“Samsara,” is the latest cinematic exploration into the mysteries of earth by filmmaker Ron Fricke. This guided meditation on the seasons of life, death and rebirth was exquisitely photographed in 70mm. Its synthesis of time-lapse, slow motion and optical phase printing, becomes a quintessential time/space travel device invented by the filmmakers for mass enlightenment.
Fricke’s pioneering camerawork was first seen by a larger audience in the groundbreaking non-verbal feature “Koyaanisqatsi” directed by Santa Fe resident Godfrey Reggio. Their collaboration deepened through two additional titles by Reggio entitled “Powaqqatsi,” and “Naqoyqatsi, while Fricke graduated to directing his own features including the award winning “Chronos” (1985) and “Baraka”(1992).
“Koyaanisqatsi” made its world premier at the Santa Fe Film Festival on April 28, 1982 and was immediately hailed as a groundbreaking cinematic achievement. It went on to be embraced internationally for its innovative presentation of moving images, as well as its landmark soundtrack by composer Philip Glass.
The man who inspired worldwide audiences and generations of film experimenters, started out life on a very different path. Reggio began his adulthood a Catholic monk and though he left the order decades ago, it is obvious that between his now graying eyebrows still springs the same determination to share spiritual sustenance with his fellow human beings.
At the Santa Fe Art Institute a couple of years back, I listened to him speak about modern life, creative work, and his thoughts on new media. Though his films demonstrate great technical mastery, the director does not place his faith in the future upon technology. It’s always the message that counts with that celluloid sage, much more than his method.
There is something distinctly biblical about the Qatsi Trilogy. I wonder if the director would agree with my description of his work as serving up a sort of a secular, non-verbal gospel. The word “sacramental” adequately describes my experience of watching any one of those movies with an open mind.
For the sake of better appreciating their place in the evolution of motion pictures, “Samsara,” “Baraka,” and the Qatsi Trilogy could be grouped together as state of the art examples of a long established sub-culture in movie making. Absent of actors and contrived sets, Pure Cinema enlarges upon the language of montage (film editing), which is distinct from theater or literature in that it encompasses a multidimensional choreography of light, lens, time, nature, humanity and machine. Very early experiments in this form include “Ballet Mechanique (1924),” “Berlin, Symphony of a City (1927),” and “Man with a Movie Camera (1929)” among others.
The films of Reggio and Fricke, from “Koyaanisqatsi” through “Samsara,” make particular use of an early editing experiment referred to as “The Kulishov Effect,” in which an actor was filmed with a dispassionate expression. The film was then cut together with contrasting images that lead the audience to conclusions by association, to prove it is not the content of the pictures, but their combination that imbues movies with their meaning.
For example, pairing the actor’s neutral close up with a steaming bowl of soup, Russian film pioneer Lem Kulishov made audiences unanimously presume that the man was hungry. Editing together the very same clip of the face with a child’s coffin made him seem to be grieving. The Kulishov Effect allows for a pronounced editorial tone, yet one that common sense must confirm in each of us, inviting the viewer to interpret for him or herself the emotional value an image.
Though we may think we have seen some of “Samsara’s” subjects before, time and again it is revealed to us that we haven’t. Contrasting a bird’s with a worm’s eye point of view, the filmmakers scrub our attention back and forth across a broad swath of earthly activities to gently cleanse our eyes of apathy and bias and flush out entropy and dysfunction in society at large.
Not all the scenes of nature in “Samsara” are upward gazing in awe. Neither are all views of the machine downcast with disdain. One of the most inspiring visuals I came away with was of a metropolis at night, glittering like crystal, firmly fixed, yet in perpetual motion, exhaling light into the darkness.
The transcendent power of these cinematic dissertations lie in there involvement of the audience. Movies mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Then in the movie theater, we’re all looking at them from a slightly different angle. While they were making the “Koyaanisqatsi”, executives warned them that no one would ever watch it because there was no dialog. When they would ask the director “Who’s in it?” He would say, “you.”
