Sam Lowry: Excuse me, Dawson, can you put me through to Mr. Helpmann’s office?
Dawson: I’m afraid I can’t sir. You have to go through the proper channels.
Sam Lowry: And you can’t tell me what the proper channels are, because that’s classified information?
Dawson: I’m glad to see the Ministry’s continuing its tradition of recruiting the brightest and best, sir.
Sam Lowry: Thank you, Dawson.
“Hi there, I want to talk to you about ducts.”
So do I. I’d like to dedicate this month’s column to Doreen Zaiss and the hard-working students in her Acting 11/12 class. The dedication is appropriate as this month’s film is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), one of the most nightmarish anti-utopias to come along since George Orwell’s 1984. After watching the students’ superb job of dramatizing 1984 (one of my favorite Really Depressing Books of All Time), I was faced with the choice. Either look for an upbeat video to restore my faith in humanity, or indulge in an orgy of doom. Well……given the weather lately I chose the latter.
I think Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is a masterpiece. It deserves the same kind of cult status, based on the genius of its visual design and its reification of the State gone mad, as that accorded to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926). The director’s cut of Brazil clocks in at 142 minutes, and every frame of those 142 minutes has more going on in it than lesser films have in their entire ninety or so minutes of mediocrity. Ideally, Brazil should be watched on a 52-inch widescreen TV with a DVD player. You want to be able to read every twisted little paranoid slogan written on posters in the background (“Don’t suspect a friend, Report him”), see every demented take-off on 1950’s Life magazine advertisements (“Top Security Holiday Camps: Luxury Without Fear”), and consider every architectural nuance of an alternate city whose buildings seem an unholy hybrid of Art Deco stylings, soaring Gothicism, and tenement slum squalor. You enjoyed Alex Proyas’s recent Dark City? Compared to the city that haunts Brazil, Proyas’s dark city was a Sunday in suburbia. And we haven’t even talked about the ducts.
If you thought Big Brother was intrusive in 1984, he was a shrinking violet alongside the vast network of ducts which snakes through and violates every available public and private space of the city in which Brazil’s unfortunate citizens live. What do these ducts do? No idea. But they’re a perfect metaphor for the kind of totalitarian state which controls every minutia of its citizens’ lives through a vast, ruthless bureaucracy built on fear and betrayal. You’ll never look at a duct (or even a vacuum cleaner hose) in quite the same way again. For anyone who doubts that plumbing can be freighted with that much significance, I’ll remind you that Kafka’s most famous story has a man wake up as a cockroach. Monstrous humor, indeed.
In Gilliam’s film, the highest levels of the bureaucracy are represented by the Ministry of Information (i.e. lies and obfuscation), the bureau of Information Retrieval (i.e. torture and execution) and Central Services (duct repair). I earlier used the word “ruthless” to describe this bureaucracy. Notice that I didn’t say “ruthlessly efficient.” In the true tradition of the Stalinist State, Brazil shows us a society which is expert at assassination, but where nothing actually ever works the way it should. Elevators, for example, never stop level with their landings. Restaurant food looks regurgitated. The work crew trying to seal the hole in the ceiling of an apartment (through which one of about four SWAT teams has descended upon a terrified family on Christmas Eve) brings the wrong-sized plug because no one has told them the government’s gone back to metric. In the bowels of the cavernous Information Retrieval building, office workers in separate cubicles are forced to share the same desk through the wall, playing tug-of-war over who gets the bigger half.
The protagonist of the Brazil, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), is an anonymous functionary in the Ministry of Information (M.O.I.). He’s actually a talented man who helps keep his bureau running despite the incompetence and spinelessness of his boss, Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm). Sam hides his light under a bushel. The less the state is aware of your existence, the better. He uses his talents only to ensure that nothing goes wrong enough to catch the attention of his boss’s superiors. The rest of the time, he and his fellow workers watch old movie classics on their TV monitors in the intervals between pretending to circulate vast quantities of paperwork from one stack to another.
Unfortunately, in Kafkaesque worlds paperwork is both meaningless and lethal. You don’t even want to mention a Form 27b/6 unless you’re prepared to live with the consequences. Sam Lowry’s personal nightmare begins as the result of a typing mistake caused by a squashed bug falling into a printer. The name “Tuttle” becomes “Buttle”, an innocent man is “deleted”, and Lowry ends up consorting with a rebel plumber (Robert DeNiro) and a possible terrorist (Kim Griest) who just happens to resemble the woman of his fantasies. Poor Sam winds up challenging the very bureaucracy from which he’s spent his whole life hiding. And yes, I did say rebel plumber.
There isn’t a happy ending. I’ll tell you that right now. The bad guys win. Pretty much. Unless you consider a torture-induced psychotic fantasy a kind of “escape.” When the people at Universal Studios saw what Gilliam had wrought with their 15 million dollars they refused to release the film. They demanded that he cut an hour off the running time and change the ending. Gilliam fought back by inviting movie critics to secret screenings and by putting ads in trade papers demanding to know when his film was going to be released. His guerrilla campaign eventually worked. With some minor compromises, Universal finally released Brazil a full year after it had been completed. It went on to be nominated for two Academy Awards, win kudos from critics, be immortalized in cult film houses, and spawn websites and doctoral dissertations filled with words like “Baudrillardian”, “diegetic”, and “illocutionary”.
