(SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and gleefully distracted he becomes by its lunatic wheels, the director’s focus. Rather, it is how we are willing participants in being flattened by the juggernaut.
Myron Meisel suggested, in The Film Yearbook Vol 5, that “The film goes beyond Orwell in its understanding of the normalisation of tyranny after forty years of post-war equilibrium”. But Brazil is not so calculated in its targets. Except, perhaps surprisingly, for the director’s nominal counterpart, protagonist Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce). Asked if he considered Brazil his best movie, Gilliam replied that he wasn’t sure, but it was his “most personal, cathartic”. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith despises the system, longing for a means to ferment his hatred into something tangible. Sam, however, is quite at ease with his milieu. He is comfortably unchallenged, free to engage in (literal) flights of fantasy (he is, in Rudolf Steiner terms, hoisted on Luciferian wings while the Ahrimanic kingdom holds sway around him).
As Gilliam put it “He’s the guilty party. He’s the system. He is what goes on. He’s been living in this little sheltered world. He’s an outrageous character. He’s got all the privileges through his father and other’s connections. He’s bright so he should be taking responsibility in that organisation, but he shuns responsibility. He lives in his little fantasy world…” It’s curious to note how merciless Gilliam is in his critique of Sam, because “He is guiltier, he deserves the punishment far more… he’s somebody who has avoided responsibility, who has failed to make the most of himself in life”. As the picture progresses and Sam is galvanised into action he “Becomes more human and becoming more human does make him vulnerable. But ultimately he’s punished for his guilt of all those years of being one cog in the machine that just kept the machine going”.
To drive the point home, Gilliam added “But Sam is so pathetic. His view of reality is really fucked. I think he’s a modern character. He’s a totally modern man”. It’s difficult to argue with this, except that – and he clearly has compassion for him, or he wouldn’t have made him his protagonist – this isn’t an especially empathic take on the picture. After all, one might readily accuse the (director) artist of shunning responsibility and living in his little fantasy world. Is he not also, in the carefully meted manner of the system, another cog keeping the machine going? At least Sam nurses no illusions about his importance or influence.
The truth is, no matter how dissatisfied one is or isn’t with the system, it takes a degree of coordination to change it. Gandhi noted that the British could not have ruled in India if the populace had not been, by implication, complicit in their own oppression (“Because 100,000 Englishmen simply cannot control 350 million Indians, if those Indians refuse to cooperate”). We let the minority elite dictate to us, as David Icke is fond of repeating (“for thirty years!”) But Sam would see nothing wrong with the current global situation, provided he could continue his daydreams. And provided he was not spurned into action by the manifestation of his fantasy life (as Gilliam notes, Tuttle is “the real hero who makes things work”, an “embarrassment to the system, which is based on inefficiency”. But aside from a fantasy sequence, Tuttle isn’t leading a resistance operation. Rather he’s a lone wolf, the Batman of heating engineers).
Indeed, it’s interesting to note that the casting of Pryce went counter to Gilliam’s initial conception. It’s difficult to see how a fledgling of 21 or 22 would have effectively carried anything of Gilliam’s intent. The director tells how a young Tom Cruise wanted the part (and also that Rupert Everett was in talks), and how he had to fight with producer Arnon Milchan over his eventual leading man. The “arrested adolescence” referred to by Meisel, and the characterisation that “Brazil zips by like a combination of fever, nightmare and wet dream” is much less resonant if Sam is only a half a dozen years out of adolescence, one who has just starred in his own adolescent wet dream (Risky Business). Sam as portrayed by Pryce is pathetic, but in a way that is, to a greater or lesser extent, true of all of us who are not Gandhi (whose politically active phase began around Sam’s age).
