Touchstone Movies No.2: ‘Brazil’
You have to love a film whose first line is; ‘I’d like to talk to you about ducts’.
I first saw ‘Brazil’ on the day it opened at the Leicester Square Odeon and was blown away by it. Partly because it was the freewheeling riposte to Michael Radford’s laborious ‘official’ version of 1984 (the one with the awful Eurythmics soundtrack that was glued over it when the studio feared a flop, and Richard Burton chewing lumps of scenery), partly because of Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown’s delightful and still-quotable script (McKeown plays the much put-upon worker in the shrinking office next door), partly because of its angry surrealism at a time (1985) when films were trapped in a deeply conservative storytelling-with-warmth mode, much as they are now.
I often think the film isn’t about its surface plot of state control and doublethink at all, but about Sam Lowry’s Oedipal inability to escape his mother. There’s an overlooked moment in the film where Lowry’s mother actually transforms into Kim Greist, who’s playing Jonathan Pryce’s dream-girl. Katherine Helmond arranges her son’s career and is the champion of his conformity. His dream-girl is meant to break him out of this, but his mother’s image can’t be suppressed and keeps resurfacing.
I didn’t see ‘The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr T’ until I was in my twenties, but I think if I’d have seen it as a child I’d have run crying from the cinema. It’s another below-the-surface movie filled with psychological disturbance which works on primal fears and delights. ‘Where’s Poppa’s original Oedipal ending proved too much for the studio, and they cut it, although the still shocking image of George Segal molesting Ruth Gordon can be found on some DVDs. Those and ‘Brazil’ belong to a tiny handful of disturbing films that have darkness below their surfaces. Of course, ‘Brazil’ has darkness on its surface too.
It raises the stakes of ‘1984’, in which Winston Smith rebelled because of love, by adding another layer of repression. The state isn’t all-seeing; it’s utterly inept, murdering the wrong man because of a literal fly in the ointment, then gradually compounding the mistake. In the future nothing works properly, from Sam’s toaster and his plumbing to the death squads intended to keep terrorists at bay, and the public are deflected from rebellion with inane fads. Critics complain that Gilliam loses control of the film but I don’t think he does at all. It’s to his credit that he doesn’t show us stupid game shows or adverts or lotteries or the other opiates that amuse the masses. Stoppard is too smart to script that, and knows that we already get it.
Instead he shows the prescient cruelties; plastic surgery, inappropriately vulgar fashions, picture food (with wonderful waiter Bryan Pringle hissing ‘You have to say the number’ at Sam when he asks for just a steak), a terrorist victim left to stand up on a subway train, impossible forms to be filled out, an elite so out of touch with its people that it knows nothing about them. Hmm, that sounds horribly familiar.
Personally, I detest fantasy sequences in films, but even those work here. In fact, everyone is at a career-best, even Robert De Niro’s hilarious cameo as a rogue plumber. It’s worth seeing how much of ‘Brazil’ came true. No wonder Hollywood recut the film so that it had a happy ending, not noticing that by doing so they were fulfilling the film’s grim prophecy to the letter. The topsy-turvy tale of the film’s trouble release is told in ‘The Battle For Brazil’, in the 3-disc box set. The film failed in the US but eventually found a cult following.