Directed by Terry Gilliam
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I watched a documentary called The Battle for Brazil which is about the trials and tribulations that the movie had to go through in order to be released in the States. Basically the evil studio executives (booo! hisss!) thought that the movie wasn’t commercial enough and so demanded that it be recut to a shorter length and – I shit you not – ended at the point where Sam finally manages to get it together with Jill. Apparently they thought the theme of the movie was “true love conquers all” which well – might be the theme for all the other movies in the world but probably isn’t really the theme for Brazil.
Anyway there’s a bit where they’re interviewing one of the evil studio executives who looks exactly like the sort of person you wouldn’t want to get taught talking to at a party because it looks like he dreams in black and white (and oh my god this is someone who’s in charge of the major art form of the 20th Century? That’s… actually disgusting) and well yeah they ask him about Brazil and he comes out with this great quote:
“It’s a good movie. It’s entertaining but it’s for a… special audience.”
So basically – God yes I love this movie.
Take a fat lump of sci-fi and a smattering of fantasy. Add a seemingly unlimited visual imagination and plenty of stylistic flourishes. Smeared over with dystopia. A little pinch of social commentary. Dusted with a dark sense of humour. Coat with a heroic individual standing up to an evil and corrupt and all-pervasive system. Soaked overnight in a sweet and delicious mixture of dreams and nightmares. And end with a punch to the gut.
Or at least that’s how I always thought about it until I rewatched it again this week in preparation for this and well yeah this time my experience was a little bit different. I mean I normally tend to roll my eyes back into my head when people talk about how watching a film or reading a book is different in the age of #MeToo or whatever but I’ve got to admit that whether it’s that or just a simple matter of growing up and realising lots of simple stuff I feel like I’ve got to be the one to say but erm guys – is Sam Lowry an actual creep?
I mean: the film kinda puts you into his head so it’s very easy to overlook. You see Jill right from the start – the woman from his literal dreams floating in the clouds above the world and so when we see her in real life it’s a bit of a shock but we’re also 100% with Sam that he needs to go and find her and win her over and rescue her from the bad guys. Except erm the scene where he kinda invites himself in her truck (dude) goes like this:
SAM: Look, I’m sorry about that. I mean, touching you without permission. Hello, my name’s Lowry. Sam Lowry. I’ve been… You won’t believe this. I know it will sound incredible… but I’ve been dreaming about you.
JILL GIVES HIM A LOOK
SAM: No, not like that. I mean, I love you.
JILL LOOKS SHOCKED
SAM: I mean, in my dreams, I love you and… Extraordinary, isn’t it? Anyway… You don’t believe me, do you? You probably think I’m bonkers, right? Mad, raving.
JILL: No! I think you’re very attractive.
JILL: Yeah. Sit back. Let me have a look at you. Oh, yeah. Good looking, sexy. Just my type.
SAM: I don’t believe you.
JILL: Why not?
SAM: Well, I just don’t deserve such terrific luck.
I mean this is the behaviour of a complete and total maniac. I mean when I was younger and Jill kicks him out on to the road I was like “oh no!” but this time round I was like “oh yes!” Like if you want to have a discussion about toxic masculinity then this seems like a pretty good example – no? Except except in the reality of the movie and from his experiences – everything Sam does makes perfect sense. If you saw the person you’d been dreaming about – then you’d make a fool out of yourself in front of them too no? And there’s nothing that you’d do that would make you stop. Which is kinda romantic but also not really socially acceptable. And I think beyond the realm of the movie that’s an interesting wider point – isn’t all romance about doing something a little risky? Exposing your emotions to someone else who might not feel the same way back?
Altho I still think Sam is a bit of a creep. I mean yeah on the one hand it’s a film about one human standing up against an inhuman system but then on the other it’s about this guy who throws his entire life on the fire just because he’s really thirsty for some woman he doesn’t even know.
And what’s even more interesting is that I’m kinda undecided if the film realises this stuff too. I mean yeah it’s pretty much straight white men from bottom to top in every aspect of how it’s made – but there’s small glints of awareness smattered throughout. And when they do finally kiss it’s less a natural moment of tenderness and more a movie moment kinda thing (that sudden burst of triumphant noise is particularly well done I think…).