Kael didn’t like Pryce (“it’s hard to worry about whether somebody will get killed if he doesn’t seem alive to start with… Pryce plays Sam too straight and wistfully. It’s a real crapehanger’s performance”). I’m with Gilliam on this, though. You know exactly who Sam is from Pryce’s gangly, middle-aged-adolescent dreamer; you can legitimately dislike the character, but you can’t fault Pryce for playing that character to perfection. But then, Kael also thinks the car chase was a crucial mistake (it’s “pointless”, because all that was required was for Sam to ask Jill a simple question and her to give him a straight answer). In fact, it’s actually crucial in Sam crossing the line; his hopelessly inappropriate fantasies seep into the real world and so he brings another person down with him (even if we don’t see her demise, Jill most definitely winds up dead).
Mr Helpman: He’s got away from us, Jack.
Jack Lint: Afraid you’re right, Mr Helpman. He’s gone.
As noted, Gilliam talks up his ignorance of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but he omits to say whether Charles McKeown or Tom Stoppard (or Charles Alveson) were better versed. I suspect one or all of them must have been. The sloganing is a direct parody (“Suspicion breeds confidence”). Sam is the obvious counterpart to Winston Smith, whatever his differences in ethics. His actions, and downfall, are initiated by a woman he falls for (Julia/Jill), one who nurses no illusions about the prevailing system. Sam/Winston associates/is friends with a more successful worker (O’Brien/Jack Lint), one who eventually oversees his torture. True, it’s crucial that Lint is not per se an engineer or exponent of the system (“he’s got to be the nicest man in the world, a lovely family man; he just happens to have this particular job and an anxiety about his career”), but he functions similarly in plotting.
For both Sam and Winston, their misadventure culminates in torture and the system winning. Except that, ironically, in Sam’s case he “escapes” as he has always done, into his dreams. As Richard Rogers note, this is a direct contrast to Winston, who capitulates and conforms. Gilliam has it that “the ending of Brazil is very much a reaction to Blade Runner because the ending of Blade Runner I hate” but that sounds like flippant showing off; it’s a lot more “daring” than admitting the final scene was his own distinctive spin on Orwell. Even the “We are the dead/You are the dead” reveal in Nineteen Eighty-Four has a direct parallel; Sam and Jill are arrested immediately after he has altered records (something Winston did daily) to make Jill officially deceased and so no longer wanted by the state. Jill’s weary “There isn’t anywhere” in response to Sam’s suggestion that they take off together is also resonant of Julia’s matter-of-factness about their crushing reality, as well as the decaying urban cooker of Soylent Green (in all these iterations, and in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner, the countryside is the beatific symbol of release, escape and hope for humanity’s longevity. Accordingly, such dreams represent the antithesis of Agenda 21’s goals).
Guard: Don’t fight it, son. Confess. If you hold out too long, you could jeopardise your credit rating.
Kael’s review starts off marvelling at Gilliam’s creation before sticking the knife in. She notes its “superrealistic inevitability… a fatalism that is tied to fantasy”. And if she is less wowed overall than by those proclaiming it an instant classic, she effectively identifies Gilliam’s absence of a tract. That in this “Anglo-American police state”, the director has fashioned “a stoned, slapstick 1984, but it’s not a political cautionary tale… it’s a melancholy, joke-ridden view of the horribleness of where we are now and the worse horribleness of where we’re heading. It’s an anarchistic attack on all present and future states – an attack on reality itself”. That ties effectively with Gilliam’s own tilts towards the windmills of Fellini and even the sly absurdity of Dr. Strangelove (see the working title The Ministry of Torture, or Brazil, or How I Learned to Live With the System – So Far. By T. Gilliam). Gilliam referenced Kafka over Orwell (“Walter Mitty meets Franz Kafka”) in his depiction of, as Bob McCabe had it “a bureaucratic machine out of control, unable to deal with the reality of the people it should serve”.
As he told Ian Christie, “I didn’t want a totalitarian system like in 1984 or Brave New World. Even Mr Helpman isn’t the top guy, he’s the deputy. There probably is no top guy, since everybody abdicates responsibility; the buck doesn’t stop here, it always stops at the next person up”. It’s this lack of express intent, the arbitrariness of it all, that means as Gilliam sees it, “the sum of its parts isn’t quite the total we’re looking at in a totalitarian system”. There is no Big Brother, less still a populace “helpless” at the dictates of a diabolically motivated elite (as an atheist, Gilliam might be less willing to see a grand schemer or schemers behind everything, for good or ill, per his less-than-impressed depictions of good and evil in Time Bandits).
