For, in order that men should resist injustice, something more is necessary then that they should think injustice unpleasant. They must think injustice absurd; above all they must think it startling. They must retain the violence of a virgin astonishment.
Information Transit got the wrong man. I got the right man. The Wrong Man was presented to me as The Right Man. I accepted him on good faith as The Right Man. Was I wrong?
There are films that are nightmarish and then there are films that unfold in with the relentless persistence of a nightmare.
The trouble with Brazil is the nightmare had bled over. Gilliam’s world of terrorism, torture, arrest without warrant, media manipulation, and eternal eavesdropping was looking mighty familiar by the time I first saw the film. We were all living in the world of Information Retrieval. But what I didn’t realize is that we are now all living in Sam Lowry’s world as well.
We all to one extent or another create a little world from the pieces of the big one, which we find bearable (Mine is called Things That Don’t Suck, welcome). I embraced Gilliam’s idea of freedom through solipsism. Faced with a frightening world on the horizon and a friendless existence at school, the idea of escaping inside my own head. A place were no one could touch me had a certain appeal.
Yet it is this very thing that disturbs me the most when I watch the film today. Like most truths it doubles back on itself. The inside of your own head is an escape yes, but it is also an imprisonment.
But let’s back up for a moment. As Ebert reminds us it less important what a film is about then how it is about it. And I can think of few films that get along with the “How it is about it” segment of the equation better then Brazil. It’s a masterwork of design, a sprawling parallel universe built from the ducts up with perverse nightmare logic. A film, perhaps the only one in Gilliam’s oeuvre, which has the distinctive energy of a vision fully realized.
Brazil to a certain extent functions as the most epic Monty Python sketch ever concocted. While Python exaggerated the little invisible absurdities of day to day life in order to make them unignorable Brazil presents a world in which there is nothing but absurdity no longer invisible. If there is a message that creeps up in all of Gilliam’s films it is that though chaos can be destructive, than chaos in a controlled system is unthinkably worse. The bureaucracy of Brazil has devolved into a perpetual motion machine dedicated to making everyone trapped within it as miserable as possible.
It only takes one moment of unpredictably, wonderfully envisioned by Gilliam as a literal bug in the system, for the life of our everyman, Sam Lowry, and the lives of countless others to be destroyed. Insanity becomes compound, there is one mistake, and then the gears of the system work ceaselessly to enforce it. And no one can ever say “This was a mistake.” Because if you do say that then you’re saying the system doesn’t work, and it’s much easier to get rid of you then the system.
Jonathon Pryce is one of the most capable cinematic everymen in recent memory. He’s so perfect for the role because he seems so entirely the sort of person this should not be happening to. Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins and Jim Broadbent make great work from small roles, inhabiting them so well that one could be forgiven for thinking Gilliam grew them out of Petrie Dishes for the express purpose. Robert DeNiro turns in great work as Harry Tuttle the one person ever on screen who seems capable, or interested, in subverting the system and makes one wistful for the day when De Niro was such a capable pinch hitter it was scarcely worth mentioning. Perhaps most impressive is Michael Palin one of the most striking examples of the banality of evil caught on film.
The lone weak spot in the film is Kim Greist who just doesn’t have the charisma for Sam’s dream girl (and I say that as someone who has an avowed thing for tomboys). She alone doesn’t seem to inhabit the same world as her characters. The only one who doesn’t understand the reality of her situation. When she storms heedlessly into the ministry of information demanding Buttle’s release it doesn’t seem as if she is heedless and passionate in her quest for justice, it just seems as if she hasn’t read the script very carefully.
But the real star of the film is Gilliam. Whose twisted vision has never been better realized. In all honesty if ask to choose a favorite of his films, I’d probably prefer the dark puzzle box that is Twelve Monkeys and yes perhaps he need not have drowned Bob Hoskins in shit. But these end up being minor quibbles in the face of what Gilliam accomplishes. Any idiot can make images that look wild and trippy, what Gilliam does here is something much rarer. His world does not give off the feel of something exaggerated, but rather one seen clearly. It’s our world with more acute perception then our own. The important thing isn’t that Gilliam can see that horrid statue in the center of the Ministry Of Information, or the rotting baby faces who patrol its hall. Rather the troubling thing is we cannot. Brazil is not a satire; it’s damn near a Lovecraftian artifact.
We talk so much about a director’s vision, but rarely has that term seemed more appropriate then with Brazil.