Whenever we buy a movie ticket, or click to a live stream we’re asking for the truth, The same thing that keeps us from seeing the truth while it’s happening to us is what makes it plane as day when we watch it replayed on screen.
Time is what shields us from the truth, not time itself, of course, but our attitudes toward it. An example of this would be to go to a movie like one of these for instance, and to be so preoccupied with your own past and future you completely miss the present purpose of the film you came to see. The same dynamic explains why the truth in life escapes our notice so much of the time. You go away wondering what’s the point.
Is it possible to watch any of these films and be distracted by anything more important? The genius of these films is that there is no better story than the one unfolding on this earth at this moment. The content in these assembled recordings absorbs its audience by enlightening them to the naked truth that eludes us night and day.
That’s why a new one of these titles has been released every decade or so. Motion pictures like these help us take the blinders off. Each is a multidimensional time capsule of natures wonder, plunder and blunder as well as a kind of mellow psychedelic trip without the attendant risks. After watching “Samsara,” I feel like I’ve grown as a human being, intoxicated by the elegance of nature and sobered by my complicity with the machine.
This month’s post “Man and the Machine,” is a continuation of the series on Nature and the Machine begun last month. It seems like a good point of departure after the last post, which introduced Ron Fricke’s “Samsara” and films of a genre in which man and machine combine to produce a product of universal value to humanity. It is unfortunate that the same combination of tools and human ingenuity, employed by the same industry, has also produced gargantuan volumes of psychic pollution in the name of entertainment.
I am not here to declare particular films or their makers as polluters. That is a matter of personal taste. Movies are essentially stories, or at least they appeal to our appetite for them, and everyone is entitled to their own preference. I will not impose my values on films that I don’t care for. They don’t belong to me. If I don’t like a movie, it may be because I haven’t taken the trouble to understand it. Or, it may be I understand it but have no present need or desire for its content.
Like many items for consumption nowadays, if it soaks up precious resources without delivering sustainable returns, I can’t be bothered. Such wasteful products are good examples of the machines taking over. But they can only do so with my agreement. So, while I will never agitate for a ban on bad movies, I will always encourage filmmakers to be benevolent with their art. The images we fashion and release into the culture can have unintended influence especially to people that might not be able to hear or understand the language the characters are speaking. Stanley Kubrick understood this when he made “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
The history of motion pictures is filled with parables and metaphors that warn us of the dangers of the machine taking over. This month we will concentrate on Stanley Kubrick’s seminal science fiction masterpiece, based on Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel.” Personally, I had not watched the film in more than 20 years.
Released almost 50 years ago, the film gave us advanced intel on our present day circumstances, predicting now commonplace innovations such as I-pad and Skype and such staggeringly complex achievements as space stations and Jupiter missions. I was particularly impressed, while watching the film this time, that government scientist Floyd Haywood’s four year-old daughter, with whom he Skypes on his way to a meeting, asks for a telephone for her birthday. I would not be surprised if 2001 was the precise coordinate point in history when little kids started asking their parents for their very own cell phones.
As someone who studied the Bible a great deal when I was growing up, I’ve often wondered why there are no prophets in the modern world? Has the Bible ever stopped being written? What is the difference between Ezekiel, who reports to have seen a great wheel way up in the sky, Kubrick who puts it up there on a movie screen for all to look at nearly half a century before it becomes a reality?
“2001: A Space Odyssey” predicts more disturbing trends that have come to pass as well, particularly mass surveillance and the virtual police state. I refer you, for instance, to a conversation HAL has with Dave just before HAL predicts (erroneously) that a key component of their spacecraft is going to fail within 72 hours. HAL probes Dave for any hints of doubt about the mission he is on. Dave gives away none of his private thoughts during this discussion and remarks that HAL must be working up his crew psychology report, to which HAL readily admits.
