound more and more likely when we consider the way the film is strung together. In that sense, Sam’s search for Jill is just as futile as shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic.
Sam burrows deep into his escapist psyche, falling further and further into Gilliam’s Brilliant rabbit hole until madness becomes Fate’s next victim.
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~ Happy Viewing ~
Pixar deliver a heart-wrenching sentient robot in July, Wall-E.