b. Terence Vance Gilliam
b. November 22, 1940, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
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Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963) opens with one of cinema’s seminal dream sequences: a man is liberated from his car and coasts inhumanly between lanes in a swell of immobile traffic, extends his arms and coasts into the sky. The man shares a tether with a figure beneath him, and is abruptly yanked into a sea below. In the very next shot he springs upright into the frame.
Thematically this action is a durable metaphor in film, a staging of temporary freedom from vices and disturbances that bear numerous incarnations. In this regard dreaming or, more appropriately, imagining is essential to mental welfare. This thought is intrinsic to the body of Terry Gilliam’s work as a filmmaker. In a career that routinely blends reality with imagination, dreaming is the leeway that fosters interaction between the two contexts. And despite Fellini’s conception of the action cited above, it is more appropriative to Gilliam (1).
A capsule description of Gilliam’s work obligates a variety: his films depict over three millennia of history, approach birth and death, youth and old age. There are also unifying qualities between his films: an idealistic, childish perception of history; uncharacteristic humour in carefully rendered time periods; and protagonists hindered by corporate dominance and consumerist vices. In whole, Gilliam’s films concern freedom, specifically the varied forms in which it is manifested. Aptly, freedom in a Terry Gilliam film is often an imagined liberty.
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Terence Vance Gilliam was born in 1940 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up an illustrator and pole-vaulter and was educated at Occidental College in California, volleying majors in physics and politics. He was later employed in varying capacities (regularly in advertising and publishing) on both coasts of the United States. Significantly, a stint at HELP! magazine in New York afforded a meeting with John Cleese, eventually resulting in a recommendation for and role in the British comedy troupe Monty Python.
Gilliam is seen peripherally as an actor in Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969), though it is his handcrafted, cut-out animation sequences that is his distinguishing contribution. His animation technique is crude and efficient, and one of the comedy series’ stylistic trademarks as it accompanies the title credits of each episode and functions as segues between vignettes. Gilliam has claimed to have regularly worked seven-day weeks on his animation, including two all-nighters (2).
Monty Python would collaborate on three feature films, of which Gilliam co-directed two: The Holy Grail (1975) and The Meaning of Life (1983) (Life of Brian  he only co-wrote; he acted in each). During this era Gilliam helmed two of his own films: his individual debut Jabberwocky (1977) and Time Bandits (1981). Each of these works bears a distinct resemblance to Python’s comedic structure (each film may be divided into circumstantial vignettes). Gilliam’s stylistic departure is barely evident at this point in his career.
Comedy, inevitably, distinguishes each of Gilliam’s first films. It is curious, in result, that the production design of his work (and of the Pythons’ for the matter) is so accurate. The Python films, notably, depict eras with obviously out-of-place slapstick comedy. This comedy mars against the organic, dirty environments. It is a totally artificial element and appropriate to the Pythons’ signature brand of humour and interest in contextual juxtaposition in their films.
Jabberwocky is similar to the first two Python films in this measure. (In consistency, The Meaning of Life would resemble the sporadic time and place of Time Bandits.) The setting, the Dark Ages, is directly reminiscent of The Holy Grail. The film is inspired by the monster in Lewis Carroll’s poem of the same name and is Gilliam’s most pronounced genre effort. It is ostensibly a horror film, opening with a fearsome point-of-view shot custom to the genre. Furthermore, the revelation of the title monster is given the typical slasher treatment, and is not seen until the final sequence. (There is an obvious debt to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws ; the title creature, even, is a giant puppet).
Jabberwocky displays a number of elements, each noticeably in contrast, that characterises Gilliam’s filmmaking. Again, here is a carefully rendered historic setting that houses slapstick comedy. Jabberwocky is also one of Gilliam’s most horrific films (this is relative, of course), though horror is uncharacteristic in his other works. Jabberwocky is relentless in its combination of unrelated elements and its seams are bursting. The technique would inform each of Gilliam’s future efforts.
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Time Bandits ostensibly resembles Jabberwocky. It occurs in the same time period, has the same actors and exhibits Gilliam’s characteristic interest in history. Visible in the film’s periphery are Homeric Greece, the French Revolution, the sinking Titanic and basic ethical manifestations of good and evil (the former – the Supreme Being – wears a pleated gray suit). Time Bandits is at once revisionist history and children’s fantasy. Terry Gilliam’s entire career has been spent as an endearing fight against convention. Furthering this plight in Time Bandits is a principle cast comprised almost entirely of midgets.
