Friday, June 5, 2009

Film Friday: Brazil (1985)

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. But does relative power corrupt as well? Terry Gilliam tells us that it does in Brazil, a film as notorious for its history as its content. Brazil is a fascinating, if unpleasant movie, about the abuse of power at every level of society. And while Gilliam makes a movie that deserves to be watched, his message ultimately fails.

** spoiler alert **

The Plot/Message
As anyone who has seen a Terry Gilliam film can attest, giving a quick plot summary is impossible. But if you distill the plot of Brazil to the bare minimum, you discover that Brazil is a thinly-veiled remake of 1984: Meek boy lives in repressive world. Boy meets girl. Boy thinks girl is an anti-state terrorist, decides to become terrorist to impress the girl, and ends up causing girl to become target of the state.

But it isn’t the plot that matters so much in Brazil as it is the individual characters Gilliam offers. Brazil is about the abuse of power at every level of society. Brazil revolves around the consequences that flow from a clerical error which causes the state to issue a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Archebald Buttle, when it was actually looking to arrest a “terrorist” named Archibald Tuttle. It is because Mrs. Buttle was overcharged for the costs of interrogating and executing her husband that we meet our hero, Sam Lowry, a low-level, meek bureaucrat played convincingly by Jonathan Pryce. Through Sam, we meet characters in every walk of life, each of whom abuses whatever power they have over others. Let us consider the characters Gilliam offers, and their sins:
The State: Throughout the movie, the state is an omnipresent character. The police are on every corner, the secret police in every shadow. But while the state is meant to represent Orwell’s Oceana, this government is sclerotic and verges on collapse due to bureaucratic entropy and incompetence. Indeed, the character representing the highest echelons of government is Mr. Helpmann, a physically crippled man who needs Sam’s help even to use the toilet. The symbolism is intentional.

Gilliam’s government is obsessed with terrorism. It believes that a group of anti-government terrorists are setting off bombs all over the country, and it is ruthlessly rounding up people to try to stop them. Yet, as the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear there are no terrorists: the explosions are the result of inept repair work conducted by the Central Services Agency -- a government agency that tightly controls the maintenance field. It is also clear the government is rounding up innocent people, like Mr. Buttle.

Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm): Sam first introduces us to his boss. Kurtzmann (whose name is symbolic of his position) is the low man on the bureaucratic totem pole. He runs an office that sits about as far below the political power structure as one can get in this world. But he has absolute power within that office. He thus acts the tyrant within his own office, but literally cowers before any duties that could bring attention from higher agencies. Moreover, he employs a series of passive-aggressive tactics, including faking dependence/ helplessness, to get Sam to take on the responsibilities of Kurtzmann’s position. And when he fears that Sam will leave his office through promotion, Kurtzmann sabotages that promotion by rejecting it on Sam’s behalf (and without Sam’s knowledge).

Sam’s Mother Ida (Katherine Helmond): When Sam becomes obsessed with helping Jill, he decides he must get himself promoted to a new agency -- the Ministry of Information. Because Kurtzmann already declined the promotion for him, Sam seeks the help of his mother in getting the promotion offered a second time. His mother is a rich socialite who has connections to Mr. Helpmann. She uses those connections to get Sam the promotion, i.e. uses her influence to extract a personal favor from government. She also abuses the power afforded to her through her wealth to attract young male gold-diggers and to obtain the services of the best doctor in the land (who himself abuses his patients’ trust to engage in a sort of heinous race with another doctor to conduct the most bizarre plastic surgeries). Finally, she abuses her influence over Sam to control his life, even going so far as to attempt to arrange a marriage for him.

Spoor (Bob Hoskins): As we wait to see whether Sam’s mother can affect his promotion, Sam’s air conditioner breaks. This coincidence introduces us to the real Mr. Archibald Tuttle (Robert De Niro). Tuttle is a rogue mechanic, mechanicing without a license. He is the one symbol in the film that the world could be a better place. And his presence is immediately offset by the arrival of Spoor and Spoor’s assistant. Spoor is a mechanic from Central Services. He and his assistant use the power the state has given them to demand access to Sam’s home so they can snoop around. When Sam responds by throwing their own regulations back at them as a roadblock -- indeed, they failed to bring the appropriate form to make the repair -- they are driven away. But they return with a vengeance, using their bureaucratic power to occupy Sam’s home and make his life hell.

