Exploring the abstract realities of Terry Gilliam’s colourful sci-fi epic
The problem with speculative works is their tendency to prove inaccurate. This is no slight against the creators. After all, it would be impossible for anyone to guess with any degree of accuracy every human invention to evolve in the ensuing period. Back in 1930, innovative sci-fi author Olaf Stapledon wrote Last and First Men, a history of the future over a period of 2,000 million years. The story chronicled the rise and fall of eight different races of men in an audacious vision that still holds up today in a broader sense. Some of Stapledon’s speculations were wild and, in hindsight, downright ridiculous, particularly during the Homo sapien period, but he understood the core values of people, their needs and wants, our very nature. What we get is a stunning work of imagination that is effective without having to reference the great technological advancements we now depend upon, the same that will one day become outmoded.
Another, perhaps more appropriate case in point comes in the form of Pavane, a 1966 novel by fellow British author Keith Roberts. Instead of predicting the future, Pavane speculates on an alternate history based on the premise that Catholicism has overruled scientific advancement, resulting in a back-breaking device that is controlled manually, its giant, wooden arms communicating with neighbouring towns at the expense of the working man’s health. Roberts presents us with an elaborate, impractical version of what would become the telephone. From the perspective of actual history, it’s an improbable invention, but its purpose is to highlight the oppressive and often debilitating rule of extremism. Terry Gilliam’s outlandish dystopian nightmare Brazil falls into that same category. The movie is set ‘somewhere in the twentieth century’, and as a vision of the future it shares some of those inaccuracies, but thematically it is in many ways reminiscent of 21st century life.
From the the radio to the television to online communications and beyond, evolving technology is typically a double-edged sword, with the capacity to both liberate and oppress — despite generational specifics, there will always be systems of power and those who oppose them. Released in 1985, Brazil‘s picture of a society living under bureaucratic disorder and the threat of terrorism is still strikingly authentic, as are the non-discriminatory bombs and shifting allegiances in George Orwell’s 1984, a tale whose political shadow looms large. The movie is drenched in Orwellian aesthetics, presenting us with a future that, despite various advancements in science and technology, is very much redolent of the 1940s. Described by Gilliam and un-credited screenwriter Charles Alverson as “neither future nor past, and yet a bit of each,” the film knowingly presents us with a visually dated environment based on the understanding that all speculative fiction is bound to obsolescence and will one day grow passé. Gilliam would later claim that Alverson had very little influence on the finished screenplay, something that cost the writer an Academy Award nomination. The fact that he received payment for his contributions tells a different story entirely.
Brazil‘s own institution of order, the Ministry of Information, is both distinctly familiar and utterly absurd — a far cry from the post-digital revolution of today, but seeped in mankind’s unquenchable thirst for power and control, all of it left in the fumbling hands of hyper-bureaucracy. The Ministry maintains its stranglehold not through optical fibre and information databases, but through the installation of giant, connecting air ducts, intrusive implements that help maintain order and act as a commentary on the hugely flawed, highly pervasive nature of industrialism. Like Blade Runner released three years prior, Brazil‘s overbearing city is seeped in neo-noir aesthetics, taking influence from the visual style of the 1940s and recalling the machinic constructs of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Taking its cue from 1984, this is an outmoded vision reminiscent of World War London, one where the inner city is mired in poverty, awaiting the day when governmental inadequacy arrives to steal away their basic freedoms.
Bad sportsmanship. A ruthless minority of people seem to have forgotten good old-fashioned virtues. They just can’t stand seeing the other fellow win. If these people would just play the game…Mr. Helpmann
Gilliam’s vision acts as both a criticism on the ostentatious and often self-defeating nature of technology and a self-aware acknowledgement of planned obsolescence. In Gilliam’s commentary on the Reagan 80s, obsolescence comes in the form of retro-futurism, the technology self-defeating due to its flagrant deficiencies. In the movie, bottom-rung government employee, Sam Lowry, thanks to a malfunctioning ‘teleprinter’, misprints a copy of an arrest warrant that leads to the wrongful arrest and accidental death of an everyday prole who happens to have a surname similar to that of a suspected terrorist. From there, the film’s protagonist becomes embroiled in a world of dangerous subterfuge that leaves him very much at the mercy of the state.
