Thursday, May 31, 2012

Film # 82: Brazil (1985)

Director: Terry Gilliam

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: twice; last time about 10 years ago.

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Lonely bureaucrat in an Orwellian alternate reality seeks to escape his society’s trappings to find romantic love.

Extended Summary (More detailed synopsis, including spoilers. Fair warning.)

In an unspecified time, in an unspecified European country, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Price) is a mid-level bureaucrat working for the massive government machine. He works in a dismal factory environment crammed with pipes, papers, and employees who spend plenty of time shuffling around both themselves and various order forms. Amid all of this, Lowry has daydreams of flying among the clouds as an angel, seeking out a beautiful, unnamed woman who is trapped in gossamer netting.

One day, his office receives notice of an error made by one of the countless departments within the system – a typo has led to the brutal arrest, retrieval, torture, and death of an innocent man, Harry Buttle. Buttle has been mistaken for Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro), a known “renegade and terrorist” engineer who runs around the city, illegally fixing people’s electrical problems without the proper paperwork. Lowry recognizes the mistake and volunteers to bring a pittance check to the bereaved widow.

 Sam assists his lazy boss in sorting out the "error" that led to Buttle's death. This kick-starts Sam's quest for his dream girl, Jill.

At the Buttle widow’s apartment, Sam comes in contact with Jill Layton (Kim Greist), the Buttles’ upstairs neighbor, who also happens to be the very vision of the woman in his dreams. Since Buttle’s erroneous arrest and death, Jill has been working her way through the endless government channels to find who is responsible for her neighbor’s wrongful death. Her tireless pursuit of justice through these channels has also earned her status as a fellow terrorist aid to the renegade Tuttle. Sam tries to pursue her, but Jill offers no information and flees, fearing anyone from the government.

Back at his apartment, Sam runs into the real Harry Tuttle, who barges in so that he can fix Sam’s broken air conditioner. While efficiently fixing the problem, Tuttle explains that he was a government engineer, but left because the amount of paperwork. Before Tuttle leaves, Sam also helps him deal with a pair of government workers who show up (many hours late) to fix his air conditioner.

Now obsessed with finding Jill, Sam decides to take a previously-offered promotion into the Ministry of Information Retrieval, the department in charge of all information gathering. Sam had refused the offer, which was the result of the machinations of his image-obsessed and vain mother, due to his contentment with his low-level, low-stress job. Now, he accepts and becomes an Information Retrieval officer.

After obtaining some general information about Jill, he comes across her in the office building as she continues to seek justice for Buttle’s death. Sam finally reaches her. Jill at first tries to shake Sam away from her, but he eventually convinces her that he is, indeed, deeply infatuated with her. With government officers on her trail, Jill goes with Sam into hiding. Sam sneaks back to the Ministry of Information Retrieval and falsifies the records so that Jill shows up as “deceased”. He returns to her and the two share a romantic evening together.

 Though unglamorous and unassuming in real life, Jill is the object of Sam's self-destructive pursuit of love.

The next morning, the state police barge in and take Sam away. He is run through the draconian, yet clinically anaesthetized legal process, and ends up in a torture room. Just as he is about to be tortured (by his old “friend”, Jack Lint (Michael Palin) from his previous job), his torturer is shot through the head by Harry Tuttle and a gang of terrorist raiders. The raiders pull Sam out of the building, and he flees with Tuttle.

The world around Sam starts to become more fantastic and dreamlike during his escape. He and Tuttle run into a shopping center, where Tuttle inexplicably becomes shrouded by massive amount of flying papers. When Sam tries to pull the papers off, Tuttle seems to have vanished altogether. Sam runs into what appears to be a church, in which a funeral is taking place. The deceased is announced as one of Sam’s mother’s frenemies – a fellow plastic surgery addict who had been growing ever-more deformed through botched procedures. Next to the coffin is Sam’s mother, now transformed into a woman who appears to be in her mid-20s, and who looks exactly like Jill. She is being fawned over by eager young men, and she brushes Sam away from her.

Retreating outside, Sam is once again in a world even bleaker than anything we’ve yet seen – the buildings are cold, rigid, flat, gray structures that tower over him. A gang of policemen pick up their pursuit of him again, chasing him into a massive wall of the flex-piping that is ubiquitous in Sam’s life. After frantically digging through the pipes, Sam finds himself in a trailer being driven by Jill. Once again united with his lost love, the two drive off in seeming bliss.

However, this perfect happy ending abruptly ends when we see Sam back in the torture chair deep within the Ministry of Information Retrieval. In fact, the entire escape from the torture room was a pure fantasy brought on by the torture. Sam, now thoroughly insane, has sought refuge in his unrealistic and childish fantasies of escape from the system that has now effectively destroyed him.

