The following is my contribution to Jim Emerson's Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon going on all weekend at Scanners. Those of us contributing are proposing views of films and film theory that are contrary to the widely accepted views of those films and theories-- many sacred cows are being tipped right now as the weekend proceeds. Jim has an ever-growing list of excellent and provocative commentary for you to peruse over at Scanners as part of the CBAT, and I suggest you hop over there as soon as possible and indulge. My only hope is that this entry is worthy of keeping their company. Thanks, Jim, for hosting this memorable weekend!
The films of Terry Gilliam often dabble in shit. His first solo feature directing credit, Jabberwocky (1977) literally wallowed in it, although parts of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), which he co-directed with Terry Jones, did serve as a super warm-up for the grimy fascinations of his Grail and Lewis Carroll-inspired movie. (And his most recent movie, Tideland, which I have not seen, by many reports plumbs new metaphorical depths in that particular wallow.) However, Gilliam’s best films, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, while boasting familiarity with common evacuative functions, are both more importantly films either based on stories told by world-class bullshitters (Hunter S. Thompson) or stories told about world-class bullshitters (the titular baron). And ever since Time Bandits (1981), there has been a strong autobiographical streak running through Gilliam’s work, a streak that he has actively promoted on television, in interviews and in documentary pieces about his work, which inevitably casts or identifies him as the artist struggling against studio or money-men-constructed windmills, one whose vision is just too nihilistic or uncompromising for either the Hollywood money machine or the audiences who eagerly lap up their product, one who is continually shit upon by the powers that be. And that nihilism has always seemed to me of a rather convenient variety—too much the showman, or the eager kid who wants to shock his parents by playing with poop and get pats on the back for it, Gilliam wears his depressive inclinations on his court jester’s sleeve. He wants credit for being a scatological imp and a serious buzz-kill at the same time.
Of all his movies, Brazil (1985) came practically pre-sold to its intended audience as a major work of iconoclastic paranoia, a 1984-derived fantasia of an oppressive society that had the good luck to itself be the object of the repressive forces of Universal Pictures. Sheinberg, Universal’s head of production, made quite a lot of hay in the trade papers about how Gilliam’s cut of Brazil was virtually unreleaseable, intimating that Universal would never back the film in American theaters. (The movie had already swept through several European countries to much acclaim.) Gilliam countered with claims of final cut, which Sheinberg denied, based on contractual language which stated that if Gilliam’s cut ran over a certain length of time, final cut would revert to Sheinberg and the studio. Sheinberg’s heinously re-cut version, dubbed the “Love Conquers All” edition (and available on Criterion’s exhaustive DVD package), piled on love scenes that Gilliam had excised and ends (almost an hour shorter than the 143-minute version) in romantic bliss for the two lead characters.
Gilliam’s fantasies of the oppression of his expression as an artist were coming true, and he seized the opportunity to take the fight even further into the public eye. In a full page ad in Variety, Gilliam asked, “Dear Sid Sheinberg, when are you going to release my film Brazil?” He also arranged underground screenings for industry insiders as well as critics groups. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association, surely sensing an opportunity to stand up for the vision of a filmmaker as well as to make some news for themselves, proclaimed Brazil the best movie of 1985 and Gilliam best director, though the film still hadn’t been released. But that situation would shortly be changed. On December 18, days after winning the L.A. film critics’ top honors, Universal capitulated and presented Gilliam’s version of Brazil to American audiences.
In fact, one would have had to search long and hard in December 1985 to unearth a negative reaction to Brazil, either from newspaper critics or the film press. Even Pauline Kael, who expressed more than just simple reservations in her review of the movie (“Visually, it's an original, bravura piece of moviemaking… (yet) the film is both torpid and frantic”) conceded that “Gilliam's vision is an organic thing on the screen-and that's a considerable achievement.” Probably no other reviewer expressed more indifference to Brazil at the time than did Roger Ebert, who wrote that “Although Brazil has had a checkered history since it was made… there was a lot of money available to make it. The movie is awash in elaborate special effects, sensational sets, apocalyptic scenes of destruction and a general lack of discipline. It's as if Gilliam sat down and wrote out all of his fantasies, heedless of production difficulties, and then they were filmed - this time, heedless of sense.” Ebert concluded that “there seems to be no sure hand at the controls.”
