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This Is Your Receipt for Your Husband and This Is My Receipt for Your Receipt: Brazil

May 27, 2010

Bright Neon Love - photo: Universal Studios/20th Century Fox

Orwellian examinations of “the future” are strewn across the pop culture landscape like medical refuse on a beach. Done well(ian) in such works as Apple – 1984, Gattaca and THX-1138 and the film adaptation of 1984 the theme serves as an astute deconstruction of its relevance in contemporary society by close examination of one or more Orwellian elements (ret-conning, propaganda, surveillance, misinformation and unpersonhood) with a strict adherence to contemporary sci-fi dystopian conventions. Done poorly, as in the case of Equalibrium or Logan’s Run1, Orwellian framing is reduced to body conscious jumpsuits, bald heads, bad food and various objects – including people – neatly arranged in perfect rows. Either way, there tends to be a lot more exposition than examination; plots tend to follow the same trajectory – We gotta get out of this place. Now, there’s nothing especially wrong with any of the examples presented. Each one fits neatly on my affordable, attractive “I like this” shelving unit.

1985’s Brazil – from the twisted, brilliant mind of Terry Gilliam – is my favorite dystopian exploration of all that Orwellian chow chow. Plus – wait for it – it’s freaking funny. While there’s nothing funny about living in a society featuring all that control, bland food and repetitiveness, one of the conceits that amuses me involves all the characters enjoying the same access to Orwellian discourse and analysis as the audience. I find that logic gap unsatisfying and distracting as it relates to above mentioned examples. Brazil eschews such tediousness and therefore presents a far more compelling interesting take on the Orwellian theme.

photo - 20th Century Fox

Brazil positions the dystopian hot buttered awful as a framing device – the way Costner films have used baseball – rather than making all those rows of neatly ordered desks the story. Even films not strictly Orwellian in their framing – like 1998’s The Siege – depict a singular event and its chaotic aftermath (usually some kind of shocking act of human carnage) – as the catalyst for all them cameras fixed on citizenry. Ignoring other contributing factors such as technology, comfortability melding into complacency and good old fashioned megalomania.

Similar to Erika Lopez2, I like tracing the genesis of big bad societal things to their comfy chair origins. I love the concept of “comfy chairs as harbingers of societal doom”. Lopez (Ms. E, forgive me for mangling your quote) wrote something along the lines, “This sort of thing was different back before our chairs got so goddamn comfortable.” Obviously, it’s not simply a matter of comfy chairs, but the way they awaken a desire for everything to be comfortable, which creates desire for more efficiency, so in turn we’ll be more comfortable. All that efficiency and comfort descend into madness when the powerful decide there will need to be government organizations and paperwork to keep things real comfortable and efficient. In addition dystopian societies should feature extremely bland color schemes to prevent distracting emotions such as free will.

Brazil centers around the most swivel-y of swivel servants as they go about their day collecting receipts for receipts and creating more chaos by executing their mandate to keep things streamlined and chaos free. A fly in the proverbial ointment proves the catalyst for Sam Lowry’s (Jonathan Pryce) realization things are not always as efficient – in such an efficient society – as his superior might instruct subordinates to believe. Mistaken identity – a staple of many dystopian films – creates a host of problems, the least of which being the wrong man has been scooped up by the “just doing my job” bureaucrats. It seems they’re searching for a “freelance” HVAC repairman named Harry Tuttle, who is played with aplomb by Robert DeNiro – in one of my favorite roles of his. In recent viewing of Brazil, particularly DeNiro’s scenes, I squealed upon discovering shades of Connie Brean. All combat takes place at night in the rain at the junction of four map segments3, indeed!

stretched to perfect - photo: 20th Century Fox

Katherine Helmond, who is divine, plays Sam’s overbearing mum. Their scenes – while wonderful – tread dangerously close to turning Brazil into Sam’s Complaint. Fortunately, the great character actor Jim Broadbent as Dr. Jaffe keeps the film from going there with his hilarious portrayal of a cosmetic surgeon. Brazil is satire, to be sure, but accessible and allows to the audience to enjoy the film on many levels. Glorious visuals, showcasing all those janky contraptions fans of Gilliam have come to associate with his films. That said, malevolent power is still power despite being backed by an array of Rube Goldberg devices which barely can light a match, much less regulate societal order.

Brazil has been depicted a love story; cheesetastic cuts of the film designed to sanitize the film for North American audiences (where the film bombed) should be convicted on that charge. However, I’m less interested in the conventional love story and more fascinated by the love story between Sam and his fantasies. The ideal of Brazil – a place with a complicated history and some would argue decidedly less magical than Sam’s ideal – positioned as utopia and all those bonky glittery flying sequences are way too delicious to be bogged down with tropes best left for a standard rom-com. It is the only element of the film I find bothersome. I do, however, love the use of Aquarela do Brasil as leitmotif.

Sam Lowry

Brazil never fails to thrill with its exploration of dystopian visions, whether it is its own or others. That said, I rarely recommend it anymore as it tends to be a rather polarizing film. I find its Gilliam sanctioned ending and message satisfying. Your fun to monkeys ratio may vary.