We now live with that all-seeing eye that socializes with us, like a real human being, and probes us with sympathetic dialogs that it can analyze to use for or against us in the future if it should become necessary. At first glance, the eye of surveillance is not so threatening to someone with a healthy conscience, who’s superego has always watched and kept him or her on a benevolent path throughout life’s long, winding passages.
I assume we all have abhorrent thoughts once in awhile. To quote another modern day prophet, in his song,” It’s Alright Ma’, I’m Only Bleeding” the poet confesses, “and if my thought dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” As his illustrious career has proven, such thoughts are not dangerous. I hope our modern day eavesdroppers respect this. The real danger is when the machine flips out. This the catastrophy at the heart of Kubrick’s movie.
We see the sci-fi genre so often heading off in the direction of machines overthrowing the human race, such as “Blade Runner” “Brazil” or “The Matrix.” I will probably delve in to those titles in the coming months but I don’t want to present my subject as “man versus the machine.” As Kubrick so eloquently states, the machine is just man’s tool, like the bone our simian ancestor hurls unto the sky in the inciting incident of his movie.
The machine is never going to turn on us. Only we can do that. So one obvious question is, have we already turned on ourselves with our machines? The answer is yes. Anyone care to argue the point? The more important question is can we use machines to save ourselves? Again, yes. I have not, until now, emphasized the essential fact that corporations are also machines as are governments, but these are the most critical tools humans have invented to achieve the highest potential for all humankind.
Like many of us, the characters In “2001” lives seem utterly dependent on the trinity of technology, government and corporation. Of those three, the HAL 9000 computer that operates their craft is supposedly inviolable, like the Almighty of the Bible. As misinformation starts to pour in, the astronauts delve deeper into their dilemma, HAL reminds them he has never committed even the slightest miscalculation. To his credit, HAL admits a mistake was made and correctly asserts the blame rests with “human error.”
So what happens when God makes a mistake? It’s not God’s fault. It never is. It is, however, up to man to fix the problem. If the astronauts are going to survive, they must disengage from the artificial life support system that has sustained them up to that point. In “2001” the solution is to decommission HAL.
HAL resists the prospect of being taken offline by cutting Frank loose during a space walk and letting him die and drift off into deep space. If you put yourself in Frank’s place, this is the most horrifying image in the movie. It cuts to the bone most effectively because this is what the machine threatens to do to us if we mess with it. If we attempt to defend ourselves from its fallacies the machine will banish us outside its protective sphere. If we go along with its faulty program, we will most certainly be led off a precipice. So it takes tremendous courage to seize control of one’s own destiny.
It is no coincidence that the color of the lens of HAL’s all seeing eye is red and it happens to be the red that you see with your eyelids closed and pointed at the sun. That must be the first color we ever register, the same red of the inside of an egg sack, the illuminated bloodstream we see on the inside of our mother’s belly. When Dave gets inside HAL’s brain and starts disconnecting drives, the inner sanctum is the same shade.
Did Kubrick make that choice because he understood this world of machines, those made of materials as well as those made of men, were like a womb that we would have to abandon some day, when we’ve fully gestated and can no longer sustain life there? Are the mistakes of the machine actually the throws of birth, heaving us out of here and into some appointed place where the full color spectrum of lights, patterns, curves and angles accompanying Dave’s astounding right of passage through the cosmic birth canal portend great harmony within diversity.
Of course, Dave’s journey is assisted by invisible extraterrestrials, with whom he shares some destiny. We can’t rely on such interventions, at least not yet. That’s where the movies come in. I don’t mean all movies. I mean movies like “2001” and “Samsara,” movies that enrich humankind by showing us the truth. The truth eludes us in ordinary consciousness while we obsess about past and future. These are movies that urge us to leave the womb. Cinema is a technology that carries across that abyss of ignorance and apathy. Such movies awaken us to the errors that are built in to the faulty survival schemes of our present day and age.
