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Not with a Bang but a Whimper

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Pajiba Blockbusters | May 13, 2009 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Pajiba Blockbusters | May 13, 2009 |

“Don’t fight it son. Confess quickly! If you hold out too long you could jeopardize your credit rating.” — Guard

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil stands as one of the great dystopian science fiction films, a nightmare of bureaucratic hell that has gradually sharpened over the quarter century since its release into an even more urgent and relevant vision of society. One of the founders of the legendary Monty Python, Gilliam has carved a film-making career out of surreal, deeply thoughtful, and darkly hilarious tales that often wander into the realms of fantasy and science fiction. It’s the humor that makes his films work so well, operating on the same basic principle as Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon: humor enhances a serious topic, it does not distract from it.

Brazil is an explosion of beautiful 50’s retro sci-fi cross pollinated with strands of steam punk. It’s an early exploration of retro-futuristic style, the kind that Fallout and later Bioshock took on in the video game world. It’s what people fifty years ago might imagine the present to look like. Suffocating corridors, vacuum tube and neon electronics, typewriters as keyboards, ubiquitous little flat screens blasting inanity, tiny cars like hatchbacks sent through a trash compactor, ductwork and pipes everywhere.

The film opens on a window display stack of televisions that promptly explode, the first of many inexplicable and sudden explosions throughout the film. After a brief title screen in neon, the camera rotates to capture one of the televisions, still broadcasting though on fire. The dark humor begins with the interview of a government official.

“What do you believe is behind this increase in terrorist bombings?”
“Bad sportsmanship.”

And then…

“How do you account for the fact that the bombing campaign has been going on for thirteen years?”
“Beginners’ luck.”

We switch then to an office worker, listening to the broadcast, annoyed by a buzzing fly amidst typewriters clanging away automatically. He swats the fly, it falls into a typewriter, a “T” changes to a “B,” arrest orders are dispatched for Buttle instead of Tuttle. A horde of armed men storm a cramped apartment. Buttle is hooded, bound, shackled, his terrified wife forced to sign not just a receipt for his arrest, but the bill for his subsequent interrogation, torture and murder.

This is how Gilliam sets the stage for his masterpiece, a stage so bloodily familiar to us today, 1984 updated to reflect the reality of tyranny in the modern state. The archetype of dystopia is the all-seeing, all-knowing state, perfect and meticulous. Sauron in a skyscraper. But the devil is in the details of implementation. Bureaucracies are massive, slow and incompetent, the real tools of the totalitarian state are not sharp and precise but dull and mistake-ridden. Brazil shows us that dreary dystopia on the ground floor, where it’s not so much fear that oppresses the spirit, but a crushing helplessness.

When you watch this film, watch the background, read the random posters and snippets of text, listen to the edges of conversation you catch off screen. Gilliam has thoroughly painted in the details of his world, fleshing out the borders of the screen while the nominal action takes place at the center. The peripheral vision and hearing of the film is extraordinary and provides a number of running themes that manage to worm their way through almost every scene in the film without feeling super imposed.

Duct work runs everywhere in the film, bursting the walls at the seams with beating and breathing apparatuses that reveal more life in the inanimate objects of the world than in most of the dreary and depressed people. Restaurants, offices, apartments, cluttered with ducts, everywhere except the center most parts of the government, because that is the originator of the ducts. It’s a clever metaphor of the way that the state has become an overzealous and dysfunctional mother in the film, umbilical cords running to every citizen at every turn. The heart of every dystopia is a utopia turned on its head. Brazil’s utopia of a mother state caring for all its children is turned upside down into the psychotic bitch mother feeding off of its children. The nurturer twists into a parasite. You can tell a lot about a nation’s vision of utopia by whether the citizens refer to their country as a “motherland,” “fatherland,” or “homeland.”

Our hero is Sam, a mild-mannered cross between Winston Smith and Peter Gibbons, played by Jonathan Pryce, better known as the guy from the Lexus commercials in the 90s. Sam exercises some serious Walter Mitty daydreams throughout the film. He flies on wings blended of feathers and clockwork, fighting giant ductwork samurai and trying to save his dream girl. The dreams blend ever more with reality leading to a tragically depressing twist of the knife at the film’s finale, the pathos of which M. Night Shyamalan has grasped at for the better part of a decade.

The side characters are as clever and well rounded as the background details of the camera work. We are introduced to Harry Tuttle, the man saved by the typo, Robert DeNiro putting in a joyous performance as a renegade repair man, ziplining from building to building repairing the constantly breaking down ductwork like a vigilante plumber version of Batman. Sam’s mother, played with a sadistic and creepy verve by Katherine Helmond (Mona from “Who’s the Boss?”) undergoes a cavalcade of plastic surgery, getting younger and less and less human as the film progresses. Ian Holm is fantastic as Sam’s squirrelly middle manager boss who has veritable nervous breakdowns over glitches in paperwork.

In the end, the film becomes a meditation on state torture and terrorism that rings eerily true to this day. There are no terrorists, except in the imaginations of people like Sam. The explosions become part of the backdrop of society, a horror everyone gets used to, but one that justifies whatever the government wants to do. Torture enables the system. Every person tortured to a confession of terrorism justifies further arrests and torture in order to prevent more terrorism. And of course the hideous baby’s mask, the face of torture. We are just children in this state, even the torturers are just babies throwing tantrums for the benefit of the mother.

Brazil is one of those rare films that not only meditates on larger themes, but does so in a brutally hilarious way. I’d venture to say that it is the best dystopian film I’ve ever seen, simply because Gilliam so intuitively understands that gallows humor drives home the tragic absurdity of a broken world far more deeply than somberness.

Jill: “Say, ‘all wars have innocent victims.’”
Sam: “Well, all wars do…”
Jill: “Who is this war against, Sam?”
Sam: “Well, terrorists of course.”
Jill: “How many terrorists have you met? Actual terrorists?”
Sam: “Actual… terrorists? Well … it’s only my first day.”

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.