And well yeah – it must be said that Jill is quite a striking figure. That short hair cut and take no nonsense attitude and a dress sense that makes her look like she’d fit right in with the crew of the U.S.S. Sulaco. Like it’s all kinda progressive right? She’s very much not a damsel in distress or anything like that. Of course – what I’d really like to see is Brazil: The Jill cut. Just to get some more sense of what kind of person she is and to try to understand what exactly her reaction is to Sam’s mad scheming and inexplicable actions. Like I said she ends up kissing and sleeping with him and I don’t really understand why. Is it some form of Stockholm Syndrome or is it because when they get to his mum’s apartment she realises that he’s loaded and well connected or does she actually like him – because I don’t even know and I’ve seen it a whole bunch of times.
And it’s also the thing that makes me feel more than a bit uneasy because this movie has been in my water supply for a really long time and so realising it’s depiction of romantic love makes me wonder how much it’s affected me and warped my worldviews. Having a foundational text tell you that the best way to pursue someone you like is by doing exactly what you feel and damn the consequences isn’t the best life lesson – right?
But then again – maybe taking life lessons from a character who ends up being tortured into insanity probably isn’t the best idea in the world.
What do you think?
The fear of anyone watching an action sci-fin adventure set in a totalitarian dystopia is that you are just being fed the same reheated thin gruel that you we were grateful for the day before. Sure the heroes fight for freedom and justice and often demonstrate a bold refusal to do as their told, but as is often observed, in many cases they are fighting for what we would call the status quo. Tony Stark wants a billionaire led technocracy, Batman and Superman just want an end to street crime and violent attempts to overthrow existing authority, even Neo lacks any real agenda for political change.
What Brazil offers is at least an attempt to upend action hero movies. The baddies aren’t that bad, the goodies aren’t that good and the system is more stupid than evil. Sam Lowry is not only hopeless but also not even a particularly nice or compassionate person, and indeed is guilty of all the crimes he’s accused. Nor does Brazil let you get too cozy with any tangible truth about who is right or wrong. Instead we are left to root for a protagonist who wishes he was an action hero rather than actually is one.
The film’s scathing critique of action tropes shows incompetent seat teams, henchmen on fire, a torturer trying to maintain a healthy distance between the personal and the professional, and a love interest more heroic than the protagonist. It’s gloomy sets and German expressionist dream sequences are deliberately oppressive, and make it hard say it’s visually fresh or stunning, but it feels different from anything else, foregrounding Gilliam’s vision rather than mocking someone else’s.
It’s this individuality and refusal to follow the rules that reveals its central inconsistency. Gilliam, an artist by any measure, who has worked in both the stifling BBC and Hollywood systems is telling a story about an imaginative young man who just wants to follow his dreams and passions, who is not interested in climbing the corporate ladder and finds consumerism distasteful. Except in Brazil, as Joel points out, this young man is not only useless but also a bit of a creep. So is this Gilliam’s clever self mockery out devastating lack of self awareness? The only bit of the truth of Sam’s character comes through when he is trying to give Buttle’s widow the cheque reimbursing her for the costs of her husband’s murder. Her refusal to accept this turns him quickly into the terse, pathetic Ian Holm character as his words falter and he fails to meet her eye his destiny was to become just like Ian Holm one day, competent enough to be promoted once everyone else has fallen away, but not interested enough to actually achieve anything.
To give Sam his dues however, the film’s obvious debt to 1984 differs significantly at the end. While Winston Smith betrays his love under torture and returns to shuffling acceptance of the status quo. Brazil’s main character is not left screaming into the night, his parents are not blown up by pure evil, and he doesn’t look on horrified to see his future self being gunned down at an airport. The audience might be gutted in his behalf but Sam, while deluded would rather go mad than give up on his dreams and so is finally redeemed.
I don’t know whether it’s a legacy of the Monty Python films or what, but a lot of Gilliam’s films tend to feel episodic and unstructured – like a succession of jokes or skits or flights of fancy pushing the narrative along, rather than adorning it. I’m thinking of Time Bandits in particular, where the framing of the film is incidental, and the final gut-punch is bewildering and incongruous rather than an effective finale. Brazil delivers a similar gut-punch ending, but the seeds of it (Lowry’s dreams and fantasies of heroism and escape) have been planted from the start. When it finally comes it’s not a wtf moment, but one that satisfyingly encapsulates the film.
Gilliam’s point may be the simple one that true freedom is literally imaginary – to be found in the imagination. But the world of Brazil is no less fantastic than Lowry’s daydreams, with Gilliam deploying his arsenal of grotesque design, caricatured characters and absurd humour. The film puts you in Lowry’s head as Joel suggests, and in doing so starts to question how much of what we’re seeing is ‘real’ at all.
