In 1985, I saw Brazil in the theater. Mostly, it didn’t affect me greatly one way or another. And then we came to the end, and I hated it. I was a big fan of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. And just the year before, Michael Radford had made what I still consider one of the greatest film adaptations of a book ever. It really was a perfect rendering of what I had imagined while reading it. What’s more, it showed the perfection of totalitarian efforts — where you couldn’t even die to escape it. Thus, I saw the ending of Brazil as a cheap attempt to create a happy ending.
That has been my position ever since. But recently, I began to wonder about that. Part of this is just a function of my cooling off to the book. I still think it is great, but very clearly, totalitarian regimes have never perfected their art. It is rather “free” societies that have managed to break the wills of we Winstons without anything so extreme as Room 101. What’s more, I always knew there was a loophole in the novel. O’Brien tells Winston that sometimes the Ministry screws up and the victim dies — although it is not clear whether he is just saying this as part of the process.
Regardless, I decided to watch Brazil again. It certainly is a great film. But I can see why I wasn’t enthused at the time. I didn’t appreciate Terry Gilliam’s visual style when I was younger. The obsession with plastic surgery and ducts freaked out little Frank. But mostly, I was way too serious when I was that age. I think the idea of laughing my way through Nineteen Eighty-Four was offensive. As with so much about life as I have found it, these are the elements that I most like now.
In general, I think that Gilliam is too much of a visual artist to do comedy. Yet it works perfectly here. The first two acts are filled with very funny scenes. The third act is not, but that’s hardly unusual for a comedy. And Jonathan Pryce is just so likable in the film, I found myself totally absorbed — and delighted. That’s not to say everything is perfect. In particular, much more could have been done with Kim Greist as Jill Layton. (Maybe they could have brought in a female scriptwriter?) In fact, this is one of the reasons that I still think 12 Monkeys is a superior film. (Interestingly, it was co-written by a woman: Janet Peoples.)
From a political standpoint, the film works very much in accordance with the modern world. Everything is screwed up because everyone is going along with the system. Michael Palin’s character, Jack Lint, seemed evil to me when I first saw the film. Well, he is evil. But that isn’t what’s most important to his character. He’s totally afraid. Everyone is. Everyone in a position of power is worried that they will be blamed for something. This is the basis for my favorite line in the film. In discussing the wrongful arrest and death of Buttle, Lint says, “It’s not my fault that Buttle’s heart condition didn’t appear on Tuttle’s file.”
Maybe the reason that I liked the film so much this time is that I’m receptive to its message. Of late, I’ve been focused on this idea of the social system being evil and stupid in ways that no individual would be. Everybody’s just trying to get by. But in some kind bizarre anti-sum-of-the-parts, the more individuals involved, the worse the system gets. Brazil might be nominally presenting some kind of authoritarian system, but what we actually see is a libertarian system where each person doing what is in their own best interest leads to catastrophe.
I want to make note of Robert De Niro’s character, Harry Tuttle. He’s a freelance plumber — working outside the system, and so referred to as a terrorist by the government. This actually highlights the distinction between European and American libertarianism. Tuttle wants to be at liberty to do what he wants. He is not looking for the “liberty” of cornering markets and therefore controlling (destroying the liberty of) whole classes of people. This is why American libertarianism is such a joke. It has nothing to do with liberty; it is all about replacing one system of relatively benign control with another that is as bad as the world in Nineteen Eighty-Four.