The short ones are the film’s namesake, and possess traits that may be associated with children: they are immature, rude and greedy. The dwarves are former hedge trimmers for the Supreme Being. The group plotted mutiny, stole a map of the universe (which cites the location of crucial “time holes”) and proceeded to gather the most valuable loot in history. One such time hole lies in the closet of Kevin, a young boy in a relatively contemporary England. He is awakened by the abrupt appearance of the group of bandits and is shortly enlisted in their scheme.
The camera inherits the perspective of the film’s miniature protagonists. It is placed entirely at low angles to respect its main characters’ stilted height. This technique crops the faces of many of the taller characters; we see only their feet and their actions. In this manner Gilliam establishes his film’s subjective approach, and it is clear this troupe of midgets and their younger sidekick, each vulnerably short, stands heroic.
The very scope of this film is incessant in its sporadic setting – locations are nearly incidental, a series of comedic opportunities. The famous climax of the Titanic disaster is seen in over thirty films (and is arguably the subject of many of them) and it is at its least dramatic in this film.
Despite the fact that the film’s comedy inevitably hinders its philosophy, its thought is nonetheless apparent. The world Gilliam constructs is one in which age or, more particularly, maturation prohibits one’s ability to imagine. Much like blood, one’s imagination procures creative and mental longevity. The midgets resemble children not only in their stature but in their ability to idealise history – to make it fun.
Time Bandits was a large success (it would be one of Gilliam’s few), grossing over 40 million in the domestic United States. Gilliam’s follow-up would be a prologue for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life that would demonstrate his ballooning vision and budget violation – traits that that would hinder many of his future efforts. This prologue, entitled The Crimson Permanent Assurance, is a tale of a mutiny among the employees of The Very Big Corporation of America. They are all older men (contrary to the age of many of his characters). It would foretell one of his characterising efforts, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988).
For Monty Python, The Meaning of Life is a characteristic effort, as it bears the balance of the sacred and profane, at once excessive and subtle qualities that distinguishes the body of their work. Similarly characterising is Gilliam’s prologue: it runs ten minutes and in its brief duration exhibits a bold, varied visual scale and resolute climactic action. This scene possesses unavoidable limits in its length and relation to the film (from which it is distinctly separate), yet it is an exemplar of Gilliam’s filmmaking tactics.
The Meaning of Life debuted at Cannes in 1983, where it was well received and awarded the Grand Prize of the Jury. Gilliam, a commodity in affiliation with The Meaning of Life and financially with Time Bandits, was approached with interest by Universal Studios. The correspondence would result in a contract for his most ambitious film.
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There is a crucial element of fantasy in Brazil (1985), although it occurs in ascetic, corporate environments: busy, dark offices without an outside view, alleys paved in advertisements and flyers. Legal paperwork (receipts, warrants, order forms) must accompany every transaction and interaction; it is this overwhelming formality for documentation, in addition to the lack of reliability in technology that fosters the most caustic disruption in the most mundane error. (Brazil‘s principle conflict ensues in result of a squashed bug that lands in a typewriter.) As a gesture of calamity exclusive to this environment, explosions in Brazil cause showers of paperwork in their aftermath. They are showers of celebratory confetti, announcing a scar in a system bound in red tape.
It is not necessary that Brazil‘s setting resembles a natural one, though such resemblance forwards the film’s allegorical relevance. A rendition of Orwellian dystopia with the comic cynicism of Jacques Tati’s masterpiece Playtime (1967), Brazil is a parable of corporate dominance; it depicts an environment strewn in propagandistic slogans and is scored with the unending rhythm of typewriter keys. There is no natural horizon in this location; for the matter, there is no hint (until a brief shot at the film’s end) of an uninhibited, natural freedom.
The film’s protagonist is a blue-collared everyman, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce). He lives in an automated apartment with the activity and inefficiency of a Rube Goldberg machine. His corporate setting, dressed in impersonal fluorescent lighting and shades of grey, is similarly ascetic. As a counterbalance to his “natural” environment, Sam has dreams in which he is an armoured, winged hero. He glides and flips through the sky, and protects a beautiful, angelic goddess. Sam’s dreams are in fantastic, freed environments and become indistinguishable from his reality (a final conflict seems to occur in both settings). It is a suggestion that the government is fascistically contaminative, that even the freedom of dreams has been prohibited.
Peripheral characters are dressed identically in attire that clearly relays their social rank, forwarding a notion of the individual’s lack of identity – in Sam’s second job, his name is even replaced with a serial number. His mother is seen distinctly throughout, and in each sequence is in a subsequent stage of a comprehensive plastic surgery (literally; in once scene her face is held in saran wrap). By the film’s end she becomes a physical and soulless replication, an attractive body (or, at least, she matches Sam’s perception of beauty in resembling his fantasy girlfriend) and no soul. She is present at the funeral of her own, withered flesh. Superficial material replaces the soul.