My favourite example of this is when Jill transforms into Lowry’s mother – a delicious deconstruction of Lowry’s romantic fantasies into a warped Oedipal struggle to overcome / succumb to the influence of a pushy parent. As far as I can remember, the film leaves the possibility open that Lowry does actually sleep with his mother rather than Jill, who may have run away as soon as Lowry leaves her. That would be more in keeping with Jill’s character, who reacts as you would expect from Lowry’s creepy overtures. The rest of the film closes down this reading somewhat, but by this point, Gilliam is already establishing that what we’re seeing doesn’t need to make as much sense as what we’d normally expect. Brazil is the outpouring of a tortured imagination rather than a solid depiction of dystopia. You might wonder when the dive into Lowry’s imagination begins. Perhaps the entire film is occurring within the mind in the torture chamber, and there never was a real Jill to begin with.
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Brazil, is supposedly an adaptation of sorts of 1984. I prefer it to 1984, given the choice of nightmare, I would go back to Brazil.
1984, is essential. It is prophetic, damning, brilliant – all of this. That doesn’t mean it’s ever been a particular pleasure to read. In terms of style, it is plain. Orwell is not a writer that would waste time entertaining you with anything close to a lyrical wit. If anything his style could be compared to the neutrals from Futurama, or the agnostic foster family in South Park, aggressively peddling neutrality. It’s doesn’t have the brutal, sparse impact of Hemingway. It’s just blunt, important, brilliant and not that fun.
Brazil on the other hand – is gorgeous to look at. Even it’s nightmare images are beautifully rendered. It’s a bit fucked, but there’s a compulsive pleasure staring into the paled pink of the pig mask. Of letting your eyes take you down the rabbit hole of the endless spiral in that operating theatre. It’s a nightmare, a beautiful one, and so we can’t look away. Someone told me this week that the trouble with getting climate extinction or income inequality across is that people struggle to visualise statistics. I feel like it’s not that easy visualising the world of 1984. The pain of certain moments, the vicious power of certain ideas (like say Room 101) grow more prophetic by the day, but there’s a bland abstraction to them.
Brazil is unforgettable. I hadn’t seen the film until a month or two ago, but even the odd fleeting image i’d seen – the cover, Pryce in wing-ed armour, the Pig mask in that horrible final room – those have been images stuck in my head for as long as I can remember. And there’s something in how those images stick out, a hero fantasy and a vicious, surreal knock down to reality.
Two things that stuck out to me –
Jonathan’s take on the film as a satire of action movies – very much agree with this. The more I think about it, the more I loved how Gilliam extolled the tropes of mainstream action cinema to make us hopeful – only to end the film by shouting at us and calling us deluded. It’s a nice way to skewer the typical cultural diet, which is (myself included), people wandering around consuming things that end well or say things they can nod to, for the sake of feeling good. Brazil is interested in pulling the rug out from under you for the sake of showing you the floorboards are just maggots now and your lease is an a4 sheet of wingdings from the man who is presently burning random things in the garden. It’s a film built with the knowledge of what we want, driven by creators out to take that away from us. And it feels horribly, horribly good when they do.
How Gilliam brought his perspective as an American to Britain, to take the piss out of the perfect horror that is our system. We’re a deeply regulated place. There are signs and rules and apps and whatever for anything/everything. There’s a brilliant truth to the bit where the agents come in, black bag the father from his living room and make sure to give the wife a receipt. It’s a symbol of power in a struggle between Lowry and the plumbers – Lowry’s knowledge strikes first blood, but time and allegiance to the establishment means you get to fill up and destroy a house with shit and giggle while you do it. So much of Brazil’s charm to me is watching all the various moments throughout it’s episodic storytelling (and yeah Ilia really illuminated that element of the way Gilliam structures this – it’s not a familiar structure in anyway, it’s just a bunch of episodes threaded through by the character consistent decisions of Lowry, which I really love the more I think about it) that that skewer the British system as one that is surface level polite, regulated and by the book – all the while pointing out that the book was written by the cousin Ayn Rand thought hated poor people too much. In an era of Universal Credit and I, Daniel Blake pointing out how new rules by the accepted procedure is routinely leading to unacceptably horrific outcomes sans any recourse for citizens – it feels prophetic much the way 1984 was.
We kidnapped your husband, have a receipt.
My question is: Is Brazil a Christmas movie?
Like is this a case of just fun set dressing (echoes of the Coen Brothers and their idea of “good fodder”) or is there something deeper going on here? I can imagine Terry Gilliam laughing manically and saying “yeah dress him up in a Santa suit why not? It’ll make things look more interesting! And there’s nothing like a guy in a wheelchair dressed as Father Christmas inside your padded cell to make you think you’re going mad.”