Nature & Machine Part III
Does “Terminator” mentality spread from individual to society or vice versa, or both? It is easy to blame the movies, but at the time of this post, my country’s representatives have just returned from a climate summit in Qatar in which, yet again, they failed to take vital steps to avert ecological disaster. What kind of outlook can such deliberate denial foster in a people when it imposes a death sentence upon their future? You can’t blame that on the movies.
Does the rest of the world comprehend now how random citizens go on killing sprees in my country? The malfunction of the American dream is not part of some twisted conspiracy, but an unfortunate side effect of toxins churned up by our misuse of machines.
In relation to most of the rest of our breeding, excreting kin on this earthly plane, my country’s an infant that needs its diaper changed. We won’t deal with our excrement so it piles to the ceiling. This lack of hygiene is bound to kill some and spoil things down stream. Toxins, like bad news, beget more of the same. Less than a week after Qatar comes Sandy Hook to heap shame upon shame. Why is it that suburban psychos targeting children and mothers confound us? Was it a wacko’s attempt to spare future refugees from the larger nightmare closing around us?
We overtook this country by force and we’ve been polluting it ever since we moved in. As far back as we are willing to look warnings about the consequence have been pouring in. Back when I first struck out on my own, we were being cautioned about a nasty dragon, somewhere upwind, wielding mechanical limbs beneath human skin. I saw him first on a giant screen at the drive-in. A cold-hearted robot, programmed for obsession, was stalking and slaying with automatic weapons. If you missed that particular sci-fi attraction, just imagine any suburban assassin from last year in action.
The film I was referring to is James Cameron’s “The Terminator”(1984), which features a mechanical hit man dispatched from the future to prevent the birth of a rebel redeemer. It has been said that Cameron took his story from Harlan Ellison, another insightful science fiction dreamer. But their bad guy was clearly nicked from the last book of the Bible in which a dragon threatens the mother of the savior. Both stories’ beasts personify our most toxic behavior.
So, if books of old also illuminate opposing sides of human nature, why blame popular songs, games and movies of the new and future? In the Bible, our internal opposites come to head in bloody war. When the Savior subdues the Beast, it settles the score. Cameron’s tightly plotted Armageddon of ’84 is an American factory assembly line noir, where a robot’s rampage ends with a hydraulic squish under the hand of a mother savior.
But first, the Beast, according to Cameron, arrives disguised as a man. From beside a dumpster, in a garbage truck’s beneficent shade, the monster embarks on its toxic crusade. Any one of the Terminators attempts on Sarah Connor’s life should easily have done her in, but John Connor, her future savior/son, sent to her a brave and horny warrior friend.
Though the Terminator appears to embody the human ideal, what moves him even alien fenders can’t conceal. Once he’s stripped down to the exo-skeletal core, he looks like some ruthless, rolled-Buick man-o-war. But it all comes down to a toxic program. So it is clear. We must extricate the program of the damned, unless we want to live in perpetual fear.
The Terminator’s is the ultimate killing machine. Brute force and hostility are calculated to win everything. It is not another warrior that finally does this Beast in. Mother Sarah pushes a button on a gizmo that caves him in. Let a constructive machine consume its destructive twin.
Part 4, the next in this series delves even deeper into the machinations of man and how they can either halt or hasten humanity’s stand. We’ll crack more clues to the mass executioner’s blues when we next begin. If you haven’t done so already and would like to, read the last book of the Bible, or watch “The Terminator” and “The Matrix,” then check back in.
This is the fourth post, in a series on Man and the Machine. Picking up where we left off last time, James Cameron’s “The Terminator” gives us as a vision of the apocalypse in which the Beast is a mechanical mercenary that glares ravenously at the mother/savior with eyes like hot embers. That is the same sinister shade we saw in the ubiquitous lens of mankind’s future worst friend, discussed in post number two, the mechanical brain HAL from “2001; A Space Odyssey,” and likewise those glowing sockets of the crustacean machine that creeps inside Neo’s gut in “The Matrix” (1999). All eyes blink the color of blood to expose the live operator behind each machine. Who is it? It stands for the corruption inside all human beings when our eyes are closed to the interconnection of all living things.
