CONFORMITY, AWARENESS & FREEDOM
INSTRUCTOR: K. B.
STUDENT #: 10***36
April 2 2013
Released in 1985, ‘Brazil’ is a foretelling, satirical account of a world so familiar it feels like our own more than quarter of a century after its creation. This Terry Gilliam film is an elaborate depiction of a heavily dominated society where the incompetent yet oppressive system is inevitably sustained and reinforced through homogenization and mindless conformity, truth obstruction and escapism. The citizens of ‘Brazil’ are uniformly plugged into this central power through what seem to be living and breathing ducts of various price points, shapes and sizes. They live monotonous, relatively trouble-free lives in line with their respective career levels and social statuses. Meanwhile, the chain of events faced by the select few that come to defy the formidable structure leaves the viewer torn on the notion of freedom.
Homogenization & Mindless Conformity – A Rigid Bureaucracy, a Senseless Consumerist Culture
‘Brazil’ is filled with instances of inefficiency, rigid irrationality, incapacity and mindless compliance in bureaucratic and consumerist contexts alike. The citizens are shaped to be homogenous and to hardly question or confront unreasonable rules and behaviors or obvious flaws in a system that fails to be effective or accountable on several occasions throughout the film.
An innocent life is lost as a result of a minor typographical error literally caused by a dead fly, while neither of the two departments involved at the Ministry of Information (MOI) accept any responsibility beyond issuing a refund cheque for the incorrectly charged interrogation fees. And despite witnessing her husband’s brutal arrest moments earlier, Mrs. Buttle’s terrified expression shifts comically as she is asked to sign the Ministry’s receipt for her husband and to “press harder” on the next page.
The system in power is equally disabled when it comes to stopping terrorism in its thirteenth year. In his address to the nation, the carefree Deputy Minister – who perhaps embodies the system’s incompetence through his own inability to walk – cheerfully refers to the thirteenth year of the bombing campaign as a ‘beginner’s luck’, which seems to be sufficient explanation for the unsuspecting citizens.
The themes of apathy and dehumanization (Novalia 3) alike are equally pervasive in ‘Brazil’. So, even when Jill Layton attempts to report her neighbors’ wrongful arrest, her efforts are hindered through an excessively convoluted system operated by insensitive employees that do not care to exercise common sense. As Gilliam puts it in his commentary, the rules and paperwork “are an excuse for people not behaving in human ways towards each other and to avoid the more complicated [human] relationships” (youtube). Sam Lowry’s plea for help is similarly ignored by the appropriately brainless recording on what is supposed to be the Central Services emergency line, and when the Central Services workers finally show up hours later and damage his apartment’s heating system, they are just as indifferent to Sam’s frustration as the recorded voice was earlier. One of the most striking instances of apathy is perhaps shown in the sequence when Jack’s secretary is seen transcribing the details of a torture session cheerily and efficiently, while Jack’s young daughter is later shown playing right next to the torture chamber.
To enhance its control, the system of ‘Brazil’ has effectively created uniformity by standardizing the simplest procedures and reducing individuals down to numbers, which ultimately enables it to confine and monitor citizens closely, “benevolently stifling them for their own protection” (Bastian 2). It is through this uniform and closely regulated system that workers lose their individual worth and identity as dispensable employees and citizens come to accept financial responsibility for their occasional interrogations. When promoted to the Information Retrieval Department, Sam is shown to his office door that has his assigned number instead of his name and is later told he could “jeopardize his credit rating” if he keeps refusing to confess.
As previously noted the citizens of ‘Brazil’ are equally influenced by consumerism and constantly busy shopping in the malls. Christmas simply does not end here in ‘Brazil’. Uninterrupted ‘Christmas shopping’ and frequent exchange of presents as the only visible signs of the Christmas spirit, therefore, seem to be ongoing throughout the film. The never ending holiday season is perhaps a good reference to the widespread commercialization of the various, year-round occasions which are merely celebrated through ritualistic shopping sprees, perhaps also highlighting the “commodification of all social [and many family] relationships” (Glass 28).
Fashion and plastic surgery are other prevalent example of unquestioning conformity seen in the affluent social class of ‘Brazil’ where typically superficial new trends and practices are followed regardless of how incongruous or harmful they may. Sam’s mother wears what looks like a boot as a hat and has her skin continuously and brutally cut and stretched to attain a youthful look. Beauty and youth, however, do not seem to be the ultimate objective, as Mrs. Terrain continues to put herself through a lot of pain and discomfort regardless of her increasingly serious complications. To keep up with Ida and prove her own treatment technique as superior, she continues to the point where her very life is taken by the procedure.
