‘Brazil’ is a Christmas movie
There are two certainties in director Terry Gilliam’s 1985 masterpiece Brazil: terror and Christmas.
His vision for tomorrow is grim and paranoid, a world of endless wars and endless Christmas cheer. One nourishing the other, like a wreath of ouroboros holidays. Brazil is a fruitcake of cinematic genres, combining sci-fi, noir, comedy and fantasy into one sinister loaf of bread. And, like fruit cake, it has a way of sticking to your teeth, sometimes for years. I think about this movie more and more, especially as America seems to be slowly moving towards a Christmas-based economy. Someday the holiday season will begin on December 26th.
Former Monty Python member cleverly updates George Orwell’s classic futuristic dystopia One thousand nine hundred and eighty four in Thatcher’s bleak England. In Brazil, the near future is a mess that combines the worst of socialism and the worst of capitalism. Imagine if Verizon customer service supported the DMV and you had to fill out a triplicate form with them to get permission to repair your own air ducts.
Gilliam also manages to improve Orwell a bit. There is no doubt that beloved playwright co-writer Tom Stoppard contributed to it. In Orwell’s novel, Big Brother is all-powerful and above all competent, a police state capable of extinguishing the fires of individuality, however small the flame. But in Brazil, the state is a parade of mistakes made by an army of cruel bureaucrats. Imagine a boot hitting a human face as that same boot simultaneously slides across a banana peel.
Brazil was a flop when it was released, and its production issues are close to legend. Almost Wellésien. Gilliam fought the studio for control of her work and the result is a film that is at times uneven, but almost always interesting, beautiful and slyly terrifying. He’s as prescient now as he was then.
The movie is, like One thousand nine hundred and eighty four, an edifying story. Beware of state power and its little brother, free enterprise. In both stories, the company conspires to crush the human spirit. There is nothing that threatens the status quo more than people who think they can just follow their heart, willy-nilly. So, Big Brother is watching, and in Gilliam’s nightmare, the butler does too. When it comes to tyranny, you know, you can’t make a bowl of eggnog punch without breaking a few eggs.
Brazil is not on Christmas, exactly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a Christmas movie. Christmas lurks in the background. Twinkling Christmas lights hang from industrial conduits that meander through rooms and hallways like tentacles. Bombs tear apart department stores filled with holiday shoppers. The sound of the sleigh bells is followed by violence. In a cramped apartment, a mother reads A Christmas Carol at his two moppets for a moment; the next, government shock troops smash the door and the father is bagged and tagged, taken away, a suspected terrorist.
This is of course a mistake. A literal bug in the machine.
The one person who doesn’t seem permanently thrilled with the party is Sam Lowry, played by the stammering, rubbery legend Jonathan Pryce. Sam is a politically connected, underachieving button push who dreams of a life of adventure and love but has settled for a life of the invisible.
He spends his days resisting promotions launched by his mother, a power diva addicted to plastic surgery played by Katherine Helmond. He doesn’t want a fancy job with a fancy title. Especially if that job means hunting down terrorists or whoever is causing trouble, really, for God, country, and commerce.
Gilliam’s aesthetic is similar to steampunk, only instead of steam technology, Brazil is science fiction inspired by twentieth-century gadgets, such as typewriters and toasters. They are all clumsy or broken. I guess you could call it “junkpunk”. In this hell, paperwork is everything. Receipts are given to the families of those arrested. A transcript of a tortured suspect screaming for mercy printed on a giant printer. If you are not in the right form, there is nothing you can do in this company.
A single clerical error – that literal bug in the machine – sets the plot in motion. Sam is also a bug that gets crushed in a large corporate machine. He chooses love over ambition and, I guess, in the end he gets his heart’s desire, which is to fly in the clouds forever.
In Gilliam’s dystopia, Christmas is purely political. It is an opiate of the masses. For the elite, it is a social code. “Merry Christmas” is what the rivals say to each other, their sinister smirks smirk. Orwell’s Party provides everything people need: cigarettes, gin, pornography. But he also underestimated people’s desire for mirth and ritual. For stunning and superficial celebrations of human virtues. And candy. Gilliam’s comment is obvious but effective: The true spirit of Christmas is not corrupted by mere consumerism. No, he is also corrupted by the powerful who use him as a weapon. If I say “Merry Christmas” and you don’t say it back, does that mean you are an enemy of the state?
When Sam surprises his friend Jack, played with a cheerful threat by Michael Palin, in his office, Jack immediately selects one of six perfectly wrapped Christmas presents to give Sam. These gifts are social currency. The old saying goes “it’s the thought that counts” but gifts are given without thinking in Brazil. They are like old handshakes between suspicious knights. A gift that doesn’t explode is a sign of peace.
Sam’s visit isn’t friendly either. He wants information. Jack helps, but only after removing the blood-covered clothing of a prisoner he was interrogating. The last time the two saw each other was at a Christmas party, and Jack knows Sam has friends in high places.
That is to say Brazil, where smiling desktop drones terrorize innocent people during the day and attend Christmas parties at night.
The recent news that a giant Christmas tree was set on fire by a madman outside the offices of a cable news network in New York was a scene straight out of Brazil. Ho, ho, oh no! It was filmed on video which was then shown in a loop on the shows of this company. There is nothing like the latest news delivered to your doorstep. The attack was not targeted but it’s still ironic. That same cable news network is the same that, out of breath, declares a “war on Christmas” every year because it boils the puddings of their loyal geriatric audience. Corn Brazil is a reminder that when this war is won, it will be won by the authoritarians. Merry Christmas, otherwise.