In 1985, it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine that expressing a negative reaction to the movie was tantamount to sympathizing with the devil Sheinberg and the forces that would suppress or otherwise destroy Gilliam’s work. And in 2007, some 22 years after its release, the critical consensus seems to have solidified even further-- Brazil is widely considered to be Gilliam’s masterpiece, it has twice gotten the splashy, three-disc DVD coronation from the Criterion Collection, and the poll of writing on the film at Rotten Tomatoes ranks positive assessment of the film to be at an astonishing 97% of those whose opinions on it are included. (Ebert’s review is among those listed, and as if to underline the old fuddy-duddy’s minority view, the only line quoted from his review that appears under his picture and the link to the piece states simply, “Very hard to follow.”)
I remember having to travel over five hours to perhaps the only theater near me that was playing Brazil at the time, somewhere in Portland, Oregon. It isn’t outrageous to assume that, in addition to being kneaded and softened by the stories of the movie’s contentious delivery, having to drive such a distance might presuppose a tendency of mine to be in the film’s favor from the get-go. And proclaim it from the rooftops I did, after making my return journey, to many very polite and indulgent friends. And ever since then, though I’ve not revisited the movie more than a couple of times, and whether I was being truly honest with myself or not, I held true to my original opinion of the film. So imagine my surprise when, upon encountering Brazil again late last year, I realized that, although Sheinberg was most certainly incorrect in proclaiming the movie “unreleaseable,” the movie seemed pretentious, softheaded and utterly self-satisfied. It seems to me now that Brazil, far from a masterpiece, is instead a heady dystopian fantasy that insists on very little context for those fantasies, only that their most paranoid aspects are held to be true and that the movie be weighted so heavily toward presenting this future through set design and art direction and other dazzling applications that the aesthetic approach becomes a kind of shell game to distract from the cipher at the movie’s center.
A friend of mine who saw the film with me last year commented that the work of art Brazil most resembles is not 1984, although Gilliam isn’t ashamed to reference Orwell repeatedly, and secretly must have felt disappointed that he couldn’t have readied the movie for release a year earlier. No, my friend suggested that Brazil is actually a bloated feature-length version of The Crimson Permanent Assurance, the hilarious short film Gilliam directed that serves as the opening act of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), with 100 times the budget, five times the running time, and about half as much to say. As a jumping-off point to reassessing Brazil, it’s an apt observation.
The Crimson Permanent Assurance is a pirate ship manned by elderly accountants, the type with which Monty Python has always had fun, who pit adding machines and receipt spindles against the forces of faceless corporate accountancy. The sight of these geezers on the bow of their puny craft, sailing into the crevices and canyons of a maze of high-rises, a cityscape shot through with indifference, dread, and a strange beauty, would be echoed a thousand times over in Brazil, the camera careening and gliding through a more despairing, run-down art deco version of the same cityscape as the truck that carries Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) and his fantasy woman, truck driver Jill Layton (Kim Greist), barrels down desolated avenues toward the only fate allowable. And when you’re contemplating how comparatively little there is to chew on as Lowry whimpers and bangs his fist against a system that he seemed somewhat consigned to before meeting Jill, it’s easy to think back on those tabulating pirates of the Assurance making their assault on that high-rise corporate boardroom and wish that the “hero” of Brazil were able to show even a sliver of the same moxie. After all, the Assurance stood not only against the hierarchy of faceless corporations and the reduction of all societal impulses to numbers and statistics in a computerized ledger, but also for preserving a particular way of life and respect for outdated customs (“You, you, you - break out the weapons! You, you and you - to the rigging! And you - put the kettle on!”) Brazil, for all its railing against the oppression of a rather ill-defined governmental force, boils down to the shamelessly underimagined fantasy world of Lowry, who has no inner life to fascinate us, and his whimpering determination to obtain his dream girl at all costs. And in true Gilliam fashion, which in the space of two years curdles from impish good humor to a nihilistic badge of honor, both the Assurance and Lowry end up cruising blithely off the edge of the world.
In many ways, Brazil is the most characteristic Gilliam movie in that it is his most everything-including-the-kitchen-sink picture in terms of tone and directorial temperament. The movie opens on a clouded blue sky and the title card “8:49 p.m. Somewhere in the 20th Century.” The absurd particularity of the time juxtaposed against the dodgy specifics of the date indicate the Pythonesque tone that I’d hoped, when I first saw the movie, would be in abundant evidence. Initially, my hopes were satisfied when, after a street bombing, the director of Central Services, the omniscient branch of the government that insinuates itself into every aspect of public and private life (their corporate logo is constructed out of section of the ever-present ducts that direct heat, air, and God knows what else into the homes of the populace) is seen being interviewed on a barely working TV screen upended in the smoking rubble. The interviewer poses a question regarding the unknown terrorists responsible for the citywide destruction: “The bombing campaign is now in its 13th year. How do you explain this?” To which the official replies, in that very British stiff-upper-lip manner, “Beginner’s luck!” And we’re off and running.
