Friday, October 22, 2004

brazil: what movies are for

Despite being several weeks into the three month long firework season, there are still many reasons why I love living in the inner city.

And right up there at the top - along with the 21 hour a day availability of samosas within five minutes walk – is that whatever you’re into, or get into, or could get into, there’s a whole bunch of people up for it too.

Squatting our post office closed in the recent cull and turning it into an anarchist infoshop-cafe, Maelstrom is a great example of exactly what I love about urban life.

Last night there was a showing of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. I first saw it when I was about 17 and it spooked me mightily. Instantly it became more or less my favourite film, and having not seen it in years I’m glad to see that it is the masterpiece I remember.

Discussing it immediately after, one person was so goosed they were in tears, yet unable to pinpoint why. They’d 'had problems following it'.

Certainly, that wasn’t made any easier by viewing in a crowded room with bad sound, occasional mewling children, people coming and going, and at one point – hilarious, considering it’s a film where riot cops repeatedly burst into scenes through the walls – a break for an unwanted visit from the coppers cos Maelstrom’s a squat.

My friend also had other problems with it: Which bits were dream and which were real? How could Sam have known Jill’s face before he’d met her?

All of these were factors, but the real upset was from something deeper than that. Something disturbing.

Most films have a formula that runs like this:
  • Here is a character.
  • Here is why you should like them.
  • Here they are getting into a scrape.
  • Here they are getting out of that scrape.
  • Feel better now?
  • The End.

It’s tried and trusted, and indeed it’s a great way to tell a story and impart a message. It’s also immensely predictable and a sure-fire moneyspinner so that, with most movies, the only thing that’s different in the viewer at the end is that they’re a bit older and a bit poorer.

Why not mess with those ideas? Why must I identify with the lead character? Why must there be peril? Why must it all be resolved, and positively at that?

As Matt Johnson said about BBC radio’s refusal to play his magnificent single Heartland, it’s not the subject matter people have a problem with, it’s the medium. We can handle stories of raped pensioners in the news, but not in the song after the news. That’s got to be George Michael singing about shagging.

Likewise, we can handle a downbeat end to a novel, but not to a film. We can watch a film with far more graphically depicted, far worse things happening than in Brazil, as long as the lead character gets out OK.

But for me, it’s precisely what I loved most about Brazil - that, as with 1984 which it’s almost a rewrite of, the authoritarians win. I don't like it cos I like the authoritarians, I like it cos it's unexpected, it plays with my preconceptions whilst still ringing true. If they were able to be beaten by a Winston Smith or a Sam Lowry they wouldn’t have been there in the first place.

The offensive patronising idea that audiences won’t like such things led to that bizarre happy ending being clumsily nailed on to the theatrical cut of Blade Runner. Gilliam refused to release Brazil in the USA rather than let it go out with the ‘uplifting’ changes the studio wanted. Only after it swept the US critics end of year choices and Gilliam took out full-page adverts in Variety saying ‘when are you going to release my movie?’ was it released.

This twist on your expectations, this extra ring of truth to the situation is what makes it such a great story. And thinking about it, there’s a measure of this in all the films that I never cease to adore.

In Withnail & I the lead character may have a bright future promised, but nobody else has, and the film is entirely about decay and endings. It’s autumn, it’s the last weeks of the decade, it’s the last days of the friendship, and for the peripheral characters the last chances of their dreams have all gone.

In Cinema Paradiso (Director’s Cut), a film so potent I can rarely stand the idea of watching it again and just skimming the screenplay the other week had me in tears, the chance of it all being OK in the end was lost in error, but now it’s too late to fix it and, agonisingly, life has to go on.

In Apocalypse Now, by the end you’re not sure who’s right anymore, indeed you’re pretty damn sure nobody is, that there’s no way out of the scrape.

These are a lot more believable than good guys getting a happy ever after. By challenging the formula these remarkable films don’t just expose the staleness of contrived production-line movies, they shift our understanding of what film can do, they get us to think about what movies are there for.

They are our society’s folk tales, there to impart wisdom and warnings and to get us to imagine circumstances we’ve yet to encounter in order that we can make better judgements when the time comes. Such fables demonstrate why some seemingly good ideas don’t really work (and why some seemingly bad ones do), they get us to see perspectives we'd never otherwise know, they foster common bonds of reference and ethics.

They visually depict to us as a mass what we’d otherwise only feel, separately.

The physical landscape of Brazil may not be familiar, but the emotional one is. I couldn’t offer a real-world literalist explanation for how Sam knew Jill’s face before he met her cos I don’t think there is one.

But as a metaphor, it’s something I recognise from my life and from most of those around me. There’s a sliver of an idea backed by an overwhelming irresistible yearning to follow it. You can’t explain, you yourself don’t really understand, you just know you’ve got to find where it takes you and any delay or denial is wrong and clouds your every moment until you go.

As you head towards this thing, the direction of your life has now changed irrevocably, and your faith in this idea being right is a large part of what makes it turn out to be right. But, equally, you were wrong too, in many ways it’s not what you’d dreamed. But you’re there now and have to carry on.

This is such a common thing that we have a specific phrase for it in modern parlance: to be on one.

Whilst what’s on screen in Brazil is more visually alien than in, say, Two Weeks Notice, the feel of the place is far more realistic.

In Hollywood movies all clothes are new and even the rubbish seems polished, whereas in Brazil there’s so much technology around that much of it is always on the blink, a place where things – not just the machines – don’t work as well as they should and we don’t know how to fix it. A place where the diabolic is accentuated by its veneer of the happy - advertising hoardings of fresh mountains cover polluted hellholes, a squalid tower block called Shangri-La Towers, near the Orange Blossom Flyover.

So with the confused complaint that Gilliam’s fantasy style made it difficult to pick what was ‘real’ and what was ‘dream’, the answer wasn’t to go through and definitively label each scene as one or the other. It was to point out that that’s what life’s like, and that was the point.

The way we feel in ourselves dictates the way we interpret the world around us, and what we pick to do next in it. Our view of the internal landscape colours – even creates – our view of the external one.

Conversely, what’s happening around us alters our mindset, the external also colours our interpretation of the internal.

This mish-mash of objective and subjective is how we live. The way Brazil moves between the two and blends them is an impressionistic vision of that fact, of those feelings.

Brazil is one of those movies like The City of Lost Children or Eraserhead or The Hudsucker Proxy, so weird-looking and dreamlike that it cannot be real and literal, so it’s blatantly saying that everything you’re seeing is something else, it’s symbol, allegory, metaphor.

From there it encourages the viewer to see all films, all art this way, to search for bigger-picture ideas and deeper more enduring truths, something far more personal yet far more universal than the superficial disposable fare on offer. It’s this encouragement that stretches way beyond its own content that makes Brazil a great rather than merely good movie.

Art that simply gives us the cosy feeling of recognition isn’t enriching us, it’s a toady yes-man to our spirit, giving us a narrow feeling of solid rightness now but with a long term undermining of what keeps us vigorous, evolving and wise.


UPDATE 15 July 2009. Were I to write it these days, this post would be littered with references to the work of Charlie Kaufman. The things that make Brazil great are mere sparks to Kaufman's fire.

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