The society in ‘Brazil’ is very much caught up in superficiality and excessive attention to appearances and external surfaces. The common presence of mirrors, screens and other surfaces alike is perhaps an effective manifestation of a culture where things are taken at face value and outer appearances effortlessly manage to obstruct deeper, internal qualities. As her cosmetic treatment starts to take effect, Sam’s mother easily attracts significantly younger males who in spite of having known her prior to her operations, no longer seem to be conscious of (taking things at face value) or concerned about (appearances overriding reality) her real age. In another scene Sam’s mother questions his ambition and asks him ironically if he has any hopes or dreams, which is yet another instance of judgment made not through thought and deeper understanding but in this case on the basis of Sam’s career status and his decision to turn down his offer for promotion. Additionally, this could be reflective of howBrazil’s social structure is shaped to perceive and define notions of hope and dream.
Truth Obstruction & Escapism – Suppressed Awareness, Distraction & Propaganda
The surfaces, mirrors and screens are also used repeatedly throughout the film as barriers to reality and tools for mind manipulation. The sight of the crowd wounded by the explosion is effectively blocked off in the restaurant scene where Sam and her mother continue to dine undisturbed. The long rows of promising, visually attractive billboards on either side of the highway similarly act as blinders screening off and providing a liberating distraction from the reality of a “devastated industrial landscape” (Glass 25).
Entertainment – represented in ‘Brazil’ by shopping and television – is another element reinforcing oblivion and distraction. The employees of the Records Department “respond to their meaningless jobs” by staging “a little revolt as soon as the boss provides them with the opportunity” (Glass 26).
What seems to be rebellion – and it is, at one level – ultimately loops back to the advantage and continuity of the system as an entirety, for this remains a harmless revolt, a diversion from any more direct confrontation with the forces in power (Glass 26).
In contrast to the mostly bright and colorful visuals reflecting the everyday life of citizens, scenes of rebellion and subversion are mostly accompanied by dark and hazy imagery. This could signify the inevitable ambiguity and inconvenience associated with the pursuit of truth in comparison to the comfort and clarity that ignorance and convenient acceptance offers. As Mr. Helpmann states – through a number of television screens – during his speech addressing the “ruthless minority” believed to be responsible for the terrorist bombings, “if they just play the game, they’ll get a lot more out of life”. Ironically, the select few that come to be identified as terrorists all seem to have better insight into the game being played.
Tuttle is one of the few with an ability to see beyond surfaces. His deeper vision is demonstrated through his ability to see the simple logic of bypassing paperwork when it makes sense. He also has a periscope that enables Sam to look through an upper window to see what goes on inside his apartment, effectively ‘seeing through the wall’. As another character who demonstrates the ability to delve deeper into matters, Jill insightfully asks Sam if he has ever met an actual terrorist, suggesting that she has perhaps not been convinced by the surface explanations provided by the propaganda. Jill also demonstrates wisdom through her initial skepticism towards Sam instead of trusting him blindly as an authority figure. In fact, she does not soften up or let her guards down until she sees the persistent lover through Sam’s appearance. Similarly, Sam possesses a relatively deep understanding of his surroundings as reflected through his subversive dreams. He figuratively sees beyond mirrors and passes through walls (door knob through the brick wall) and solid surfaces (Mrs. Terrain’s coffin). The images of Mrs. Buttle’s suffering that continue to haunt him re-emerge through the mirror in his mother’s apartment overriding the reflections of a seemingly flawless party seen by everyone else.
In spite of his relative awareness, even Sam takes a more or less passive stance (at least up until he has personal motives to actively rebel) and escapes the realities of his mundane life through his impotent dreams which do very little besides manifesting and reinforcing the same oppressive structure and stabilizing his mood, effectively alleviating otherwise serious hostilities. Sam’s dreams are clearly rooted in and looping back to the same notions that preoccupy his mind in reality (Glass 26). His blissful encounters with Jill are increasingly invaded by powerful adversaries and giant blocks thrusting out of the earth and standing between them. Besides, even the realization of his ultimate dream – reaching Jill- is ironically dependent on further committing to the rigid structure he attempts to avoid. He will not find Jill in real life unless he accepts the unwelcome offer of promotion to the Information Retrieval Department which has an ironically suffocating and dungeon-like look to it. Similarly, Sam “avails himself of the ghost code” (Erickson 29) in order to gain access to the Deputy Minister’s office (a higher authority status), in order to free Jill from being pursued. He has no choice but to go all the way down to the very top, as cleverly suggested by the reverse number sequence of the elevator buttons at the MOI. Sam simply needs to concede and play by the rules of the ‘game’ in order to survive and lead a comfortable life in what he knows as the reality. “Work, leisure, dreams: He literally has nowhere to go” (glass 24).
