Sunday, May 29, 2011


Here’s an interesting phenomenon: Because it had been several years since I had first seen Brazil, because I had seen several films which were direct influences on Brazil since that time, and because I had recently found one of Gilliam’s other films to be less impressive since my previous viewing of it I predicted that a similar effect would take hold here. Instead, though, I found myself enjoying it much more than previously. I saw it on a large TV in HD, so I could more fully appreciate the nuances in the images, but now looking at screenshots I find myself aghast at how poorly the film compares visually to another film I watched within days of that film, Buffalo ’66, and found myself feeling after-the-fact the same way as I did before-the-fact, doubting whether I would enjoy it. This makes no sense, however, since this was a recent viewing and I was in a perfectly normal mood at the time and a film is more than just its screenshots. The cause is obvious: Vincent Gallo is like a black hole, disrupting the expected flow of the universe and sucking everything into his path with unimaginable force. That mystery is solved, but it was an interesting phenomenon I wanted to document. I can make one parallel between the films to potentially make this wholly ridiculous subplot worthwhile, though, although I admit that it occurred to me only after beginning this exorcism of meaningless conceptions-of-conceptions. The parallel may be obvious given the focus of my previous post, but the way in which Gilliam constructs a fantasy to parallel the film’s central storyline to visualize the unseen aspirations and threats bearing down upon the central character is interesting in that Gilliam only gradually ties the two aesthetic modes together with a psychological device and merely allows them to exist in a complementary fashion for the much of the film. Both films do combine the aesthetic with the psychological in the end, although Gilliam for once outdoes Gallo with a feverish blend of the two divergent halves. I think this section in Brazil is distinct from typical Hollywood films, though, in that the nature of the fantasy informs the perception of what otherwise seems to be reality, rather than the other way around. What I’m saying is this: In a typical film there would be a number of cues to indicate that the ‘dream sequence’ is not real, despite how obvious the distinction is, and the real world would reclaim its primacy. In Gilliam’s film the real world is the one which becomes a 'false' mode, and we only discover this by the unfolding events becoming more and more reminiscent of the ‘governing rules’ of the dreamscape until the dream becomes the primary level of perception for the protagonist and the reality becomes plasticized and lifeless, revering the previous state of affairs. Gallo’s aesthetic dualism tends toward impressionism while Gilliam’s tends toward allegory, but both manage to capture a distinct mood by way of an abstract expressionism which is always a joy for me to see. The extensive reality-fading-into-dream sequence toward the end of Brazil is an amazing stretch of pure cinema rivaled by few. Were this sort of stream of consciousness extended for the length of the film I would have no doubt that it would be among my favorites, but you can’t always get what you most want, c’est la vie.

The structure of Brazil is fittingly and funnily completely absurd, essentially a bureaucratic institution crafted in such a manner which ensures that the film’s main character will be hopelessly swallowed within its senseless mechanizations as if it were a giant Rube Goldberg machine. Once the fly gets into the typewriter and misprints a name within a system operated by individuals who refuse to acknowledge the possibility of error it is assured that someone will perish, and it will probably be the meekest man available. In this manner the film resembles Kafka’s many protagonists more than it does the protagonist in Orwell’s more overtly referenced 1984, with Brazil’s Big Brother a distant implication in Gilliam’s film and the faceless Institution, Kafka’s weapon of choice, erected as the menacing force. However, the central storyline in fact matches up neither with Kafka’s personal stamp nor with Orwell’s looming influence but instead with the tradition of the comedy of errors. While the bureaucracy of Kafka looms over the protagonist and the secret police of Orwell looms over everyone else, it is only through a great many indirect mechanizations that the protagonist becomes so inextricably entwined in red tape violations that he cannot escape. If the protagonist had merely followed the rules of the workplace he may have survived without a blemish, something that cannot be said for Kafka or Orwell’s protagonists. No good deed goes unpunished in Brazil, but the perils of obeying the status quo don’t seem as pronounced as in either of the other men’s stories. While Gilliam’s sensibility is often too ostentatious to straddle the delicate line between tragedy and comedy, in Brazil he manages to maintain the balance for much of the film despite his material being more inherently comedic than either Kafka or Orwell. 12 Monkeys is another exercise in mixing tragedy with comedy, but here I think Gilliam manages to blend the two in a manner which exemplifies both the absurdity of the situation he is presenting and the ominous implications of this material, aided in no small part by the understated nature of his fantasy sequences. I think it’s interesting to note that I find the aesthetic embellishment of Brazil’s fantasy sequences to be the most important element in emphasizing the peril of the film’s realistic implications, perhaps because the film’s only hopeful resolution presented within this fantasy happens to be an ironic counterpoint to the film’s final moments of parallel and bleak realism. The possibilities of this sort of potentially counter-intuitive result arose recently on a conversation here and it’s nice to see this phenomena illustrated again here.

What Brazil is not, in my view, is an esoteric film. Its influences are rather obvious, from Playtime to Metropolis to , and the central peril of its setting is encapsulated rather clearly in the ironic conclusion. What it can be noted for is the vast array of minutiae that Gilliam manages to stuff into the film’s frames, aided by a budget that allows for far more film-specific mis-en-scene to be constructed than in a film like, say, the micro-budget Buffalo ’66. There are some oft-noted visual gags whose costs run in the cents rather than millions, like putting tape over a dog’s rear, but the vast array of architecturally imposing sets is something which can be overlooked without care, but to do so would be to overlook a vital part of the film's richness. After all, I find one of the film’s greatest strengths to be its multilayered and carefully composed artifice (careful even when it is a part of a delirious and menacing happy nightmare), and the gigantic samurai and concrete monster and luxurious funeral are all prominent objects in the film’s tapestry. I don’t want to merely make a list of them, though, because that would simply be overdoing it, so I will single out one particular example which proves the rule and you can extrapolate as you will from there. This won’t be at random, nor will it merely be my favorite, so I will attempt to explain the choice: this element, which I haven’t yet picked, will exemplify the importance of the mise en scene as central element of the film and demonstrate the unique depth of detail which permeates many if not all of the film’s sets. The following ellipsis will indicate that a great amount of time and thought went into this selection: … And now I have it figured out. The film’s dominant implications made through the mise en scene relate to mood, social class, and social commentary, so the obvious choice is the protagonist’s mother’s face. This particular element may not be the costliest element of the film’s production, but the simple fact that a face can be an element of the mise en scene indicates that it is of an importance that others films don’t have. After all, the face is created, and often contorted, in ways which say as much about the film’s proceedings as the building the face happens to be in or the clothes upon which the face is perched. This face you will not find on the young truck driver who catches the protagonist’s heart. The character in the film probably couldn’t afford it, the character wouldn’t care about it, and the character isn’t played for laughs. She is the straight-woman, while the mother is anything but, no matter how straight the doctors attempt to make her face, and she is the dream-girl who stands as the feminine ideal contrary to the mother’s feminine disgrace: she is independent, flies in the face of superficial concerns, and is completely un-scathed by Gilliam’s satiric touch. As such, you can see that the construction of artifice tends to oppose some alternate ideal, and while the artifice in its extremity may border on the comic or grotesque it exists within a context which speaks to an idea that does not need to be spoken aloud. You can generate all the pithy remarks about bandages and stretch marks you like, it’s sufficient for my purposes to note that all of those remarks are sufficiently implied by Gilliam through the use of mise en scene alone.

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