I didn't get it.
What I remember:
This is the first entry of my “I Didn’t Get It” section of this blog. These are movies that seem to have a life of their own, “legs” I think some people call it. Film freaks and critics alike adore these movies, which I found underwhelming at best, and in some cases just plain awful.
My credentials for loving “Brazil” are unassailable; I enjoy sci-fi, I am a huge proponent and performer of Brazilian music, I am a geeky Monty Python devotee, I adore off-beat and original movies. All bets should have been on a “two thumbs up” reaction to Gilliam’s opus. All bets would have made mad loot for the bookies.
About 25 minutes into the film I can recall wanting out of the theater. It was a cacophonous mess of dangling wires and poorly conceived stunts, devoid of humor or plot, with nasty sharp teeth and floppy ears and run away run away RUN AWAY!!!!! It was as if Dinsdale had nailed me head to the coffee table. I was pining for the fjords.
I did not, however, walk out on “Brazil”. I sat through the entire 132 minutes hoping against hope that the movie would give me a reason to like it. It did not. Most people feel that it is Gilliam’s greatest film. It is rated at 98% on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer. That’s higher than “Pulp Fiction” or “Goodfellas”!
So what the hell film was I watching? How could I be so absolutely off base about it? It’s not like I just don’t like Gilliam’s movies. I really enjoyed “Holy Grail”, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Time Bandits”. You know how, in the great “Cheese Shop” skit from Python, Michael Palin says how clean the shop is, and John Cleese responds, “Well it’s certainly uncontaminated by any bits of cheese, isn’t it?” That describes my memory of “Brazil”. For a comedy, it is certainly uncontaminated by any bits of humor.
Kurtzmann: Information Retrieval has got him down as "inoperative." And there's another one - Security has got him down as "excised." Administration has got him down as "completed."
Sam Lowry: He's dead.
In a dystopian society of the late 20th Century, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a mid-level bureaucrat from a rich and powerful family. He is obviously very intelligent, but without drive. He dreams constantly of being a flying avenger, and of a certain woman whom he can rescue from the clutches of an evil giant samurai. When he catches a glimpse of this woman in “reality”, he pursues her and begins to get in trouble with the Orwellian authorities. He takes a promotion he had earlier turned down, and uses his new level of information to find her and rescue her from the bureaucracy which has mistakenly targeted her and her neighbors.
Do you remember having a childhood friend who you used to have play-dates with, who was really creative and a bit hyperactive? We all knew those kids, right? The first hour with them was really cool. They had a lot of interesting shit to play with, and all these fun, manic things to do. Then, after about an hour, it started to get a little annoying. Soon, everything the kid did was irritating and why the hell doesn’t he just shut up and can’t we watch TV and don’t you have anything to EAT for God’s sake and can I call my folks to come get me now?
This is “Brazil” in a nutshell. The theme is nothing new, of course. “1984” had already covered this territory quite well, maybe with not as much humor. I will admit there are a few funny bits in the film. One of my favorite moments happens after freelance heating engineer Harry Tuttle (Robert DeNiro) fixes Lowry’s AC/Heater, and a couple of repairman show up from Central Services (Bob Hoskins and Derrick O’Connor) looking very suspicious and quite unofficial. It’s not what Hoskins says, but how he says it. The character is rife with smiling malevolence.
Yet so much of this movie is over the top, that whatever lingering pleasure one might get from the humor and creative vision is just swamped in noise for both your eyes and ears. One scene, where Lowry hand delivers a refund check to the widow of a wrongly arrested man, is beyond shrill- it is absolutely unwatchable. The movie keeps assailing your senses to make its point: We ignore the disaster we’ve created with our modern society so we can enjoy the fruits of technology. But these fruits are poisoned, and our future can only get worse as we let this beast take over.
In 1985 when “Brazil” was made, there was really no Internet as we know it now, nor was there anything close. Gilliam tried to predict this age of mis-information and his satire has a sharp edge. My issue is not with the film’s message, but with it’s methods.
