Welcome to my movie blog, containing reviews and articles. I've been writing since 2004 - with a short break during 2009.

Never let it be forgotten that Terry Gilliam was in Monty Python. Though it’d be cheap to count that as the peak of his career, their style is everywhere. Barely organised chaos, surreal flights of fantasy, the real world magnified at 400%. His films are far from comedies, but only ever a step away from all out farce. Only he could turn the famously downbeat 1984 into a comedy…

Hello. I’d like to talk to you about ducts.

1984 is one of my favourite books. I remember where I was when I picked it up, I recall exactly the cover of the book I borrowed, and I definitely remember what happened to that particular copy when I reached the final page. It found itself propelled at speed across the room, accompanied by an anguished scream. It was at more or less that moment I knew I could never see it on film. The temptations of Peter Cushing as Winston or Richard Burton as O’Brian were harsh, I admit – both would be brilliant in their roles.

Thank goodness, then, for Brazil, the greatest film never based on 1984. Terry Gilliam claims not to have read the famous dystopian novel, which seems somewhat unlikely once you’ve seen the similarities between it and the movie with the giveaway working title “1984 ½”. Perhaps one of his two co-writers read it. Either way, it was similar enough to tickle my loves from the book, while distant enough to prevent it feeling like an adaptation. Perfect!

There’s something of a change in tone from the serious, politically complex and miserable novel. Brazil is pitch black comedy on a grand scale. Horrific scenes are simultaneously played for laughs. In a classic Gilliam moment, our hero passes a secretary, who is calmly typing out a transcript of the person being tortured next door. Comedy torture resurfaces in both Baron Munchausen and the Brother’s Grimm, but this sort of surreal silliness thrives perfectly in a world run by bureaucrats.

The fear of a police state was present in 1948 when Orwell wrote 1984, was present in both world wars, was present when Stalin took over half of Europe. It’s obvious to compare Brazil’s world, plagued by terrorists no one ever sees with the modern world, and doubtless people will continue to see parallels with it. But Brazil’s hell is not so much the product of government persecution, but sheer incompetence. Events are kick started when a fly falls into a typewriter, Buttle’s record is mistaken for Tuttle’s and a 5p receipt needs to be returned to its rightful owner. Stuck in the middle is Sam Lowry, trying to keep his head down and follow the rules. As things blossom out of control, Sam retreats further and further into – you guessed it – a dream world.

And we’re off! TG is perfectly at home here, amidst the chaos of crazy heating ducts, papers, creepy baby masks, and heroic heating engineers…

We’re all in it together!

The core plot is simple… desk slave Sam Lowry is happy to stay unnoticed in his hellish, “it’s-not-Orwellian-honest!” dystyopia, escaping in his dreams (or does he?) where he is an angelic warrior rescuing his dream girl. But things start spiralling out of control when he spots her in real life (or does he?), gradually becoming more unhinged along the way (or does he?).

Terry Gilliam often short changes us on emotion. Perhaps it's because I'm normally too caught up in the spectacle to notice the details, but he's not what I'd call an "actor's
director". Instead, he seems to drop his actors into the tangled mess he’s created and sees what happens. But Johnathan Pryce manages to hold his own against the scenery, and his tormented hero manages to stay afloat and give the whole film a human core.

And what a background it is! The world of Brazil feels real, immersed in layers and layers of detail. A lot of fantasy/sci-fi sets feel unfinished – they make little internal logic, but there is something grubbily OK about the background here.
Not setting it too far in the future – fashions are different, not outlandish, and technology is delightfully retro. We can relate because the world is less than a step away from our own.

Incidentally, now I think about it, Mr Gilliam has an eye for killer sets…Tideland goes without saying, but what about the scummy underbelly of Twelve Monkeys? Or Monty Python and the Holy Grail – despite the low budget, this remains the best medieval set design ever. Grubby, cold and nasty.

While Brazil has a lot of trademark “Gilliam nastiness”*, it also has moments of sheer beauty – including the famous image of Sam winged and flying over clouds. At the same time, it manages to be relentlessly downbeat despite being set at Christmas. Even Sam’s executive decision maker keeps pointing to no.

*Gilliam Nastiness: all his films are just very, very dirty. Get what I mean? Perhaps it’s the grotesque comedy, or the slightly lo-fi effects. Or the plots which cling to bouts of insanity. There’s always something really nasty about to happen, even when there isn’t. Does anyone else seem where I’m coming from?

