Our reviews of Brazil (Blu-ray) (published July 12th, 2011) and Brazil: Criterion Collection (Single Disc Edition) (published August 28th, 2006) are also available.
It's only a state of mind
Filmmaking for Terry Gilliam is a battle. Strident in his belief that he who has the vision should have the first and final say on what appears on the screen (no matter how overblown or flawed), he is willing to sacrifice his merit and integrity for his art. He is not one to tolerate, or even desire, the input of pencil pushing studio chiefs who view movies as merchandise, not masterworks. Gilliam has always identified with Don Quixote, waxing romantic and fighting the wild blades of the mad Hollywood windmills, steadfast in his chivalrous beliefs. And he has paid the price for his defiance. When other hack whores sell their cinematic wares on the big screen street corners for a successful opening weekend and the chance to direct the next "made from a wanton old television show" franchise, Gilliam has remained rebellious in this artistic temperament, and sadly, out of the Hollywood loop. It has been over four years since he has made a film (the highly underrated and underappreciated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and it may be even longer before he gets the chance again. He is a man without a creative country, a lost soul disregarded and disowned by the very powers that once, so long ago, catered and cared for him. That was then, however. Everything changed once Brazil came along. Brazil may be Gilliam's victory over the forces of creative darkness, but they would get their revenge in the end.
Facts of the Case
Sam Lowery is a lowly clerk, working for The Ministry of Information. His life is a series of bureaucratic hurdles and toadying. His boss, Mr. Kurtzmann, cannot do anything without Sam's input. His mother is a plastic surgery addict, constantly going under the knife to improve herself. Her best friend, Mrs. Terrain, is a strict devotee to the skin melting acid method of cosmetic improvement. Sam's mother is always interfering with his life, trying to marry him off and finagle promotions. Sam's best friend, Jack Lint, works for Mr. Helpmann in the very important Division of Information Retrieval and all wonder why Sam has no bigger dreams, no higher aspirations.
But Sam does have dreams. In them, he is a silver bird, a superman in chrome armor, always flying toward and trying to capture his floating blonde dream girl. In these flights of fancy, Sam is powerful, daring, and courageous. But in the real world, Sam is bewildered and befuddled. When a paperwork foul-up implicates a Harry "Buttle" in the neverending wave of terrorist bombings that have rocked the society for nearly two decades, it's up to Sam's department to mop up the mess and find a way to avoid the bureaucratic blame.
While trying to obtain a signature and deliver a "torture refund" check to the wrongfully accused Buttle family, Sam meets Jill, a truck driving squatter living in their building. She is the very image of Sam's dream girl. Trying to find out more about her, Sam learns that the only way he can do this is to join Jack and Mr. Helpmann at Information Retrieval. It turns out the government is quite interested in her too. They believe she is an agitator connected to Harry "Tuttle," a freelance heating engineer and enemy of the state (Sam had a run-in with said "Tuttle" when the rebel repairman answered his air conditioner service call). Sam convinces Jack, whom it turns out retrieves his information through torture, to let him handle Jill's case.
Sam inadvertently runs into Jill and tries to convince her that his motives are pure, not governmental. He tells her of his dreams and how he loves her. At first, she is skeptical to the point of violence, but Sam's good natured and earnest way wins her over. They crash a police blockade and outrun pursuers in a chase. But it's obvious that the government is after Jill. Sam decides that he will delete her from the master information files, rendering her free (as a non-person in the state). Then they can run off together and live his dream life. But the government is too omnipresent, and arrests Sam for his sabotage. He finds himself charged and placed in the very "information retrieval" room of his friend, Jack (the torturer). There is a chance of escape, but it may not be in the "traditional" manner…
Brazil was never meant to be an omen. Terry Gilliam did not see himself as a Python-esque Nostrodamus predicting a "1984"-ish shape of things to come. It was never supposed to foretell of nations under attack by errant, irrational terrorists. It was never supposed to predict a worldwide explosion in the number of people surgically modifying themselves in the name of beauty and everlasting life. It was never supposed to highlight the growing intrusion into everyday life of government, bureaucracy, and technology. Gilliam refers to Brazil as the middle link in his Dream Trilogy, representing the desires and downfalls of middle age, of a time between the fantasies of children (Time Bandits) and before the folly of time alters one's grip on reality, and life (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). Its themes of oppression and escape were meant to allude to, not forecast, man's fate within the world. Its outlandish style and visual hypnosis was meant to be a creative not a political or fashion statement. When it came out in 1985, Brazil was a masterpiece of design and defiance, a movie as famous for its battle to survive as for the critical canonization it received. Now, it can be seen as the blueprint for the millennium.
