Thursday 4 February 2010

Brazil (1985)

Director: Terry Gilliam
Stars: Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond, Iam Holm, Bob Hoskins, Michael Palin, Ian Richardson, Peter Vaughan and Kim Greist
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Terry Gilliam has made a string of fascinating films and I'm very aware that I haven't seen them all yet, something that I really should remedy. Their quality is variable but they're never anything less than fascinating. When Jabberwocky, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Fisher King are the worst titles in your filmography, then the rest must be pretty notable and, sure enough, at the other end there are films like Time Bandits, Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, all three quirky and delightful classics. I really need to get around to his more recent work, Tideland and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, but in the meantime I keep coming back to this, one of my favourite films of all time and one that never ceases to make me gasp in astonishment at what he managed to get onto the screen.

Never the most prolific film director in the book, Gilliam has been making films since the sixties but hasn't even caught up to Stanley Kubrick's numbers yet. He has only eleven feature length movies to his name and that could so easily have been ten, given the legendary lengths to which he had to go to get Brazil released in the States, initially at all and then in an appropriate form. There are now no less than five versions of the film available, including the Love Conquers All version that Universal chairman Sid Sheinberg eventually sanctioned because he really liked the film, just not all the dystopian nightmare parts of this dystopian nightmare, so mangled it into a meaningless fairy tale. In particular he insisted on a happy ending, which Brazil so memorably doesn't have, and when no consensus could even be approached, let alone reached, the film remained unreleased Stateside.

What was most amazing is that while Universal were handling distribution in the US, Fox owned that role in Europe and they happily released the version provided, to much acclaim. Fearing that his project would end up in a morass of idiotic bureaucracy and legal shenanigans mirrored only by the film's storyline, the director went the personal route. He took out a full page ad in Variety, the industry's trade paper, that read simply, 'Dear Sid Sheinberg, when are you going to release my film Brazil? Terry Gilliam.' On the TV show Good Morning America the host asked him if he was having trouble with his studio. He replied, 'No, I'm having trouble with Sid Sheinberg. Here's an 8x10 photo of him.' How's that for a strange approach to publicity: pissing off the head of your studio.

Well, it worked. The Los Angeles critics picked up on it and even took a vote as to whether they could consider a film for their awards that hadn't yet been released. They decided they could and so awarded it Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay, something of a kick in the teeth for Universal who had premiered Out of Africa, their big title of the year, in LA a mere four days earlier. It had to settle for Best Actress and Best Cinematography, while Brazil, which they refused to release, won the top prizes. I'm sure that wasn't what the Universal VIPs in attendance wanted to hear, but they got their own back at the Academy Awards when Out of Africa won seven Oscars and Brazil lost in both the categories it was nominated for.

It's a hardly a straightforward film and I'd really recommend that you watch it more than once. The first time through is likely to appear reasonably confusing because so much, possibly all, of what it seems to be about is merely a front and it's deliberately structured so that you won't realise that right off the bat, to tap into Mr Helpmann's collection of sporting metaphors. On a second viewing, most of the big picture should be pretty clear so you can appreciate the finer aspects of what the story is really saying. After that, every time you come back to it is likely to treat you to some small new detail or other that you'd missed previously, because there's just so much here to see.

In fact there are scenes in Brazil that are so pervaded by little touches of genius that it's nigh on impossible to appreciate all of them without the benefit of at least a few viewings. Take a single scene for example, an early one where the hero of our story, Sam Lowry, merely wants to talk to his mother about a promotion she's wangled for him even though he doesn't want it. She takes him to dinner at a posh restaurant, fully intending to ignore his protestations and set him up with a friend's daughter instead, but in the mere few minutes in which the scene unfolds we're treated to a truly dazzling array of quirkiness.

