Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh

Hit by the wrongness: so I saw "Brazil" again

As much as I love Terry Gilliam's Brazil, and have been impressed with it since the 1980s, it took until this year for the film to make me almost cry.

There's a scene late in Brazil that is meant to seem -- seem -- triumphant and thrilling, but I, knowing what was really happening, felt a little sad and spun-up. Which is one right response after all the times I've seen it. (There are many right responses; that's why I phrased it that way.)

This was Jan. 4th, on the biggest screen I've seen the film on, beating the tiny Clinton Street Theater where I saw the 1985 U.S. theatrical cut about 15 years ago. I'd gone into Portland one spring weekend to watch the film (and to visit my folks). I only had to go a few miles this most recent time to re-experience it, and in the slightly longer, Gilliam-approved cut. Long trip to that point: I'd first seen Brazil circa 1987, on video, in junior high. I'm not 100% sure if that was before or after I stumbled upon a remaindered copy of Jack Mathews's book The Battle of Brazil, but I think I saw the film first, at most only slightly aware of its reputation as a film that the studio almost took away from its maker.

And the film, at first, confused me. I lost the thread sometime during the climax; one particular shot near the end (you know which shot if you've seen it) cleared up the big picture, but plenty of the film remained a little beyond me. But Brazil became one of those "doodle images and write down lines from it" movies as I grew into high school. I revisited it, practically memorized both the Mathews book and the script, and come spring 1989 exulted in getting to see Gilliam's next film on a big screen. That was The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, finished in 1988 and released in the U.S. in 1989, which almost immediately became one of my favorite films. It's still up there.

By then, I knew enough about Brazil to be sure to watch what was touted as the film's first TV airing. Weeks before I saw Munchausen, something called the "Universal Premiere Network" showed a version of Brazil that's since become known as the "love conquers all" version. It's the disastrous re-cut that a studio head ordered because he wanted the film to be more "accessible." The result is a version of Brazil that hears the notes but not the music, that turns most of the film's points on their heads, and that, at times, MAKES NO SENSE. (What happens to Robert DeNiro's Tuttle? Explained in the original version, literally impossible in the recut version.) It's a sad, stripped thing. Stripped musically, too: much of Michael Kamen's wonderful score is gone (and not replaced, though in 1985 an exec had suggested using rock-inspired music, a la Tangerine Dream's rescore of Legend). Criterion included the "love conquers all" cut as an extra on its comprehensive DVD of the film, and writer David Morgan works valiantly in a commentary to justify the idea that that version is almost subversive, but if that version had been the only one that American audiences saw, no one would remember the film.

It's still remembered, thank everything. Portland's Academy Theater, which has started upgrading its theaters to digital, showed the preferred, longer edition of the film for a week. I saw it. And got, as I said, spun up.

Brazil is a movie about many, many things going wrong. About people either doing active evil or merely thoughtless acts, and often doing so badly. It's informed by the "Peter Principle": of people getting promoted until they're in jobs just beyond their abilities, so they get stuck and an organization is run by people bad at what they do. Work is bleak and unsupported; most people are unmotivated to do any more than the absolute minimum (or less, as witness the running gag about the old films); and the society's trying as hard as Caesar Flickerman to put a big, big smile on everything in order to cover the torture, bleakness and awfulness. (I love that Sam lives near the Orange Blossom Flyover. Might be the only orange in the film.)

And we find ourselves sort of, kind of, rooting for a main character who's...not a nice person. Sam isn't especially enlightened about the terrible world he lives in/is a product of/contributes to. He's certainly not above it. He's basically selfish and self-centered. He tries to convince himself that he's The Good Guy, whether in his white-knight dreams or when he delivers the check to the widow of a man he knows is dead. And he doesn't dwell on the widow screaming and crying and full of hurt and loss, once he sees Jill moments later. He either does the wrong thing (turn Jill into a suspect by HIS actions, not hers) or the right thing the wrong way (again, taking the check to the bereaved family). Even his sadness at seeing that security guys died chasing him and Jill makes him more certain Jill is a terrorist (spoiler: no), so he can blame her and not himself. Sam's ultimate goal is selfish, an escape; the world behind him is still messed up and terrible.

I like to think I've never really identified with Sam Lowry, that I realized long ago that he's no role model. I'd like to think. This viewing hammered home that Sam is the example of What Not To Do in all sorts of ways. Be better. Don't be a creep. Pay attention to what other people are dealing with. Try to help them. And do your best not to go mad. That...might not go well.

Wow, I'm in love with this film. Conflicted, difficult love.

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