Although ironically comedic, Brazil is dense and ambiguous in its comedic intent. Thusly, biographical references to Gilliam’s affiliation with Monty Python are falsely suggestive in critiques of the film. Consider a late scene in which Sam is promoted to Information Retrieval and enters his new office. It is as small as a closet, economically paired with another so that a desk may be shared between the two. Sam arranges his papers and office trinkets and lowers his eyebrows in question as his desk slides slightly into the wall. He enters the adjacent office and distracts its tenant, leaving after he nudges the desk back towards his space. The scene is a clever and comedic sight gag, yet it is more useful (and less comedic) as a metaphor, either for Sam’s discomfort or hierarchal competition.
The film contains two depicted terrorists and several citations of terrorist bombings, yet the arrival of one such character, Harry Tuttle (Robert de Niro), is a heroic asset to Sam. As Danny Peary attests: “Gilliam has made the bureaucracy so despicable and the general public so obnoxious that we’re actually willing to accept a terrorist as a hero” (3).
The film is without debate Terry Gilliam’s most ambitious work, referenced keenly in his prior efforts: Time Bandits includes a exploitative game show that tempts contestants with elaborate and unnecessary home maintenance equipment; Gilliam’s prologue for The Meaning of Life involves a mutiny against a consumerist corporation. It is a fascist and oppressively stark vision (its criticism and recommendation are regularly discrete), as known for its visual strength as it is for its Hollywood spawning. The latter fact is particularly ironic, as Brazil‘s postponement (it was an American film first released overseas) mirrors the film’s theme of corporate prohibition. Brazil was financed by Universal Pictures and, due to a negatively crucial change of guard, drifted in editing for close to a year. To date, the film has been distributed in five cuts, ranging from a 94-minute version edited by Universal chairman Sid Shienberg to Gilliam’s seminal 142-minute cut available exclusively on the Criterion Collection DVD.
The distributional fate of Brazil is of note, secondly, because of Gilliam’s success in securing his original vision, albeit slightly altered due to contractual limitations. Hollywood is notoriously plagued by commercial incentive and a lack of art; Brazil is a rare success, particularly so because it is decidedly anti-commercial. Furthermore Brazil’s critical success is contrasted in its gross; it (in an appropriate epilogue) barely recouped its fifteen million dollar budget. Gilliam’s next film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, would further the trend.
Munchausen is a vision of little inhibition. The title character is a legendary, aging buccaneer. The film opens with a stage production of his famous encounters, a fiction the actual character disrupts; of course, his version of the story will be more embellished. Ironically, embellishment is the very strength of Baron Munchausen. He, tallied in bright red coattails and feathered bicorn, is an able swordsman and gentleman who will travel as far as the moon and to the center of the earth. He is flanked by enormously talented disciples: one has telescopic vision, one has incredible hearing, one is remarkably fast on foot, and another is a token strongman. These traits, when exhibited, will supply the film’s episodes of remarkable beauty. Notably, a late scene involves the strongman on offense as he plucks a trio of ships from an ocean, swings them around his head and tosses them at hostile Turkish troops.
Baron Munchausen would suffer the very fate its predecessor avoided. The film was co-financed between Columbia Pictures and completion guarantor Film Finances, incurring an estimated final budget of 45 million; it was said to be the most expensive film of the time (4). Before completion, and due to numerous hindrances (including lost costumes, production that was regularly behind schedule and lawsuits), production was halted and Gilliam faced expulsion. He was in contract with Columbia to direct the picture and was shortly reinstated. Filming completed afterward with a truncated script and some of the film’s more expensive scenes written out.
There are passages of majestic, realised beauty, including a trip to the moon (in an economical setting that resembles a three-dimensional construction of Gilliam’s signature illustrations), the belly of a whale and a finale in which each disciple is tested. These may be the most distinguished images in Gilliam’s career, but the film’s truncation is apparent and detrimental. Baron Munchausen, gathering from its sprawling design, is Gilliam’s characteristic effort. Perhaps inevitably, Gilliam’s most commercial feature would follow.
Gilliam’s trio of films beginning with Time Bandits is often seen as an unofficial trilogy: Brazil and Baron Munchausen regard the utility of imagination in, respectively, middle- and old-age; Time Bandits involves the child. These three films, despite their differentiated sources and settings, present a cumulative maturation – on the most interpretive level, a life. The films are progressive failures and, in a sense, progressive successes in visual audacity. These films (subsequent and early in a career) display a range exhibited by few filmmakers.
