Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)

From Forum With No Name:

Saw Brazil again and brooded on the way it didn't quite come together--how Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) and his mother, for one, sit down to dinner, a bomb explodes, and they don't even stop eating (they're even annoyed); it's maybe that one scene that destroys much of one's empathy for Lowry, and if Pryce manages to gain much if not all of it back by film's end, it still seems a pity, how callous he seems early on. Then there's the impression Lowry gives you that he can't seem to get his act together--he panics when Jill parks in front of Information Retrieval, insists on crashing through a checkpoint, and can't even develop the cunning to use what position and influence he has to do what he wants (when he does, finally, it's too little, too late).

More than that, I suppose, is the feeling that this is a dumbed-down version of Orwell's classic dystopia, and that Gilliam was too disorganized or incoherent to maybe borrow effectively from Orwell or keep different elements less jarringly inconsistent (is it a noir? Parody? Action-adventure fantasy?). He pretty much jettisons Orwell's intellectual baggage (from Newspeak to the philosophy of power) and instead fashions a mediocracy barely able to keep itself working, much less effectively reppressive.

That said, Gilliam does take advantage of the decades of hindsight he has over Orwell to be more accurate about the kind of fascism ruling the world today: that "mediocracy" is spot-on, with marketing taking precedence over skill and value, and spin the most valuable commodity of all. And his version of terrorism and the government's tendency to take advantage of it to systematically violate civil rights (in 1984, it's an endless war between three states) is eerily prophetic--what's missing, really, is the revelation that it's the government that's behind the bombings, as a way of preserving its hold on power. The detail, though, of the government actually charging you for your detention and torture (a detail Gilliam reportedly lifted from some 16th century European witch trials)--well, it remains to be seen if that little bit ever comes true, or becomes true again.

Maybe the film's real power lies not so much in the nightmare future it posits--Orwell's vision is more aggressively nightmarish--but the utter impotence of its hero. Gilliam did say he had wanted to make a film where the happy ending is that a man goes insane, but do we need to accept his word on the subject? Isn't Lowry in truth a devastating portrait of a man who could have saved the world but didn't bother? Callous at first, stupid later on, hopelessly escapist by film's end, Lowry just doesn't seem to have either the spine or the balls to do what needs to be done; he seems constantly trapped in a vegetative (and isn't Brazil--the country, not song--just chock full of rain forests?) state of mind caused by humming the title song once too often.

That ending isn't just bleak; it's downright confessional. The ostensible message may be "it's all too much and too powerful for us to really fight (even if it is a watered-down version of Orwell); let's just sit passively and hum a happy tune (it's a conclusion Gilliam arrived at earlier with his colleagues in Life of Brian)." Behind all that, though, he seems to be muttering "I'm just saying this because I'm a lot like Sam--too weak and dumb and disorganized to be really effective." And behind that--behind the struggles he underwent to finish and properly release the film, behind what artistry he does achieve is the hint of a whisper: "it doesn't have to actually be that way, you know." He leaves Lowry humming away in a vast space, but the tune Lowry's humming is, of course, Brazil--just the very tune we're taught throughout the film to resist succumbing to. Possibly it's his one moment of real subtlety, in a film full of unsublte passion and grandeur, that he would use a little ditty to remind us to carry on the struggle, long after Lowry (and he, by implication) has fallen.

rufus christ: Noel, at first blush, my take on Lowry was pretty similar to yours. However, upon seeing it again not long after it was released, it occurred to me that Gilliam was trying to show why people don't act when they can. When this film was released, American culture was reaching a point where it was seen as permissible by many to sacrifice morals for comfort and acquisition of wealth and power.

Lowry was a quisling who could be easily lulled by creature comforts from any horror he might feel. No matter how moved he felt by the heroics of Harry Tuttle, Lowry just didn't have the fortitude to make the sacrifices or engage in the kind of fight that drove Tuttle. Was there ever anything beyond his attraction to Jill that inspired him to act? Maybe a little pang of conscience, but its not enough to even qualify as a still small voice.

The bottom line is that Sam Lowry is a piss-poor hero. It is also a pretty sad fact that there are far more Lowrys around than Tuttles or Jills. This might have been Gilliam's point, which is why I have a hard time writing off Brazil and just as hard a time watching it as I get older.

Hm. From what I read, my view of Lowry is pretty much similar to yours, rufus. It's not a great take on a dystopia, but it's a great take on a failure of a hero--us, in effect.

rufus: I think where we diverge is on Gilliam's intent. You could be right, maybe he does see himself as just another Lowry. Or am I misreading the last couple of paragraphs?

The distinction could be even finer--he's being critical of the liberals' impotence, and including himself in the criticism. Covering both our points, so to speak. It's a mess, but I think it has power despite the mess.

ChrisJ: It's simply a case of it being too ambitious, trying to do a little too much. You create a dull hero and then have to live with what you have done so you allow him to twist and shift a bit and become more interesting which not everyone is going to go along with.

That's probably how he arrived at what he did.


Chris said...

Sam is not a hero nor is he an anti-hero. He's an emasculated everyman who, like everyone else, looked away as the barbarians took control and is now mulling his way through the aftermath. He consoles himself with escapist fantasy and the thought that those in control might be loathsome, but heck, they couldn't actually be dangerous, could they? His assumption that the levers of power are held by nothing more than petty little bureaucrats leads him to blindly ignore warnings and invite the barbarians to his gate where he finds out too late exactly what the complacency of the citizenry has wrought.

Noel Vera said...

Something like that. Business as usual till you realize nothing is usual.