Mr. Warrenn (Ian Richardson): Sam’s promotion introduces us to the first character who appears to be competent, efficient, and redeeming -- mid-level bureaucrat Mr. Warrenn. Warrenn moves through the office in a dance of bureaucratic efficiency, reviewing requests and barking out commanding orders. This is a man who seems to get things done. Unfortunately, upon closer examination, we quickly discover that Warrenn’s decisions involve trivial matters, and that he is more concerned that his employees worship him and wear suits of his liking than he is with any sort of actual work. He is thus abusing his power to turn his office into a form of cult.

Sam’s “deskmate”: As Sam settles into his 4’ x 3’ office, we meet the man who shares his desk, though they both sit in separate offices -- the desk protrudes through the wall. Because these two men are of equal level, they fight over the desk, each trying to yank the desk more into their office. As a temporary truce is called, Sam discovers that this deskmate has a computer that may contain the information he needs. Although the deskmate does not even know how to turn the computer on, he refuses to let Sam use the computer simply because having the computer on his desk gives him the power to withhold such consent. Sam eventually learns from the computer that Jill has become a suspected terrorist.

Jack (Michael Palin): When Sam learns that Jill is in danger, he seeks the help of his old school friend Jack, who works at Information Retrieval. Jack is the most heavy-handed of Gilliam’s abusers. While he is warm and friendly with Sam, and we see him playing with his own young daughter in his office, we also learn that Sam tortures (and kills) suspects in the back room of his office. Jack, like the rest, seems to delight in using the vast power given to him and we know he abuses that power because we know he is torturing and killing innocent people.
In each instance, the characters Gilliam gives us abuse the little bits of power they are given. It is against this backdrop that we are given Jill and Sam.
Sam “The Hero”
Sam first sees Jill when he attempts to return the overcharge to Mrs. Buttle. Jill is perhaps the only non-abusive character because she is the common worker. . . a prole. She drives a truck, her skin is dirty, and she has no power over anyone. Unfortunately for her, she looks like the girl in Sam’s dreams and thus becomes his obsession. To satisfy this obsession, Sam decides to help her, whether she wants his help or not. His help will ultimately convince the state that she is a terrorist, which will lead to her arrest. Her ultimate fate is not known, though we can infer she will die like all the other suspects.

Sam is ostensibly the hero, though he is never heroic. He dreams of being a hero, but his real life is cowardly. He lets events dictate his action -- indeed Gilliam consciously made sure Sam never speaks first in any scene. He is easily manipulated by those around him, through pleas for help, appeals to loyalty, or simple fear. And the few instances where he takes it upon himself to act “heroically,” his actions are reactionary, poorly-conceived, poorly-executed, abusive in nature, and get everyone into more trouble than they were in before he started helping them. Indeed, it is only because of his actions that Jill gets marked as a terrorist.

Any heroism in Sam is in his own head. Not only does he repeatedly have fantasies in which he is the white knight fighting evil to rescue the girl, but when he is finally arrested and is being interrogated by his friend Jack, he fantasizes that Tuttle and a group of other terrorists come save him. In the process, they destroy the government and save Jill. We know this to be a fantasy because Tuttle dies when he is eaten by litter. And Sam recognizes the impossibility of this as well, but rather than returning to reality, Sam chooses instead to remain in his fantasy world and to imagine he and Jill escape to live a happy life in the country. But this ending is soon revealed to be false as the camera pulls us back to reality, where Sam remains in Jack’s chair, with his mind gone. He has given up.

