Remembering Terry Gilliam’s Brazil
Until I was about 14 years old, I was strictly a music nerd. I have distinct memories of arguing with another kid I went to school with around the time Radiohead’s Kid A came out, with him insisting that Limp Bizkit were the best rock band in the world. I was in Grade 9 at the time, and I spent most of my time compiling C90 mixtapes for use on my walks to and from school. It was around this time, and early high school the following year, that I started to frequent Video Difference, which was the only video store worth frequenting in Halifax. Three floors of meticulously arranged titles to discover (on VHS, of course), a whole new universe to try and become an expert on instead of building a genuine social life.
While I have fond memories of stuff like The Young Ones and a hilariously amateurish rock n’ roll biopic called I’m Not Fascinating, in other words, the sort of thing I could (and did) watch repeatedly with friends, no movie left as clear a mark on me as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Watching it for the first time in the basement of the house I did the better part of my growing up in, I responded immediately to both the film’s darkly funny yet ultimately tragic tone, as well as its seemingly impossibly complicated visual design. Brazil did more than alert me to the possibilities of the medium, though. It also introduced me to thinking critically about movies, as well as the processes that go into even bringing them about.
After that first viewing, I remember diving into Brazil‘s troubled and very public production history as well as its reception and being awed by a few different factors. I’d already taken up the habit of looking up Roger Ebert’s review of whatever I’d just watched, but in the case of Brazil, that turned out to be a vexing move. Ebert: “The movie is very hard to follow. I have seen it twice, and I am still not sure exactly who all the characters are, or how they fit.” This struck me (and frankly, still strikes me) as odd, since even on first viewing I didn’t feel I’d missed anything important or not understood the character relationships, and I was fourteen. More to the point, though, was a qualm that I misremembered as being part of Ebert’s written review, with one critic having reached an impasse with the film over its concluding scenes. (Spoilers herein for anyone who hasn’t seen Brazil.) The crux of the argument was: “I can’t reconcile madness as a ‘happy ending.’” This, too, I found odd, as for some reason the film’s ironic, tragic last scenes resonated strongly and without much fuss for me.
More than just making me recoil from these contrary readings, though, Brazil taught me how to watch and really appreciate films, as well as making clear that loving a movie does not make it perfect. Repeat viewings over the years have made it clear that the movie has at least one great big flaw, and its name is Kim Greist. Gilliam himself was reportedly less than thrilled with her performance (reflected in his editing choices; more on those in a moment), and it’s not hard to see why – as embodied by Greist, Jill is difficult to accept as anyone’s dream girl, let alone one worth throwing your entire existence into turmoil over. Yet, there’s a strange poignancy to even that aspect of the film, for anyone willing to make the leap; after all, in a world where every experience is mediated and every dream is distant, why shouldn’t the girl of your dreams be disappointing once you actually meet her?
What seems to really chafe for Brazil dissenters – and their ranks have grown over the years, in the backlash to the film’s once-hallowed status as a director’s-rights wet dream – is that it’s an extraordinarily complex, busy production whose core values are ultimately extremely simple. Some find Lowry’s “flights,” in which he daydreams about rescuing his damsel-in-distress on silver wings amidst rocketing skyscrapers, laughable and altogether cheesy. Some take exception to the obsessively cluttered retro-futurist design. And so whenever I return to Brazil I expect to be disappointed, armed with new arguments for why it’s really not so special, after all. It hasn’t happened yet.
Different virtues stick out over time, though. In initial talks with Gilliam, Robert de Niro was angling for the role of Jack, Lowry’s duplicitous and very possibly demented friend in the Ministry. Gilliam had already given the part to his ex-Python cohort Michael Palin, so de Niro got the part of Harry Tuttle, the renegade duct repairman who’s probably the film’s only true hero. Palin and de Niro probably give the film’s best performances, with Palin being surprisingly effective as a seriously tortured artist, and De Niro giving a wonderfully picaresque turn, giving us the impression that Tuttle is the star of a more conventionally exciting movie whenever he’s not around to save Lowry from Ministry goons.
The depiction of the Ministry and the government forces is quite striking, as well. That it’s an extremely bloated bureaucracy that earns ridicule throughout the film, and rightfully so, does nothing to undercut the fact that it’s also hopelessly powerful and totalitarian. Essentially, Brazil posits 1984 but with a tremendous injection of banality and human error. That the seemingly labyrinthine (though actually fairly simple) plot is kicked into gear by an errant fly is funny and fitting, but doesn’t make Lowry’s eventual fate any less awful. You can still picture a boot stamping on a human face, forever, only now the face is smiling. That may seem preferable, but it does nothing to alleviate the stamping.
A few years after I first saw Brazil, when I first got my hands on the Criterion edition, I finally got to see the multiple cuts of the film described in countless articles and reviews of the film. Frankly, though, I couldn’t get through Sid Sheinberg’s “Love Conquers All” edit, despite my best efforts. Just catching the below embed of the “improved” ending makes my stomach turn – especially to think that this cut aired repeatedly on TV throughout the 80s and 90s.
Brazil also taught me a hard lesson: diminishing returns are usually an inevitability. I recall excitedly seeking out Gilliam’s other films, only to be disappointed in one way or another by almost all of them. (The obvious exception is 12 Monkeys, which is blessed with one of the best screenplays of any Hollywood film in the 90s. Also, the feature-length doc that accompanies it on the DVD, The Hamster Factor, is more insightful and less blindly worshipful than Lost in La Mancha.) Even among the other purportedly “great” ones like Time Bandits and The Fisher King, I was unable to forge a connection like I had with Brazil. It’s not a matter of the subject matter or approaches being too sunny, either – Tideland is certainly his darkest film, but it’s also garbage, aside from a couple of strong performances.
Brazil remains a single-minded, yet convoluted in execution, take on the uselessness of sanity and reason in a universe without hope. It espouses lots of trite sentiments about the enduring power of love, the resilience of the human spirit, and the untrustworthy nature of government. Yet it remains the most important film of my early filmgoing life, and still feels like a great film while I’m watching it. However my take on the movie evolves over time, though, it’ll always be the movie that taught me what movies are capable of.
For more on Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, check out the Sordid Cinema Podcast embedded below.