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In a catalogue of films defined by their visuals and quirks, Gilliam’s next film, The Fisher King (1991), is prominent for its familiar contemporary setting (his first) and visual convention – this is relative only to Gilliam’s other works.
Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is a New York shock jock in the vein of Howard Stern, fueled by his conceit and the media familiarity with his image. His listeners, we gather, are typically insecure, unhappy people. One named Edwin is a frequent caller who in a sporadic fit of rage takes Jack’s advice too literally, and guns down a flock of customers in a restaurant and then himself. Jack hears of the horror and his influence is made known to him with enormous gravity.
Three years later we see Jack, now a self-pitying alcoholic, living with Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), a video store clerk. Jack’s woes become unbearable. He drinks himself into a glazed stupor, affixes concrete bricks to his feet and stands eager on the bank of the Hudson River. To Jack, death is a welcome change in an existence he cannot tolerate. Jack is unexpectedly rescued by a bizarre homeless army, headed by the show-tune singing Parry. Parry suffers from mental hysteria after witnessing his wife’s traumatic death. (It should be of note that Robin Williams’ characteristic overplay is appropriate to the role of Parry.)
Parry befriends Jack in an attempt to enlist him in his quest to find the Holy Grail (this is familiar). Parry’s quest is prophesised by the product of his bowels – cute little brown floating fat people, he calls them. He claims they have told him Jack is “the One”. Jack relents until he realises that Parry’s condition results from the very act of violence inspired by his radio broadcast. In a desperate attempt to redeem himself, Jack agrees to help.
Distinct parallels may be drawn between the two characters: foremost, they are both suffering from unnerving events in their pasts. By aiding each other, Jack and Parry are in turn mending their own wounds. The Fisher King is a sensitive and frank story of redemption.
Although Gilliam’s vision is repressed there are scenes in which it is exalted in brief, violent spurts. The film’s most famous image (at least one I’ve seen cited repeatedly in trailers for television broadcasts of the film) is of a populated waltz in Grand Central Station that employs over four-hundred extras. Parry’s imagined nemesis is the Red Knight, the horrid manifestation of the memory of his wife. The spectre is a horseman strewn in red shards of fabric and armour, and jettisons streams of fire from his mouth. These images, and a few others, achieve an impact in their sparing use, and in service to narrative – this detail, particularly, is contrary to Gilliam’s earlier works, in which narrative is an incidental feature.
The Fisher King is ostensibly a contemporary fairy tale, though its love story I find to be its most uniquely felt aspect. The film’s characters are realistically motivated (notably, this is the first of Gilliam’s efforts not to include a Monty Python alum) and the feelings and impulses attributed to them are inherently human; this is an unforeseen and innovative aspect in Gilliam’s career.
* * *
Gilliam’s next film inherits elements of his prior work: namely, time-travel and relative insanity. It is also his single foray into science fiction, although elements of the genre are evident in his prior films.
12 Monkeys (1995) is based upon Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée (1962), a work renowned for its simplicity. Gilliam’s film, however, would eschew the resolute strength of its source. The film opens in 2025 in the aftermath of a global epidemic that caused the deaths of billions. Survivors live beneath the surface in rusted sewers. There is a sense of procedure despite this damage, and many survivors are held captive as candidates for a flawed time-travel research. Cole (Bruce Willis) is one such captive, renowned among his peers for his good memory.
Gilliam’s future is distinct within the genre: it is grungy, cloaked in abundant filth, a setting without an inherent advancement. Again, time-travel is a sporadic action with little predetermination (Cole misses his intended destination on two occasions) and little explanation, as in Time Bandits. Furthering its genre irregularity, the film is not replete with campy scientific explanations. It is, contrarily, thoughtful and philosophic – inherent in the film is a suggestion that fate and predestination transcend science, though it is less so, I am inclined to note, than Marker’s source film.
As with 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) is a careful and specific rendition of a celebrated visual source and inhibited for precisely the same reason. The film evidences Gilliam’s success at making the film, yet the success itself follows two decades of unused scripts and fruitless pre-production tied to other filmmakers. The financial failure of the film suggests the formidable task of the source fiction’s translation. The very concept, even, poses inevitable shortcomings. This is tallied by the film’s inheritance of protagonist (Hunter S. Thompson alter-ego) Raoul Duke’s sight; his influence (by any number of illegal drugs) will cause the movement of a carpet pattern, and in the film the action is realistically manifested. These visions occur and, moreover, belong in Duke’s head. Their literal depiction in the film distracts – not evidences – the film’s literary objective.