Freedom, Inertia and the Ducts – “Truth shall make you free”
Truth or information has a twofold significance in ‘Brazil’. On one level the continuous collection of information represents the strategy of the dominant structure to sustain its power and control over the citizens. The retrieval, classification and maintenance of Information, therefore, continue to be MOI’s ultimate objective and are reinforced through various channels within the society of ‘Brazil’. The ubiquitous statist propaganda slogans, such as ‘Truth Shall Make You Free’, ‘Information the Key to Prosperity’ or ‘Don’t Suspect a Friend, Report Him’, as “means to control, direct, and deceive “(Erickson 30), are all in place with the objective of promoting and legitimizing the sharing and collection of information with the ironic promise of freedom as the end result.
The motif of ducts could also correspond to the notion of intrusion, surveillance (and dependence) for the same objective of obtaining information. Every home, store and office in ‘Brazil’ is uniformly tied down to what seems like a network of multipurpose ducts that roar and breathe like conscious, living organisms and serve several functions, such as air conditioning, transfer of information and banking, to name a few. Even the trash can on the MOI sidewalk – where Sam is trying to catch Jill while carelessly dropping documents out of her MOI file – resembles a duct leading into the ground, suggesting that the city’s garbage is perhaps similarly examined for information while the promising sign harmlessly reads: ‘keep your city tidy’. Citizens are enticed through an ad at the beginning of the film to upgrade their old-fashioned ducts to new ones offered in hundreds of designs to “suit [their] individual tastes”. Despite their intrusive nature, nobody seems to tamper with them (like Tuttle does), or consider getting rid of them, as this would be against conforming toBrazil’s established way of life. Not to mention that the ducts’ design as a multipurpose apparatus makes them an absolute necessity for comfort and survival.
Of course, the ones resisting or interfering with the status-quo are divested of notions of comfort and survival. Jill is eliminated soon after she is established as a terrorist once she is determined to be – as Jack puts – working for someone other than the MOI. Tuttle is defeated by the insurmountable burden of paperwork and Sam is ultimately captured and strapped down for torture and interrogation. This is perhaps one way of readingBrazil’s message: The citizens’ “capitulation to the torture chamber of society” (Glass 26) for which the dystopian narrative offers no obvious solution. This theme bears a connection with Tuttle’s usual quote: ‘we’re all in this together’, perhaps suggesting that change cannot be realized within inertia or through efforts of only a few.
The second layer of truth relates to the notion of freedom created and maintained through human reasoning and awareness. Symbolically connected to the two duct network explosions, Sam’s awakening or internal liberation parallels the release of the paper based information at the MOI, as well as the not so pleasant eruption of (what could be construed as) the real truth inside his apartment. Sam manages to break free of the clutches of the oppressive structure through giving in entirely to his dreams, which although futile in bringing about real change and outward freedom, keeps his mind intact and free. To Gilliam, this is an “optimistic ending, [Sam’s] imagination is still free and alive; they haven’t got that. They may have his body, but they don’t have his mind” (Bennetts 16).
To wrap up, ‘Brazil’ is a vast and intricate piece that smoothly weaves together its many underlying themes into a single, solid narrative. The countless ways of reading it, however, remain to be exhausted.
Bastian, Jon, “Network / Brazil(1976 / 1985)”, Film Monthly, June 2002, http://www.filmmonthly.com/video_and_dvd/network_and_brazil.html, Web.
Bennetts, Leslie. “How Terry Gilliam Found a Happy Ending for Brazil”, The New York Times, January 19, 1986, Arts and Entertainment Section: 16.
Erickson, John, “The Ghost in the Machine: Gilliam’s Postmodern Response in Brazilto the Orwellian Dystopia of Nineteen Eighty-Four”, Utopian Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1993), pp. 26-34. Print.
Glass, Fred, “Brazilby Terry Gilliam”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4 (summer, 1986), pp. 22-28. Print.
Author unknown, “Terry Gilliam – Making of Brazil”, YouTube Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzxro-ZcXQop, Web.
Novalia, Wikke, “BRAZIL(1985): “IT’S ONLY A STATE OF MIND”, http://brazilanalysis.wordpress.com. Web.