Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ and the Essential Struggle Between Chaos and Order

I have, tucked beneath the desk where I write this essay, a duffle-bag full of wires. They are extension cords and power strips that I’ve accumulated over the years, as well as the connector cables and power cords from various electronics, some that I probably no longer own.

Since college, this bag has followed me from apartment to apartment — at least nine so far, I think — and has grown along the way. The contents of the bag have become more tangled and chaotic, the wires more indistinguishable from one another and from their original appliances. And for each new device I buy — now all of them “wireless” — one more wire is added to the bag, taken out of circulation but put into the reserves, just in case. Who knows what types of cords I’ll need at my next apartment?

As technology makes life easier by reducing the clutter of the past, this bag becomes its opposite. For this reason, keeping the bag (and it’s contents) seems necessary. It’s a place to store the chaos from which I’m trying to rid myself. If there were no bag, where would the chaos go? It would constrict around me, I fear, the wires tying me down like Gulliver on the beach. So I keep the bag, keep filling it, and keep it tucked away, semi-hidden.

In Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a nation is built on the counter-balancing forces of progress — here in the form of authority and public safety — and chaos. In the film, the state is represented by a series of bureaucratic ministries whose job is to keep order and to keep a wave of faceless terrorism at bay. It does this through rigor and rigidity. The system is so efficient and vital that a single clerical error is all it takes to threaten the collapse of the State.

By depicting his dystopian society in this way, Gilliam has put onto film Walter Benjamin’s famous description of Paul Klee’sAngelus Novus. The Angle of History, explains Benjamin, is being blown into the future with his face turned toward the past, where he “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” Benjamin writes in “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (circa 1940):

“A storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angle can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

As time and technology progress, with history at their heel, left eddying in the wake are the waste products — those things that progress has intended to replace. Progress tries to replace the chaos of its predecessors with order and authority. But the chaos cannot be deleted, only hidden.

In the world of Brazil, there are ducts everywhere. They run through homes and restaurants and department stores. As we learn in the opening shot of the film, the ducts are built by Central Services, one of the state’s various ministries.

The purpose of the ducts is never explicitly explained, but one understands that they are used to continually reroute the chaos of the past. Because of entropy, the chaos, if allowed to sit still (perhaps because the tubes have been tampered with), will explode out into the world, which is exactly what happens seconds into the film: “old fashioned” ducts that don’t work properly lead, albeit indirectly, to a bombing. A pile of debris begins to form.

But Gilliam takes things further. It’s not just that chaos is the inevitable byproduct of progress. In Brazil, order — again, another name for progress — is built on top of chaos and disorder. As we know, chaos came first, with order trying, futilely, to replace it. But without the disorder, the order wouldn’t exist. That is the dirty secret that’s being covered up in Brazil. Without a cluttered bag of wires there would be no wireless efficiency to speak of.

The theme of hidden chaos is repeated over and over in Brazil, often quite literally. Behind the walls of an apartment is a jungle of wires, tubes and ducts, all of it pulsating like organs. At a restaurant, diners are served gray mush, above which sits a beautiful photograph of what the meal is supposed to be. Later, when an explosion destroys half of the same restaurant, the waiters merely put a screen between the diners and the death and destruction.

In a later scene, a man waves from the front step of an idyllic suburban home; but the home suddenly lifts into the air, revealing behind it a tubular black factory spouting fire and smoke. Additionally, in making room for its efficient society, the state’s efficiency must push to the fringes a mess — dirty slums and streets lie somewhere beyond the clean edifices of the elite.

To French philosopher Jacques Lacan, this is the split between reality and the Real. The Real is the pulsating tubes and gray mush — the chaos — upon which reality — the shiny surface of life — is projected. The Real is the space of our hidden (repressed) desires, while reality is just what we think we want.

Brazil‘s hero, the middling bureaucrat Sam Lowry, discovers the dirty secret with the help of a rogue engineer named Tuttle. Sam is first seen inside his own fantasy. He is dreaming, floating through the Real, away from the grip — and safety — of authority. We sees his unconscious desires, but they are separate from his waking life. That is, until Tuttle comes along, when the dream begins to slip and the barrier between reality and the Real beings to crack.

Tuttle is an agent of chaos who lets Sam see what’s behind the screen. He is the one who opens up the panel in Sam’s wall, exposing the inner workings, and he is the one whose name is misprinted as “Buttle” on an arrest warrant, causing the authorities to torture the wrong man — a large enough wrench, so to speak, to cause the gears to stop working. This first mistake allowed disorder to slip out from under order. From that one pinhole, chaos begins to pour forth, first slowly and then in crashing waves as the hole is forced larger.

Tuttle is what Slavoj Žižek calls the “anamorphotic gaze”, a side-long glance at the unseen Real, the chaos. In his book, Looking Awry: an Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, Žižek borrows the phrase “a gray and formless mist, pulsing slowly with inchoate life” from the novel The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag to describe the Real, a description that is fitting for the way the Real is portrayed by Gilliam.

For Žižek, discovering one’s desires in the mist of the Real is a consequential action, because in the Real is a person’s true desire, which is never what he thinks he want. Sam thinks he wants a beautiful American woman, but he really, unknowingly, wants chaos, which is what he gets in the form of a manhunt and of terrorist bombings. Žižek writes: “The frontier separating the two ‘substances’… is precisely what prevents us from sliding into psychosis“. Unlucky for Lowry, the frontier stops separating and he goes nuts. How much of the film is actually Sam’s psychotic delusion is hard to ascertain, but by the end it’s clear that he’s lost his mind.

Also unfortunate for Sam is that all of this was predestined, probably from the moment he first fantasied (or at least from when Tuttle appears). When walking into his government office building, he passes a statue engraved with the slogan “The Truth ShallMake You Free” (emphasis mine). The truth is that the world is constructed upon the chaotic Real, and once Sam discovers that he becomes free from the construct. Sam is free from the authority of order and left to float in his fantasy, where he gets tangled in the wires and absorbed by the gray mist.