In 2002, the world is, indeed, one big Brazil, or nameless State X. We are a new world order, one global economy that feeds off itself like the vicious life cycle in the wild, the strongest and smartest surviving successfully while the disenfranchised pray for scraps. Never once thinking of how or what we do and its affects on others, we are glad to kill the butterfly, if only because we don't care about the rains in China. The rise of the Internet has interconnected the continents, producing a two-way mirror into the private home and hearth we have so desperately tried to protect for decades. Countries now live in the assured pronouncement that, at any given moment, a bomb will explode, a gun will be fired. As citizens, we are instructed to pick up the bloody, tattered pieces of life and move on. To show them who is boss. To show them they cannot win. Everyone is plasticized, pulverized, and falsified, saline and stitches erasing years and individuality from the human race. All women long to be one big-busted Barbie Doll and want their men to resemble ab-crunching Chippendales. Sure, there are dreamers left: small bands of Sam Lowerys flying above the din and dank of the urban man-monster-machine in hopes of finding a small piece of mind to land on. But they are labeled "slackers" or "skylarkers," people with their head in the clouds and their belongings in their parents' basement. There is no value in art, no sanctity in creativity, unless it's toward bookkeeping or stock trading.
So what was Brazil supposed to be, if not an Orwellian condemnation of a world, and a government, gone askew. And what is it now? Technically, it is a flight of fancy, just like Sam Lowery's dream self-image. It is a metal armored god, a silver superman, taking on a humungous and hellacious being of unquenchable thirst for power and control. Its legend, as both a highly acclaimed work of cinematic expressionism that confused a Hollywood studio and an on-going pissing match between two radical egomaniacs (Gilliam and Universal President Sid Sheinberg) means that Brazil has taken on a life outside the actual film itself. It has been blown up into a defining moment in time and somewhere in all the research and reporting, the really important issue seems lost. Brazil is a fantastic motion picture, a pure imaginative delight that teases and torments as it makes you laugh or leaves you in wonderment. It's a meditation on complacency, asking where one's responsibility lies for what happens to others and just what place within society's puzzle our piece fits. It's a surreal case of middle aged male menopause, where work and society have become mind numbingly arcane prison habitats for the poor dumb ape-like creature to sit and fester in until he's called off to the afterlife. For what does Sam strive for? He wants freedom. He wants control. He wants the passion of love and strength of conviction to fight off oppression and stand up to the powers that be. But maybe, just maybe, all Sam really wants is to sit, lost in his own little world, without a care or concern. To be free. Free to dream.
Gilliam set ups several conflicting dichotomies in Brazil, posing difficult, complex questions. However, it is crucial to the understanding of the film that Gilliam is offering no answers here. There is no right and wrong, good or bad. By making the viewer decide on which side of the issue their feelings fall, Gilliam engages us in a way that most filmmakers balk at. He runs the risk of alienating and confusing the viewer. What Brazil wants you to understand is that nothing is understandable, that life has no clear-cut corners or easily conceived answers. Brazil wants to create great ducts of deception in your mind, and anchor your daydreams in problematic, moralistic examinations. Dealt with individually, they showcase the dense undercurrent of philosophical and spiritual debate that runs throughout the film, and accentuates its uncomfortable, wonderful narrative.