The film honours the text with meticulous concentration (Johnny Depp, as Duke, is a match as identical as a film incarnation of a comic book super hero). There is a tremendous reliance upon voiceover, and the text’s visual episodes are simply recreated. The filmic incarnation of the “Lizard Lounge” scene, for one, is told with prosthetics and careful staging – it is in effect contrary to the episode’s depiction in the text, as an orgiastic, celebratory and imagined display of the greed and excess of the American people.
As of this writing, Terry Gilliam’s most recent work is available in Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, 2002), a documentary that depicts his failure to complete a film based on The Adventures of Don Quixote (to be titled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote). The sparing footage completed and shown in the documentary is characteristically Gilliam: European location shooting, wide-angle lenses and compositions, historical accuracy and, once again, time-travel. Filming was impeded instantaneously by several hindrances, foremost was flooding in a Spain location shoot and an ailing Jean Rochefort cast as the title character. Production was cancelled a week after shooting began.
The fate of Gilliam’s Quixote is pure irony. His is a strife that evokes his title character’s; both are prisoners to their visions (or dreams). Gilliam is a director with specifically fantastic visions that encumber the economy of film production, as evidenced in the commercial performance (in relation to cost) of many of his films. As fiction, Gilliam’s Don Quixote is a failure; as autobiography it is immensely relevant in a career distinguished by regular endurances.
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I open this article with mention of the opening dream sequence of Fellini’s 8½. There are similar perceptions of an artificial reality in each of Terry Gilliam’s films – it is the preeminently telling feature of his career. Despite his successes and characteristic style, Gilliam’s failures are the indispensable evidence of his legendary vision. Gilliam has been validated as a director of invention and personality – not in his completed films but in his failures, his conception of visions that could not be made within the economy of film.
And Now for Something CompletelyDifferent (1971) also actor
The Miracle of Flight (1974) also actor
Monty Python and the HolyGrail (1975) also actor
Jabberwocky (1977) also actor
Time Bandits (1981)
Monty Python’s The Meaning ofLife (1983) segment “The Crimson Permanent Assurance”; also actor
Brazil (1985) also actor
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) also actor
The Fisher King (1991)
12 Monkeys (1995)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
The Brothers Grimm (2005)
Tideland (2005) also screenwriter
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) also writer
The Legend of Hallowdega (2010) short
The Wholly Family (2011) short
The Zero Theorem (2013)
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018) (post-production) also screenwriter
Lost in La Mancha(Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, 2002)
Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Bob McCabe, The Pythons, Thomas Dunne Books, 2003.
Ian Christie (ed.), Terry Gilliam, Gilliam on Gilliam, Faber & Faber, 2000.
Jack Mathews, Terry Gilliam, The Battle of Brazil, Applause, 1998.
Bob McCabe, Dark Knights & Holy Fools: The Art and Films of Terry Gilliam, Universe Books, 1999.
Andrew Yule, Losing the Light: Terry Gilliam and the Munchausen Saga, Applause, 1998.
Dreams: The Terry Gilliam Fanzine
With up-to-date news, plenty of information about Gilliam and his work
Film Directors – Articles in the Internet
Several online articles can be found here.
The Onion A.V. Club
Interview about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Interview with Gilliam.
Brazil: Interview with Terry Gilliam
The Animations of Terry Gilliam
Article about Gilliam’s animation career.
The Terry Gilliam Files
A page with links to various interviews and articles about his films.
Click here to search for Terry Gilliam DVDs, videos and books at
- In an introduction for The Criterion Collection edition of 8½, Gilliam admits the influence and his emulation of this scene.
- Biographical information taken from Dreams: The Terry Gilliam Fanzine, available: http://www.smart.co.uk/dreams/
- Danny Peary, review of Brazil, Guide for the Film Fanatic, Fireside, 1986, p. 68.
- Roger Ebert, review of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Chicago Sun-Times, March 10, 1989.
What Does This Movie Mean? Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985)
Another entry on movie interpretation. If you haven’t seen Brazil, are planning to see it, and do not want the experience ruined for you, do not read past the jump. This essay is geared towards people who have seen the movie. Major plot points will be revealed, and minor plot points too. Proceed at your own risk.
You know, this entry sat almost complete for several months because I just couldn’t think of an introduction. How to summarize Brazil? I never really wanted to make movies, but this is one of those films that make me really envious of filmmakers. Here is an opportunity to put all your crazy, weird, possibly teenage, fantasies to celluloid. Brazil is like steampunk, except with mid-twentieth-century technology. If there was an ipad in it, it would probably have wheels and run off a tank of diesel. Everyone is dressed like it’s 1943. Against this bizarre backdrop, a simple — but then again, not so simple — story of one man’s and one woman’s (or, possibly, one man who is represented both as a man and a woman) struggle against a psychotic totalitarian government takes place. I am sorry, but this is the simplest I can put it.