Unfortunately, once Gilliam plunks us down in the vertiginous city where, as Kael observed, everyone seems to “live and work squashed at the bottom of hollow towers” and there is no wardrobe in the city that doesn’t include a trench coat and oversized fedora (for that kitschy-self-aware film noir ambience), the film almost immediately takes on a heavier spirit, one which, while sprinkled with Pythonesque absurdities throughout, will come to feel as oppressive and smothering as Brazil’s society itself. The jokes finally end up feeling like tonal miscalculations—Gilliam clearly want us to cackle and gasp at Lowry’s futile struggles against the faceless, inept machinery running this society, but since many of the jokes don’t function on a satiric level—a building security squad is too busy rehearsing Christmas carols to notice the fugitive Sam scurrying right under their nose—they just seem extraneous, an indication that Gilliam, on a fundamental level, doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing.
Another indication is the heavy-handedness with which he directs the scenes involving Mrs. Buttle, the wife of the poor sap whose fate sets the action of the film in motion, for straight melodramatic anguish (the actress is not up to the task, and Gilliam’s camera seems momentarily hypnotized by her wide-eyed histrionics), and Lowry’s tedious flights of fantasy. It seems hard to believe that a director who is so quick to sneer at the foibles of everyday citizenry (when he’s not otherwise pretending to be their champion) would expect us to be engaged on some genuinely emotional level by the sight of Jonathan Pryce in winged armor and glam rock face paint-- the imagery he employs in these sequences is bargain-basement Freudian, sluggishly staged and edited. (Gilliam never reserves a wink for Lowry’s fantasies—he’s dead serious during moments when I was chuckling in embarrassment.) The director can indulge in a certain level of misanthropy and still provide a sense of exhilaration in the expressionistic set design, in the allusions, among the endlessly tall skyscrapers and interiors, to Metropolis or Triumph of the Will, or in the teeming street life of such an overpopulated city. And he does do wonders with the claustrophobia of an urban bus ride, or of the sense that Lowry, working in a tiny basement office, or even a larger basement office beside 30 or 40 other drones, can feel the weight of the entire building crushing down on his shoulders. But most often Gilliam’s celebrated sets, particularly the exteriors, look like, well, sets—miniature, toy sets—and curiously free of the hustle and bustle that would truly invigorate a look down these only semi-rude, not very mean, streets. In fact, the undernourished aspect of the movie’s visual strategy, which its proponents will often insist is sprung from a vision comparable to that in Blade Runner, begins to reflect the lack of nutrition in the whole film.
It’s reflected, too, in the disastrous casting of Jonathan Pryce and Kim Greist as the desperate romantic and his idealized object of desire. Pryce, an accomplished character actor, has an expressive face planted on that upside-down pear-shaped head of his, but he’s only asked to strike two emotions throughout the film, with little or no variance-- exasperated confusion and/or abject, whimpering fear. But it would take an actor of far more accomplishment, far more instant identification with an audience than Pryce is capable of mustering, to enable the spirit of Sam Lowry to connect with us (with me) on a character level, to understand him as a something more than just another unfortunate fly squashed by the whirring cogs of the system we’re (I’m) supposed to sympathize with because he has two eyes and two ears and walks upright and speaks a language we (I) recognize. It occurred to me while watching The Departed a second time recently how much more effective the part of Frank Costello, the Boston crime boss embodied by a showboating Jack Nicholson, would have been had he been played by British character actor Ray Winstone, who instead played Costello’s right-hand man. In a similar bit of wishful thinking, I kept thinking how much more I, and perhaps even Gilliam, would have had invested in Sam Lowry had Michael Palin been allowed to inhabit his fedora instead of Pryce. As it stands, Pryce’s increasingly whiny desperation coincides inversely with the level of interest I had in him finding a way out of this nightmare society with his sanity intact. Pryce is ultimately too closed-off of a performer to ever spin the illusion that I was anywhere near inside his head.
