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Cinemalphabet: B is for Brazil (1985)

December 2, 2010

Orwellian examinations of “the future” are strewn across the pop culture landscape like medical refuse on a beach. Done well(ian) in such works as Apple – 1984, Gattaca and THX-1138 and the film adaptation of 1984 the theme serves as an astute deconstruction of its relevance in contemporary society by close examination of one or more Orwellian elements (ret-conning, propaganda, surveillance, misinformation and unpersonhood) with a strict adherence to contemporary sci-fi dystopian conventions. Done poorly, as in the case of Equalibrium or Logan’s Run1, Orwellian framing is reduced to body conscious jumpsuits, bald heads, bad food and various objects – including people – neatly arranged in perfect rows. Either way, there tends to be a lot more exposition than examination; plots tend to follow the same trajectory – We gotta get out of this place. Now, there’s nothing especially wrong with any of the examples presented. Each one fits neatly on my affordable, attractive “I like this” shelving unit.

1985’s Brazil – from the twisted, brilliant mind of Terry Gilliam – is my favorite dystopian exploration of all that Orwellian chow chow. Plus – wait for it – it’s freaking funny. While there’s nothing funny about living in a society featuring all that control, bland food and repetitiveness, one of the conceits that amuses me involves all the characters enjoying the same access to Orwellian discourse and analysis as the audience. I find that logic gap unsatisfying and distracting as it relates to above mentioned examples. Brazil eschews such tediousness and therefore presents a far more compelling interesting take on the Orwellian theme.

photo - 20th Century Fox

Brazil positions the dystopian hot buttered awful as a framing device – the way Costner films have used baseball – rather than making all those rows of neatly ordered desks the story. Even films not strictly Orwellian in their framing – like 1998’s The Siege – depict a singular event and its chaotic aftermath (usually some kind of shocking act of human carnage) – as the catalyst for all them cameras fixed on citizenry. Ignoring other contributing factors such as technology, comfortability melding into complacency and good old fashioned megalomania.

Similar to Erika Lopez2, I like tracing the genesis of big bad societal things to their comfy chair origins. I love the concept of “comfy chairs as harbingers of societal doom”. Lopez (Ms. E, forgive me for mangling your quote) wrote something along the lines, “This sort of thing was different back before our chairs got so goddamn comfortable.” Obviously, it’s not simply a matter of comfy chairs, but the way they awaken a desire for everything to be comfortable, which creates desire for more efficiency, so in turn we’ll be more comfortable. All that efficiency and comfort descend into madness when the powerful decide there will need to be government organizations and paperwork to keep things real comfortable and efficient. In addition dystopian societies should feature extremely bland color schemes to prevent distracting emotions such as free will.

Brazil centers around the most swivel-y of swivel servants as they go about their day collecting receipts for receipts and creating more chaos by executing their mandate to keep things streamlined and chaos free. A fly in the proverbial ointment proves the catalyst for Sam Lowry’s (Jonathan Pryce) realization things are not always as efficient – in such an efficient society – as his superior might instruct subordinates to believe. Mistaken identity – a staple of many dystopian films – creates a host of problems, the least of which being the wrong man has been scooped up by the “just doing my job” bureaucrats. It seems they’re searching for a “freelance” HVAC repairman named Harry Tuttle, who is played with aplomb by Robert DeNiro – in one of my favorite roles of his. In recent viewing of Brazil, particularly DeNiro’s scenes, I squealed upon discovering shades of Connie Brean. All combat takes place at night in the rain at the junction of four map segments3, indeed!

stretched to perfect - photo: 20th Century Fox

Katherine Helmond, who is divine, plays Sam’s overbearing mum. Their scenes – while wonderful – tread dangerously close to turning Brazil into Sam’s Complaint. Fortunately, the great character actor Jim Broadbent as Dr. Jaffe keeps the film from going there with his hilarious portrayal of a cosmetic surgeon. Brazil is satire, to be sure, but accessible and allows to the audience to enjoy the film on many levels. Glorious visuals, showcasing all those janky contraptions fans of Gilliam have come to associate with his films. That said, malevolent power is still power despite being backed by an array of Rube Goldberg devices which barely can light a match, much less regulate societal order.

Brazil has been depicted a love story; cheesetastic cuts of the film designed to sanitize the film for North American audiences (where the film bombed) should be convicted on that charge. However, I’m less interested in the conventional love story and more fascinated by the love story between Sam and his fantasies. The ideal of Brazil – a place with a complicated history and some would argue decidedly less magical than Sam’s ideal – positioned as utopia and all those bonky glittery flying sequences are way too delicious to be bogged down with tropes best left for a standard rom-com. It is the only element of the film I find bothersome. I do, however, love the use of Aquarela do Brasil as leitmotif.

Sam Lowry

Brazil never fails to thrill with its exploration of dystopian visions, whether it is its own or others. That said, I rarely recommend it anymore as it tends to be a rather polarizing film. I find its Gilliam sanctioned ending and message satisfying. Your fun to monkeys ratio may vary.

Don’t waste time worrying about cameras in the crapper. By then it’s too late; everything is over except the paperwork, which we’ll need in triplicate. It all begins with the erasure of Pantone. I can’t tell you how nervous I was when all the designers were showing collections heavily emphasizing shades of grey. I was relieved when designers were unable to come to a consensus as to which shade was the “shade”; dystopia as depicted by Orwell was averted again! Maybe it’s why I never wear matching shades of gray. You’re not getting my ass, dystopia. At least not until I procure the elusive comfortable chair. For the record, all the chairs in my house are quite uncomfortable.

Thank you, Terry G and Brazil for encouraging my distrust of comfy furnishings!

1 I like all the examples I listed, though not always due to their Orwellian trope usage.
2 from Lopez’s book Flaming Iguanas
3 Professor Google is waiting to answer all your pop culture related questions. I’ve got my own hell to

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Val permalink
    December 2, 2010 12:27 pm

    Ooooooooooo!!!! Brazil. The repairman terrorist! The shoe hats! I’m a Gilliam fan in general and I think this is my favourite. I am a silly servant. When things get particularly silly, I think of this film and relax, a bit. The introduction to the factory scene in Hudsucker Proxy and chunks of Kafka have a similar calming effect.

    So much better than V for Vendetta, which I found manipulative and tedious.

    What is that quote? Something like “relax, son, don’t fight it…it’ll only ruin your credit rating” Awesome!

  2. December 2, 2010 12:41 pm

    Part of what made DeNiro’s appearance so thrilling was that he was (at least initially) uncredited. I literally squealed when I saw first saw his derring-do getting done.

    I love this film, but I watch it rarely, partly because it’s so long and partly because it makes me very uncomfortable. I think the discomfort is because, despite all the janky tech, of all the dystopian visions I’ve seen onscreen, Brazil‘s strikes me as closest to possible. Likely, even.

  3. December 3, 2010 12:01 am

    Ahhh excellent, excellent post! Brazil is one of my all-time favorite movies and I’m always happy to read about dystopian narratives and/or how brilliant Terry Gilliam is, so this had me nodding in agreement and smiling with remembrance the whole way through!

    When I was in high school I learned how to play “Aquarela do Brazil” on my tenor sax just by listening to the Geoff Muldaur version used in the film over and over again with my music tutor. Yet somehow I never got sick of the song! Probably because it always makes me think about how much I love this movie.

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