The 1980s were, with all due respect, the worst time in history for cinematic drama. Cinema as a whole trucked along on a surfeit of fantasy and science fiction films that primarily operated on cruise control but could stumble upon a certain breezy ingenuity when need be. But cinematic art – cinema that sought to say something about cinema and/or explore the art form in a way that doubled as a commentary on the society that would use cinema as a tool of creation and destruction – was at an all-time low. It is telling that what many consider the great American drama of the 1980s (Raging Bull is the only film as consistently revered and awarded, and that was really more of a ’70s film that forget to come out in its proper decade anyway) is most famous for the fact that it was almost never released.
Throughout the 1980s, Terry Gilliam was one of the few who stood in defiance of complicity and convention, and Brazil almost killed him for it. A brutal, lengthy production battle saw the film destroyed and cut-down to size to save whatever commercial potential it had, and, watching the finished product, it’s easy to see why: this is a relentlessly weird motion picture, recalling cinematic styles and tones with its own jazz-like sense of improvisation and cavorting between surrealist asides an hoarse reflections on the grim fandangos of the decade in which it was produced. Whatever the waiting game that was cinema in the 1980s signified, the fact that Brazil was a genuine upset for the producers that funded it says all you need to know about its undeniable artistic merit.
Brazil is an avowedly, proudly anti-commercial motion picture with a narrative through-line that is in the abstract unwieldy and even more incorrigible when filtered through Gilliam’s almost two and half hour monstrosity of tangents, sideways gestures, stop-start rhythms, avant garde self-exploration, curious anti-genre gestures, dashes of hard-boiled noir, and hints of old-school slapstick and comic, even cartoonish facades. This is a film marinated in its own thoughts and fully embracing its personal amusements, a gloriously unhinged and demented work that makes us rethink tone, mood, and its own purpose with cheerful abandon. It’s a mess, sure, but no film has ever been a mess quite like Brazil. In a decade where convention was the grand cinematic norm, Brazil is perhaps the most positively alive, intimate, undiscerning and feral beast released during the entire decade.
The ex-Python animator is so adept at that cinematic nexus known as imagination that it’s easy to forget his greatest films all begin with the elegant simplicity of a classic B-novel. Indeed, Brazil is, on the surface, little more than the classic story of a man (Sam Lowry, played by Jonathan Pryce) who is a passive cog in the machine of a futuristic bureaucracy enlivened by such features as live, corporate transcriptions of back-doors government murder, so that the murder can be housed for documentation and safekeeping. Lowry is a low-level employee whose life is monetarily satisfactory but personally monotonous. He spends the better part of his days day-dreaming about himself as a fantastical man in a mechanized, winged suit saving a damsel in distress. During an investigation into the government-sanctioned death of Archibald Buttle, a cobbler mistaken for suspected terrorist Archibald Tuttle, he meets Jill Layton (Kim Greist), Buttle’s upstairs neighbor who has the same face as the damsel in his dreams. Later he meets the real Tuttle (Robert De Niro), and as he finds Tuttle to slowly provide another opportunity for systemic deconstruction more piercing than Lowry’s own flights of fancy, Lowry’s alliances are tested as he grows to become increasingly annoyed with the system he once accepted as benign. When Layton seems herself critical of the bureaucracy Lowry supports, his identity is questioned ever further.
Terry Gilliam’s greatest strength, mastered in Brazil but plentiful in all his films, is an awareness that imagination is itself a self-limiting contruct. In his futuristic dystopia, Gilliam favors an approach where look and sound mimic the 1980s more than the future. Corpulent and neon-tinged, everything plays heavily on the self-serving artifice of the decade; it is a very superficial looking film, at that, and even in its hectic, ravaged nightmare underground there is a certain sense that Gilliam is recreating not “a dystopic future” but “the idea of a dystopic future as filtered through the 1980s”. There’s a certain Gilliam-esque handcraft to the whole film, brought over from Python and Time Bandits and rendered just ever so naughtier here. The overwhelming sensation is Gilliam’s most pressing one: a meta-textual awareness that this is a product of its time. Brazil, as much as it reflects the 1980s implicitly and critiques that decade, will always be a product of that decade and can never truly escape it.
Specifically, a great deal of Brazil, especially Sam’s fantasies, looks rather a bit like a David Bowie music video, and this seems rather to be intentional. The dated quality is a subversive reflection of its own artifice; when Sam dreams, he positions himself as the hero of the day, the fantastical yet slightly androgynous man-of-the-hour whose likeness would manifest in a similar figure in the following year’s Labyrinth. It looks like a fantasy film from the 1980s, reflecting how Sam’s idea of imagination is itself constructed by fiction and both created and destroyed by the limits of what Sam knows to be “imagination”. In particular, the way both the film’s “real” world and Sam’s imagination often recall the warped, twisted world of shadows-and-fog film noir, itself a dreary variation on the popularity of recalling the 1950s during the 1980s, suggests the way that Sam’s imagination and his real world are linked in their own exaggerated falsity. It looks like an ’80s-tinged nightmare by way of the fake 1950s rather than a real dystopia.