And if I could’ve gotten in there, I might have gotten a better look at just what he sees in Kim Greist’s bland, nondescript Jill Layton, other than the fact that she’s the only woman in the movie who’s not subject to the director’s derision over her vanity. (The shots this movie takes at Lowry’s mother and especially her friend, a dotty old pepper pot literally deteriorating under the knife of a charlatan plastic surgeon, are conspicuously ugly. It’s as if Gilliam was unaware that old men get tucked in too.) No, Jill is a tough-talkin’, short-cropped, chain-smokin’, truck-drivin’ son of a gun, and she obviously fulfills some extant fantasy we’re not made privy to about Lowry’s ideal woman—we first glimpse her in Sam’s fantasy, complete with long, flowing tresses and come-hither expressions of longing, so it takes a while to even compute on a basic level that this foul-mouthed trucker is Sam’s desire made flesh. She’s also bland and indistinct as a performer, and she’s got that one other quality that seems curiously out of whack with the movie’s general casting—with that flat, unaffected voice she’s clearly American. (So is Katharine Helmond as Lowry’s stretched and twisted mother, but she puts on an upper-crust accent that allows her to slide.) And as an object of fantasy, she’s a couple buckets short of any kind of engaging on-screen quality at all—if Gilliam was going for a Carole Lombard type, his eyes deceived him, and so did his pen, for he gives Greist damn little to do but drive that truck and, eventually, try to look sexy while pretending to be even remotely interested in Jonathan Pryce.
Together, she and Pryce form a swirling cipher at the center of the movie, where the most fertile fantasies and hopes and dreams should be informing and heightening the movie’s action. By the time the two of them break out of the main building that houses the dreaded Information Retrieval Office, play out an interminable scene in that truck where Pryce tries to convince her he’s trying to help her escape the thuggish guards who want to detain her, and then head out of the city where they’ll lay low while Jill attends to some business, I could almost feel the air leaking out of the movie. (Gilliam doesn’t help matters by shooting the locations beyond the skyscrapers in a giant abandoned industrial mill, a corner-cutting job for suggesting urban blight that not only sticks out like a sore thumb but also deadens the movie visually.) Pryce oversees something take place that convinces him she’s a terrorist, tries to get her to cop to it on the ride back, and then, faced with a police roadblock, forces her to drive through the barricade (a curious move for someone trying not to attract attention), at which point I’d given up much hope of Gilliam having any guiding control over whatever impulse fluttered into his head.
Brazil has no inherently curious, probing philosophy about the nature of humanity to underscore its razzle-dazzle, and to help paper over the holes in its concept, the way Blade Runner did. Instead, it expects the viewer to take Gilliam’s dystopian chitter-chatter and wholesale paranoia and adopt it, without question, as its own. Why else would it be so slipshod with plot elements that, had they been fleshed out, could have added dimension, some real scale, something to be at stake in the story besides whether or not poor put-upon Lowry will get the girl and keep his brain? Gilliam, and co-screenwriters Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard, never bother to clearly delineate, whether it’s real or falsified, Information Retrieval’s case against Jill and how it supposedly connects her with “freelance subversive” Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro), who bops around the city repairing faulty home duct systems apparently just to spite the Central Services executives. I guess we’re just supposed to chalk it up to the inefficiencies in the system and how it bypasses logic with specious inferences and convenient assumptions in order to bolster accusations designed to make them look like they’re doing their job.
But it struck me in watching Brazil recently that this is precisely the tack Gilliam and company take, rather than explore with any real depth the way a totalitarian society like this one might actually work to undermine the rights of its citizenry. The juvenile vision at the basis of Gilliam’s talent, and indeed his reputation as a filmmaker, is too impatient for any of that, however. It won’t allow for anything other than scoring easy points in the name of humanity off of this wholly contrived oppressive regime that bears resemblance to the real world only by tenuous inferences originating in the director’s fevered imagination, and it repeatedly offers the viewer its congratulations for accepting the movie’s wretched worldview on its shadowy, noir-inflected surface, without investigation, or reacting with appropriate awe at the ham-fisted bleakness of its Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge ending.
The movie’s incidental pleasures are few—the look on Bob Hoskins’ face as Spoor, an insidious Central Services duct repairman, who listens with uncontainable glee as Lowry stumbles through an explanation of why he no longer needs their services, is one of them. Another is a set piece involving Lowry and Tuttle’s revenge on Spoor and his cohort, involving enclosed transparent suits that fill up with sewage and turn an unfortunate apartment into a literal shithouse. I laughed again the other night, with just the right pitch of manic Gilliamesque delight, when I saw this scene again, as I always have whenever I’ve seen this movie. It’s one of the movie’s liveliest scenes, and it proves that a man drowning in caca can be pretty funny. Gilliam, however, has made a near-universally acclaimed movie built around a particularly snide kind of rage against the machine-- a pokey jumble of half-realized environments, ill-defined episodes and fuzzy-headed activity all centered on a cackling denial of his own investment in a series of clichés about the power of a man’s dreams to escape suffocating reality. This is a movie that reveals a young director with perhaps too many ideas and not enough filmmaking skill to fully enliven them, a director in search of artistic validation by traveling down a well-worn, but not particularly convincing avenue of nihilism. Gilliam may occasionally dabble in shit, to varying degrees and with varying results, but another look has convinced me that Brazil is simply full of it.