2. Why is the movie called Brazil?
3. If the rebels are against the tyrannical Ministry of Information, why are they killing all those innocent people?
4. What’s real and what isn’t?
5. What is the significance of ducts?
6. Why does the Ministry of Information hunt down freelance heating engineers?
7. Why is Sam obsessed with old movies and music?
8. Lesson for today (and every day)
The movie is set in a fictional world that seems to be inspired by George Orwell’s 1984. It is a jumble of soulless concrete towers, whose inhabitants dress in 1940’s fashions, ruled over by a “Ministry of Information”, a ruthless organization that does not seem to promote any kind of ideology, other than unquestioning obedience to itself. As the name implies, the Ministry is obsessed with possessing information about everyone and everything, and employs a massive centralized bureaucracy to manage its never-ending tzunami of paperwork. The most distinctive visual feature of the world portrayed in Brazil is a convoluted system of grey ducts, mostly for conveying paper, which invade every room and every office.
Sam Lowry is a clerk in Records, the lowliest department within the Ministry. He is happy (if one can use that word) with his dead-end, undemanding job and has no ambition for career advancement, much to the consternation of his wealthy, glamorous, power-hungry mother. Periodically, Sam escapes into a recurring dream, in which he is an angel, flying high above the chaos of his world, battling demons to free a beautiful blond woman imprisoned in a cage, and finally making love to her. Three events occur that shake up Sam’s contented existence and set him on a collision course with the all-powerful Ministry: (1) he meets, literally, the woman of his dreams; (2) the heating system in his apartment breaks down; and (3) he decides to hand-deliver a “refund check” for a “Mr. Buttle”, a man mistakenly grabbed and tortured to death by the Ministry as a result of a typographical error. The convergence of these three events cause Sam to accept a promotion to Information Retrieval (a euphemistic name for a department that deals with interrogation and torture), where he abuses his position, first, to locate the woman he is obsessed with and second, to ensure her safety from his colleagues.
2. Why is the movie called “Brazil”?
The title is a reference to a 1939 song “Aquarela do Brasil”, that’s often playing in the background and that Sam likes to hum. But why, of all the retro references, is this one picked for the title? Why not “Casablanca” or “The Wild West”?
I have to be careful not to read too much into it. A movie’s title is usually chosen quite late in the movie-making process and isn’t part of the overall symbolic framework. Still, the title of Brazil strikes me as kind of an in-movie joke. Jill — the woman with whom Sam is in love — mentions that there is nowhere to go to escape. This suggests that the rest of the world, including Brazil, has either been destroyed, or overtaken by the Ministry, or so completely off-limits that it may as well not exist. It endures only in song, as a fantasy of escape — and isn’t Rio the top destination for movie characters fleeing from the law? So too, in relation to the viewer, the world depicted in the movie is a kind of Brazil of its own — foreign, completely unrealistic, and a place for our imagination to escape to.
Another interesting piece of trivia: Brasil is a phantom island in Irish mythology, that is said to be always cloaked by mist. Brasil becomes visible for only one day every seven years, but even on such a day, it is still unreachable.
3. If the rebels are against the tyrannical Ministry of Information, why are they killing all those innocent people?
In any society, one will invariably find that even the bitterest political antagonists share certain baseline values. This is not meant to endorse the facile idea that all sides in a conflict are the same, only to point out that wildly divergent ideas can be embraced, somewhat paradoxically, by people who hail from similar environments and perceive certain things in very similar ways. Terrorism is a cultural phenomenon as well as a political one. A society’s perception of terrorism as an acceptable form of political expression — or, by contrast, its complete rejection of terrorism — is tied to perhaps the most fundamental concept in any culture, the value of human life.
In Brazil, we are constantly shown that the culture of that society does not value individual human life at all. This is a world where people are grabbed, tortured and killed without a trial all the time; in fact, the legal system, as such, doesn’t even exist — and people generally don’t seem to mind this. (For instance, Mrs. Buttle’s rage over the death of her husband stems from the fact that “he was good”, not that he was “completed” without even a chance to learn what the charges are or to present a defense.)