But then again there’s lots of bits of Christmas spice draped around the rest of the movie like tiny bits of tinsel.
I’m fully prepared to admit that this is a bit of a stretch but I can’t get this scene out of mind:
And for me it’s this beautiful dark little insight into how Christmas tends to work. Everyone sits round eating their meals and making pleasant chit-chat (“salt?”) while in the background things explode and people die. I mean I wouldn’t want to disrupt the film chat by being too political in a world where infant morality is apparently on the increase and people are dying from the effects of austerity but most of the mainstream discourse is about politeness I’ve got to say that it feels good to see a reality I can understand being shown on a screen.
There’s also the blink and you’ll miss it reference to “Consumers for Christ” which – and yeah I know this is obvious but even so – also manages to contain the whole Christmas experience in three succinct words.
It also helps to explain why this film has such a hold on me – I mean: any other film would make this a defining feature and build a whole plot around it but Brazil is so gleeful and high-on-its-own-supply that it can just throw out these brilliant ideas one after another like it has a million others to spare. On the one hand it’s kinda wasteful and I wish they would think more about the environment but on the other hand it’s just kinda a beautiful thing to witness. Kinda makes me think of the Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the first Batman film throwing out handfuls of cash.
That’s the real Christmas spirit.
(Shouldn’t all movies be like this?)
Also any Christmas I have to spend with my family always ends in my face looking exactly like this:
I hope Shane Black is taking notes – that’s how you make a Christmas movie.
To put on my “old man yells at cloud” hat for a moment, while it’s tempting to heal much deserved praise in Brazil for its directly political themes, it also seems like something that was more common 30-40 years ago. Modern cinema is much vaguer and somehow less subtle (ain’t that right Black Panther?) but in the 80s Brazil while maybe more directly satirical, wasn’t even that much of an outlier. Mainstream movies Running Man, Robocop, Working Girl all managed to combine high concept science fiction with hilarious dystopias that skewered 80s consumer conservatism.
To flip it round though, and to line up with Joel’s point about Sam Lowry, many beloved 80s characters are… problematic. Obviously Deckard is a bit rapey, and Peter Venkman is a terrifying sexual predator, as is the Predator but the overall “let’s just drop by a strip club, this is completely normal behaviour” attitude by male leads is worryingly endemic. It just feels like women are basically props, reminding me of the discussion about Back to the Future 2 where Jennifer just gets left on a post-apocalyptic chair while Marty rushes off to save Time. So instead of being a more enlightened time, the resulting message is that this is all just weary banter about a future which has let men down: whether it’s the evil corporations, the poindexters at city hall, or liberated women who don’t know what they want, there’s no place for the plucky but now cynical everyman who is just trying to make his way in a deadly game show. And self aware though it may be the message from Brazil isn’t really that different.
One film I’ve been foolishly dreaming of is an Aliens franchise movie on Earth (I want it but it would obviously be shite), but it occurs to me that Aliens versus Brazil would be much cooler. Again with an idiot man flopping about making things worse and Ripley having to clean up his mess as the foreground to savage Xenomorph murder-brood battling against Michael Palin and his goons. Ooh Alien Vs Palin, this shit writes itself!
Hmm is Brazil a Christmas movie? I mean it doesn’t *need * to be does it? It allows for the joke about everyone giving each other the same gift and um yeah that’s it. In a way I feel it intrudes on the other more striking (and cooler) Japanese, Eastern European, and Greek imagery in the film.
They could have avoided Christmas as an idea by inventing Big Brother’s birthday or something, but again there is no reason to do that either, for example when they need to bring the cast back together, they aren’t meeting for Christmas dinner but introduce a funeral for a minor character. This was at least tonally amusing paying off the acid surgery running joke and having Sam’s mother shamelessly flirting using her younger face, which while not appropriate at funerals is – as I testified at the employment tribunal – completely fine at Christmas. So the Christmas theme was largely redundant.
That being said in 80s movies Christmas (like plastic surgery) symbolises a kind of trashyness . People seem a bit more sentimental now, but there is something about the conspicuous consumption, Reagan era, sparkly lighting holiday season which is a common feature in many 80s films. It works as a convenient shorthand for “this is a superficial self-concerned society where people go through the motions of celebration out of habit rather than any actual joy.” And in Brazil everything feels very hollow, and so Christmas-in-dystopia creates a nice undercurrent when people tell Sam off for not playing the game and ask “why are you ruining this.” The unneeded retort is that it’s clear that when everything is already corrupted and pointless, it’s not worth fighting to preserve the status quo.
So in conclusion, despite being unnecessary I’ll allow it as Christmas movie.
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