TERRORISM vs. THE SYSTEM
As an initial plot device, the war between the nameless, faceless oppressive government and the freedom loving terrorists seems familiar, and very one sided. Any governing body this intrusive, this all-powerful and all knowing should be revolted against, if on principle alone. And yet, we aren't sure what the terrorists want. Their ultimate goal seems ambiguous and disturbing. To want freedom is to want something that no government can openly provide and still stay in control. To want justice is to argue that the current system is flawed. While technological foul ups do occur in the State X, there is a ruthless efficiency and linear due process that guarantees fairness, it not necessarily innocence to all. It is much fairer than anarchy. Thousands of people are processed through the Big Brother governmental system every day, and there doesn't seem to be a great issue with it among the general population. They go about their daily lives and enjoy their ultra modern existences. So if they are only rebelling against the system, the terrorists are fighting a losing battle. Any monolithic enterprise is self-sufficient and cannibalistic; it will eat its own to save itself. The incredibly brutal and bloody campaign, far more harsh and harmful than the polite governmental requests to "help the Ministry" seems pointless, and that much more painful. At least the government issues arrest invitations. The terrorists simply slay and slaughter at will.
TECHNOLOGY vs. PRIVACY
We sing the computer electric in the year 2002. We rely and are reborn through it each and every day. With our cell phones and PDA's we plug into the Matrix and surf the Information stuporhighway for a chance at being wired in and up. We gladly plug in all manner of personal data onto website forms, and then wonder why our email files are filled with ads for sex, drugs, and mortgages. The world in Brazil is based in such all-intrusive technological advances. It is a series of numbers, hyphens, naughts, strokes, and zeds. Every modern convenience, from the air that cools the flat to the news beaming across the screen is a product of Central Services, an omnipresent being that functions, godlike, over life like a technological touch base. In State X, there is no privacy, only lip service paid to the very notion of it. It's all about control, about being the only entity to solve your dilemma, or service your needs. The major governmental agencies are involved in one thing only: information—its retrieval and disbursement. Information is power. The only way to make this myopic mandate work is to have dibs on everyone. No one falls outside the perception of the all-knowing eye. Brazil is a place where the mind is the last private bastion a human has, and the last frontier the technological efforts of the state wish to crack.
BEAUTY vs. COSMETIC SURGERY
While not a major theme in Brazil, it is still an important one. Sam's mother is a fashion victim and terrorist, pure and simple; a fragile frame battling age and wrinkles through outlandishness and the knife. Victim because she is brainwashed into believing that youth and beauty can be found with the removal of skin and a stitch of a wound. Terrorist because she fortifies and legitimizes crimes against individual humanity, fostering the notion that the only good person is a cosmetically altered person and completely uniformed one. Her surgery wars with Mrs. Terrain are as laughable as they are sad, since they culminate in so much physical misery. They are willing to throw off nature in order to achieve some elusive form of perfection. It is seen as a status symbol—Jack Lint's wife has it done. It is seen as a gift—Mother Lowery lauds over giving medical tokens as gifts. It is also seen as destructive—Mrs. Terrain's incredible melting face. But what it is not seen as, is an answer. No one ends up looking that much better, and State X is not populated solely with beautiful people. It's the folly of the rich, the ones in power, a reward for having enough money to actually waste it and the position to get what one wants. In a world raped of beauty, where forests and the countryside have died in the name of technology and control, the obsession with hand carved attractiveness seems wildly out of place. And yet so appropriate.
CULPABILITY vs. BUREAUCRACY
It's interesting to note that when people blame "red tape," or the "malfunctioning system" as the reason why things are not done promptly or properly, they often fail to recognize that there are people behind and inherent in them. The much-maligned DMV is populated by individuals, not by machines or robots. The reason things are fouled up and fucked over are because people are imperfect beings, and imperfect beings make mistakes. Imperfect beings hate their jobs and do them poorly, if at all. And yet no one wants to take responsibility. It's as if the entire world's work staff transforms into a blank bland entity, a vacuum of inactivity and non-accountability. In the world of Brazil, mistakes are made and improper parties penalized. Every step of the way a human being can stop what is going on and double check to make sure that the correct procedure has been followed. But they do not. They assume that the previous cogs in the bureaucratic gearbox were spinning properly, and within a vicious circle system where information needs retrieving and retrieving requires information, this backward buck passing means that no one will ever be caught in a lie, or an error. Sam may seem meek and milquetoast, but he is also guilty: guilty of not caring, of wanting to escape. Guilty of letting flubs and flaws fly past his desk as he daydreams or dawdles. Wanting to be such a good worker, he is willing to help Kurtzmann with a cover-up, or coerce a signature from a grieving widow. He is the very reason that the system is so flawed, so amoral. When guilt and liability stare him in the face, he closes his mental desk and goes out on "break."