The movie begins with a bizarre interview of Mr. Helpmann, who characterizes the terrorists as bitter losers who “can’t stand to see the other guy win”. To state that the biggest problem with terrorism is denial is an immensely weird way to characterize it. Keep in mind, Helpmann’s interview is propaganda, calculated to inspire the public’s loyalty to the regime. And yet, Helpmann talks about the battle between the government and the rebels as if it were a sports competition, and does not mention once what we see as the defining evil of terrorism: the random, indiscriminate killing of civilians. This suggests that the senseless loss of life is simply not an important issue for the Ministry’s subjects. Whenever there is an explosion, no one bats an eye. When one happens in a fancy restaurant, unharmed patrons continue eating and chit-chatting, with corpses, severed body parts and screaming, maimed victims mere feet away. When another happens in a department store, survivors do not pause even for a split second in their shopping frenzy. A one legged woman is the only one standing on a train, while all the other — non-disabled — passengers relax in their seats and don’t seem to notice her. Sam is unphased when he hears anguished screaming and then, moments later, sees his friend in a torn and bloodied lab coat. Sam is also unbothered by the fact that Buttle is tortured to death by mistake; his only concern is smoothing out the bureaucratic side of the error by giving Mrs. Buttle a “refund” for her husband.
The bombings seem to be aimed primarily at disrupting the ducts, but the rebels don’t mind taking out numerous innocent people along with the Ministry’s infrastructure. This indifference does not mean they are extraordinarily heartless monsters; rather, it is a consequence of operating in a world where the killing of innocent people simply isn’t seen as a big deal.
4. What’s real, and what isn’t?
There are many interesting scenes in Brazil, but I am thinking of one in particular: a bomb has just gone off in a department store, and Sam is frantically searching for Jill. He finds her, asks her if she is alright, and once assured that she is, berates her about the senseless violence (believing that she is the one who had set off the bomb). It’s an interesting scene because for Sam, this is completely out of character. The first half of the movie presents its protagonist, while not loathsome, as officious, bureaucratic and utterly indifferent to the feelings of other people. Jill, on the other hand, constantly asks people if they are alright and tries to help them, a rare quality in that world. So when Sam asks “Are you alright?” and breaks down over the havoc that’s just been wrought, he is kind of being Jill. This is but one of several clues that Jill is Sam’s alter ego.
I want to back up a little. I generally don’t like it when movies are interpreted as “It was all imaginary, tee-hee”, and parts of the film establish that Jill exists as a matter of plot. Still, great movies, movies that make us think, always have a certain ambiguity at the point where the story splits in two, what I like to call the baseline plot layer and the symbolic layer. This is further compounded by the fact that in a movie such as Brazil, set in a bizarre, absurd world, and where the story itself incorporates fantasies and nightmares, the very notion of reality is slippery.
Consider a few vignettes that form a pattern. Sam dreams of being an angel and making love to a beautiful woman. He later meets a woman in real life who looks exactly like the woman in his recurring fantasy — which already suggests that she is a creature of his imagination. The second time Sam encounters Jill, in Mrs. Buttle’s apartment, he sees Jill’s reflection in a fragment of a shattered mirror, which is positioned at such an angle that Sam appears to be looking directly at it, but instead of seeing his own reflection, he sees Jill’s face. When he grabs the mirror, Jill disappears and he sees his own reflection.
Jill is Sam’s opposite. She is brave, empowered by her convictions, and articulate. She is brazenly outspoken in her contempt for the regime and combative towards government officials in her efforts to extricate Mr. Buttle. Sam, by contrast, is someone who has always chosen the path of the least resistance, going so far as to become part of the oppressive, tyrannical system. And in his dream, Sam must slay the evil samurai, who turns out to be Sam himself, in order to set Jill free and merge with her in the heavens.
All this suggests that within the movie’s symbolic layer, Jill represents Sam’s own idealized self, his deeply repressed conscience. (“Doesn’t it bother you, the things you do at Information Retrieval?” she asks.)
And another neat detail: the first time we see Jill, she is naked, sitting in a bath — a symbol of purification — filled with charcoal-gray water, the filth that she has just washed off. Sam, like everyone else in the Ministry, is always shown wearing a charcoal-gray suit.
And then there is another scene with Sam and Jill involving a mirror:
All this — including Sam fighting with Jill, who is possibly himself — means that Jill skirts pretty close to becoming a representation of guilt, as well, and Sam’s super-ego — the prosecutorial part of the psyche that demands perfection from the self. In post-Freudian art, the super-ego is usually represented by a scolding mother. And sure enough, Jill eventually appears dressed as Mrs. Lowry and speaking in her voice.
5. What is the significance of ducts?
Roger Ebert, who did not like Brazil, took Gilliam to task for his “bizarre obsession with ducts”. Even the most positive reviews I’ve seen characterize the ducts primarily as a symbol of “technology gone wrong”. I find all this puzzling, because I think the significance of ducts is fairly obvious: the State is present everywhere and in a very substantial fashion. It is curious to see how the ducts disfigure even the most luxurious spaces, such as Mrs. Lowry’s palatial apartment and the upscale French restaurant where she and her friend are having lunch with Sam. The ducts are gray and massive, hanging so low they almost touch people’s heads. This clearly represents the oppressive role the Ministry of Information plays in every aspect of people’s lives. The ducts also connect every corner of the city to the Ministry and diverse spaces to each other, meaning everything and everyone is part of the information network.
