Terry Gilliam’s Brazil

I recently saw Terry Gilliam’s Brazil after hearing discussion of the main character being a hacker as part of a recurring segment on The Command Line where the podcaster compares characters from literature and movies to hackers (in the original sense of the word).  Watching this 1985 movie in 2011 was a very interesting experience.

***WARNING: there may be spoilers ahead***

Just to get this out of the way: Brazil does not take place in Brazil.  It takes place in some unnamed country full of British speaking people and a couple of people with American accents.  The title of the movie comes from a famous song (in our world as well as the world of the movie) that often has its title shortened to Brazil.  Temporally, the movie takes place “in the future”.  The country depicted in this future is very similar to George Orwell’s 1984, complete with Ministry of Truth-like propaganda posters up all over the place.

Terry and the other filmmakers decided to go for a retro-future look for the movie so the characters use computers that have typewriters for the keyboard, a very small screen that requires the built-in magnifying glass, and nearly everything is printed out like a ticker-tape.  In a lot of ways, this movie is, like many British dark sci-fi comedies, about how annoying the bureaucracy is.  (See The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in which the bureaucracy sets into motion a lot of the book’s plot)  About two or three different storylines in Brazil are set off by the government’s huge bureaucracy and its inability to rectify errors.  All this made for an interesting movie, but what made it tough to watch in 2011 was the predictive nature of the movie.

The main antagonist to this society which allows it to remain authoritarian is the constant threat of terrorism.  Now, the British government using terrorism to become authoritarian was not unique in the 1980s – it was also used in V for Vendetta.  The Margaret Thatcher government was to the British what the George W Bush was for America.  And V for Vendetta (at least the movie version) hits a lot of beats about what would happen in modern times.  But, while V for Vendetta is about the government being deliberately evil, Brazil is about a government accidentally being evil.  And the scary part is how well it matches American in the 2000s.

Essentially, a fly falling into the typewriter-computer causes a misprint which causes the government’s FBI to break into the apartment of a Mr Buttle instead of a Mr Tuttle.  While not exactly the same thing, children (and one US Senator) have found themselves unable to fly because they happened to share a name or surname with a terrorist.  And, despite the ridiculous nature of a child being put on a terrorist watchlist, there appears to be no way to rectify the situation.  The bureaucracy and its need to be right trump common sense.  In the same way, when the upstairs neighbor to Mr Buttle attempts to get the government to release him and admit that it had the wrong man, she ends up being put on the terrorist list.  In the same way, many protest groups in the early 2000s ended up being marked as terrorist groups simply because they were against the war in Iraq.

Additionally, although it is implied in the Wikipedia entry (at least on the day I checked) that all the “terrorist attacks” are just malfunctions of the tubing that runs throughout the society, despite the government’s imposition of draconian measures over the society they appear to be no safer for at least three or four terrorist attacks happen throughout the film.  In the same way, many people argue that we’re not safer in proportion to the number of rights we’ve lost in America.  In fact, the big stories of 2009/2010 were of terrorists failing not because we caught them, but because they were incompetent.  (thinking of the Times Square Bomber and The Underwear Bomber)

One final disturbing aspect of the movie is that all the “villains” are just punch clock villians.  The main character in Brazil has a friend who works in Data Extraction, a euphemism for torture until the subject gives the desired information.  This is something we started doing after the terror attacks and which the W Bush administration defended despite decades-long research from psychologists other intel agencies that torture tends, on average, to produce bogus results because people will say anything to end the torture.  On top of that, his friend is not an evil person.  He doesn’t take any pleasure in his job other than that of doing his best at work.  He just sees it as something he’s been asked to do by his bosses.  He even has his 5 year old daughter in the waiting room outside his torture room.  This was also, I think, one of the biggest reasons given for not prosecuting the CIA agents who engaged in water boarding.  They were just doing what they were told to do.  I’m sure anyone who object was told that the lawyers had cleared it – after all the W Bush administration did not consider water boarding to be torture.

Another thing that Gilliam foresaw was the addiction some people would develop to plastic surgery.  I don’t know how big it was already getting in the 80s, but I remember the late 90s to be a time of constant application of plastic surgery to stars and Californians.  And he foreshadows Michael Jackson (and a few others) with a woman who is constantly going through plastic surgery over and over – with more and more bizarre results every time.

I think, for a sci-fi film that was more about bureaucracy than about authoritarian governments (I think Gilliam uses it so that the effects of the government can be even more drastic/evil), it’s crazy how much of this has come to pass.  It really made it hard to laugh sometimes.