Here’s spot five in our series on Man and the Machine that commenced last November. This months post will highlight a motion picture released in 1985 by director Terry Gilliam.  “Brazil” is a study of a man ensnared in the machine of bureaucracy.

Gilliam’s screenplay descends from last century storytellers, such as Franz Kafka, and George Orwell whose clairvoyant visions gave us today’s headlines fifty to a hundred years in advance. If we’d subscribe to the viewpoints of those scribes as passionately as we repeat the opinions of our political leaders today, we might still evade their frightening predictions.

The prototype attack drone of James Cameron’s “The Terminator,” which we looked at in post three was, for some reason, assigned the disreputable year 1984 to explode on the scene. This month’s title was released soon after “The Terminator” and features none other than Big Brother himself, from Orwell’s opus, or his next of kin at least, in any case a gargantuan government plays the devil in “Brazil.”

It’s a gnarly web to which Sam Lowry’s futuristic culture clings. Everything and everyone is connected by machine. A totalitarian eye eves drops on a first world countrymen much like my own. “Brazil” bureaucrats are able to obtain any material thing known if they have the money and connections. Those with neither must languish in a jammed socio-economic intersection.

The trappings are all familiar. Grotesquely cheap flats and mini-motorcars are an average carrot for the company man and for the elite there’s garish palaces and cosmetic surgery. However, progress along an orderly line is impossible for average folks in “Brazil.” Like the tubes and cables that twist through their living rooms, everything is overloaded, impounded or outdated. Any citizens’ life can take sudden turns and get spliced or derailed onto a random identity, torn from their homes and bound to the Ministry for rendition. In “Brazil,”lives are snuffed at the drop of a receipt. Thank God it’s only a movie.

The title refers to the song Sam Lowry sings to himself at the movie’s devastating end. An attribute of “Brazil” worth studying is how the movie maker embeds the musical score in the narrative, from  the first impression of its title and melody, to the way it accentuates the irony of its disturbing finale. Title and the theme song are like magnets that lock together at the last possible moment of the movie after having drawn the audience between them.

“Brazil” is hailed universally for its hyper-imaginative portrayal of life in a gridlocked bureaucracy. It is also frequently dissed as one of the most bleak and cynical journeys in motion picture history.  Even though this movie is futuristic, “Brazil” gazes back over its shoulder at a previous critique of totalitarianism, “The Conformist,” by Bernardo Bertolucci, another chapter from our past exposing how human beings can be chewed up in bureaucracy.

The design of the government buildings are closely related. Those clean, high contrast, echo prone interiors in either movie could share the same physical address. Not only that, notice how the sky and clouds on the wallpaper of the conformist’s bedroom, in the closing minutes of Bertolucci’s film, turn up as the virtual background for Sam Lowry’s eagle-like alter-ego in the opening scene of Gilliam’s tale. The major turning point in both films clicks when the protagonist chooses narcissism over heroism, trading freedom for slavery.

I’ll take this opportunity to point out how obviously “Brazil” furnished a model for the art design of “The Matrix,” too, that great sci-fi watershed from the very end of the last century mentioned in my last post. All three film’s designers owe a debt to Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,”(1927) another controversial flick about man and the machine that has been repeatedly subjected to the scalpel, resulting in at least five different edited versions as well. I will comment on that film in greater length at a later date.

Concerning “Brazil,” let’s briefly delve in to Terry Gilliam’s choice of christening with the name Brazil the utopian destination in Sam Lowry’s imaginary escapes. Since there are so many tropical locales to choose from that evoke the exotic and the pristine, why did the filmmaker choose those hemispheres? Thinking of Gilliam’s orientation as a comic, I’d have to ask myself–with what conspicuous grotesqueness does the factual country of Brazil contrast with the unsettling, familiar looking dystopia where Sam and Harry exist?

Modern Brazil is an enormous land. Its not just driblets of paradise like Tahiti or Santorini. Brazil dominates its corner of the globe and is home to the Amazon, cradle of the most biologically diverse wilderness left on earth. Brazil literally gives us the air we breathe. From a prophetic standpoint, it stands to reason the region might become number one among humankind’s last hopes for survival.

So let’s just assume that where Sam lives in the future is the opposite of what Brazil represents now. The symbolism suggests we still have a place to retreat to, or someone does. What matters to you and me is the same thing it comes down to for Sam and Harry in their world. Bottom line, we all want to live in a place free of slavery and terrorism. Sam tries for it with his fantasies of Brazil. Meanwhile Harry Tuttle’s busy solving practical problems right where he is. No wonder “Brazil” ends in tragedy for Sam.
Continued to next month…