Viewed from a modern perspective, such themes have taken on a further relevance. Planned obsolescence is now one of the key motivations of consumerism, company’s such as Apple and Microsoft releasing a steady stream of evolving technology in a way that maximises profitability, technology that proves self-defeating not because of its inadequacy, but because of its capacity to keep society under constant surveillance while pilfering personal information from under our noses. Gilliam, much like Orwell before him, presents a totalitarian society that takes a blatant, hands-on approach to oppression, one in which people are spied upon and prosecuted and reconditioned in a manner that is will-sappingly blatant. Perhaps adapting to the warnings of our greatest political prophets, a very different social order has now been established, one where the impositions of the ruling class are not so transparent. Propaganda is less blatant in the 21st century, and as a consequence more effective. Instead of being monitored brazenly and against our wishes, we are dependent on mobile devices and social media platforms that do the job for them. No longer averse to indoctrination, we are willing advocates for it. Our sense of order is essentially self-imposed.
Despite Brazil‘s visual commentary on sci-fi as a genre with an inevitably short shelf life, as is the case with all memorable works of speculative fiction, the majority of the movie’s themes and characters remain hugely relevant. Take Robert De Niro’s heating engineer-come-suspected-terrorist, Archibald Tuttle. Tuttle and his band of rogue service officers are an anarchic breed who almost tread graphic novel territory, scaling skyscrapers to ‘check’ for faulty airducts, sticking it to bureaucracy and disappearing into the night like Batman on a death-defying zip line. Today Tuttle would take the form of a cyber warrior, dishing out liberation the way Edward Snowden did before his forced exile, exposing the extent of information storage and its capacity as a weapon against personal freedoms. Tuttle is a symbol of rebellious adventure, the kind that the oppressed, pencil-pushing Lowry longs for as he dreams of escaping the tyranny of everyday life for the unattainable comfort of ethereal love.
I came into this game for the action, the excitement. Go anywhere, travel light, get in, get out, wherever there’s trouble, a man alone. Now they got the whole country sectioned off, you can’t make a move without a form.Harry Tuttle
Brazil was nominated for a Best Art Direction Oscar, Gilliam, production designer Norman Garwood and set designer Maggie Gray taking a more absurdist approach to the material that is both mired in industrial drudgery and alive with surrealist colour. There are some startlingly beautiful images in Brazil that defy the film’s stifling subject matter, typically presented as vivid nightmares or escapist fantasies. Perhaps the most famous scene, one that best represents the film’s oppressive/surrealist presentation, comes in the form of a colourfully tyrannical nightmare that sees Lowry pursued by a monolithic samurai. This image not only represents the threat of modern technology, but also the threat of a booming Japanese economy, a prevalent theme in US movies of the mid-1980s — most notably Blade Runner, which presents us with a dystopian society drenched in Japanese aesthetics. It is those dream/nightmare sequences that Brazil is best remembered for. It’s all so gloriously grandiose and theatrical, alive with imagination and pure visual prowess.
It’s only natural that Gilliam would excel visually. A former strip cartoonist for the now-defunct American satirist magazine Help!, he was the artistic driving force behind Monty Python’s Flying Circus, creating the show’s irreverent style of animation. Gilliam originally veered towards what is known as cut-out animation, a process that involved pushing bits of paper in front of a camera rather than photographing pre-drawn cels — not only because it was relatively cheaper and easier to execute, but because it allowed for a more spontaneous approach. His style was influenced by German artist and Dada movement pioneer Max Ernst, who like Gilliam used his work to oppose global capitalism, something Brazil manages with similar, surrealist aplomb.
