Sunday, September 6, 1998

Brazil nuts

Finally got a look-see of the uncut, VHS copy of Terry Gilliam's Brazil -- helpfully duped from the Criterion laser disc by my pal in SoCal. (Thanx and a hattip to BadCog.) I'd seen the mangled version on TV, but never the real thing.

Jesus. Entertaining? Yeah. In the sense that the Book of Revelations is a wacky, comedic romp. What an experience. Terry Gilliam just mugged my subconscious. I'm still wrapping my brain around the sensory/conceptual assault.

But here's my preliminary verdict ...

Brazil is a movie about baby men. Baby men and their baby dreams.

The men in this movie are all boys. They blather stale sports metaphors. They whine, "It's not my fault!" like squabbling brats. They play tug of war with desks and computers. They exact revenge by switching oxygen tubes with feces tubes. Not even boys. Babies all. But let's stick with the hero ...

Sam Lowry (Jonathan Price) is the so-called hero. Sam's what Hans and Franz would call a baby man. His dreams are baby dreams. (The dreams of a "fifth grade comic book mind," to quote Mr. Roat.) In Sam's dreams, he’s a superhero—an artificially-winged knight out of a DaVinci notebook, rescuing a damsel in distress from the Forces of Darkness. The woman of his dreams ...

In reality, Sam’s a clerk. (Or “clark,” as they say in the UK). His world is a crappy, low rent dystopia: a cross between 1984 and a screwball comedy existing, “sometime in the 20th century.” The ecology is a polluted wasteland covered with happy billboards. The machines are Rube Goldberg contraptions that don’t work right; all the buildings are laced with ugly ducts (the way our streets are laced with wires and telephone poles). Sam’s society is obsessed with consumerism and paperwork. There’s also (in an echo of the IRA London bombings) a constant background noise of terrorism. People are always getting blown up, then soldiering on and pretending nothing happened. (The movie broadly hints that the terrorists are all working for the government.) Said government responds by grabbing terrorist suspects and interrogating them under torture—though reluctantly, and never in a mean-spirited way. (And charging their credit cards for the expense.)

Shitty world, kids. Sam, wisely, has found a hole to crawl into. A low-level, nothing job in the Ministry of Information. A safe place to hide from the universal bullshit. Sam lives in his dreams -- which are mostly daydreams. (Like Walter Mitty before him, Sam is constantly zoning out into heroic fantasies. Sam battles giant mechanical Samurai, baby-faced Hydra and other monsters.) It’s clear Sam's baby dreams come from Hollywood — based on Sam’s quotes from Casablanca and the movie posters in his apartment. His mother keeps trying to get him promoted, but Sam's not interested in climbing the ladder. He’s keeping his head down.

Sam's separate peace gets shot to hell, thanks to a paperwork error. A clerk kills a fly; the dead fly gets into the printout machine, and scrambles an arrest order. "Tuttle" becomes "Buttle." The wrong guy gets arrested and dies under torture. Jill, a woman who’s also dropped out of her society and found an anonymous job as a truck driver — gets involved. The Buttles are her neighbors, and she hates what's happened to them. Jill fights to get justice for the dead man’s family. Sam sees Jill making a scene at the Ministry of Information — and he’s seen her before. She’s the girl of his dreams, natch. Unfortunately, Jill's making a lot of noise and is now on the terrorist suspect list.

Sam's fantasy world and the real world converge. Sam, the human cipher, starts trying to act like a hero in real life to save the girl of his dreams. It ends badly. In a brilliant but sadistic move -- Gilliam gives us both the happy ending and the sad ending.

In his dreams, Sam rescues Jill and takes her away to a prefab home in an idyllic spot of countryside. (There's sheep, yet.) They live happily ever after.

In reality, Jill gets shot and Sam is lobotomized.

What a kick in the head, eh?

But it's chock-full of laughs. The script, by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Tom McKeon, is a brilliant collaboration. It's funny as hell, and simultaneously surreal. (Nice trick. Surrealism usually ain't funny.) Lotsa bizarre imagery, as seen through a fish eye lens darkly; lotsa sparkling wordplay.The performances (by Price, Robert DeNiro, Kim Greist, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins and others) are astonishing, and just one turn-of-the-screw over the top. Gilliam's art-direction/set design is dense, claustrophobic, brilliant and convincing. It's expressionistic. (In case you miss the point about the babyishness of it all, Gilliam puts his torturer and various dream monsters in baby masks.) Simultaneously, the sheer, multilayered texture of it all creates its own reality. You believe in this world, the way you believe in the world of Blade Runner.

So, why Brazil?

The title takes its name from the corny song from the 1940s, which threads through the movie like a lietmotif on the soundtrack. "Brazil" is the land of dreams, the place of escape, the place where people can be free, the place where they can love, the place that this world ain't. It's the Golden Country from 1984.

Evidently, that's a baby dream.

Sam and Jill should've minded their own business. Bad boy revolutionary filmmaker Terry Gilliam sez: You can't change the system. You can't fight City Hall.

No. That can't be the moral of the story. No.

Like I said, I'm still wrapping my brain around it.

Re: Baby Dreams.

Back in 1954, Alfred Bester wrote a short story called, 5,271,009 on the subject of “baby dreams.” It was the tale of a man who had retreated into infancy when a semi-fallen angel gave the man an unguarded look. To cure him, the angel lets the man experience every infantile dream imaginable (the ones found in pulp SF, naturally). To quote the Faraway Fiend, “To be the last man on earth and own the earth; to be the last fertile man on earth and own the women; to go back in time with the advantage of adult novels and win victories.” The baby dreams all suck when they come true. The man snaps back to reality—though his face is prematurely old.

Re: Sad and happy endings.

Sidney Sheinberg at Universal Studios figured Gilliam’s vision was too depressing – and re-edited Brazil to give it a happy ending. In addition to many other changes, he cut the lobotomy scene and left us with the triumphant happy ending, period. This was the notorious “Love Conquers All” version of Brazil. Gilliam went to war with Sheinberg to get control of his movie and ultimately won. Sheinberg’s version never saw theatrical release—but it was released on television. This was the version I saw, about ten years ago, at my father’s house. (I know this now, because I’ve seen the various commentaries and extra features.) I didn’t know any of this when I started watching Brazil. I was expecting the happy ending I’d seen on TV. As a result, I had my guard down. Gilliam’s actual ending hit me like a ton of bricks. Unintentionally, Sheinberg’s sentimental meddling helped Gilliam make his cynical point – at least to this one, unsuspecting viewer. Thanks, Sid.

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