The other factor in Brazil’s killer atmosphere is the score – a lesson in “variations on a theme”, with a single tune chasing the characters around. The “Aqueleras de Brazil”, which (possibly) gives the film its name, is adapted into a sweeping romantic piece for dream sequences, pretends to be Rhapsody in Blue in urban scenes, and
jumps up and down with happiness when required. It’s even absently whistled by the main characters, played on their car radios and in lifts.

Chaos is another Gilliam thing, but the amazing thing about Brazil is how tightly controlled it is, both in pace and tone. The film is perfectly judged – it never feels indulgent, flabby or a string of set pieces– slipping effortlessly between satire, throwaway silliness and glorious farce. Even the “comedy cameo” characters, like Sam’s mother’s awful friends, or Bob Hoskins and his engineer buddy seem vital in a way that Time Bandits didn’t quite cinch*. Amazing for a script worked on by three separate people – Gilliam himself, Charles McKeown (a.k.a. Sam’s annoying cubicle-neighbour) and absurdist theatre darling Tom Stoppard (who probably has read 1984, and definitely contributed the exchange about “triplets”) Watching all those influences come together is a dream – from the shouting crowd that storms around in Records (Stoppard! The same device is used in with the court in R+GaD), to the comedy torture (Definitely Gilliam!) and the ubiquitous Battleshim Potempkin homage, which is always funny no matter how many directors try it.

Despite this, people like my mother and Friend 3 think it’s confusing. Well 16 Blocks it ain’t – but neither is it completely incomprehensible. Gilliam’s original intention for this film, as with the other two in his “trilogy”* was to make the reality-imagination distinction hard to pinpoint. Keyword here is hard, not impossible – it feels pleasantly perplexing throughout, but the end is not unsatisfying, eventually rooting for a fairly clear solution. As clear as you can be about anything in there.
*Along with Brazil and Time Bandits, Brazil is meant to be part of a sort of thematic trilogy – Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy, comprising Moulin Rouge, Romeo+Juliet and Strictly Ballroom, is a similar idea. Another one that comes to mind is the “Sam Mendes does decay of the American ideal” set, with Jarhead, Road to Perdition and American Beauty in tow. Terry Gilliam was later quoted as saying this was “pretentious”. And then even later, he said: “Because I dislike being quoted I lie almost constantly when talking about my work." All this from the man who later gave us a time traveller just back from being accused of insanity in the past, trying to convince scientists from his present they are figments of his mind…

For a film about a totalitarian state, it is blissfully message-free. It’s a good movie for people who don’t question what they’re seeing. Think about it too hard, and you’ll get a headache. And perhaps Brazil’s moral is that acceptance and keeping your head down is always the best policy. Or perhaps it wants us to rise up above unquestioning submission? It isn’t pushing a line.

At times, it almost becomes “Where’s Wally” the movie – it works on so many levels that you can’t take it in on one sitting. It’s packed with throwaway humour and background detail to savour. You have barely all of six seconds to spot “Consumers for Christ” carried on a banner by a brass band, or read slogans such as “Don't suspect a friend, report him” on the walls. See it. See it a second time to work out what the hell was going on. And then see it a third time to just appreciate the depth. I’ve seen it six times, and there are still things I’m spotting things I missed the first five. Just do yourself a favour, and watch it on the biggest damn screen available. Gatecrash a friend’s house. Hold up your local cinema. Project it onto the wall of your house, just to lap up all the tiny details. According to the Brazil FAQ, most items in the film have a Ministry logo stencilled on them, including everything in Kurtzman’s office.

It's been confusion from the word go!

It’s hard to define Brazil in a single scene, but I’m going to go with the famous one. Sam Lowry, shunted into his office the size of a broom cupboard, arranges his desk which is rammed against the wall. It begins to rattle, dislodging all his possessions, and then slide into the wall. Sam desperately grabs it and tries to pull it back. He has been given half an office – half a poster can be seen against the back wall – and the man next door is trying to steal more than his share of the half desk. It’s hilarious, inexplicable, and an image of utter hell.

*Dear old Time Bandits. It’s wonderful, but it was a lot of good scenes, not a good overall film. Even if the individual segments are pretty good, a lot of it feels irrelevant. I can’t help but criticise, even though I had fun watching it.

PS – last time I was in London, Friend 4 and I spotted one day too late the local arthouse cinema was showing Brazil and Tideland…I could have died…


Catherine said...

Embarrassing Factoid: It was only a few months ago that I realised Brazil was not a documentary about, um, Brazil. Yeah. My (younge) sister stared at me, dumbfounded, when she extracted this piece of information.

Ninquelosse said...

Hate to say it, but I'm with your sis on this one. Have you seen it since? If you hadn't noticed, I'm...mildly fond...of Brazil.

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