More important than Sam’s failed heroism is the fact that every instance in which Sam obtains power (however minor) he abuses it. When he realizes the guards will fear him because of his badge, he plays this up gleefully. When he gains access to the government computer he uses that access to satisfy his personal desires to spy on Jill. When he realizes he has the power to involve himself in Jill’s life, he does so to satisfy his obsession, making decisions for her, without ever stopping to wonder whether satisfying his own desires is good for her or what she would want. Every single time Sam obtains some power, he abuses it. And that is Gilliam’s message -- all power corrupts, not just absolute power.
Where Gilliam Fails
Yet, while his message is worthwhile, Gilliam ultimately fails to make his point. Sam is a character with no redeeming qualities. By comparison, real people are a complex mix of good and bad. Pryce plays a very subtle and nuanced character, but he is nevertheless a half-character. Thus, we never see Sam as a warning to ourselves because he is so one-dimensional. Since we cannot sympathize with Sam, we cannot attribute his failings to ourselves. Thus, the message is lost.

Also, Gilliam offers us no glimpse of how we should be acting. Where is the example that teaches us how we should behave? How do you act in a world were relative power exists in every relationship? Without this guidance, the movie does little more than offer the philosophical equivalent of “that sucks.” Even uber-critic Roger Ebert failed to grasp the point to this movie:
“The movie is very hard to follow. I have seen it twice, and am still not sure exactly who all the characters are, or how they fit. . . there seems to be no sure hand at the controls.”
But most significantly, Gilliam fails in his very purpose. Gilliam meant Brazil to be an attack on Thatcherism. However, his intent is not at all clear as nothing in the film resembles Thatcher’s England. Moreover, Gilliam fails to grasp that the target of his attacks are in fact the very things Thatcher struggled to overcome: corrupt bureaucracy, lazy unions, large faceless government, and concentrations of power. Indeed, with no sense of irony at all, Gilliam has stated that much to his “surprise” Brazil has apparently become “a favorite film of the far right in America.” Silly Terry, civil liberties are for righties.

Despite this failure, Gilliam has a point -- power corrupts, not just absolute power. And Brazil is an interesting, though disturbing film, that deserves to be watched.
History of Brazil/The Sheinberg Version
Brazil was originally released internationally at 142 minutes; a 131 minute version was prepared for United States audiences. But when the movie didn’t test well, Universal Chairman Sid Sheinberg cut the movie down to 94 minutes and gave the movie a happy ending. If you’ve ever seen it on television, that’s the version you saw. . . and you probably hated it. It wasn't until the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awarded the 131 minute, unreleased version their Best Picture Award for 1985, that Universal finally agreed to release the longer version.

When Sheinberg cut the 94 minute version, he was concerned that American audience could not understand this film because (1) Sam was too passive to be a hero, (2) the movie lacked a happy ending, and (3) it lacked an American star in the lead role. Thus, he re-edited the film to make Sam appear more assertive, even though this makes his character appear petulant and prone to unexplained outbursts. Indeed, he re-edited most scenes to make Sam speak first, thus eliminating the dialog that caused most of Sam’s outbursts. Sheinberg also cut off the ending to leave the audience with the idea that Sam and Jill now live happily ever after. He also plays up Robert De Niro’s character Tuttle. To do this, he removed all suggestions that the terrorist threat was not real. Rather than being a rogue electrician in a collapsing world, Sheinberg uses Sam’s fantasies to create a real rebellion and to put Tuttle at its head. Interestingly, however, he leaves in the moment where Tuttle is eaten by paper. These changes convert the movie from an interesting rant into a surreal, confused jumble.

Stick with the longer versions.

Check out the new film site -- CommentaramaFilms!


Unknown said...

Saw the short version. Didn't like it. Seeing the long version wouldn't help much either, apparently. For movies which depict mindless, faceless bureaucracy destroying the human soul, I prefer Orson Welles's version of Kafka's The Trial. There really is no trial, the charges make no sense, the main character has no idea of why he is being charged, nor can anyone in the government actually explain it to him, and he is ultimately condemned to death at the hands of executioners employed by the government. Even the executioners are not sure why the character is being executed. Interestingly, the French version was titled The Process, a more accurate description of the nature of the topic.

Thanks for saving me from another forty minutes or so of additional time wasted watching a movie I didn't much like in the first place. At least now the DeNiro character's purpose in the plot makes a little more sense.

AndrewPrice said...


Glad to be of service. In many ways, Gilliam reminds me of Kubrick. I absolutely respect their skills and I find myself watching their movies repeatedly, but I never really enjoy them.