The mobile home that Jill is towing away at the end of the story, with Sam inside it, is the only space in the movie that does not have ducts running through it. The interior of the house is obviously a prison cell, but the ducts are nowhere to be seen. This ties into Sam’s irreversible insanity as a result of torture: having gone mad, he is now a prisoner in his own broken mind, but on the upside, it’s the one place into which the Ministry cannot intrude. That’s why Mr. Helpmann says at the end “I think he got away from us” — Sam’s life may be destroyed, but at least he is beyond the Ministry’s reach. By going insane, Sam escapes his hopeless world in the only way possible, through madness.
6. Why does the Ministry of Information hunt down freelance heating engineers?
If you understand the importance of ducts in this movie, you can understand why the Ministry is touchy about people not employed by Central Services messing with the duct work. (Here is a neat detail: although it’s Christmas, the ducts, despite being the ugliest part of any space, are not decorated — not a single garland wrapped around one anywhere, a testament to how strict the rules are that no one should touch the ducts, for any reason.) At first, the Ministry’s preoccupation with Harry Tuttle seems absurd, but people who know their way around ducts can intercept information and disrupt the Ministry’s business just as easily as fixing someone’s air conditioning. That’s why Central Services — which is either a Department in the Ministry of Information or an agency controlled by it — is the only organization permitted to work on the ducts. The Ministry is hunting down Harry Tuttle so that it can maintain this monopoly.
7. Why is Sam obsessed with old movies and music?
Everyone is obsessed with old music and movies, not just Sam. Old tunes are played on the radio, and old movies are shown on television. This is often taken to mean a certain nostalgia on the part of Sam and others for a more vibrant, “innocent” world, or just an aesthetic choice on the part of the director. I believe, however, that in the more immediate sense, this indicates an absence of creativity in Sam’s society. People listen to old music because there is no new music. People watch old movies over and over, because movies aren’t being made anymore. After all, this is a world in which any nail that sticks up is ruthlessly hammered down, and people universally prefer the comfort of repetition and conformity. It’s the reason why everyone gives everyone else the same present, wrapped in the same silver gift paper. It is also the reason why everyone is dressed like it’s the 1940’s — and even by 1940’s standards, no one is dressed truly fashionably; outfits are uniformly conservative and drab. The only one with pretensions at haute couture is Mrs. Lowry, and it’s only because she is Helpmann’s mistress. Sam lives in a culture that’s become mummified.
This absence of any creative impulse is also reflected in the movie’s technology. If you look closely, the world depicted in Brazil is quite technologically advanced. But, while the technical know-how is definitely there, there is little concern for aesthetics, convenience or efficiency. As with any real-life totalitarian regime, the system in Brazil abhors change, any kind of change, and conservatism is thus reflected in every aspect of life.
8. Lesson for today (and every day)
Brazil was released twenty-seven years ago. Today, we live in a world where Americans are subject to an unprecedented degree of surveillance by the government. (Go ahead, click on that link. If you think you are safe from warrantless spying because you are an all-American farmer from Idaho or a stereotypical Texan cowboy, and not some “Middle-Eastern”, think again.) When I read about the extent of routine warrantless surveillance, I have to wonder what the authorities do with all that information. Does anyone actually read all those billions of e-mails? Analyze them? Cross-reference them? After all, mere gathering of information is no substitute for actual human intelligence — and the more information you collect, the harder you make it for people in the law enforcement to use that information intelligently. Putting aside the moral and Constitutional implications of all this spying, collecting mountains of mostly useless information will probably make hunting terrorists harder, not easier — again, as a purely practical point. So you change the system; you put it on autopilot, where certain key words trigger an arrest, indefinite detention (with torture) and disappearance. And that’s how you get to a humble shoe salesman being dragged away on Christmas eve and tortured to death without a trial — for no reason other than a glitch in the system. We are not there yet, thankfully — but excessive surveillance is surely the first important step towards creating the kind of society that exists in Brazil.
More movie interpretation:
“A Serious Man” (Coen Brothers, 2009)
“Blood Simple” (Coen Brothers, 1984)
“Fargo” (Coen Brothers 1996)
“The Aura” (Fabián Bielinsky, 2005)
“Buffalo 66” (Vincent Gallo, 1998)
Posted in culture, entertainment, movies, What Does This Movie Mean? and tagged Brazil, Ministry of Information, Sam Lowry, Terry Gilliam, totalitarianism