Gilliam’s style would further blossom during Python’s feature-length outings, his work on Monty Python and the Holy Grail opening the doors to an industry that would provide a lavish platform for his uninhibited sense of anarchy and imagination. Unsurprisingly, Brazil casts fellow Python member Michael Palin as a Lowry colleague-turned-agitator who employs tactics reminiscent of those used by 1984‘s infamous torture chamber, Room 101. Anyone familiar with Python will recognise the dark, yet ultimately surreal brand of comedy on display, resulting in a juxtaposing sense of levity that steers audiences clear of despondency — an essential approach to a film that, at least in Gilliam’s preferred cut, is almost relentlessly without hope.
The biggest example of Python’s influence comes in the form one of the movie’s most peripheral, yet inspired commentaries: the rise of plastic surgery as another everyday procedure — albeit a highly perilous one. Lowry’s gadabout mother, Ida (Katherine Helmond), whose gaggle of wealthy socialites represent 80s Wall Street decadence and the WASP culture explored in Tom Wolfe’s epic satire The Bonfire of the Vanities, is the personification of passive, a woman with political sway who’s immune to the impact of the Ministry’s bureaucratic order and therefore unconcerned by it. Ida is the kind of irresponsible pleasure-seeker who stokes the fires of private power with an oblivious nonchalance, her days consumed by the kind of emotional self-destruction that masquerades as desire and ends with cocktails at dawn. There to fulfil her misguided needs are society’s lowliest vultures, here led by faux-obsequious surgeon/confidant Dr. Jaffe (Jim Broadbent), a parasitic toady who flogs his product like a precocious God, fluttering around his macabre workspace with the gleeful effervescence of a male salon owner. Ida, more than any other character, is representative of Gilliam’s fascination with the Baroque period, which was infamous for its struggle between spirituality and rationality.
Those below Brazil‘s breadline suffer from a severe lack of human rights, trawling a Stasi environment of rusted futility where re-education is but a bureaucratic error or disgruntled snitch away. Again, it’s all so relevant to today’s world. In a so-called democratic society, financial disparity has never been as rampant or as systematically imposed as it is in the early 21st century, an era where disaster capitalism, a very purposeful form of government oppression that masquerades as inadequacy while plunging large sections of society into poverty, runs roughshod like a thief in the night. Those characters in Brazil who do conform are just as recognisable in today’s world, consumed by daily duties and impractical gadgetry. The irony and uselessness of household appliances seen early in the movie are Phillip K. Dick at his most whimsical, and Gilliam is a huge advocate for the cult author, a fact that is apparent in small doses.
Protagonist Lowry is also straight out of a Dick novel, an everyman disenchanted with mankind’s multifaceted beast who becomes the target of his own employers. Lowry — an obvious nod to the great industrial artist of the same name — is a lowly cleric of the Ministry’s vast and intangible bureaucracy, an obsequious ditherer caught between the convenience of his influential mother and personal independence, of an arranged marriage with a downtrodden acquaintance and an unrequited love who quickly becomes an obsession, the tenuous focal point of his unending desire for escapism. The latter is portrayed as a caring prole with a dubious recreational existence. Jill (Kim Greist) is a boyish dowdy who appears in Lowry’s flamboyant dreams as a picture-perfect image of womanhood, allowing our stiff hero to flee the manic carnage of dystopia and graze the rivers of his subconscious. It is here where Lowry’s fantasies are born and his goals realised, but both prove equally out of reach.
Jill? Yes… Sam, I think I ought to tell you. I’m afraid she’s upped stumps and retired to the pavilion. Thrown in the towel.Mr. Helpmann
Jill may provide our protagonist with focus, but in many ways she is illusory — less the idealistic image of perfection, more a futile symbol of Lowry’s deepest urges. In the first instance, Lowry is attracted to Jill’s selfless nature after visiting the home of her neighbour and marvelling at her capacity for empathy. When Lowry finally catches up with his elusive beau, she is the antithesis of her admirer. All she sees is a buttoned-down facet of the Ministry, not the repressed rebel dying to break free. Lowry may inwardly long for freedom, but outwardly he is very much on the other side, the kind of bureaucratic lickspittle who treads enemy territory. When Jill softens to him under the guise of true love, her quick and improbable change of heart poses the movie’s ultimate question: is Jill real or merely a figment of Lowry’s imagination, and if she is real, to what extent?
