Out of absolutely nowhere, it occurred to me the other day that there was one movie I had never had the occasion to write about, despite my considerable output in that venue over the decades. But first, I want to talk to you about ducts…
For the record, this is my #1 favorite movie of all time. It was the first VHS I bought, and I rewatched it until it rotted off the spools. To this day, I haven’t bothered to watch it any more because it’s become something I can quote all the way through, blindfolded.
I never get around to talking about Brazil (1985) because it has a massive cult following to this day. There is so much said about it already, what can I add? Well, there are several things I can add, but I’m never sure if people are ready to listen. The thing I can add is that this movie is the one, perfect, most accurate dystopian story ever told.
As massive as its cult following is, I still don’t feel it gets enough credit. So I’ll point out some of that reasoning here.
Necessary background on Brazil…
But first, let’s fire all the cultural saturation of Brazil out of the cannon so we have the ground covered. For example, it’s also the #1 favorite of the Nostalgia Critic. Which made it funnier when the Nostalgia Critic’s assistants, Tamera Chambers and Malcolm Ray, sat down to watch it for the first time.
That there is two people who’ve had their minds blown to Kansas and back. Brazil has that effect, which is one of the reasons I love it. It is a crammed movie, packed with about three and a half movies’ worth of movie. Truly, you can rewatch it infinitely and always catch a detail you never noticed before. All of director Terry Gilliam’s movies are like this. Casual viewers are overwhelmed, but for people like me who suffer from attention surplus disorder, I love having a telescoping fractal movie with several more movies going on inside.
Because we’re not here to recap the enormous backstory to Brazil, we’ll let the Criterion Collection Retrospective take care of any details you might have missed about this movie:
One thing that bears emphasizing: If you’re confused as to what everybody sees in this movie, you’ve likely been ripped off by the Sidney Jay Sheinberg cut of the film. The saga behind the frustrated release of Brazil set the rule for Terry Gilliam’s notoriously bad luck, driving him to take out a full page ad in Variety magazine protesting the dirty business. Former Universal Studios CEO Sheinberg had his excuses, you can read them elsewhere. But his real reason to butcher Brazil, which everybody knows and nobody says aloud, was that he was a mean old Scrooge who hated the movie for being too good. So, insist on the director’s cut, accept no substitutes.
Further reading and study which has accumulated over the years:
- The Saga Of BRAZIL – Gilliam interview
- Monty Python and the Department of Homeland Insecurity – A comparison with George Bush Jr’s America
- 1984 with a Sense of Humor – Comparison between Brazil and Orwell
- The Usenet FAQ on Brazil – The cult following of this movie is THAT deep (PS to today’s kids: THERE WAS AN INTERNET in 1996!)
- The Rotten.com library entry on Brazil – Again, the cult following is older than Cthulhu’s dentures. I don’t even know how to explain Rotten to the modern Internet. We just had this thing, OK?
- Madness and the Search for Meaning in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil – A recent essay
- The 366 Weird Movies’ Brazil entry – #85 Canonically Weird at one of my other gigs
So like I say, just citing previous analysis of Brazil can fill a whole article itself and then there’s no room for any thoughts of my own on this matter. So I’m making room:
Why Brazil is the most accurate dystopia:
I have previously ranted that the public education system does a disservice to students by forcing dystopian novels on students as their sole encounter with a novel. Along the way, I point out the shortfalls of most dystopian novels, at least in the way students take the literal letter of the word and force it onto every news headline they read in their lives. And then I had yet more to say on the subject.
I will still caution that if you’re the kind of literal-minded sot who cannot understand abstraction and symbolism, dystopian media is poisonous to you and that includes Brazil. But still, I contend that Brazil isn’t just Terry Gilliam’s interpretation (mixing in some Kafka, Fellini, Buñuel, and Tati) of Nineteen Eighty-Four; it’s a correction!
Terry Gilliam leaves no detail to chance, which is why this movie rewards repeat viewing. This introductory shot to Sam Lawry’s workplace is the perfect example: The poster is an obvious Big Brother reference, but the character depicted is instead an intentional everyman, a point punctuated as Sam Lowry steps fully into frame perfectly filling the poster’s image, right down to the hat. “Big Brother is you!” Hey social media, how you doing? There’s a whole other movie just in the background signs, posters, billboards, and propaganda on every flat surface.
There are no bad guys in Brazil. There is not even any intentional evil, excepting trivial pettiness and lack of empathy. Other dystopian novels, the ones I savage in those linked rants, go out of their way to set up this government that is evil for evil’s sake, completely leaving out the big plot hole that humans do not work that way. Individuals are evil, sure, but they never clump together in such huge numbers as to implement a world government that is “a boot stamping on a human face forever.”
Explaining the motives of a totalitarian government as wanting to stomp face just for kicks is like using The Big Bang Theory to explain geeks. The closest things we have had to a real-life dystopia – North Korea, Turkmenistan, Cambodia during Khmer Rouge – were all started with the best of good intentions. You know, those things that pave the road to Hell?
Everybody in Brazil, in their own minds, is “the good guy.” From their point of view and what they’ve been taught in this dysfunctional hellscape, they’re all doing what they think is right. Even the “terrorist” bombings are implied to be mere side effects to the chaotic forces of the system fighting itself. Dozens of characters from competing branches of the same government get tit for tat against each other all movie long, every one of them feeling self-justified.
THAT, friends, is what truly goes wrong with government.
There are evil people, I have laid out that philosophy before. There are many of them. But the majority of people (yes, this is coming from a card-carrying misanthropist) are “good” at least from their point of view. But then we come to the other half of what’s wrong with the world: blithering, blathering stupidity. I have a pet theory that Cube (1997) is from the same universe as Brazil, because it’s about a murderous contraption implied to have magicked itself into existence out of nothing but paperwork errors. “Boundless human stupidity” says one character, despairing of ever escaping.
Whenever I meet some bright revolutionary with a jingoistic patch to fix the world, my stock reply is always “If our problems were that easy to solve, we would have solved them by now.” On the side of that thought, another of my life-long mottoes has been “If humans were capable of coming up with the perfect system of government, we would have no need of governing.”
Brazil teaches all this; you just have to watch it enough times.
I could, of course, go through this movie frame by frame and write a thesis about each individual scene. Terry Gilliam poured his heart and soul, everything in his lifetime belief system, into this movie. It shows. If you really look at it, it all hangs together, even though the entire movie is also a Vonnegutian series of setups and punchlines. I have run out of space, so I will have to save the part where I go through pointing out 1000 details in Brazil you have all missed until another slow news day.
This is a good year for Brazil
The year 2020 is shaping up to be the perfect year for reviving the cult following of this movie. For here, we have the CoronaVirus, a natural disaster which would be manageable if only we could get our poop in a group for five seconds to deal with it. Instead, it’s been magnified a hundred times worse by incompetent bureaucracy, fragmented media, politicizing, an ignorant public, and an economy built entirely upon the assumption that this would never happen.
We have government departments vs. other government departments. We have built western civilization as a cathedral of Capitalism and then we’ve screwed up shopping. We have built a global technology infrastructure and then forgot to teach 90% of the public how to even use it. We have people standing in breadlines and far away there’s farmers destroying food simply because we fail at logistics. Half of our institutions are out of commission and the other half are working fine with nobody to sell to.
Everything is broken, and no one knows why.