Saturday, November 15, 2014

Reflections on the Revolution in Brazil

George Orwell has been referenced by both sides of the Anglo-American political fence so often that if he had never lived, he probably would have been invented. I have always found it especially interesting how often both sides ignore that side of Orwell which is most politically inconvenient. For example, conservatives don't like to remember that Orwell was often as stern a critic of capitalism as he was a critic of communism while the liberals don't like to remember that the incident that ultimately turned Orwell against communism was the destruction of Orwell's Socialist kindred spirits in Spain by Stalinists who were supposedly on the same side of the Spanish Civil War as Orwell and his comrades.

Needless to say, you don't see that side of Orwell depicted in many popular movies. Indeed, most movie adaptations of Orwell's work tend to focus around his classic novel 1984, which is about a futuristic dictatorship whose control over its subjects is so complete that not even death can free them.

Unfortunately, 1984 is so familiar to most Anglo-American moviegoers due to its having been taught in so many high school and college literature courses that it would be hard to make a movie adaptation of it that most adults would not find predictable. Indeed, when I had the chance to watch the 1984 film version of 1984, I remember finding its first few minutes so predictable that I turned it off right away -- and it did not help that the movie itself came across as a thinly disguised campaign ad for 1984 U.S. Presidential candidate Walter Mondale.

Fortunately, Terry Gilliam's 1985 movie Brazil was not so predictable. Indeed, I could argue that its plot owed as much to author James Thurber as it did to George Orwell because its protagonist -- Sam Lowry (played by Jonathan Pryce) -- spends so much time having the type of fantasies that Thurber describes in his short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." In fact, it is tempting to argue that Brazil takes the usual Walter Mitty story to its darkest conclusion because so many characters -- including Sam Lowry -- suffer such dire consequences as a result of Lowry's attempts to act out his fantasies. That is not exactly the type of conclusion I expected to find in a movie made so close to the "don't dream it, be it" era of the 1970s, much less in an era when it was popular for filmmakers to wax nostalgic about the various dreams of the 1960s.

Nor was its Aesopian moral as predictable as I expected. It took me quite a few viewings of the movie to catch on to the fact that Gilliam was not content to promote the same old "fight the power" clichés we have seen in so many bad science fiction movies. Instead, his political message was more complicated. On one hand, he obviously did not expect his audience to approve of the dictatorship for which Lowry worked. Nor did he expect us to approve of Lowry's politically neutral attitude. Yet when Lowry became romantically obsessed with a female lorry driver named Jill Layton (played by Kim Griest) and tried to help her by joining in "the revolution," it was not entirely a coincidence that Lowry's actions not only led to the death of an innocent man but ultimately made things worse for Jill, one of the most sympathetic characters in the movie. Indeed, I have long suspected that the true reason for Lowry's breakdown toward the end of the movie was not so much fear of torture but the suspicion that his actions throughout the movie not only failed to prevent the tragic fate of a woman he loved but actually hastened it.

Of course, it might have been easy for Gilliam to give Lowry a more crowd-pleasing story arc but that was not the type of tale he wanted to tell. And in an age which has seen all too many revolutionaries succeed in making things worse for the people they were supposedly fighting for, I don't know that it is a bad thing to remind people who would fight against the powers that be to be careful what they wish for lest they end up like Sam Lowry.

Of course, Brazil is noteworthy for other things besides its political commentary. For example, it is difficult today to watch the various scenes in which Lowry's co-workers watch old movies on their computers and not be reminded of how often modern office workers use the Internet for similar purposes. Indeed, their use of computers as just another source of entertainment always seemed more realistic -- even in the days before the Internet became so popular -- than the usual "evil computer" movie that was so popular back in the 1980s.

For that matter, I loved how the director threw in a visual reference to an old Marx Brothers movie by having it show on the TV set that Jill was watching while she was taking a bath. Given the frequency with which Brazil is referenced by both liberals and conservatives, I can't help but wonder how much of a coincidence it was that he had the most likable character in the movie watch a movie starring the guy who took pride in not wanting to be a member of any club that would have him for a member.

Gilliam used so many visual details to make the world of Brazil believable that it seems depressing that it was not more of a hit at the box office. But then the most popular movies are not always the most deserving movies and it could be that Brazil hit too much of a nerve to be popular with all but the most serious of moviegoers. Then again many potential fans could have been scared away by its length. After all, not everyone likes long movies. And of course, some of the moviegoers who were less than impressed with it could have been like the blonde art student I met at a local book store in the late 1980s who -- despite looking like a long-lost twin of Kim Greist -- admitted that she fell asleep during the movie. It could be that Brazil -- like most very long movies -- works better on DVD or VHS because the viewer always has the option to turn it off at a certain point and then return to it at a later time the same way one would return to a beloved novel that one just can't finish reading in one sitting. But that could just be wishful thinking on my part.

In any event, I find it amusing to note how much the movie seemed to have anticipated the recent War on Terror and the propaganda that accompanied that. Indeed, the opening sequence in which a government spokesman accuses the masterminds behind the latest terrorist incident of displaying bad sportsmanship was much on my mind during many of the months after the 9/11 attack in New York City -- especially whenever I spent too much time watching the Fox News Channel.

However, I don't find it so amusing to note how little most people in power seem to have learned from it. Then again the lessons it has to teach are not the type of lessons that are likely to appeal to a person in power. Indeed, like most great satires, Gilliam's Brazil seems destined to be deliberately misunderstood by those who most need to learn from it. But then such lessons are never easily taught so it is just as well that the movie exists to reach those few who will learn from it. And perhaps those few will be enough to make a difference for future generations.

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