The effectiveness of a film is often based on the subliminal effects created by the director’s or cinematographer’s choice of lighting and camera angles and movement. This is certainly true of Brazil. One critic pointed out the psychological effect of Gilliam’s extensive use of low camera angles: paranoia is heightened as constantly looking up at things makes them seem monolithic and threatening. Pauline Kael, while expressing mixed feelings about the film, comments on its “weird vertical quality: the camera always seems to be moving up and down, rarely across. You get the feeling that people live and work squashed at the bottom of hollow towers.” The visual look of Brazil is film noir (gray tones, elongated shadows, dimly lit corridors and alleyways) with splashes of surrealism (Sam’s Icarus/Galahad fantasy, a giant Samurai, sinister Oriental doll faces, the ducts). For some reason, no matter what happens and how much time passes, it always seems to be Christmas. There’s also some of the creepiest use of sound effects engineering I’ve heard since I watched the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. The ducts are alive with the sound of something.…gastric. H.P. Lovecraft and H.R. Geiger would feel right at home.
For anyone who believes that Gilliam’s perverse orchestration of totalitarianism is something limited to Monty Python alumni with large budgets, I’d like to close this review with a quote taken from a paper on Brazil written by Peter Avery. Avery found an uncanny parallel to the dream sequence in Brazil where massive towers launch themselves out of the ground of the countryside like ICBMs to cut Sam Lowry off from his beloved angel:
“Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, organized the Nazi Zeppelin Field festivities….For the party rally at Nuremburg in 1935, he used 150 anti-aircraft searchlights with their beams pointing upwards, making a rectangle of light in the night sky…He wrote: ‘Within these luminous walls, the first of their kind, the rally took place with all its rituals. …I now feel strangely moved by the idea that the most successful architectural creation of my life was a chimera, an immaterial mirage.’ Doomed to disappear at first light, leaving no more material trace than a few films and the odd photograph, the ‘crystal castle’ was especially aimed at Nazi militants who, according to Goebbels, obey a law they are not even consciously aware of but which they could recite in their dreams.”
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, too, is a chimera. It too becomes part of our dreams. But unlike the searchlights of Nuremberg, the fantastic visual effects of Brazil expose evil instead of disguising it.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“Confess quickly! If you hold out too long you could jeopardize your credit card rating!”
“Suspicion breeds Confidence”
“Loose talk is Noose talk”
“Be alert—some terrorists look normal”
“Is there a suspect in your family?”
“Regret nothing—Report everything”
“Don’t suspect a friend—Report him”
“Be safe—Be suspicious”
“Consumers for Christ”
The mind is still boggled. James Stewart ditches Frank Capra for Franz Kafka & Tom Stoppard. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch Brazil without a sense of wonder and shuddering revulsion. Largely, this comes from the sheer accumulation of disturbing detail offered up by the film. There is always something there that you missed the first, or second, or third time around. Gilliam himself said, “I work in this strange sort of magpie approach. I just start collecting things, and having a central idea works like a magnet—things just start sticking to it.” Gilliam’s description, and Brazil itself, reminds me of one of the few computer games that has ever caught my fancy—Namco’s Katamari Damacy for PlayStation 2, where an adhesive ball rolled around the countryside growing larger and larger as it picked up everything from thumbtacks to cows. There was a liberating randomness to that ball of stuff that I also relish in the production design for Gilliam’s film. Let’s face it, who else puts a leopard-print boot on top of a woman’s hat? The French Surrealists who invented the game of cadavre exquis and praised the randomness of Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror would have recognized a kindred spirit in this description of Terry’s design sense: “Gilliam’s the sort of person that puts a toaster next to an answering machine and calls it a computer. What Gilliam has always enjoyed is the frisson when you put things together.” Some of the things put together in Brazil: an abandoned CWS flour mill, Leighton House, Mentmore Towers, a post-modern housing project in France’s Marne-la-Vallée, the Rainbow Room disco, Croydon Power Station, the BP refinery on the Isle of Grain, the Lake District, 1930s and 40s advertising, a Messerschmitt “Cabin-Roller,” Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, and George Orwell’s 1984. It’s no surprise that Brazil has been cited as one of the precursors of the steampunk movement.
It also should come as no surprise that it took Gilliam a year to force a release of Brazil in a version that matched his original vision, rather than the studio’s bowdlerized 90-minute version with the tacked-on happy ending. For all of its patent absurdities—from a desk shared on two sides of a wall, to the cyber-plumbing aesthetic, to Robert De Niro’s rogue duct man, to plastic surgery as self-flagellation—Brazil paints the grimmest of grim pictures. Imagine Blade Runner without that last scene with Rutger Hauer on the rooftop finding one last way of embracing life and freedom of choice. Gilliam’s movie has proven to be tragically prophetic. Brazil looks the way the Donald Trump’s vision of America’s soul (or lack of it) currently feels: bureaucracy devoid of function, Golem-like militarized police, propaganda & lies over truth & humanity, and an unrelenting chorus of ugliness, hate, bigotry, aggression, and greed. Beneath the slick technocratic surfaces of industry, corporatism, and media there’s an underlying ethical rot—perfectly symbolized by Brazil’s omnipresent, malfunctioning, visceral ductwork—that’s pitting haves against have-nots, ramping up paranoia, and eating away at the fabric of our planet. And as societies around the world suffer from one shock after another–whether environmental, financial, biological, or societal—the powers-that-be are doubling down on what Naomi Klein described as the Shock Doctrine: screw healing, exploit the chaos & pain to the maximum. There’s a reason that dystopias constitute one of the fastest-growing genres in literature. What began with Franz Kafka’s The Trial, George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, has exploded into Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, Luanne Armstrong’s The Bone House, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series, Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, Neal Shusterman’s The UnWind dystology, and countless other contemporary novels for young adults. Even George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novels cut too close to the bone these days, using a mythical past to alert us to the dangers of a Machiavellian present and future.
Jeez, it’s no wonder I’ve been watching a lot of old musicals and Elvis Presley and Audrey Hepburn movies lately. Even in these dystopian COVID-19 days, gotta dance, gotta sing.