Gilliam: Those looking back on Brazil from a twenty-first-century perspective have sometimes been kind enough to see its depiction of a world where people do little but watch old films on tiny screens, eat off-puttingly extravagant cuisine and have ill-advised plastic surgery in the shadow of constant terrorist threats as in some way ‘prophetic’… I have to admit that all that stuff was already out there for those with eyes to see it in the mid-1980s.
As Gilliam says, his Brazil, set somewhere in the twentieth century, is less a prophecy of the future than a reflection of the now. Whereas Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four projects the development of 1948 tech onto a largely stagnating system, Brazil garners a futuristic label because Gilliam’s art direction has taken a left turn in conceiving the urban jungle. But there are signifiers here, such as setting the picture over Christmas in a queasy desecration of the cosy comforts of the hearth; this is exactly as Wells did, opening Things to Come’s prevision of WWII during the season to be jolly.
Sam: I suppose you’d rather have terrorists.
Jill: How many terrorists have you met, Sam? Actual terrorists?
Gilliam said his terrorist bombings were a reference to the then IRA bombing campaigns, and the police brutality a response to his experience of 60s LA riots. But taken in conjunction, these do seem somewhat prophetic, only not in a way he might readily admit. The terrorist threat in Brazil is a weary fact of daily life, such that even an explosion at a restaurant – one that demands ID checks before allowing entry – fails to ruffle the diners (those left sitting, at any rate). If Helpman’s quip “Beginners luck?” in reply to “The bombing campaign is now in its thirteenth year” resonates, it’s because it’s resonant of the state lulling the populace into accepting new norms and conditions “for their own good and protection”. No one comes out and says that the Ministry is co-ordinating the bombing campaigns, but that’s likely because – per Gilliam’s remit – no one outright decides it is; wherever that occurs, it’s shrouded within bureaucratic fog and down to "a ruthless minority of people".
Brazil offers a black-clad, militarised police force entering homes by force and extracting private individuals on minor perceived infractions. And those who are disappeared by the state are never seen again (be it for actual misdeeds or their own protection). Anyone who takes issue with the system – the official version – by “Making wild allegations, trying to exploit the situation” is by definition someone who needs to be shut down (even if – again, in Gilliam’s world – actually knowing the whys and wherefores of the need to do this are inherently vague; Jill is “working for someone and I don’t think it’s us” and “the whole Buttle confusion was obviously planned from the inside”). It’s difficult to avoid recognition in a line like “now they’ve got the whole country sectioned off. You can’t make a move without a form” or the fondness of linguistic re-designations (“We suspect him of, er, freelance subversion” says Jack of Tuttle’s terrorist activities – here, the terrorist is a terrorist because they are fixing the system, rather than blowing it up. One might parallel doctors damned for speaking out against a system preventing effective healthcare and spouting faulty science).
While Brazil’s vision ultimately sees it through, it is not without its failings. Kael’s critique seems as much about her own desire not to succumb to the director’s express intent, hence “a feeling of relief when the film was over. What Gilliam seems to be saying is that reality is so intrinsically awful that fantasy will always be needed. But fantasy itself, in Gilliam’s hands, seems something you want to escape from”. Nevertheless, while I don’t agree with regard to his “lousy timing” making the picture “torpid and frantic”, this is a charge that could be legitimately levelled at elements of his post-2000 output.
But no, the biggest issue with Brazil is that Sam’s fantasy figure never connects. Gilliam is unable to convey a sense of why he is so hopelessly smitten with Jill, and the result only underlines the one-sidedness of its protagonist’s vision. For his part, Gilliam has fessed up to the problem, that the “feral quality” he saw in Kim Greist’s screen test “wasn’t there” when it came to the shoot, with the result that the part was reduced. In The Brothers Grimm, it was Harvey Weinstein who nixed Samantha Morton in favour of Lena Headey. Here, Gilliam was his own worst enemy; he was going with Ellen Barkin but switched to Greist at the last moment (it would have been very easy to imagine the former doing something memorable with the part). In the end, even more problematic than the character being short-changed is that she makes Sam’s fantasy insubstantial (in about two scenes, Kathryn Pogson makes much more of an impression as awkward Shirley Terrain).
