EMPIRE ESSAY: Brazil Review

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Sam Lowry is a harried technocrat in a futuristic society that is needlessly convoluted and inefficient. He dreams of a life where he can fly away from technology and overpowering bureaucracy, and spend eternity with the woman of his dreams. While trying to rectify the wrongful arrest of one Harry Buttle, Lowry meets the woman he is always chasing in his dreams, Jill Layton. Meanwhile, the bureaucracy has fingered him responsible for a rash of terrorist bombings...


Terry Gilliam never read George Orwell. Sure, he knew about 1984. "But the knowledge I had was just general knowledge, the stuff you get from college. And then there was the simple fact that 1984 — the year! — was approaching. So I thought we've got to do 1984 1/2."

With Alice somewhere near the back of his mind, former Python animator Gilliam held a distorted looking glass up to Orwell, transcontinental bureaucracy, his own personal history, his outrage at the world around him, and — in doing so — created one of the most universally accessible, deeply personal future visions that cinema had ever known. Only, it wasn't a future vision. Brazil — named after a 30s Latin American hit song — was not set in that titular country, or the future. It was instead set in "every part of the 20th century," or "the other side of now." For a movie awash with a timeless set of images, that were both retro-futuristic and futuristically-retro, Brazil was, possibly more than any other film released round or about 1984, the most contemporary film of its day. And its triumph is that it still is.

"It allowed me to get out of my system something that had been bothering me for a long time," Gilliam later recalled "the frustrations of living in the second half of the 20th Century." Brazil began life on a beach in Port Talbot of all places. While on location for his first solo outing as director, Jabberwocky, in 1976, Gilliam found himself on the coal-dust encrusted beach, watching a lone figure picking up the strains of Ry Cooder's Maria Elena on his transistor radio. Around the same time he chanced upon a book at the home of noted historian and fellow Python Terry Jones that detailed how, in the Middle Ages, those accused and convicted — i.e. burned to death — of witchcraft, had to pay their torturers for the privilege of being tortured. Add to this some personal reminiscences — Gilliam's own inadvertent participation in the LA police riots of 1967 and his father's misguided belief in an acid-wielding plastic surgeon — and the nucleus of Brazil, then called The Ministry — or even 19841/2 — was formed.

Gilliam began writing the movie in 1979. It would take five years and several collaborators before it made it to the screen — in several different cuts. His first co-writer was Charles Alverson, a long time friend from Gilliam's early days working on the cult satirical magazine, Help!, in New York. Tom Stoppard subsequently took a few passes at it, followed by actor-writer Charles McKeown. "I was the one who had this thing
in his head, and probably had to use quite a few people to get it out," Gilliam later said.

Gilliam set about casting his movie: Jonathan Pryce as — for want of a better word, the "hero " — Sam Lowry beat out the likes of Val Kilmer and a then desperate to be in it Tom Cruise. The female lead Kim Greist snatched her role from the eager jaws of hot stars Kelly McGillis and Madonna to less lasting effect. The shoot itself proved problematic when, 12 weeks in, Gilliam and McKeown were forced to cut nearly half the film's fantasy sequences. Gilliam responded to such drastic cuts in his deeply personal vision by losing the ability to walk. "I don't know what happened," he said. "My brain just went catatonic. I couldn't get up. I couldn't move. I just went catatonic."

A week later, the director left his sick bed and completed a masterful film of neo-futuristic-retro chaos. With Robert De Niro cast as a subversive plumber, Brazil was always going to be a hard sell. But this was just the beginning of its long and troubled journey to finding an audience.
Universal Pictures in the US refused to release Gilliam's cut. He re-cut it and they still refused. He then took an ad out in film industry trade bible Variety questioning the studio 's decision and the LA Film Critics subsequently named it Best Film Of The Year. An Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay followed and Universal's hand was well and truly forced.

And in a strange way it's right that Brazil, the relatively little film about the cog in the wheel who dreamed of a better world, should have fought the fight it did. A film about oppression overcame its own and in doing so took a personal film and turned it into a universal (no pun intended) event.

Gilliam took Lewis Carroll's mirror and held it up to Hollywood and in the process discovered that he was indeed in one hell of a funhouse.