GUILT vs. INNOCENCE
Who is Harry Tuttle? Is he a spy? A terrorist? A wanton thrill seeker (by his own admission) under suspicion for mucking about in people's ducts? It's never clear. He is wanted by the State, but so are all manner of folk for a myriad of infractions. The government believes he is a threat, but he may be nothing more than a disgruntled engineer who finds Central Services oppressive and depressing, overrun with middle managers and mindless busywork paper trails. Perhaps he seeks to freelance because this world has never even conceived of the notion. Does this make him a threat? And what about Jill? She reports the wrongful arrest of Harry Buttle, and this automatically casts a shadow of suspicion over her. And she is a squatter, with no fixed address: a rebel living outside the system of order and acceptance. Her independence, from job choice to fashion sense, indicates that she is fighting against something. But what is it? Her politics, like her androgynous, ambiguous sexuality are never full explained. Both of these characters represent some form of danger: to the state, to the system, to rigid notions of conformity. Jill is Sam's dream girl, and in the real world of Brazil, she is also ephemeral, there but not really there. Tuttle is seen as the hooded subversive, the phone call tapping, building hopping hooligan who wants to help out, but may have a sinister motive behind his house calls. He too vanishes too easily, like wind in paper. Neither is completely innocent, but their guilt (in whatever level) is also not completely there.
REALITY vs. DREAMS
This final battle, between the world of the actual and the fantastic, is the key visual theme in Brazil. But it is also the one most fraught with mixed metaphors. The dream world is supposed to house escape, and yet the troubles and torments of the real world constantly find there way into the fantastical mix. The real world is fraught with pain and suffering, inefficiency and stagnation. And yet it is beautiful, stylish, and gauche with automated advantages and precision engineered prettiness. Sam uses his dreams to escape the futility and the responsibility that is everyday existence in State X, and yet, his actual life is not that bad. He has a good (if morally questionable) job, a nice apartment, and a mother who cares a great deal about him. In the dream world, he has Vision Jill, but he also has forces of darkness, hoards of the living dead wanting to punish him for his indirect acts against humanity. It's interesting that, as part of a final "escape," an attempt to avoid real world ramifications, Sam's dream focuses solely on the real world, of defeating the system and living his life with real Jill in a small house in the country. He does not want to be the winged avenger or Samurai slayer. In truth, Sam does not want either life. He wants an ideal, a warped hybrid of the two. Something that neither world offers. Sam does not want to rebel. He wants to be rescued. There is no salvation in either world.
Brazil is nothing less than a magnum opus, one that speaks from the screen, and from its place in the history of cinema. Never before have so many professional lives been touched, talked about, and taunted than with Terry Gilliam's personal artistic tantrum. When removed from its controversy and boiled down to its basics, Brazil is a film unlike any other, an original vision of the world, albeit one filled with paranoia, pathos, and dread. The acting is stellar, each role here filled by talented individuals completely in tune with the director's vision. It's a shame that Jonathan Pryce didn't catapult into superstardom on the power from his performance. He is everyman and no man, a faceless dreaming cog in a society that demands nothing less than total anonymity. He is heartbreakingly naïve, sentimental, and within the dream sequences, a proper, powerful knight in shining armor. Michael Palin has never been better, asked to balance the merry and menacing, masking his hidden agenda behind a professional, unsettling smile. Robert De Niro plays Harry Tuttle as a good natured, heroic shlub, with a surgeon's precision and a light comic blue-collar bluster we rarely see from him. Ian Holm, Katherine Helmond, Jim Broadbent, and Ian Richardson (all in small but potent performances) create an actor's paradise, a place where everyone is in tip-top form, their characters alive with nuances and subtly. But this is a director's film, and Gilliam is clearly in charge from frame one.