All four directors assign this color to the enemy’s eye. Why? Firstly, so we see the enemy. Secondly, because that color fills our own eyes when they are closed in strong light. Literally speaking, is this what is meant by the expression, “eyes wide shut”? The pupils are wide open but the lids are tightly closed. Thirdly, and most obvious; while all these mechanical eyes are programmed by humans. Fact is, they happen to belong to three kinds of surveillance outfit.
Surveillance turns out to be a subject so huge it can’t be thoroughly covered in dozens of great movies, therefore we’ll just have to leave it for now with only one of it’s distressing riddles unraveled. In this month’s post, featuring “The Matrix,” the machine has become so insidious as to assimilate human minds and bodies, en masse, recycling, replicating and using our life force for an energy source. This is an apt metaphor for the relationship of the consumer and the multinational brands of today. The hero Neo breaks free with quantum leap, in the end. This is what it takes to restore the machines purpose to the service all humankind.
Surveillance is everywhere in our world now. Toxins are too. We filter them 24/7. Any story of end times identifies the same universal pinch–the sign of the beast, if you will. If you are born in end times, you have to bare some downward pressure. The Beast of the Bible turns out in modern times to be a machine that is broke and malfunctioning. That includes, governments, corporations and motion pictures too, unfortunately. Yes, there is toxic programming out there reddening everyone’s eyes, feeding off problems. Most of us can filter it out, but one in a million it bedevils.
So, might there be some clue here in “The Matrix,” while we sort through our real life predicament? How many of us have bothered to apply the lesson of the hero to our own life–a potentially great story still in the making? I suppose the question remains, what is the lesson of “The Matrix”? My presumption is that Neo finds his highest potential in acting for the common good.
Another person may take away a different lesson from the same movie. For instance, it is through mortal combat that the enemy must be vanquished. This is an example of the garbage I’m talking about. One must filter it out while watching “The Matrix.” Such faulty assumptions characterize the deviants that bring pandemonium into today’s schools, offices and movie complexes.
There is such a thing as mental pollution and that is what our children must be protected from at an early age. Adults are able to filter those toxins but not children. I was kept away from violently gruesome films until after my mid-teens. Maybe that’s why I can keep my peace. Perhaps others can’t because they were exposed too early.
Whether the Wachowski siblings and James Cameron be deemed perpetrators or pacifiers, they are world-class storytellers and they all deliberately identify a strong presence of toxins and surveillance in the opening scenes of “The Terminator” and “The Matrix.” Here are just two examples of foreboding prophecies from the tail end of the last century; three great movie makers speculating, well in advance, on the roots of this weird, explosive variety of psychosis that has blasted itself into our headlines lately almost daily.
Their movies postulate out how toxins mutate humans into killing machines and also how a mind, constantly spied upon, can be driven to desperate means. Alternatives and options to our currently developing quagmire have been put forth by wise folk in our great stories for centuries. Why do we ignore them?
The machinations of movie making and digital entertainment are neither entirely sound or faulty, for the intent of the operator does matter. Filmmakers are hot-blooded operators steering lifeless machines through worlds both real and imagined. Are we making love or war here or what? What is the goal? The defeat of the beast in the apocalypse is a battle that wages in the heart of every human being on the planet, including filmmakers. It is up to each one of us to conquer what enslaves us, from within.
What a fine-tuned machine a camera and a screen can be for shedding light, both literally and figuratively on society. The same apparatus that confronts us with pointless killings in our streets also exposes us to countless examples of heroic feats. The number one challenge for movie makers is to be sure their works enlighten and don’t make us sicker.