A Terry Gilliam movie is a trip inside his head, one supposes. Whereas most of us have a barrier between subconscious and conscious mind, Gilliam’s is down like the Berlin Wall. The attic of our brain is kept at bay so we can actually concentrate on the important stuff at hand; What time is my next appointment? Where did I leave my keys? What should I buy Aunt Millie for her birthday? Gilliam’s attic is wide open and spewing vast amounts of mental sewage and diamonds constantly. Unfortunately we are left to wade through the muck to find the gems.
“Brazil” has a lot of references and influences. Besides “1984”, there is “Metropolis”, “Battleship Potemkin”, “Duck Soup” and “Things to Come”. Why did Gilliam make the overall style of the film 30’s and 40’s Art Deco? It could be that he just likes that look. Or it could be that it makes the technology running rampant even more discordant in comparison to the styles of a more simple time. I believe that it is an outright salute to the sci-fi movies of that era like “Metropolis” and “Things To Come”.
Michael Kamen’s score is perfect if you want to heap extra abuse on the ears of the audience. It is orchestral, with quotes from the title song “Aquarela do Brasil”, and other familiar themes that come and go with a freneticism that matches the movie. It is relentless.
Visually it is a unique and, at times, wonderful feast. The ducts and wires are everywhere; they are almost a character unto themselves. One of the earliest scenes in the Dickensian Ministry of Information is truly balletic in presentation. Workers weave amongst each other down a long crowded corridor with absurd precision. Another stunning bit happens when arresting officers come to claim the wrong man in his home. Like a Storm Trooper invasion, they bust in through the door, the ceiling and the windows at once, tie the man up in a burlap sack that covers him from head to toe, make his poor wife sign a receipt for him, and whisk him away, while she and her children cower. It is disturbing to say the least. It reminded me of the great nightmare scene in “An American Werewolf in London” when David has a vision of the Gestapo invading his suburban home. One moment you are enjoying a quiet evening at home, the next you are plunged into violence and chaos.
Lots of laughs, huh?
At this point you are probably saying, “Come on, man. You love “Little Murders” and there is no blacker comedy than that!” My response is….that movie is FUNNY. Repeatedly funny. Uproariously funny. Sarcastically funny. Not so for “Brazil”. It just doesn’t get me that way. The overall effect is like being at the Fun House. There are lots of weird and somewhat cool things, but a lot of the time it’s just annoying, like the wind jets, or the tilted room. Most Fun Houses are not fun. I sure wouldn’t want to buy a second ticket for this one. I am not really a Tim Burton fan, but I do love “Beetlejuice”. Now THERE’s a Fun House I would go back to!
The cast is actually one of the strengths of “Brazil”. From top to bottom, everyone does what they are supposed to do. It’s exactly WHAT they have been told to do to which I take exception. Jonathan Pryce’s Sam Lowry is perfectly fine as the harried, daydreaming hero. Of course, putting one of Python’s standout comic talents in the role, such as John Cleese or Graham Chapman, would have dialed up the comedy and made the film far more tolerable.
Iam Holm, who is always wonderful, does a superb job as the incompetent boss, Kurtzmann. There are also very strong bits from veteran TV actress Katherine Helmond as Sam’s mother. Ms. Helmond was very well known at the time as Jessica Tate from the popular sitcom “Soap”, a role she reprised on the show “Benson”. I like character actor Jim Broadbent as Mrs. Lowry’s plastic surgeon, Michael Palin as the evil friend Jack Lint, and, as I already said, Bob Hoskins is hilarious. Kim Greist as Lowry’s dream girl, Jill Layton, does a nice job, but not a standout.
The big question is, why DeNiro? His Harry Tuttle is really the hero of our story, the guy who keeps rescuing Sam for no apparent reason. Don’t get me wrong, he turns in a good performance, but he is such a powerful presence on screen, and so recognizable, that it’s a bit of a distraction. Like having George Clooney show up on “Mad Men” as a janitor.
ON SECOND LOOK
Is “Brazil” as terrible as I remembered? No, not at all. It’s noisy and abrasive. It’s like having your brain in a pinball machine. The movie does take on some very important issues, particularly the way technology and industrialization are dehumanizing us all. It’s a harrowing vision, for certain. The satire, however, is not funny enough to help balance the film’s intensity and chaotic demeanor. NO WAY does this film warrant a place in the “Classics” of modern cinema.
1st Look-★★ 2nd Look-★★★