Great Films: Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”

Posted on 28th May 2005 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

Terry Gilliam's Brazil

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil

Terry Gilliam has a long career as a darkly fantastic and absurd filmmaker. Brazil is considered his masterpiece by most fans. Inspired by George Orwell’s “1984”, and the working title for the film was “19841/2,” “Brazil” also takes place in a world overrun by a totalitarian bureaucracy, where an oppressive government watches its citizen’s every move.

Gilliam’s experiences with the film industry and the bureaucracy overseeing his directorial efforts may have helped his ability to convey the frustration Brazil’s bureaucracy evokes in its viewers. Universal thought the movie was too depressing for American consumption and had created a heavily chopped version for release in the States. Gilliam had to fight Universal to have his vision released.

Tom Stoppard is part of the team of writers who produced the script for “Brazil,” and his influence shows. The ironic dialogue matches that of his famous play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” The characters are instantly familiar as they are in his work “Shakespeare in Love.” His writing is simultaneously oddball and sophisticated, matching up perfectly with Terry Gilliam.

The film is as complicated and convoluted as the world in which it takes place, and demands multiple viewings to appreciate it. I have seen this film more times than I could count and each time I am amazed to find something new. Entire film classes can be dedicated to the deconstruction of this work and still not exhaust its innumerable dimensions of significance.

To summarize the plot of this film would be an affront to its many dimensions and its confusion, and I always cringe when I see a reviewer attempt this. We have a main character, Sam Lowry, a man very proficient at his job, but who is also a dreamer. We have a love interest, Jill Layton, who is the woman of Sam’s dreams. We have a totalitarian state that has recently tortured to death an innocent man because of a typo on a warrant. We have a handyman terrorist, Harry Tuttle, who breaks the law by fixing things. We have Ida Lowry, Sam’s mother, who is getting younger and younger throughout the film thanks to plastic surgery. We have Spoor and Lime, who work for Central Services and cannot do anything without a 27B-6.

All of these characters live under the oppression of the state, and the film is disarmingly calm about the horrors taking place around them. A smiling secretary takes dictation from a torture session and Sam can read on the transcript: “Oh God! Please–no! Stop! I beg you!” An innocent man is taken into custody, murdered under torture, and the biggest complication arising from this is getting a refund check to the widow, who was overcharged for her husband’s interrogation. A bomb goes off in an upscale restaurant. The string quartet picks themselves up, scorched from the blast, and continues playing. The waiter quickly has the staff put up a barrier to hide the flailing victims. Mrs. Terrian, Sam’s mother’s friend, complains of the nuisance, turns to Sam and demands, “Why don’t you do something about these terrorists?” To which Sam calmly replies, “It’s my lunch break.”

Room 1001

Room 1001

Am I giving away too much? That would be impossible where this film is concerned. I am giving away the details that stand out in my mind, but other people who see this film will pull entirely different details from the exact same scenes. So much is going on each moment that the audience impressions of the film are highly personalized. When I mentioned the above scene to a friend, he responded with a comment about the obsessive-compulsive waiter–an aspect of the scene I had always overlooked. Brazil is my all-time favorite film because I can watch it over and over again, and I have yet to watch it without coming away with some new detail.

Spoiler Warning! For Both “Brazil” and “1984”

In most tragedies, the main character has some flaw that brings about their doom, and Sam certainly makes some very panic-influenced mistakes, but the world he lives in would have condemned him eventually regardless. Not only does this world kill Harry Buttle, thinking him Harry Tuttle because of bad paperwork, but we see other mistakes throughout the film as well. Sam’s “Personal Transport” becomes a “Personnel Transport,” which eventually becomes a “Fleet of Personnel Transports.” Jack Lint remarks that his department is well aware of Jill Layton, and is certain she is involved with the terrorists somehow. The terrorists do not exist, aside from their one appearance in Sam’s final fantasy. We may be certain that Jack’s involvement with Sam will eventually bring about his own arrest and interrogation.

