'Brazil', So Very Gilliamiest

Brazil is wonderfully, unavoidably Gilliamesque not just because of its superficial tropes, but because of its mad, personal too-muchness. A simpler Brazil would be easier to watch, but it wouldn't be Terry Gilliam.


Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Robert De Niro, Michael Palin, Katherine Helmond, Bob Hoskins, Ian Holm
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: R
Release date: 2012-12-04

With its dark comedy, futuristic dystopia, and vaguely medieval fantasy sequences, Brazil isn't just the most celebrated movie of Terry Gilliam's post-Monty Python career. It's also arguably the Terry Gilliamiest of the lot -- a filmography largely defined by the tropes established in Brazil (the definitive Criterion Collection treatment of which has just been reissued on Blu-ray). At its core, the movie has a simple idea: a more antic, less sorrowful, but no less satirical (or, in its way, despairing) version of Orwell's 1984 (which was made into a 1984 film around the same time Gilliam was filming Brazil), concerning Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), an unassuming employee of a vast and impenetrable totalitarian bureaucracy.

Sam's plight is easy enough to summarize: while investigating a clerical error that led to the interrogation and death of a man named Buttle, rather the intended target, he meets Jill (Kim Greist), a woman he has pictured in his rich fantasy life (hence the medieval-tinged sequences reminiscent of Time Bandits, The Fisher King, and of course Monty Python and the Holy Grail). In attempting to find out more about his real-life dream girl, Sam rises through the government offices, and also crosses paths with the real Tuttle (Robert De Niro), a rogue repairman who fixes ducts without the proper paperwork. Sam, Jill, and Tuttle are, at various points, pursued as terrorists.

Yet even with a straightforward satirical hook, Brazil teems; it starts slowly not because nothing is going on, but because the screen so overflows with visual ideas that it takes awhile for the story (and the audience) to find its bearing. Gilliam's plotting is intentionally digressive and dreamlike, with lots of famous episodes, like Lowry's chats with his plastic surgery addict of a mother (Katherine Helmond). That image of her stretched-out face is one of the most enduring in the film; it feels emblematic of the whole because as her face is distorted, the movie continuously distorts itself, with sagging piles of ductwork, endless government hallways, and Gilliam's signature wide-angle lenses.

The movie then even satirizes and undermines the stock turns in dystopian-future stories. When protesting his admittance into the Information Retrieval office without an ID, Lowry says, "I could be anybody," and is met with a sedated reply from the government official: "No you couldn't, sir." In other films, Lowry's line might be taken as a declaration of everyman status -- or the government's reply could be taken as a cue that Lowry is an extraordinary individual in a sea of conformity. Gilliam twists both meanings back on themselves: Lowry is an individual, but he is alone, and not particularly special.

These twists and absurdities are sometimes brilliant; they can also be, it must be said, exhausting. Gilliam is aware of the effect: in the Criterion commentary track on his director's cut, he admits that the movie can be "relentless" in "knocking audiences around." But he believes this overload comes from experience. For the film, he says, he "invented nothing, [using] only things I've observed."

It may be hyperbole that seems truer in hindsight, looking back on Brazil's journey to the screen, repeatedly characterized on the set as a "battle". Within the first three minutes of Gilliam's commentary, he's discussed two variations over different cuts of the movie that have made their way to screenings, theatrical releases, countries, or television airings. The reasons behind the various cuts are detailed in the 1996 documentary "The Battle for Brazil," hosted by film critic Jack Mathews. Back in 1985, Mathews interviewed both Gilliam and Sid Sheinberg, head of Universal as the two engaged in a very public spat about the future of the film. Universal executives asked Gilliam to cut his 140-minute film down to 125 minutes. Gilliam refused. Universal then held the film from release in the US as it hired outside editors to pull together a more "audience-friendly" 90-minute version. (Frankly, Sheinberg isn't entirely wrong about the director's cut of Brazil being overlong and difficult to follow, but the idea that the movie could work better if cut by 40 percent is equally misguided.)

The behind-the-scenes story is also quintessentially Gilliamesque -- less for the parallels to Sam Lowry that Gilliam is apt to invoke, but because it chronicles a righteous (and somewhat self-righteous) fight between the renegade artist and the money guys -- a fight that would replay, in smaller forms, throughout Gilliam's career. This version has the triumphant bonus of Gilliam's vision actually prevailing.

The Universal-authored cut is included here, as on the previous Criterion issues of the film, referred to as the "Love Conquers All" version because, according to Gilliam, this is what the alternate editors decided the movie's theme was -- or could be, with the proper handling. The cut is accompanied by commentary by "Brazil expert" David Morgan, who explains the many differences between the two versions in great detail.

Morgan is understandably disdainful over the straighter narrative line of this version, which attempts to excise whatever material does not serve the love story, which turns from tragic subplot into star-crossed Hollywood romance. But he seems to loves Brazil so much that he fails to see why anyone could possibly consider the movie rambling and overstuffed. For Morgan, the narrative thicket that can make Gilliam's superior cut nonetheless feel overgrown and untamed -- the fact that it takes Brazil 140 minutes to tell a relatively simple story -- is absolutely vital, and any attempt to skip steps in its loop-heavy, dreamlike storytelling is a concession to baser instincts.

Nevertheless, the commentary on this version of the film is a merciless, if slightly single-minded, deconstruction of how shot, scoring, and editing choices -- not just story points -- can add up to a drastically different film from the same basic footage. Brazil is wonderfully, unavoidably Gilliamesque not just because of its superficial tropes, but because of its mad, personal too-muchness. A simpler Brazil would be easier to watch, but it wouldn't be Terry Gilliam.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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