There are actually three versions of Brazil out there. One was shown to US audiences in 1985 when the film was finally, reluctantly released by Universal. A longer European cut had been placed in theaters around the world months before. When it was sold to syndicated television in the late '80s, there was an infamous cut that gutted the film and tried to fashion it into an amalgamated sci-fi/romance. The Criterion version is what Gilliam calls his "fifth" cut, a final director's stamp of print and content approval. There are major differences between the original Brazil and the DVD transfer here. There are scenes not included that still show up on the bastardized, butchered Universal cut. Lines are missing, scenes expanded. Visually, the DVD picture is beautiful, with deep colors and crisp lines. But it's also not perfect. Far from it. There are occasions where grain and the age of inserted sequences make themselves painfully evident. Criterion, known for its painstaking restoration of classics, seems to have picked up an old transfer, cleaned it up a little for digital release (first as a laserdisc, now as a DVD), and presented it. And this is a shame. A film of the imagination and magnitude of Brazil deserves nothing less than a rock solid, perfect picture. And when the screen darkens (to indicate a newly inserted bit) or defects flutter through Sam's aerial ballets, it's a crime. While one has to applaud Criterion for the work they did at dredging up extras for this DVD package, they should not have rested on their laurels when it came to the image.
Aurally, we are given a truly special gift. Terry Gilliam is one of the best audio commentators around, adding insight, wit, and self-deprecating humor to the analysis of his work. He will freely point out flaws and pat himself on the back over a job well done. He is manic in his detailed obsession and in the two hours plus of the films running time, he will offer theories, analysis, and subtext that truly enhance the viewing process. Gilliam should be one of the few filmmakers required by law to comment on his work. It is a wonderful experience. Also wonderful is the soundtrack mix. The remastered Dolby Stereo surround sound creates a "hearing it for the first time" sensation that is hard to shake. The roar of the machines, the echoes within the massive structures, the subtly of whispered voices are all discovered anew here. Add Michael Kamen's lush, obtuse score to the mix, and you are left with a disc whose audio presence is as impressive as the imagination shown on the screen. Brazil now becomes as much a listening, as a viewing experience.
If there is one thing Criterion is known for, it's treating a special edition as if it were a living monument, a museum quality piece of research and information to last the ages. On the second of three DVDs offered here, we get two documentaries, one made at the time of the film's production (1985), another made when Criterion first released this package on the laser format (1996). Both offer intriguing, in-depth looks at the making (and unmaking) of this film. The Battle of Brazil: A Video History, is the more enlightening presentation, since it provides everyone's side of the story—Gilliam, the studio executives, and the critics. It's fascinating to watch some of the clueless bean counters that slandered the film buffer their short sighted opinions with plaudits, now that it has become revered. Still, others hold fast to the notion that, as an entertainment, Brazil was and is a fabulous disaster. Each aspect of the film is also broken down into laborious detail in this digital "Production Notebook," with galleries and interviews included. We get to learn what Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown added to, and took out of, Terry Gilliam's original script. We see Michael Kamen discuss his hatred for the song "Brazil." Costume and production designers offer sketches, examples, and anecdotes of meeting Gilliam's demanding requests. And, sadly, there is even discussions of some unfilmed sequences in the special effects department, including the now famous "giant eyeball landscape," a stunningly conceived and partially realized dream whose beauty and ingenuity pains the heart with the knowledge of how and why it was cut (think $$$).
But the biggest extra of all is the inclusion of Universal unconscionable "happy" cut of the film, a lesson in editing that has to be believed to be seen. Entitled, Brazil: The "Love Conquers All" Version, it was a pitiful attempt by Hollywood hacks to transform Gilliam's painful, proud vision into a popcorn film. In the history of cinematic backseat driving there have been some appalling ideas. One was the colorization of classic black and white films to make them more "suitable" for a modern moviegoing and buying public. Another was the money based notion of constantly re-editing one's picture to make it more palatable (and profitable for the director), thereby allowing a new "Special Edition" of it to be released to video every few years. But none of these match the sheer egotistical gall of Sid Sheinberg, Universal, and the butcher block vivisection they committed to Terry Gilliam's vision of Brazil in order to try and make it more "viewer friendly" and "upbeat." In some ways, the manner in which Gilliam's work, integrity, and ethos were challenged and defeated by the studio system paints an unintended, but still applicable analogy to the film. But in a better way, it exemplifies the money minded mentality geared more to the moronic than the masterful present in the Tinseltown of then (and arguably, now).
