Tomorrow was another day: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil

There are some things I find it near impossible to be objective about.

Some years ago during a film night with a friend I stuck on Terry Gilliam’s Brazil on the off chance she might like it. Not only did she not like it, but she refused to sit through more than thirty minutes and then went on to berate me the following week about how I was only into “cheesy 70’s B-movies” (for the record it was made in 1985). She’s not alone in her low opinion of it either it seems: Roger Ebert gave the movie two stars commenting that it was “hard to follow” and that there seemed to be “no sure hand at the controls”, while my copy of Halliwell’s Film, DVD & Video Guide gives it only one star condemning it as “expensive, wild” and “overlong”.

Perhaps the unrestrained outrage I feel towards these opinions says something about just how much I adore Brazil. Gilliam’s more recent efforts are often considered to be packed with original ideas at the cost of coherence, but for me this was always the one where everything really worked and delivered his unique oddity with a powerful punch.

Being genuinely objective though this wasn’t a film which immediately stood out to me as appropriate research material, there’s nothing obviously cyberpunk about the quirky retro-future it presents while some of it has more resemblance to fantasy than sci-fi. However, when I recently re-watched it with a friend who did like it, he pointed out that there may actually be more in common with my project than I initially thought.

Set in a dystopian society obsessed with mindless bureaucracy, there are obvious echoes of 1984 but what immediately makes it stand out from a torrent of other fascistic futures is the streak of dark humour which runs throughout it. The clumsy hybrids of computer/typewriters and ridiculous messaging tubes seem purposefully impractical, while constant paperwork requirements accompany even the most menial of tasks. Anti government bombings are brushed off by the media as being down to “beginners’ luck” while the majority of the populace appears preoccupied with endless shopping.

Even the main plot is bizzarely funny: largely revolving around the pursuit of a terrorist suspect Harry Tuttle, who through a bug related printing incident is mistaken as ‘Buttle’ a harmless family man consequently arrested, with the only comfort offered to his wife being a “receipt for her husband”. It’s from such sheer absurdity that the comedy arises, but the laughs are never entirely comfortable. Ridiculous as it may be the satire remains razor-sharp and more unsettling on reflection.

Were you to substitute the paperwork with more typical sci-fi computers, perhaps the film wouldn’t be too far off from cyberpunk after all. However, what really made me reconsider its relevance is the connection to classic Noir and by extension my subject genre. This is not to say there are venetian blind shadows cast at every turn or continual crooked angles, but the fashion and general aesthetic of the setting seems to draw primarily from a 1940-50’s vision of the future, albeit with extra piping. There are sensibilities here which approach those of steam rather than cyberpunk, but the post-modern fusion of aesthetics isn’t too far off from my own aims to infuse my design with something of the parent detective/noir genres.

Perhaps the protagonist Sam Lowry also has a little in common with the central characters from both genres as well; being heavily alienated by this society and in pursuit of an elusive love interest – dangerous enough to be considered a femme fatale – continually kept out of reach by the barrage of red tape. He makes for an inept, bumbling detective figure but he just about qualifies all the same. As a government employee in an unremarkable position, Sam takes a curious middle ground as someone clearly frustrated and out of step with this world who is simultaneously a part of the machine, his own enemy you might say.

In contrast to this continual bureaucratic drone we are intermittently shown vivid snatches of Sam’s dreams, depicting him as a winged warrior in pursuit of beautiful flying woman. These more typically Gilliam setpieces start out as an escapist fantasy offering insight into his suppressed desires, but after spotting his dreamed love in reality as the considerably more boisterous truck driver ‘Jill Layton’ he begins a hectic pursuit of her and the parallels quickly become more prominent and disturbing.

Possibly the most striking of these visions and allegorically most relevant to my own themes is a gigantic samurai who confronts him wearing armour decorated with electrical components – a representation of the bureaucratic machine as well as the literal one – a monstrous fire bleeding antagonist who when defeated is revealed to have Sam’s face under the armour, lending further weight to the idea of him being his own worst enemy.

Also, while it may only be a subplot the constant cosmetic surgery Sam’s mother and her friend receive throughout the film perhaps bears some connection to my own themes of human body modification. As with much of the film it’s played to darkly comedic effect but this is certainly humour which occupies an uneasy middle ground; the idea of unpleasant truths being concealed beneath a surface of outward prettiness as a layer of formalised documentation euphemises torture and the Gestapo like activities of the government.

This is where I get to the spoilers…

Much as I observed the rising clash between real and the wired in Lain, here a comparable crescendo takes place as the film progresses with an inevitable conflict set to occur when dreams collide with reality. As Sam attempts to subvert the sinister attentions of ‘information retrieval’ away from Jill his unattended paperwork and disregard for the authorities around him finally catches up.

Arrested and taken into a brutal interrogation by a man he formerly considered a friend, everything looks set to end horrifically when he’s abruptly sprung from torture by Harry Tuttle in a dashing rescue. Fleeing the government complex and demolishing it behind him everything looks set for an idyllic happy ending after a reunion with Jill and an escape to countryside.

It’s here that the film’s bittersweet masterstroke is delivered as we are returned to reality, revealing that Sam never left the chair he was strapped in having simply gone mad during the torture and retreated into his imagination, along with the additional implication that Jill was killed by information retrieval after all. It’s an ending which I find still ducks under my defences and hits where it hurts.

More than a valuable example of an aesthetic fusion, I suppose what really compelled me to include Brazil in my research is its sheer brilliance as piece of emotionally engaging science fiction. It’s packed with ideas, humour and satirical charge but not at the expense of cogency (well for me at least) surprising the viewer in its final moments with a conclusion which may well be sadistic but far from heartless.

It’s unfortunate that an altogether less satisfying conclusion awaits my Halliwell’s Film Guide now at the bottom of a recycling bin. Sorry Mr Ebert, but I think I’ll stick to Empire from now on…

2 Responses to Tomorrow was another day: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil

  1. demontales says:

    I was sold at the cover, really. And the giant samurai.

    • Ozy says:

      @demontales: Funnily enough there’s a different cover for my copy, but when I found that poster online there was no question as to which version I’d use ;)

      And yeah, the giant samurai is made of WIN.

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