Monday, June 17, 2024

First Contact: Brazil

A Kafkaesque fever dream in neon and gray

An unnamed country has been taken over by the Ministry of Information. Now every citizen must be known, catalogued, identifiable. There must be a paper trail for every little thing that happens. Under such a regime, there's no place for a romantic who dreams of flying.

I found it bone-chilling to watch Brazil in 2024. The capabilities of the surveillance state have only grown since 1985, and the resulting paranoia has degraded public debate to the point of making it utterly ineffectual. The digital revolution has made paperwork even more intrusive and frustrating. Brazil presents an all-knowing, all-reaching state as a humorous exaggeration, but that's exactly what we see developing around us. I had a little moment of nervous embarrassment whenever a scene depicted a form of government control that clearly sounded outlandish to the scriptwriters but in my time had become a normal part of life.

As I took note of the resemblances with reality, I also appreciated the art design. Brazil looks much like other famous 1980s dystopias: it shares its urban decay with Robocop, its hostile architecture with Blade Runner, its carceral aesthetic with Escape from New York. But you can immediately recognize Brazil by director Terry Gilliam's signature camera angles and strikingly composed close-ups. Characters seem cornered by our gaze, constrained in their world even as it extends far behind them. Likewise, in some scenes we see a character's attention intentionally turned away from a calamity happening in the background. This is one of many indications that the society of Brazil has replaced empathy with adherence to procedure. The system can't make mistakes (can't even bother to look at them); any wrongful action has to be attributed to hidden enemies of the state.

The influence from 1984 is obvious (one of the film's working titles was 1984 ½). But Orwell didn't live to witness the degree to which the KGB and the Stasi would turn totalitarian control into a sadistic art form. For us, it's hard to imagine an extreme of state intrusion that isn't already happening somewhere and that isn't defended by someone's twisted logic. Consider how discussion of Brazil treats it as comical hyperbole, but after the abuses brought by the Patriot Act and the endless threats to online privacy, we tend to speak of Black Mirror as raw testimony from tomorrow's headlines. Brazil's cartoonish hell has become our normal.

Brazil doesn't even provide the comfort of a hero worth rooting for. Archivist Sam Lowry likes to imagine himself as a knight in shining armor, but he's a willing cog in the machine. When he has to notify a housewife that the government has mistakenly tortured her husband to death, he's more interested in filling the requisite paperwork than in acknowledging her emotional distress. When he becomes infatuated with a woman he's only seen at a distance, he changes jobs for the sole purpose of stalking her. He has never lifted a finger to spare anyone from the government's brutal interrogation methods—until they come for the woman he's obsessed with. That he ultimately fails to escape the government's iron grasp isn't the real tragedy; the tragedy is that this is the kind of hero that this society is capable of producing.

While watching Brazil, I found myself constantly thinking back to the Star Wars series Andor, which seems to have taken inspiration from Sam Lowry when designing the villain Syril Karn, a paper-pusher of no importance with a controlling, overambitious mother and a nearly pathological fixation on a woman he perceives as strong-willed. One could read Andor as criticizing Brazil for choosing the wrong point of view, for inviting us to empathize with the wrong character. In Brazil, we don't get to meet the average inhabitants of this society, those who don't enjoy the perks of a government job and an influential mother. Whoever is detonating all those bombs in public places would have made a more compelling character to follow.

Like with Black Mirror, your experience with Brazil will depend largely on how much cynicism you bring to the table. You'll get massive amounts of validation if you already believe that human beings are horrible and that sufficiently complex social systems naturally tend toward tyranny. As comedy relies on surprise, you may find Brazil less funny, though perhaps scarier, if your view of real society matches what Gilliam imagined. I saw the same effect when I showed Idiocracy to some friends and they declared it not comedy but horror. I, too, felt a wave of horror come over me when I watched Brazil—just not horror at the fiction, but at the reality.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.