Also, while it isn’t exactly a problem, the plastic surgery subplot always feels a little too unconnected to anything else going on (aside from the oedipal dream moment of Sam’s mother appearing in the shape of Greist, ironically the one moment where the actress actually seems to be doing something interesting). Of course, that reflects plastic surgery’s importance generally, outside of the devastation once-luminaries sporadically inflict upon themselves, seemingly to remind the rest of us what a very, very bad idea it is. Helmond is, of course, absolutely fantastic, and I love Barbara Hicks’ “My complication had complications” as her face disappears beneath ever more bandages. There’s a sense at times with Brazil that it achieves greatness in spite of its impulse to sabotage itself. It is, after all, a film where the “hero” doesn’t actually become involved with the fateful plotline until forty minutes in. You don’t notice this because it’s so easy to become distracted by the larky likes of Ian Holm, Ian Richardson, Robert De Niro, Bob Hoskins (absolutely hilarious) and Peter Vaughn.
There’s another issue with the film that Gilliam recognised; the dream sequences aren’t really all that special. Or more crucially, engaging. Yes, they make it clear that the director could easily have taken on a superhero movie (“Brazil is done very much like a Marvel comic”). But he admits he ended up reworking the structure because “the real world was proving so bizarre that there was no need for the dreams”. It’s only really in the ten-minute finale that Sam’s imaginings come into their own, as the real blends with the delusional (Tuttle becoming enveloped by newspaper is one of the most unnervingly arresting sights Gilliam has put on the screen and is much more resonant than the earlier brickwork version of Holm’s Mr Kurtzman, who looks more like something out of Labyrinth or The NeverEnding Story).
You have to get past Gilliam occasionally veering into the crass too, be it tit jokes, urination gags (“Sam, I need your help”), necrophilia chuckles or having his own daughter instruct “Show me your willy, big boy”. It’s also a bit cheeky to accuse Spielberg of nicking the Rube Goldberg breakfast devices for Back to the Future when he has quite clearly appropriated Sam versus himself in a dream from Lucas (The Empire Strikes Back and Luke in the tree). And yet, none of that can prevent, as Palin commented, Brazil from being “a movie so good, they named a country after it”.
I’m not sure I could count Terry Gilliam as my favourite filmmaker anymore. It’s more than twenty years since he made a great movie, for a start. One now instantly associated with elite demonic practices due to it namechecking adrenochrome – a clip only appears in every single YouTube video on the subject – but which Gilliam thinks Hunter S Thompson made up (I believe him – Gilliam, that is; I’m less impressed by his silence over starving a horse on his first failed attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote). Nevertheless, his 80s “Trilogy of Imagination” remains indelible and sublime, his… er… imagination allowed full rein before slackening ever so slightly into a trio of (still laudable) 90s pictures based on others’ ideas. Others’ ideas he could surely happily absolve himself of, but which also include partaking of fear porn by revelling in popular virus myths (it can only be a matter of time before imitation Bruce plastic suits go on sale).
I rate both Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen over Brazil, in part simply because I think Gilliam’s imagination is even more unleashed in those, but also because – and I’ve nothing against downer endings – I appreciate the outright triumph of imagination in the surrounding pictures (innocence and senility being more conducive to escapism). Back to Kael and her pendulum of pros and cons with the picture. She recognised Brazil had “a vision of the future as the decayed past, and this vision is an organic thing on screen – which is a considerable accomplishment”. But she also said “Brazil makes you feel that no rational understanding of the world is possible – that all we have is what TS Elliot called ‘a heap of broken images’”. She didn’t mean it as a compliment, but I’m sure Gilliam would be quite happy to go with that assessment.