We learn about medical gift tokens and that plastic surgery through acid is like a delicate Rembrandt etching. We see digital menus that light up the options and a young lady who has been so traumatised by her mother that all she can do is twitch and ask Sam if he wants any salt, even before the food arrives. We watch the meals arrive in seconds, quintessential fast food but in a gourmet setting, every dish three scooped mounds of something that looks precisely the same as the next order except for its colour. We hear the house band start up Hava Nagila after a terrorist attack and Sam have trouble ordering a steak because he uses words instead of numbers. He's a square peg in a round hole and this scene hammers it home because it's what the film is about.
It's all about the system, the vast mindless and emotionless bureaucratic system. More specifically it's about what it does to the little people, how it tries to cover its tracks and how it diverts attention away from what it really gets up to. It's deliberately set nowhere and nowhen, though many reference points make it obviously a version of England rather than the US, and the opening tells us that it's 8.49, somewhere in the twentieth century. It's impossible to tell any more than that because it's both futuristic and yet utterly rooted in the past, full of film noir imagery and retro tech. It could be a warning from 1985 of what's to come or merely an alternate reality. The best way to look at it is perhaps Gilliam's attempt to tell his version of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four but actually in 1984 rather than looking forward to it.

It begins with some of my favourite scenes from all of cinema. A Central Services spokesman wants to talk to us about ducts in a commercial broadcast to a host of retro TVs in a shop window that promptly explodes while a woman walks past with a pram. Mr Helpmann, the deputy minister of the Ministry of Information is interviewed and asked how he accounts for the fact that this bombing campaign has been going on for thirteen years. 'Beginner's luck,' he replies with a laugh. Government is a game, as highlighted by a stream of sporting metaphors. Then we see a recreation of what caused Grace Hopper's literal computer bug in 1945, as a bureaucrat kills a fly on the ceiling only for it to fall into a printer and create an error whose consequences create our plot. Archibald Tuttle is already on the government watchlist, but now, courtesy of this bug, so is Archibald Buttle.

The Buttles are celebrating Christmas in their apartment in the rundown Shangri La Towers, yet another reminder of unfulfilled promises. 'Father Christmas can't come if we haven't got a chimney,' their little girl says, as the ceiling falls away and they're efficiently invaded by faceless stormtroopers that look like the SAS but are led by a stereotypically emotionless lawyer. Poor Archibald Buttle, the victim of a dead fly, is 'invited to assist the department with their inquiries.' 'That is your receipt for your husband,' says the lawyer, 'and this is my receipt for your receipt.' This is a scene of sheer genius, that leaves us nearly as emotionally stunned as Mrs Buttle, but Gilliam doesn't quit. He follows it with another one, a long tracking shot through the bowels of Bureaucratic Hell that just keeps going, well until the camera reaches Mr Kurtzmann, in the memorable form of Ian Holm, better known to the modern generation as Bilbo Baggins.

He's only one of many actors that pepper Brazil with quirky performances that often bely how much time they have on screen. Holm is a nervous fellow, a manager with an apparently large domain but who utterly relies on one of his employees to get anything done. That employee is our hero, Sam Lowry, played to naïve perfection by Jonathan Pryce, the epitome of the put upon little guy. He has a little more control than Josef K in Kafka's The Trial, but not much more when it comes down to it. While he has highly influential relatives, he's happy being a small fish in a big pond, deliberately staying in his dead end job in Records. 'It's impossible to get noticed,' his friend Jack Lint tells him. 'I know,' says Lowry. 'It's wonderful. Marvellous. Perfect.'

All Sam wants is a chance at love, at the girl he dreams about. He has awesome dreams: giant teleporting samurai in full battle armour, naked women floating in cages clad only in translucent sheets, walls turning into huge stone hands... The symbolism is obvious but it's no less effective for that. We first meet him in his dreams, flying around idyllic skies and truly awesome cloud formations with his mechanised wings, utterly free but dangerously reminiscent of Icarus. The girl in his dreams has no name but she's played by Kim Greist, whose next film would be another of the greatest movies of the eighties, Michael Mann's Manhunter. Lowry soon sees her in real life too, as she's the Buttles' upstairs neighbour who visits the Ministry of Information in a vain attempt to file a false arrest report, discovers that she's Jill Layton, and pursues her with a passion.