The film, in other words, is aware that Sam’s eventual quest to overcome the bureaucracy he once lived within, his eventual “true” flight from its ever-clutching hand, is itself something of a fantasy just as much as his daily fantasies themselves filtered through cinema and pop culture. The way Sam never really takes any agency against that bureaucratic system until right near the very end, and the way this sudden burst of agency seems out of place in the narrative, seems a brutal joke against the expectation that Sam would naturally fight back and become the hero against the crippling society around him. The film seems to be saying that this idea of overcoming the society around you is a pop-culture construction and not reality, and that we in our everyday lives do remain passive even when we think we do not. The way that fantasy coils around the film prefaces the way in which the narrative we “expect”, that of a man valiantly overcoming his social position and rejecting the society in which he was bred, is itself a false product of a 1980s world that thinks it valiantly rejects consumerism and convention yet conforms all the more so. From its look right down to the core structure of its narrative, which lazily stands around and then suddenly jumps forward in fits and starts of unearned character and narrative exposition, Gilliam explores the way that Brazil’s story, and the film itself, is a lie.
Thankfully, and here’s another great Gilliam truth: for all its barbed-wire darkness and its use of the poison pen, the fact remains that this is still a love letter to imagination, even filtered through the limits of fiction and the lies it breeds. Gilliam, as he was in his post-Star Wars film Time Bandits, is entirely aware that, even if the likes of the Star Wars films did cannibalize older fictions and were never really as imaginative or creative as we would like to assume, they still did mean a great deal to a great many children. Filtered through Gilliam, imagination is a double-edged sword, something that limits but does create nonetheless; as much as Sam’s flights of fantasy are subtly mocked for their chintzy fakery, the film still empathizes with him a great deal for his imagination. It is not self-hating, but merely self-conflict; it knows that it itself is a corporate 1980s product, but it also loves itself for what it can do within the framework of being a corporate 1980s product. Like his previous film Time Bandits, it is both aware of its limits and proud of what it can do within them, proud of how much it uses the corporate monster that was the 1980s to sabotage that monster and to bring it to its knees. Brazil is thus a flowering and maturation of the central dialectic of Time Bandits; Gilliam is exaggerating the fictional forms of the 1980s (adolescent fantasy in Bandits and sci-fi dystopia in Brazil) to both empower and chastise the fiction of the decade.
Certainly, Brazil also emphasizes its own garish, difficult qualities to achieve this as well, very much wearing its episodic, ungainly narrative as a badge of honor. Gilliam is clearly proud of the way he is restyling and even restructuring from the ground up a conventional narrative endlessly popular during mid-century fiction, both championing the fiction and turning it on its head. He restructures it to critique it and even indict it for being naïve fantasy, sure, but his appreciation of the power of cinema to produce naïve fantasy is undeniable. This is a man who loves classic cinema, and simply because he is pointing out its artifice doesn’t mean he doesn’t love it all the more for the same reason. What Gilliam loves doing specifically is taking classical Hollywood stories and playing around with them in ways equally bitter and genial so that he can fall in love with them all again. The film is positively replete with shots that recall classic Hollywood and twist the spirit of old melodrama for an age both requiring a little more truth in their stories, and all the more in need of a little fiction to comb over the difficulties of everyday life with the grand old adventure, romance, and comedic snark of classic Hollywood. The humor is also decidedly Pythonesque at that, including both surrealist dialogue that mocks the consumerism of the time and starling visual cues that regale us with recentered takes on Hollywood genres. Gilliam’s take is morphed through his own world, sure, but the spirit of cinema is alive and well.
All of this adds up to an inherent implication of life as a dream, life as a reflection in Brazil’s recollection of the waking hours of humanity. Everything about the way Gilliam constructs his mise-en-scene is adamant about this very fact, stinging its tail at corporate bureaucracy but never losing itself to the egotistical understanding that it represents the objective, the de facto view of human activity and corporations. It is always aware of its own superficiality, its own subjectivity, the fact that it is itself a fictional day-dream about bureaucracy and escape as much as it is a reality. It’s a quintessential post-structuralist film, aware of its own limitations and fully anxious about them but still aware that sometimes using cinema to escape, even if it is less than truly original, is all we have. Society instills a negative that colonizes our thoughts, but sometimes the only escape we can muster is the itself conflicted semi-escape that society allows.
Gilliam has often been maligned as a dreamer, as a malcontent who refuses to curb his nostalgia and only exists for the act of escape. Yet in all his films, or at least his great works, there is an unstated sense of conflict about the concept of escape in a society that controls the means by which we escape. He is aware of this fact that escape as we know it is never true escape, and he is aware that sometimes people need it, but he doesn’t excuse it. There is a great tension in Brazil about which he cannot answer: is the best means of escape to change the society one lives in (for this innately coerces one to use the mechanisms of society to do so, and thus limits oneself), or is it to internalize, to sit through the days and escape through day dreams that do not actively change society but which save the mind from the drearier, more violent aspects of the world?
He is accused of only favoring the latter, but there is a clear undercurrent of slight yet caustic satire aimed directly at Gilliam’s meek dreamer Sam. There is a desire to push him to move beyond his dreams and into activist social change, into the difficult confrontation of the world he’s been taught only to escape in the mind, but never in reality. Gilliam is painfully aware that daydreams, for all they allow temporary escape, merely treat the symptoms and not the disease, and that to truly change things, one has to endanger, disrupt, and put oneself at risk. This is a film about the hard stuff of escape and imagination and change, multicolored and fascinated and aware that no one answer, be it passive mental escape or physical activism within the system or full-on rebellion, has all the answers; it is aware that it as a film is trapped by the society it wishes to criticize, that it itself is part of the object of criticism, and that it implicitly is its own subject. His is a film always omnivorously searching for other means of escape outside of the norms of society, but pungently and pressingly aware that this may be a lost cause. But just because it’s lost and probably never to be found, he says, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth looking for. Say what you will about it, but Brazil’s neon nightmare never stops looking.