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It is generally agreed that certain old films have become classics: Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz and so forth. It's much more difficult to come up with a list of films post-1980 that will find a similar consensus. Being wildly successful guarantees little, as trendy hits turn sour, blockbusters are frequently dissed and critics are prone to champion their personal favorites as 'guilty pleasures.' But Terry Gilliam's 1985 Brazil is fast becoming an acknowledged classic. It only looks better with the passing years, and its core of admirers is growing, especially on college campuses.
The brilliant, Oscar nominated script by Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown started life with the title 1984½, which perhaps too accurately pegs the film's ambitions. Getting audiences to sit through film versions of Orwell's depressing totalitarian fantasy was never easy. Brazil adds appealing, essential content: Beautiful flights of fancy and a tough-minded (but whimsical) sense of British humor.
The story begins with a trifling office mishap. A a fly changes a "T" to a "B" on a piece of paper, with the result that an innocent shoe repairman named Buttle is imprisoned and tortured to death in place of a rogue air conditioning 'terrorist' named Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro). Non-ambitious clerk Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) does all the work for his decision-paralyzed boss Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm) and becomes involved in the Buttle case by trying to deliver a refund check to the man's traumatized widow. Sam meets Harry Tuttle personally when the latter swoops down to perform some welcome air conditioning repair, an incident that puts Lowry in Dutch with an 'authorized' repairman, Spoor (Bob Hoskins). Tuttle's wildcat services have landed him on the arrest sheets but he has nothing to do with the constant deadly bombings that interrupt the luncheons of Lowry's decadent mother Ida (Katherine Helmond) and her friends. In his daydreams Lowry sees himself as a flying Galahad fighting a giant Samurai warrior to save a beautiful princess. He's shocked to find that Jill Layton, one of Mrs. Buttle's neighbors (Kim Greist) is a dead ringer for his daydream princess. To locate and win Jill, Lowry accepts a promotion to the "Information Retrieval" department, which is actually an Orwellian Ministry of Fear specializing in torture. Sam's 'friend' Jack Lint (Michael Palin) feigns sincerity but is actually the department's top interrogation specialist. If Sam isn't careful, both he and Jill could end up in Jack Lint's torture chamber.
When talking to Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock divided film directors into two categories, "Simplifiers" and "Complicators." He proudly classified himself in the first category. The Complicators seem to rule the present state of filmmaking, as post- MTV, post- video game aesthetics have dictated that no single shot will do when five can take its place. Trendy directors trowel on layer after layer of 'visual fabric' in the belief that crowded soundtracks and busy images make films ''more real." Terry Gilliam's trio of fantastic adventures Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen have little in common with the action-oriented chaos we now know too well, despite being packed with detail and often presented at a dizzying pace. Gilliam has the unique talent of creating an entire 'world' with terrific short strokes of visual genius: everything we see has a maximum impact, so nothing needs to be overdone or oversold. It's the difference between Content and Clutter.
Terry Gilliam wisely constructs his bureaucratic Dystopia from the remnants of the past, which immediately puts the look of Brazil ahead of 90% of its peers. Movies as diverse as Things to Come and Fahrenheit 451 imagine future styles that soon become obsolete. Avoiding that trap, Gilliam's retro-mechanical automatic typewriters and Fresnel-enhanced data monitors already look like outmoded junk, suggesting Orwell's crumbling infrastructure while at the same time resembling nothing familiar to us now. 1984 was set almost exclusively in rotting tenement blocks but Gilliam gives his Sam Lowry a rich mother to show the gulf between the haves and have-nots. Ida Lowry and her decadent set enjoy their privileges and live in total isolation from unpleasant realities.
The economic disparity yields unlimited opportunities for wicked satire. Ida undergoes bizarre saran-wrap cosmetic surgery to make herself younger, while her less fortunate friend Mrs. Alma Terrain (Barbara Hicks) goes to another quack and is slowly reduced to gelatinized gore. A typographical error results in the utter destruction of the Dickensian Buttle family by government agents, but Ida and Alma are resentful when their chi-chi luncheon is interrupted by a full-scale terror attack.