Presented in a hideous full screen mess, the "Love Conquers All" version is like a bad day at community college film school. Entire subplots (like the plastic surgery disasters and, most heinously, Sam's escape into fantasy) have been obliterated. Alternate takes and fragments left on the cutting room floor (for very good reason, mind you) have been inserted in attempts to make Sam more "noble," Jack more "evil," and Jill more, well, more something: "desirable" or worship worthy. But the most awful inclusion is a twisted, tacked on happy ending, where Sam and Jill walk up the hill to live happily every after. Gone are the torture and the slip into madness. Gone are the consequences and questions of Sam's culpability in his morally unsound dealings with and for the government. Gone are any indications that the last thirty minutes of the film may only exist in Sam's mind. Remember those jokes where they said that Ted Turner would recut Gone With the Wind so that the south won the war, or the episode of The Simpsons where a new, happy ending to Casablanca was discovered? Well, here we have a non-imaginary example for our perusal, and the experience is unnerving. Mind you, this is still Gilliam's Brazil; no new scenes were shot or dialogue added. But it shows that with clever, if somewhat creatively creepy editing, and a blatant contempt for the vision of the artist, total shit can be made out of a movie masterwork. We are even offered a commentary track by Gilliam expert David Morgan to show us just where and how this cultural crime was committed. The "Love Conquers All" version is next to unwatchable, but like a moth to a flame, you are drawn to it, if only to pray that something this heinous never ever happens again in the history of cinema. Unfortunately, it seems to happen all the time.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As time has passed, Brazil is no longer that outlandish, that stylized, that…important. Filmmakers like Darren Aronofsky and Baz Luhrmann have out visualized, out conceptualized, and, frankly, out directed the once mighty Python. After watching a film like Requiem For A Dream or Moulin Rouge!, one can see the torch being passed, and Gilliam and friends being left in the dark. Since making this milestone in the early '80s, Gilliam has seen his career teeter totter from highs (12 Monkeys, The Fisher King) to lows (Fear and Loathing, and…well, he hasn't been given a recent chance to redeem himself lately). This is not to say that Brazil is not a good movie; it is. But it's not the rebellious statement that so many critics and historians would like it to be. At a certain point, perceptions change and something that once seemed radical and revelatory can become solemn and sentimental. This is what has happened here. Brazil is a nice little movie with a keen visual style and some interesting performances. But the surrounding harangue, the tempest in a British teacup is no longer warranted and frankly, holds a more enduring and important place in history than the film itself. Everyone now knows the studio was borderline retarded for arguing and posturing the way they did. And Gilliam deserves a portion of the blame as well. But it's not like the original film is being held hostage as some great, lost classic. Gilliam won. He got his version of the film released.
When it comes to the battle, Terry Gilliam won it on Brazil. But like the old saying goes, he ended up losing the war. Hollywood, in 2002, views him as a spoiled child, a ready to raise a fuss flibbertigibbet who can't wait for someone to criticize his vision so he can go goofy on them. Gilliam has lost the war because, even with mainstream success, he still can't get financed. Even with awards and accolades, for both himself and his actors, no one will hire or back him. He runs to Europe, where his works are appreciated to a greater extent, and yet cannot find support from his homeland (Gilliam is only an expatriate, not a member of the Taliban). With an imagination like few in the business, and an ability to carve real emotions out of unreal events and ideas, Gilliam should be the first choice for any major project. And yet, he is not. And that, sadly is the true lasting legacy of Brazil. It is not the wonderful images, sets, and ideas represented in the film. It's not the grandiose acting or intricate plotting in the screenplay. It is not the resonate themes that bash into and play off each other like clashing titans. No, what will endure beyond the brilliance of Brazil is that, buried somewhere in the lower echelons of the Ministry of Information, Terry Gilliam's artistic receipt lies hidden. And without it, he is lost. Big fat bureaucratic Hollywood is just a real stickler for paperwork. Where would they be without it?
All parties involved are acquitted. Brazil is considered a timeless masterpiece by the court, and Criterion is commended for all the work they have done in preserving and presenting this important piece of cinema.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track by Director Terry Gilliam
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