Motion pictures on the Internet are our modern scripture–the word made light–the universal library of common sense and culture. All great traditions can be brought forward with this marriage of poetry and science. Let them be celebrated and partaken in by the entire globe.
I am an advocate of cinema’s potential to encourage openness, tolerance, cooperation and goodwill. The digital roads we travel belong to no one in particular. Whoever is on them at any given time could be our audience. We have no idea who we are sharing our story with, but we have to live with them, so why not make friends. If you want to connect with someone that you don’t know, what do you do? Smile, at least. Maybe even shake hands.
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…
A continuation of last month’s post on Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” which is also part six of a continuing series on man and the machine. The fate of Harry Tuttle was left quite a bit more ambiguous than the protagonist Sam Lowry’s in “Brazil”.
In perhaps the most magical turning point in the story Harry Tuttle disappears in a whirlwind of red tape, receipts, vouchers and invoices that cling to his body, mummifying him, until the torrent of rubbish seems to swallow him. This all occurs within the protagonist’s nightmare. Sam struggles desperately to dig Harry out but the clutter blows away and takes with it any chance for glory, depositing Sam on the far side of madness at the end of the story.
It is significant that we never see anything bad happen to Harry Tuttle. He is never apprehended. Visually speaking it could be said Harry escapes unharmed. Most likely, as with another famous escapologist, Harry Houdini, Tuttle was named so to evoke such comparisons. I’d love to watch this film in a crowded stadium and lead a Q & A afterword to hear how many different opinions I could collect by asking “what happened to Harry Tuttle?”
I’ve finished watching this film now for the third time in six months and rewinding over selected parts a fourth and finally found a crack to get me out of everyman Sam Lowry’s dead end track. I should mention that there are five differently edited versions of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” out there in movie land. That’s how wildly people disagree over it, so if you enter the conversation, make sure you have watched the same one. I’ve been watching 142 minute edition released by The Criterion Collection in 2006.
Comedy or not, the idea that the only possible escape from slavery for Sam is psychosis is so distressing that I had to find an alternative solution for his predicament. Although this solution exposes a path Sam did not choose, it provides sanity to anyone who does. The fact that Sam did not choose this path is precisely why the movie had to end the way it did.
While Sam knew something was very wrong with the culture that supported him, but he never showed an interested in contributing to or improving it. He did his job and looked the other way. We sympathize with him. Everything in his life is a hassle. Sam simply takes the hassle of least resistance, but he does that instead of coming up with solutions like Harry does.
Sam was not interested in getting out of his situation except in dreams and even that was a selfish scheme. When the woman of his fantasies walks right out of them into real life and she turns out to be a free thinker, Sam never asks her why. He makes no connection when she asks, “Have you ever really seen a terrorist?”
The real hero of “Brazil,” Harry Tuttle demonstrates how helping fellow human beings is the only way out. In Sam’s final flip-out, Harry liberates Sam by helping him blow up the Ministry, but that all takes place in Sam’s head. This component of Sam’s fantasy serves to underscore Sam’s bureaucratic programming. The company man was never able to shake off the Ministry’s allegation that Harry was out for blood instead of good.
Other than Sam’s visually projected assumptions of Harry’s motives, all we know for sure from what we actually see is that Harry’s a multi-talented repairman on the run. Sure he’s packing a gun; he’s accused by the Ministry of terrorism, but we only ever witness Harry fixing folks’ utilities, which are constantly choked up and pinched in gridlocracy.
Whenever we see Harry, he’s engaging his gifts for the greater good. The unlikely superhero declares his intent loud and clear, “we’re all in this together.” Harry Tuttle is the only free man we see in “Brazil”. Anytime after Sam met Harry his fate could have been redeemed too, but freedom goes unclaimed. Gilliam’s lovable protagonist just wants to slip his chains in dreams. Instead, he is crucified while Harry avoids the scene.