Denied peace on any level, some of the "Proles" refuse to play the game. Harry Tuttle swings through the skyscrapers like Spiderman, doing his bit by helping ordinary citizens when licensed plumbers won't. Shocked by the Buttle mishap, Jill Layton registers her protest through the bureaucratic labyrinth, and succeeds only in having her name added to Terrorist rolls. Sam Lowry wants only an escape to his daydreams but inadvertently becomes Public Enemy number one. The most shocking charge against him is that he left some irrelevant receipts un-filed.
Terry Gilliam remains faithful to Orwell through creative infidelity. Brazil has moments of liberating joy to balance its darker corners: Sam delights in his fantasies, turning loops through the clouds after kissing his dream girl. He also shares Harry Buttle's triumph over the petty tyranny of repairman Spoor: subversive plumbing, like vengeance, is best served cold. When all is lost, we're treated to a briefly liberating daydream in which Robin Hood comes to the rescue.
Terry Gilliam's unique design sense enables Brazil to dwarf the visual imagination of many another Science Fiction fantasy. Jack Lint's torture chamber is a colossal open space and not the expected secret chamber, which tells us his activities are so routine, they don't need to be hidden away. Myriad in-jokes, references to other films (an elegant nod to Battleship Potemkin) and Gilliam's peculiar brand of Python-informed poetic lunacy are everywhere, as when a shower of office paper scattered by a Terror explosion -- a chilling precursor of 9/11 -- magically regroups to bring down an 'enemy of the state.' Other gags seem inspired by earlier traditions, as with the maddening shared desk that keeps Lowry and his co-worker engaged in a constant war of nerves. It reminds us of the hapless lab manager in the classic Ealing comedy The Man in the White Suit, the one who sees his workspace shrinking and under attack by forces beyond his control.
The mark of Gilliam's genius is how clearly his visual gags communicate the petty tyranny of a bureaucratic state... a ten year-old can watch Brazil and grasp its essential message. The film is too beautiful to be depressing and too imaginative to second-guess. It's a step beyond the novel 1984.
Jonathan Pryce is marvelously flexible as the wistful but determined Sam Lowry, while Ian Holm, Michael Palin, Jim Broadbent and Peter Vaughan take roles as various functionaries in the all-too familiar society where war with undefined Terrorists never ends and the economy is bolstered by making every day a Christmas Shopping Day. Robert de Niro lobbied for the lead role and was happy to settle for the smaller Harry Tuttle part. Bob Hoskins is suitably demonic as Lowry's plumber/tormentor. Slighted by director Gilliam as the picture's weak link, Kim Greist is actually quite fine as Lowry's activist dream girl.
Universal's Blu-ray of Brazil retrieves Terry Gilliam's film from the hands of The Criterion Collection, which over the years has put out several editions, including one multi-disc release with two separate versions. These all came to be because of director Gilliam's fabled battles with the Universal brass, which originally tried to float a "happily ever after" version with the better part of an hour cut out. The preferred Gilliam cut on the Criterion discs clocked in at 142 minutes. This one is a full ten minutes shorter, so I can't see the Gilliam purists being happy with it. It's as if Universal, now that the Criterion license has run out, is intent on having the last laugh -- although it's possible that Universal simply doesn't have access to the longer cut.
The picture quality is excellent, and the HD format gives us a much better look at Gilliam's fabulous art direction and fanciful miniatures, etc. It's still one of his very best.
Universal uses a one-size fits all menu scheme that leads us to an extras choice with no extras, so owners of older extras-laden Criterion discs are urged to hang onto them. Several BD-Live choices do appear. The corporate-speak copy encourages us to hook our BD players to the web and check in with Universal's "Information Services" - like monitors, for the privilege of viewing more advertising materials readily available on the web. It's amusing that on many of these discs, we're still forced to watch screens bearing disclaimers about the opinions on commentaries, featurettes, etc., even when no such items appear. Having Brazil on HD is undeniably a very good thing ... but now I have three separate disc editions of the movie and wouldn't want to get rid of any. It's the same with Universal's Blu-ray of Dune, which has only the standard theatrical cut and not the much longer TV version included on an earlier DVD tin.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Brazil Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.