Sam's destiny ends here - in the torturer's chair, completely insane and disconnected from his warped reality.

 Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any further research.)

A very brief history: I love Terry Gilliam. I’m not a blind worshipper, by any means, and there are a few of his films that have fallen flat for me (The Fisher King and Tideland, specifically). Most of his work, though, I find wonderful, in the truest sense of the word. From the moment I watched Time Bandits as an 8–year old child, I was hooked. With this movie, and others like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, I got a great combination of childlike wonder, fun adventure, and humor that magnificently ran from silly to wry.

With Brazil, it was only upon this recent viewing that I can say that I now fully appreciate it. It really is his best film, and it is not difficult to see just why it made the TIME 100 list.

Brazil is not Gilliam’s gravest or most serious work, but it is his most artful and will ultimately be his most lasting. By drawing from the more timeless themes of the human condition, namely individuality versus conformity, he sets this work above all of his others and makes a visually arresting statement about human psychology in the post-Industrial Age. It was something that writers and observers had been doing for decades prior to Brazil, but Gilliam was the first to express it so stunningly in cinema.

It’s not hard to see in the protagonist, Sam Lowry, the essence of George Orwell’s Winston Smith in the seminal novel 1984. Lowry, like Smith, is part of a totalitarian system in which a sprawling and invasive government has molded its citizens into a populace that has sacrificed its creativity and freedom for the “security” of bland superficiality. The various “Ministries” in Brazil are virtual parallel to those in 1984. The contribution that Gilliam made in his film is that we can now see the results in the form of revolting starkness. Between the towering grey buildings and the endless miles of piping in Brazil, a viewer feels totally crushed and hemmed in on all sides. As a viewer, I found myself yearning for the more colorful, fantastic dreams that Lowry would drift into, childish and unrealistic as they might be.

 Sam's dream self. These play out like the fantasies of a 13-year-old boy, which is what Sam is, emotionally.

It is this childishness of Lowry that was my grand revelation upon this most recent viewing. When watching this film times past, I never quite realized that Lowry is meant to be seen as completely out of touch with his own reality. This is something that, at one point, Jill expresses to him in those exact words. Once Lowry sees Jill for the first time, he becomes possessed of a completely juvenile mania to track her down, in the process destroying his own life and any chance of happiness. I realized that this is not due to a lack of intelligence on Sam’s part, but rather the fact that he has been so repressed by the hulking system around him that he is not capable of handling emotions such as love (or at least, infatuation) as a mature adult. Instead, he charges headlong after Jill and is inevitably crushed in all ways possible.

Someone who hasn’t seen the movie and reads my previous paragraphs would think that Brazil is a humorless slog through dour sociopolitical commentary. Far from it. As with all of his other films, Terry Gilliam gives us plenty of humor to carry us through. Gilliam was an original key member of Monty Python, and it’s not hard to see it in any of his films, including Brazil. No, there are no “Lumberjack” songs or overtly silly antics, but a certain “Python” tone is there. Whether it’s the goofy hats that the government electricians wear or the willful obliviousness of a professional torturer, there are plenty of comedic moments, light and pitch dark, alike. It’s not stuff of gut-busting hilarity; rather, it’s humor calculated for extreme effect. It all conveys just how unaware nearly all of the characters in the film are to their situation.

One of the best examples of this lack of admission is when Lowry tracks down the Ministry’s “Information Retrieval” department on his mission to find Jill. When he reaches the office, he hears the bloodcurdling screams of a “detainee” being tortured in an otherwise stately-looking office. Once the session is finished, Sam walks in to see the back of the torturer (the Jack Lint character played by Monty Python alum Michael Palin), hunched over as he sobs uncontrollably. Once Sam announces his presence, though, Lint turns and composes himself in a split second, utterly refusing to face just how horrific are the acts that he performs on a daily basis. This perpetual denial is arguably the most lasting notion of the entire film.

 Jack Lint, covered in blood from his latest victim, though putting on the eternal "good show" of a smile to others.

And it is scenes such as this one in which Gilliam’s humor is a tremendous asset to the movie. The entire tone of the scene is one of chilling horror, and yet you almost can’t help but chuckle when Sam confronts his former coworker. It is one of dozens of moments that elevate Brazil from straightforward social commentary into more Swiftian satire. It was this entire angle that had eluded me in previous viewings, and which I am very glad to have noticed this time around.

As you may glean, Brazil is not a barrel of laughs. Anyone familiar with Gilliam’s other more popular, much more “Python-esque” movies should not expect a sibling of Time Bandits, Holy Grail, or similar ilk. Rather, Brazil is those movies’ distant, dark cousin. A dark, brooding, and far more intelligent cousin whose somewhat silly gags can mask brutally sardonic observations.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research.)