All of this is subjective, but Jill’s supposed act of terrorism, a very public explosion targeting society’s wealthy elite, seems the most likely juncture for our protagonist’s switch. Pre-explosion, Lowry is a lowly civil servant eking out a path to freedom without ever really getting anywhere. Post-explosion, he’s an entirely different entity — brave and debonair and cut from the Bogart cloth as he rubs shoulders with the state’s elusive and wholly fantastical public enemies. It is here that Lowry’s idealistic dreams begin to seep into reality, his inner romanticism exploding onto his grim social canvas like a blizzard of luxurious feathers heading for the inevitable oil spill. Suddenly Jill becomes trusting, exotic, sensual, Lowry’s sense of fulfilment slipping in and out with an increasing turbulence.
It is during its final act that Brazil truly excels. Beyond the various social commentaries, each delivered via a series of adroit, Pythonesque sketches, the movie is emblazoned with aesthetic beauty, and for the most part emboldened by it. Brazil‘s true ending may prove devastatingly bleak, but our journey there is breathless and often liberating. The movie’s offbeat tone has a part to play in this, as does the production’s various cast members and cameos, each of them caked in Gilliam’s circus grotesquery. Everyone from Alien‘s rogue android, Ian Holm, to the late, great Bob Hoskins make an appearance, the former as a nerve-stricken manager squirming under the pressures of everyday regulation, the latter as an intrusive service officer who plagues Lowry with the pettiness of a grudge-bearing traffic warden. The movie is chock-full of morally corrupt characters, an embittered, self-serving rabble who are deserving of little more than our ridicule, the kind who are brought to life with a gleeful perversity by some of the era’s finest performers.
Above all else, Gilliam’s imagery stands colossal. Even the film’s most dreary and oppressive visuals are never less than spellbinding, with larger-than-life set design and surreal costumes that plunge us into a waterbed of imagination. It is this fantastical nature that alleviates the almost ceaseless despotism of a mismanaged bureaucracy that specialises in sabotaging lives. Ultimately, it is those distractions that liberate us, the uncertainty of the narrative that keeps us believing until the very end.
Brazil was famously hit with distribution problems in the US following its release in Europe under a different label. Universal president Bill Sheinberg would even prepare an unreleased ‘love conquers all’ edit for syndicated television, one which sees Sam and his seemingly unrequited love set up home on a quaint little farm and soar majestically through the skies together, a notion that goes abruptly against the director’s blackly comic sensibilities. Nicknamed the ‘Sheinberg edit’, the version cut the film’s running time down to a miniscule 94 minutes, altering multiple lines of dialogue, making use of several unused shots, and even removing a number major scenes in an effort to shift focus to the Harry Tuttle character and Sam’s romantic relationship with Jill.
As he would explain in a 2011 interview, Gilliam would fight tooth and nail to free his work for the American market. “Twentieth Century Fox had released [the film] in Europe, and there was no problem,” he would explain. “It was in America that Universal decided that the film was unwatchable, unreleasable, and this was the heads of the studio saying this publicly, and the producer said ‘We’ll have to get a lawyer and do something about this’, and I said ‘They’ve got all the lawyers, they’ve got all the time, we’ve got to do something different’. So I made it personal and I took an ad out in Variety, which is normally full of the millions of dollars being made by Hollywood, and I took out a whole page, and it was empty except for a very discreet thing in the middle saying ‘Dear Sid Sheinberg — who was the head of the studio — when are you going to release my film Brazil, signed Terry Gilliam’. And the proverbial [shit] hit the fan. It was just extraordinary, because nobody had behaved like that before. Luckily, I didn’t have an agent or lawyer in Hollywood so I didn’t know better. It was completely naïve and angry, and we ended up with a rather long battle.”
Gilliam would ultimately give clandestine screenings to critics in an attempt to liberate his vision.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?