Totalitarian Ducts & Fantasy Terrorists: Ideology & Escapism in Terry Gilliam's Brazil

Brazil is a science fiction black comedy from famously idiosyncratic director Terry Gilliam, and even though I don't consider myself a fan of the director's work in general, to me the film is a masterpiece. It is so richly textured both in terms of its visual presentation and its thematic construction that it's hard to know where to begin (the film almost belongs as part of the German Expressionist movement). Perhaps it is Gilliam's penchant for detail which draws me to the film, as there's a part of me that wants to go through and take screenshots of every one of the fabulous fake posters scattered throughout the film, but there's much more here than simple style.

One of the many reasons this film works so well is that these details do not merely exist for themselves (they're not "merely" there to give the film added rewatchability). They create a vibrant world for the characters to exist in, but just as importantly they lend added weight to the film's central thematic concerns. Brazil is a film about many things, and part of its brilliance it that it never presents any of its issues in black and white; but for me, what stands out most is its presentation of the functioning of (totalitarian) ideology.

The universe of Brazil is one dominated by Orwellian overtones (the irony being that Gilliam claimed to have not read Nineteen Eighty-Four at the time). The Ministry of Intelligence, a Big Brother-like government body, is introduced to us by a shot in which nuns, militia, and school children all appear together—three of the primary branches of ideological control. Even the film's hilarious motif of the constant presence of ducts hints at the things in society which everyone wants to have but but which they don't want to think about. They will pay any price for the comfort of modern amenities (heating, plumbing, air conditioning), even if it means intruding on the fancy architecture of a bourgeois restaurant or an aristocratic apartment. As Gilliam puts it himself, the ducts are like an "umbilicus that both feeds and ties you at the same time."

And yet no one in the world of Brazil is ever heard talking about these intrusive ducts, with the telling exception of an advertisement for Central Services at the very beginning of the film. This attitude of wanting something at any cost because of a naive belief that it is necessary is perhaps even the central thesis of the film. Take Mrs. Terrain for example: she believes without a moment's hesitation that the acid treatment her doctor is giving her will work, even as it progressively corrodes her face. Then there's Jack Lint's secretary, a woman who happily transcribes the events in her boss's office—events which just so happen to involve torture. These characters all believe in the truth of authority: the fact that a doctor or a supervisor says it's right makes it so.

Our protagonist Sam Lowry provides a more nuanced example of this attitude which shows how a world like this would operate successfully (i.e. without being overthrown by the populace) while refraining from simplistic or reductive satire. Sam is an employee of the Department of Records in the Ministry of Intelligence, an organization which manages the abundance of bureaucratic paperwork generated by the system of abduction and interrogation designed to stop an ongoing series of bombings presumably being carried out by terrorists.

But what's so maddening about the situation is that it's never clear whether there are actually any terrorists left, or if there even were any to begin with. We never see any of the bombers, and the only characters pointed to as potential terrorists (Harry Tuttle and Jill Layton) are clearly nonthreatening and even stand out as the few proactive and morally redeeming characters in the film (Tuttle rescues Sam from his broken heating and Jill tries to hold the Ministry responsible for Buttle's wrongful arrest). It's more likely that the clunky machinery which populates the film is to blame, as we frequently see it falling apart in spectacular and even explosive ways (e.g. Sam's apartment). In the director's commentary, Gilliam also suggests that there may have been so many counter-agents and counter-counter-agents that the Ministry could be bombing itself and it wouldn't know the difference. The system has turned inward on itself and become self-sustaining because it's easier for people to believe in terrorists and the power of authority than in the inefficiency of the system.

This is where Sam comes in (*and where potential spoilers begin—you've been warned*). The film is organized into two worlds: reality, in which Sam is just an average worker; and Sam's dreams, in which he's a superhero-like winged crusader fighting the forces of darkness to save a beautiful woman. These dreams have an element of romantic fantasy which makes them appear like a prototypical Hollywood genre film. Everything is presented in simplistic, black-and-white terminology, and it's easy to tell the good guys from the bad. This is in stark contrast to the reality of the film (the second world), in which a good, loving family man like Jack Lint is also a government interrogator who tortures innocent suspected terrorists. Sam—and presumably the rest of the population—use their easy and simplistic fantasies to escape from their difficult and complex reality. (Ironically, when Universal took the movie away from Gilliam they tried to make it into exactly this sort of simplistic fantasy.)

