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Now and Then: 'Brazil,' Terry Gilliam's Dystopia — And Ours, Too

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! December 18, 2012 at 4:20PM

To my discredit, I had never seen "Brazil." It sat atop my pile of screeners for a few weeks, its length and reputation forbidding. Like all dystopian fictions, Terry Gilliam's 1985 epic is a prophecy of sorts, guesswork for a grim future. And it turned out he was right.
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Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," from 1985
Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," from 1985

To my discredit, I had never seen "Brazil." It sat atop my pile of screeners for a few weeks, its length and reputation forbidding. Like all dystopian fictions, Terry Gilliam's 1985 epic is a prophecy of sorts, guesswork for a grim future. And it turned out he was right.

When I sat down to watch it Thursday night, cheap memo pad in hand, it seemed a gonzo, steampunk satire, a vision of Western bureaucracies and men in gray flannel suits indebted to Orwell's "1984," Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange," and Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner," and I suppose it is, or was. But it would be disingenuous, now, to read it only as such, to ignore its bleaker implications in the face of the world beyond the frame. I suspect the comic, capering elements of "Brazil" once made sense on their own terms — perhaps because Gilliam, with co-writers Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard, had no way of knowing just how eerily accurate their more shadowy predictions would be.

The film opens on an upbeat note, the bright theme ("Aquarela do Brasil") shimmering through the clouds, descending Earthward. A store window's televisions screens blare out a good-natured advertisement for more screens, and then a bomb goes off, shattering the glass in a thousand splinters, mere memories of an image. An anti-government bombing campaign, we quickly learn, has raged for 13 years.

The question of violence, playing out not only at the movies but on all of the other screens that make up our 21st-century existence, is once again rumbling beneath our collective grief. The New Yorker's David Denby, for one, asked it after this summer's shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and reminded his readers that the debate reaches back to the days of Penn and Peckinpah, if not before. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, in an affecting repudiation of his former relationship with the National Rifle Association, expressed disgust at first-person shooter video games and the movies' brutal bloodshed. We are faced once again, as we have been so many times this year already, with the dense thicket of influences on a horrific pattern in American life.   

This article is related to: Now and Then, DVDs, Directors, Genres, Classics


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.