He even accepts the promotion his mother arranges for him to Information Retrieval, given that Jill Layton's attempts at justice have flagged her as a terrorist to the Ministry which has classified her records. At Information Retrieval he can read them. He meets the real Archibald Tuttle too, another classified terrorist who is really just a maverick heating engineer who merely doesn't want anything to do with paperwork. In the most bizarre casting of all, he's played by Robert De Niro, who originally wanted to play Jack Lint but found that Gilliam had already promised it to his former Python colleague, Michael Palin, so he became Tuttle instead. Neither are large parts but Palin and De Niro are both highly memorable, in my view far better as the characters they ended up with than if they had been cast the other way around.

These are just the key names, there being plenty more to back them up. Ian Richardson and Peter Vaughan are Lowry's new bosses at Information Retrieval. Bob Hoskins and Derrick O'Connor are a memorable pair of Central Services heating engineers who arrive at Lowry's apartment while Tuttle is fixing it, O'Connor ignoring the dialogue he was given to parrot his colleague's lines instead. Katherine Helmond is Lowry's mother and Barbara Hicks her friend Alma, who shares her passion for plastic surgery. Ida Lowry looks younger every time we see her while Alma Terrain looks more damaged. Even her complications have complications, it seems. Jim Broadbent is Dr Jaffe, Ida's crude but popular plastic surgeon, while Alma shifts to Dr Chapman, played by Jack Purvis, Wally from Time Bandits.

In fact there are so many of these actors, including a whole host more that are very recognisable from English television, that their characters are almost swallowed by the great machine that is the Ministry of Information, something that apparently costs 7% of the gross national product. Gilliam, with his co-writers Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown, threw everything they could in here, into both the story and the design, not just Orwell and Kafka but also the Nazis, the KGB, the Stasi, every secret service and propaganda department you could imagine, all thrown into a blender and turned into something vaguely English.
I first saw Brazil in the eighties in Thatcher's Britain and there were obvious reference points then. There are even more now, given the changes the world has gone through. There are insightful comments about 9/11, Guantanamo Bay, the process of extraordinary rendition, the Echelon project, overreliance on credit and, more than anything, the concept of security theatre. Yet this was made in 1985 before most of those things came to be. A conspiracy theorist would find a lot more, I'm sure, especially as one of the most startling revelations of Brazil is that the entire framework of the story seems to be a lie. It's all about terrorism, except we see no terrorists and nobody claims anything. All we see are government departments trying to cover up mistakes. It's mistakes that are the true anathema, as anything done to pretend they don't exist is apparently perfectly acceptable, however extreme.

This leads to another stunning revelation. In this dystopian nightmare of a story there really aren't any bad guys, there are just people doing their job the best they know how. The greatest example has to be Jack Lint's terminally cheerful secretary Myrtle who spends her time transcribing torture sessions. Jack himself believes in what he does, just like everyone else in the story. The only bad guy is the system itself, or perhaps by extension the people who voted into office the people who created it and now maintain it. This could almost be seen as a monster movie, with the system playing the part of the giant lizard, not inherently bad, just doing what it's designed to do.

As befits such a sprawling behemoth, Terry Gilliam's sense of humour comes into play and turns what could be a suffocating diatribe into a dark comedic dream. It's all patently absurd, but then that's the point. The system is a conglomeration of all the niggling little idiocies of life that drive us nuts because they don't make sense when you look at them from a human perspective, asking 'Why?' Most of the characters in this story are only problems because they don't ask 'Why?' A great example comes when Sam takes the job at Information Retrieval and finds that the desk in his office is shared with the office next door, literally, through the wall. The thing is that it stays equally divided between the two until the moment he gets there at which point his neighbour begins trying to inch it into his office. This is the sort of material cartoonists thrive on. The script could provide the next year's worth of Far Side and Dilbert cartoons all on its own.

There's so much more to say about Brazil but you really should experience it for yourself: the amazing production design, the glorious sound effects, the steampunk look of much of the film, the dark but engaging music by Michael Kamen, the cinematic reference points, the wordplay, the ambitious camera movements, the vehicle design, the Rube Goldberg machinery. All of these things and more are worthy of much discussion but the overriding effect of this film is to make us think. What's most amazing is that in doing so it seems more and more palpable and relevant with every viewing. Deliberately timeless in its setting, it's become a timeless film and I have a feeling it's going to retain its impact and its ability to provoke thought long after other more overt movies fade.

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