Tuesday, October 13, 2009
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Written in 2004 and not updated for 2009 because I am lazy. Brazil is still a masterpiece. George Orwell's seminal distopian novel "1984" still weighs heavily on our collective minds. It can hardly help it by now, having deposited numerous words into the collective lexicon – most notably "Big Brother" (signifying a highly intrusive, personally invasive, and politically omnipotent authority figure) and "doublespeak" (signifying . . . well, just listen to any politician, really. For a fine example, listen to George Bush explain this week's reason(s) we actually went into Iraq). Orwell's novel continues to be a valuable warning to those who value human liberty and dignity, yet the details of the story seem less and less apt the further the actual year 1984 sinks into the fuzzy past. What had been, to the author, some random future time has now become two decades outmoded, and the drab gray sameness of a totalitarian socialist planet seems less and less likely in our post-Cold War global society.
Which brings us to Terry Gilliam's own distopian masterpiece, Brazil. Released one year after Orwell's chosen date; this is brilliant film in its own right, but it can also easily be viewed as a pungent revision of the late author's premonitory notions, a "1984" for the post-"1984" set, if you will. Set in an unspecified random future time (2024, let's say), this is a vision of a world in which humanity has been superceded not by a totalitarian socialist regime, but by a totalitarian capitalist one. What's interesting is how similar the two visions become in the end; the only real difference is that the people seem less aware of their enslavement in Gilliam's world, anesthetized as they are by creature comforts, by TV, by wealth, by plastic surgery, by fashion. Meanwhile, the gears of bureaucracy just keep grinding up humanity with a regularity just dull enough to make it seem natural. The disturbance of stormtroopers that burst in through the ceiling to kill neighbors, or into the shopping mall to 'disappear' malcontents, are a necessary price to pay. You see, there are terrorists out there; the general populace is quite terrified of them, and they are more than willing enough to allow any government-sponsored injustice to occur as long as it keep them away – and just so long as the injustice is discreet, and doesn't stand in the way of consumer spending. The slogans of this world are "We're All in This Together", and "Suspicion Breeds Confidence". Everything – everything – exists in a large central database. And brother, if it isn't in the database, and filed on paper in triplicate, in proper form, than it don't exist.
The greatness of Brazil is that Gilliam gets all the important details just right, like the way his surreal fillips make this off-kilter environment not seem so bad during the first reel - the better to jar you from your complacency when the horrifying and tragic occurs. Our hero is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), and he's plenty complacent when he comes to a housing project to deliver a reimbursement check to the widow of wrongfully-murdered Harry Buttle. A bug was smashed onto the printout ordering the capture and murder of the 'terrorist' Harry Tuttle, you see. Typos can be costly. Sam feels like he's doing a good thing. He's really putting himself out there to deliver the check, plus he's solving a paperwork nightmare for his pathologically helpless boss (Iam Holm, excellent as always). The whole thing has been fairly lighthearted, a little warped, kind of funny.
The Widow Buttle is staring, catatonic, out the window when he arrives. She looks dumbly at the check. Then she whispers: "What have you done with his body?"
Sam, confused, isn't sure what to say. This is more a paperwork muddle to him. The idea of a body hasn't really occurred to him (or to us). He mutters some platitudes, but is cut short when she unleashes one of the most raw and anguished lines in cinematic history: "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH HIS BODY?", then collapses in horrible, racking sobs. Just like that the gears are shifted. Gilliam's garish wallpaper is ripped away, and the rot in the ductwork behind the drywall is fully exposed.
Sam runs away from this; he's not your traditional hero. Ineffectual, deluded, at turns self-satisfied and self-loathing, his only redeeming feature is that he wants nothing to do with his world, he only wants to escape into his dreams, where he imagines himself an armored hero flying through the clouds, saving his one true love. When the Buttle's upstairs neighbor turns out to be his (literal) dream girl, it draws him deep into the heart of the machine. The machine is full of plenty of Gilliamesque tomfoolery, of course, as befits the gonzo animator for Monty Python – a particularly funny moment involves two men in different offices who fight over the desk that they 'share' – but Mrs. Buttle's barbaric howl echoes down these Kafkaesque corridors, and finally catches up to Sam, as another tragic scream is suddenly silenced. Ultimately, Gilliam's vision is more optimistic than Orwell's. 'They' got all of Winston's mind, but Sam is ultimately able to find some small escape – though I hesitate to tag as 'optimistic' an ending that suggests that only in his dreams can a man be free.
For a nearly twenty-year old movie to reflect the times -- right down to the state-sanctioned torture justified by anti-terror -- so distinctly is an eerie sensation. For it to be done with such style and nerve in astonishing. I'd say that this is one of the greatest films of its decade, but it feels more like it belongs to ours.