In contrast to the book that inspires it, “Brazil” has a positive ending — relatively speaking. Winston Smith of “1984” is a broken man at the end of the book. They have gotten inside his mind and rewired him so badly that his thoughts are no longer rational. Sam Lowry escapes his tormentors at the end of “Brazil”, by fleeing deep into his fantasies and escaping reality to hide deep inside his mind.

Some critics believe Sam is actually lobotomized at the film’s end, and the fact that the torture instrument being brought toward his face is a lobotomization tool supports this; however, the tool is also designed specifically to destroy the frontal lobe of the brain, which would not cause enough brain damage to explain Sam’s catatonic state. Gilliam leaves us with the events taking place in Sam’s mind, a fantasy life with Jill, for a purpose. When Mr. Helpmann and Jack Lint leave Sam alone, we can detect Sam humming a happy tune to himself, the torture room vanishes, and fills with blue sky and clouds. Unlike “1984,” where the totalitarian forces can and do get into the mind, in “Brazil” that is the last refuge of freedom, which no outside force can infiltrate.

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Great Books: George Orwell’s “1984”

Posted on 25th May 2005 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” – Party slogan

George Orwell's 1984

George Orwell’s 1984

Some people think of George Orwell’s totalitarian dystopia as a future that never came to pass. The year 1984 has come and gone, they figure, so his vision never manifested; however, Orwell’s cautionary tale remains relevant and may forever remain relevant to our society. In a world where Politicians, Pundits, and Governments struggle for public mindshare with more innovative and devious methods of persuasion, 1984 is more important than ever.

Winston Smith is a solemn, malnourished man. Coffee, bread, cheese, a bit of chocolate, measuring out cigarettes to himself, these are the small pleasures in his life. A telescreen hangs on the wall of his apartment, blaring Party propaganda into his life, barking orders to him, telling him when to exercise, eat, and sleep. It watches and listens to everything he says and does within his filing cabinet of an apartment.

Each flight of the seven flights of stairs Winston climbs to work each day has a poster of an imposing visage and the slogan, “Big Brother is Watching You.” He works in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth. His job is to rewrite the present into a format acceptable to the Party (read inoffensive to it) for public news. His department rewrites the past and present in a way so as to ensure the Party’s absolute control of the future.

Big Brother is Watching You

Big Brother is Watching You

Winston is fully cognizant of the way the Party works to control everything in his life through disinformation, close scrutiny, and the erosion of knowledge. He knows of more than 30 people who have disappeared and knows it was the Party that made them vanish. “Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one,” he considers, thinking of how different his understanding of the world is from those around him. His insights into the Party’s strategies for absolute control of his mind is a curse, and he behaves in as bland and unassuming manner as possible to hide the machinations of his mind, living in perpetual fear that at any moment the Thought Police will come for him.

Despite his insights, Winston does come under Big Brother’s control at times. The Party organizes “Hate Rallies,” where citizens are gathered and force-fed propaganda. This includes a period of screaming in rage at images of Oceana’s enemies. Winston himself loses his individuality at these events, swept up in the surge of hatred for the foreign threats. Once the rage is expended, the citizens are then allowed feelings of love to fill them as Big Brother’s countenance takes center stage.

An even more frightening concept Orwell introduces in his book is the concept of Newspeak, a Party strategy for absolute thought control of the citizens by stripping them of the language needed to conceptualize resistance. Synonyms and antonyms are banished because they create shades of meaning and nuance of ideas dangerous to the Party’s absolutist slogans and propaganda. The Party abuses the meanings of words it cannot yet erase with contradictory statements such as “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength,” until they lose all meaning in the citizens’ minds and may finally be eliminated. We see the struggle over language and meaning permeating our modern political discourse today.

The true relevance of the year 1984 in Orwell’s fatalistic vision has nothing to do with an actual timeline, but with the total control the government has over its citizens perceptions. The fictitious war wages perpetually. It always has and it always will, alternating between victory and defeat to give the citizens of Oceana cycles of joy and pain. Through generations, the Party eliminates all words and with them the capability for abstract thought in the populace.

In Oceana, where the citizens are walking dead, rendered unconscious by the Party’s absolute control, it is always the year 1984.

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