The ultimate horror of Gilliam's vision is the way everyone's dreams are corrupted by the system they live in: the image of Mrs. Lowry with her face surgically stretched remains so iconic in part because it's exactly the type of dream that can only exist within the reality of the film. She really thinks she is beautiful, and that fact shows us how awful and corrosive the world has become. Authority figures like the doctor reproduce this totalitarian ideology without realizing it by thoughtlessly espousing its versions of virtue (e.g. surface beauty). Even the paperwork which forms such a central part of Sam's life takes the place of the Big Other by allowing everyone to see their actions as justified in the eyes of a higher power, no matter how absurd they really are.

This is exactly how systems of power like this maintain their existence. The problem is that resistance would have to come at every level of society simultaneously, and no one sees themselves as doing anything wrong. Everyone is just doing their job, making excuses and passing on responsibility for their actions. Their methods of existence re-entrench the system from which they attempt to escape. Even Jill, one of the strongest and most independent characters in the movie, is running away from her problems by taking a job as a truck driver, where she doesn't have to participate in the system and feels free to drive away from it at any time.

The ethical core of the film comes to light most directly in a scene where Sam confronts Jack Lint about Buttle's wrongful arrest. Jack attempts to defend himself by saying, "Information Transit got the wrong man. I got the right man. The wrong man was delivered to me as the right man. I accepted him on good faith as the right man. Was I wrong?" It's clear that Jack has a guilty conscience about what he's done, but what's really scary is that there's a sense in which he's not wrong. It's not entirely his fault: it's the state of the world that he lives in which makes him believe that the awful things he's doing are acceptable.

Instead of offering the simple message that our subjective fantasies allow systems of power like the Ministry of Intelligence to operate smoothly, Brazil goes one step further and adds a significant complication to the issue. While Sam's escapist tendencies certainly provide the foundation for his own subjugation, they are also the only thing that makes him who he is. They are the only thing that gives him a sense of identity. They are the only place he can go for solace from the cruel world around him.

This is what leads Terry Gilliam to describe the ending of the film (the original ending, not the studio-enforced "Love Conquers All" ending) as essentially a "happy" ending. In his commentary, he says one of his goals was to make a movie where the main character goes mad and it's perceived as a victory. At the end of Brazil, Sam is subjected to torture which ultimately destroys his psyche. He survives the procedures, but only in his own mind. He has been ejected from the real world into the world of his fantasies, where he remains an angelic hero flying through the clouds. Of course, as with the rest of the movie, this isn't a simple, black-and-white ending, and the haunting final shot simultaneously attests to the fact that Sam is now happy (he is heard blissfully humming), but that the world around him hasn't changed (the camera remains in reality).

Brazil is simultaneously a movie about the evil of humanity and the humanity of evil. It continually shows us how we are the cause of our own downfall in the way characters' fantasies play into the hands of the ruling ideology. At the same time, it presents us with visions of evil characters only to show us how they are actually human in other ways (even something simple like the stormtroopers complaining about sweat running into their eyes because of their helmets). It is a film of incredible depth and complexity, and I'm endlessly grateful that it managed to surmount the formidable obstacles in its path to exist in the form it does today.

Criterion Supplements: Love Conquers All

"Love Conquers All" is a cut of Brazil made by Universal during their conflict with director Terry Gilliam. They wanted the film to be shorter and have a different ending; Gilliam refused. So the studio made this abomination, which is two-thirds the original length and attempts to offer almost the exact opposite message of the original film (if this one tells us "love conquers all," the original could be understood as telling us "all is conquered by love/fantasy).

There were not only massive cuts which eliminate certain characters entirely, but also alternate takes of certain performances which emphasize Sam's supposed heroism and the Ministry of Intelligence's lack of humanity. Essentially, the cut attempts to rob the film of any ambiguity and make it into easy entertainment. I'm not sure it even works the way the studio wants it to—for instance, Tuttle is supposed to be simultaneously an evil terrorist and a heroic sidekick—but it is a fascinating experiment in editing.