Don’t waste time worrying about cameras in the crapper. By then it’s too late; everything is over except the paperwork, which we’ll need in triplicate. It all begins with the erasure of Pantone. I can’t tell you how nervous I was when all the designers were showing collections heavily emphasizing shades of grey. I was relieved when designers were unable to come to a consensus as to which shade was the “shade”; dystopia as depicted by Orwell was averted again! Maybe it’s why I never wear matching shades of gray. You’re not getting my ass, dystopia. At least not until I procure the elusive comfortable chair. For the record, all the chairs in my house are quite uncomfortable.

Thank you, Terry G and Brazil for encouraging my distrust of comfy furnishings!

________________________________________________________
1 I like all the examples I listed, though not always due to their Orwellian trope usage.
2 from Lopez’s book Flaming Iguanas
3 Professor Google is waiting to answer all your pop culture related questions. I’ve got my own hell to raise.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2010 4:31 pm

    There will always be a special place in my heart and on my shelves for dystopia: in books, films, epic poems, whatever.

    I don’t wear gray. Now I have an extra reason, besides “It looks like crap on me.”

  2. May 27, 2010 4:53 pm

    The thing I find so anxiety-provoking about Brazil is how simultaneously plausible and ridiculous a picture of the future it paints. That its dystopia isn’t caused by some cataclysmic event that changes everything but by our desire for for comfort and order.

    Fortunately, I find the humor in the film is perfectly paced to keep me from a full-up panic attack, kind of like the way it was in After Hours, which though in a totally different genre affects me in a similar way.

  3. May 27, 2010 5:41 pm

    There will always be a special place in my heart and on my shelves for dystopia: in books, films, epic poems, whatever.

    I don’t wear gray. Now I have an extra reason, besides “It looks like crap on me.”

    I tend to wear way more gray than I should, since it’s my surrogate black. I wore too much black as a goth and find it annoying in large amounts.

    Yeah, I am such a huge fan of dystopian visions of the future, despite tending not to be especially dystopian in my own work. I like it when everything’s broken or junky though – a la Blade Runner rather than shiny and neatly arranged – Minority Report.

  4. May 27, 2010 7:45 pm

    Right on! I think this post really hits the nail on the head as far as what “Brazil” is about. The need for comfort, and the willingness to do anything to maintain that comfort (or at least to maintain the illusion that one is comfortable). For me, the defining moment in the movie is when the bomb goes off in the restaurant. The staff quickly set up an attractive screen in front of the carnage and chaos so the patrons can pretend nothing out of the ordinary is going on. Wouldn’t want to spoil their meal, after all.

  5. Octavia permalink
    May 27, 2010 11:07 pm

    This I’ve gotta see, now. I pretty much loved the first season of Lexx (it got a bit weird after that, weird in a bad way) because the dystopia was not only scary, but really tedious for those involved. And the main characters were all fairly unlikeable.
    I also don’t suit grey. Back to my G&T!

    This message brought to you by the Society for the Protection of Pantone Colours.

  6. May 27, 2010 11:31 pm

    Oh, I love the order in Orwellian type futuristic films. And all the monochrome. I don’t like the whole surveillance, propaganda, reconning etc deal that comes with it, though. What’s funny about that Apple 1984 commercial is I can totally see Apple supplying the future Orwellian government with their technology. Everything they put out is all streamlined and white and perfect.

    Anyway, I like the order because I would love for things to just WORK. Although I only want things to be like that until my free time comes and then I just want to be left alone to be as messy and chaotic as I want. And wearing monochrome seriously simplifies dressing and decorating.

    That said, I haven’t seen this movie though everyone tells me to. Since I’m going through a phase of actually watching what people tell me to I’ll put this in the queue.

  7. May 28, 2010 2:23 am

    I’m wearing my Orwellies in case it reigns.

  8. J.von permalink
    May 28, 2010 10:33 am

    I really enjoyed this.
    I like the idea of chaos through order, makes me wonder if this is why ‘Brazil’ works so well and other Gilliam films don’t. It’s like he needs the sharp props of filing cabinets and rows of desks to stop his ideas crawling out all over the place. Things burst out in ‘Brazil’, like the bombs, or the screams from the recptionists earphones but then they’re clamped firmly back down again afterwards. Very unlike ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’ which has a hugely sprawling narrative and only seems more indistinct because Gilliam choses to intercut it with very blobby CGI.

  9. raymondj permalink
    May 28, 2010 10:56 am

    I watched Brazil a few months ago and felt nervous that it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered, but it was even better! I think all the mediocre and bad dystopian movies I’ve seen since then made me really appreciate all the smart things in the movie you outline here.

  10. May 28, 2010 12:23 pm

    I’m wearing my Orwellies in case it reigns.

    I’m going to need Pepto-Bismarck for the case of dystopsia that pun induced.

  11. evmaroon permalink
    May 28, 2010 12:35 pm

    Well, now I refuse to sit on my couch anymore! Way to throw it down, Snarky! I love this movie so much, it was a great delight to see how you appreciate this film.

  12. May 28, 2010 2:02 pm

    Thanks for this Snarky… I haven’t watched this in years, but it’s due for a revival.

    The best thing about Logan’s Run is that, apparently, in the future, men will wear amazing Mu-Mus.
    Aww… I love you Logan’s Run, but damn, you’re a mess.

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