The story of Brazil’s creation and execution is rather interesting, but nearly as interesting and highly publicized as its studio release.

When you watch Brazil, you’ll probably be highly amused, if not dazzled, at some of the brilliantly funny lines of dialogue. If so, then you probably won’t be surprised by the fact that one of the co-writers was Tom Stoppard, accomplished writer of witty gems like Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. As gifted as Gilliam is, he needed some help adding narrative cohesion and sharper dialogue to his tale, and Stoppard obliged.

Reading about Gilliam’s filmmaking reveals a few things. Often, his crew has nightmares about the scenes that he writes, due to their highly fantastic nature. One can easily say (as Gilliam himself probably would) that his artistic visions usually push or pass the boundaries of practicality, in terms of actual production. This is something that links to one of Gilliam’s favorite filmmakers – Federico Fellini. In Fellini’s 8 ½, the very subject is a talented director’s disconnection from reality and how this plays out in both his life and his films. While I can’t speak to Gilliam’s personal life, it is a problem that has almost always been a characteristic of his movies, which often get squeezed or completely crushed by financial backers who will not fund the grand designs of Gilliam’s dreams. When they do happen, though, the results are often magical.

 Executing shots like this has always been a nightmare for crews who work on Gilliam's films, but the end results are often stunning and impressive.

An interesting side note about Gilliam, based on past interviews – he has a real chip on his shoulder about certain directors, namely Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. He has considered them as panderers to the masses, and overly commercial. In addition, he sees Lucas as particularly personifying the uglification of movies through overuse of CGI. I have to agree, as my own sentiments echo Gilliam’s, regarding the StarWars prequel trilogy.

The eventual release of Brazil is probably the most interesting tale behind the finished product. To make a long story short, the studio executives did not see Brazil as “commercially viable”, being too long, too dark, and too quirky for a wider audience to enjoy. Gilliam, who had contractual final cut on the movie, staged something of a guerrilla war against one particular executive who stalled the film’s release and who pushed for a much-altered version of the film. A quick look at the two versions is very telling.

Gilliam’s version (as described above) is obviously very dark, making the point that the society portrayed in Brazil is so bleak and entrenched that a lone, unrealistic dreamer never stands a chance. It’s a bold and interesting, if not exactly uplifting, statement. The studio, and one man in particular named Sid Sheinberg, had the fantasy sequences almost completely eliminated, pared the film by over 40 minutes, and gave the film a happy ending with Sam and Jill living on a “happy valley” farm outside of the totalitarian city in which they had lived. This is interesting since it is almost exactly what was encountered by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner several years prior.

 One of the final shots of the legitimate Gilliam ending. The serene landscape in the background contains the "happy ending" that Sheinberg wanted to release. If he had had his way, Brazil would not only have been forgettable, but also probably a plain old, bad movie.

Gilliam flipped. He refused to put his name on any such film, as it so distorted the story that he was telling. What followed was a drawn out back-and-forth between studio, Gilliam, and a gaggle of lawyers. In the end, Gilliam’s version of Brazil was released, much to the delight of certain parties who were fighting for its artistic integrity.

The critical reaction was actually rather mixed upon its release in late 1985. Some hailed it as a masterpiece work, and it won several regional awards. Other groups of critics all but ignored the movie, or gave it lukewarm reviews. Commercially, it managed to just break even.

In the 17 years since its release, Brazil’s stature has grown impressively. While no one is going to call it the greatest movie of all time, it is widely considered exceptional, and is easily one of the most singular and interesting films of the 1980s. It also served as a clear inspiration for later films, such as the Coen brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy and others. The “retro-future” designs of the costumes and sets, which blend older Victorian-era styles with hyper-Industrialized and futuristic elements, has also been seen as an inspiration for the “steam-punk” sub-culture.

Gilliam himself looks back at Brazil with overall fondness. Despite the insane headaches that its final release caused, and the fact that he shot himself in the foot, in terms of Hollywood, he still sees it as a success for “the little guy”. Ultimately, it was an off-kilter movie that was made and shown as he intended. It’s not hard to see the parallels between his fight for his movie and his character Sam Lowry’s pursuit of his own dream. The difference is that Gilliam got the satisfying ending that he denied Sam.

That’s a wrap. 82 shows down, 23 to go.

Coming Soon: The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)


Woody Allen makes the list. The neurotic little New Yorker is hit or miss with me. The one and only time I watched this movie, it was a miss. I’ll try again very shortly. Come on back to see if I change my mind with this little historical flight of fancy.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.