Some media you just get to much later than you probably wanted to, for a variety of reasons. This is my attempt to play catch up.
I’m 34 years old, and until 31 July 2014 I had never seen Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
In the middle of watching this film I could tell that this was a fucking travesty; why had I waited so long? I love Terry Gilliam’s other work, though I’m still to watch The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and The Zero Theorem. Those are gonna be dealt with a lot faster now. But unfortunately I knew nothing about this film. Or perhaps fortunately, as I’d never been spoiled on any of it. But this is really not a film you can just tell someone about; you have to sit them down and get them to watch it.
Also, I have to say the poster was kind of…not exactly off putting but didn’t exactly grab me either; it was an artistic non-event. Though with contextual hindsight it seems beautiful and wildly appropriate now. The final issue was a lack of access; I was never able to get my hands on a copy of the film for some reason.
How I finally got around to watching it was due to comparisons friends made to Brazil as we were watching Snowpiercer last week. That’s also a fantastic film that is difficult to get your hands on. Now that it’s finally getting a wider release here I may write something on it, but in the interim you can check out a good friend’s thoughts on the film here.
Given the depth and breadth of my film knowledge, my friends were shocked that I’d never seen Brazil. So on our next usual Thursday night gathering they decided they would sit me down to watch the film. I’m very glad they did.
There’s a risk when approaching something so lauded so late, that you won’t be able to appreciate it on its own merits. To quote TV Tropes, “It wasn’t old or overdone when they did it. But the things it created were so brilliant and popular, they became woven into the fabric of that…genre. They ended up being taken for granted, copied and endlessly repeated.” Fortunately, Brazil is so brilliant and so innovative that despite being able to think of at least one thing that had riffed on this film almost per scene, it still outshone them all and nearly 30 years later it still seems groundbreaking.
I was unaware of the production problems this film had, with the “Love Conquers All” cinematic cut being originally released by the studio as opposed to Gilliam’s preferred vision for the film. I can’t say I’m surprised though; Gilliam is one of the unluckiest filmmakers working, to the point where some commentator have publicly wondered whether the man took a dump on an Indian Burial Ground at some point. The dude is cursed. Fortunately, I watched the director’s cut as my first viewing, though there’s very few films you shouldn’t do that for anyway.
But to the heart of the matter, Brazil is a satire of dystopian futures with a masterful script co-written by Gilliam, Charles McKeown, Tom Fuckin’ Stoppard (seriously, is there anything that man cannot write for?) with uncredited contributions by Charles Alverson. This is a very 1984 universe; “Grey cities linked by grey highways across a grey desert. Slag, ash and clinker – the fruits of technology.“
Our story is kicked off by a administrative error fingering the wrong man as a terrorist, with the State’s Death Squad bagging him, and the plot progresses as one unambitious and dissatisfied bureaucrat tries to rectify the problem (from an administrative standpoint), accidentally bumping into an All Mighty Janitor rebelling against the system and the Literal Girl of His Dreams from his segues of flying with his ethereal love.
But the story is so much more than that; it is dark and depressing yet hilarious and extremely on point as a satire and deconstruction. To quote my friend as we watched, the fantasy sequences are so heartbreakingly beautiful. It is amazing how Jonathan Pryce just becomes a Siegfried. And it is amazing; in the dream sequences they manage to make Jonathan Pryce look heroic simply in the act of flying on metal wings. But that makes sense; the man can play an amazing villain, so the inverse has to be within his reach.
There’s a terrorism subplot that does nothing to romaticise the notion of terrorism. There’s no nobility of purpose here against a grim oppressor; collateral damage and civilian casualties are shown in grim, gory and sickening reality.
The production design is used to great effect, be it the propaganda in the background, or foreground. Or how this world is shown to be stagnating due to being overly bureaucratic and overly complicated. Or the thin veneer of sophistication over the upper classes as they go about their crass excesses.
And the entirety of the cast is brilliant, being a veritable Who’s Who of the British Comedic Acting Fraternity from the 1980s that shakes every ounce of subtlety from the story. There’s nothing more disturbing than Simon Jones, AKA Arthur Frelling Dent telling a woman to sign a form in triplicate whilst a Death Squad bags her husband. Yet Michael Palin; arguably one of the nicest men in the world; manages to top even that by using that persona to full effect to make his role even more disturbing when you realise what his character’s job actually is. And this is probably Jonathan Pryce’s greatest role, playing the tragic figure of the only sane man in an insane world.
The final thing I’ll mention is the music. This is another wonderful Michael Kamen score; one of my favourite film composers. It weaves the elements of the nostalgic past with the grimness of the retro future that are visually displayed.
There is some weirdness to the film I still don’t understand, having only watched it once and not having had time to fully consider all I’ve seen. On the flipside, it’s a Terry Gilliam film; non-sequitars are to be expected.
As for the ending, I can see why some people may have been shocked by it. But it’s thematically perfect, and in many ways hopeful. Unfortunately I don’t feel I can discuss the underlying philosophy of the ending without ruining it potentially. it’s something that has to be thought about quietly by the individual.
Ultimately, this is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. As a stand alone piece of art, it is a masterpiece. As a media touchstone, it’s influence cannot be denied. I can’t wait to watch it again.
Be seeing you…