As a movie, it's absolutely awful. I was so upset by it that I began to question whether I actually liked Brazil as much as I thought I did. I wondered if something so bad could be made out of more or less the same material as the original, maybe I was giving the original more credit than it deserved. Upon revisiting the original, I don't think that's actually the case in the slightest, but it just goes to show how terrible the recut is and how regrettable studio interference can be.

I'm definitely glad this exists as an example of what happens when business executives involve themselves in creative decision-making, and as an amazing counterpoint to what Gilliam created. It serves as a concrete indicator of the difference between creatively driven films and business-driven products, when more often than not we only get to see one or the other. Of course, its existence is only justifiable by the fact that we also have the original to compare to, as the true tragedy would have been if we only had this pile of garbage to use as an approximate road map to navigate Gilliam's masterpiece.

Criterion Supplements: The Battle of Brazil

Battle of Brazil is a pointed and purposeful behind-the-scenes documentary of the conflict surrounded the American release of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. It compiles archival footage with new interviews and is presented by LA Times film critic Jack Mathews.

It is very focused and goes into depth on the issue at hand: The studio refused to release Gilliam's version of the film on the grounds that it was too long and would be inaccessible to the general public (despite the fact that the film had already been released internationally). When Gilliam refused to recut the film for American audiences, Universal created the awful "Love Conquers All" version of the film. Gilliam eventually won, and now his struggles provide abundant insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the Hollywood system as well as the differences between the artistic and business perspectives of film production.

The most interesting stuff for me was listening to the studio execs defend their decision to recut the film, since some of them actually make sense (even from the perspective of someone unabashedly in love with Gilliam's version of the film—I'm just glad they didn't get their way).

The documentary's not very creative (it's basically just a collection of talking heads) and it comes down a little too heavily on the side of Terry Gilliam (in a "history is written by the victors"-type way), but it's definitely worthwhile for its insight into the industry's inner workings. Even if you're not a fan of the film it might still be interesting to see how a director can clash with a studio, but I would certainly recommend it without hesitation to fans of Brazil.

Criterion Supplements: What Is Brazil?

What is Brazil is a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of Brazil, but although it would be hard to deny that it goes behind the scenes, it shines disappointingly little light on the making of. It's a little too short to get much of an impression of anything beyond the fact that it was more than just another movie, that there was something special about it which could be felt even during production.

It does have Michael Palin though, and just about anything he touches turns to gold. He pretends to be his own personal assistant, and pretends to give an interview on the phone when there's obviously no one on the other end. It's almost worth checking out for his bits alone.

The strangest thing about this documentary is the way it ends. It closes by asking its many interviewees the question, "What is Brazil?" None of them have a clear answer, and many of them don't have an answer at all. It seems as though the documentary is trying to tell us that nobody knew what was going on behind the scenes, as if everything was in chaos and it's only by some mysterious miracle that the film enjoys the cult status is has today. I think more likely it was trying to go for the message that it's simply too dense or even too absurd a film to explain in a quick soundbite, but then why make a 30-minute making-of if that's the case?

Ultimately I'm glad this was made as it's always fun to take a peek behind the curtain even if we don't really get to meet the wizard. It might not have much to say about the film, but it's entertaining and won't take up much of your time.

And it has Michael Palin, so, you know, there's always that.

Quotes & Other Goodies

"Hi there. I want to talk to you about ducts."

"Doesn't it bother you the sort of things you do at Information Retrieval?"
"What? I suppose you'd rather have terrorists!"

"That is your receipt for your husband, and this is my receipt for your receipt."

"Put it on, big boy. I won't look at your willy."

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  1. Ce billet est une perle ! C'est pratique et plein de conseils pratiques que je peux appliquer immédiatement. Je suis impressionné par la façon dont le CPS Test offre une approche pratique pour améliorer la dextérité des mains, quelque chose de souvent négligé dans notre monde dominé par la technologie.


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