On Gilliam in particular, I think that this movie highlights why his movies are so often a stunning disappointment (12 Monkeys being an exception) -- his characters ultimately are not very realistic. He is making a political statement thinly cloaked as a story, rather than telling a story that makes a political statement. But he's not honest about what he's doing, and you never have the chance to sympathize with his characters. So you are left feeling unsatisfied.

The Trial is an interesting parallel, though I believe that Gilliam's vision is more surreal and yet more pointed. The Trial feels like a generic criticism of out-of-control government that didn't quite know what to criticize. Gilliam's criticisms, on the other hand, are deadly accurate, they are just not helpful.

Unknown said...

Andrew: That's what makes Kafka (and the movie) compelling. It wasn't out of control government, it was government that didn't make any sense. On the other hand, Gilliam's movie was surreal because it was just disorganized. I think I would say that's what made Twelve Monkeys so good and Brazil so bad.

In surrealistic novels or movies, the last thing you want is genuinely realistic characters. The ability to suspend disbelief is what makes surrealism work. In Twelve Monkeys, the characters and plot were surrealistic. In Brazil, the movie itself was surrealistic (at least the version I saw).

Gilliam was making a political statement about government cloaked in disjointed images. Kafka and Welles were making a social commentary about how bureaucracy dehumanizes by separating humans from institutions. That's why I thought the French title ("The Process")of Welles's movie was more apt than the American English movie title. The French title can mean "trial," or something entirely different. As can the German title "Der Prozess." Translating the title directly into English as "Trial" loses the ambiguity (and surreality) of both the German and French words. In my view, Kafka is surrealism. Welles's movie didn't completely capture Kafka, but he got close. And at least the lead character in The Trial didn't wake up in the morning to discover he had become a cockroach.

Captain Soapbox said...

The longer version is still confusing, but at least you get an understanding of exactly how horrible a person that Sam is. Gilliam seems to have intended Sam to be rather smarmy in his scuminess, but when edited to where he starts (appearently) randomly babbling to taking to task someone it makes him look like an out and out nut which takes some of the impact of the realization that not only is this man not a "hero" but he's as rotten (if not more) than any of the other Big Brother's Helpers that he runs into. He's abusing his power simply because he can, as many of the other characters are, but he's doing it for the least rational of reasons. He is pretty much the cyberstalker before such things existed in reality.

Every little bit of power he accumulates, he abuses, he has no cares for anyone but himself, and to be honest I don't think he gives a damn one way or another that he destroyed Jill's life because in a way he got what he wanted, he made sure he "mattered" to her whether or not she wanted him to or not. To me he's the most pathetic of the lot, because not only does he do everything he supposedly things he's above, but in the end it doesn't matter what the consequences are of his actions, he's a hero in his own mind if just for a moment.

And in that I think Gilliam was very effective at showing the power of the petty bureaucrat. We've all seen the very things done that all of the supporting bureaucrats do for ourselves in our own lives, so by taking it that extra bit to the level of farce it does make people think of what sort of tragedies can come from the snowballing of little men with little power, but effective power.

Where I think Gilliam fails, is in the same way that you do. If he was using Brasil as some sort of surrealistic morality play against Thatcher's government, well he got it backwards indeed. I felt the same way about V for Vendetta honestly in that both never quite understood that their politics, not the oppositions, are the exact thing that they're warning of.


Captain Soapbox said...

Although to be honest with some distopian projects whether they are films or books, I think there is a certain fascination, and even hidden approval, in the methods that they're trying to "warn" us of. "If only we had such power what great things we could achieve because we would do it right and not sink into casual evil." Of course that's the rub, you can't have that sort of power and level of control, ever, without sinking first into petty annoyances, then casual evil, and then finally into brutal totalitarian madness. Filmmakers and authors with leftist leanings often seem to not be able to restist trying to out 1984 1984, they think that they will me the ones to finally show the evils of fascism but they never seem to realize that the very sort of soul crushing totalitarianism that they're supposedly railing against is a product of their ideology not the right's. Again, making me think that some honestly wish they could pass that power off to a benevolent dictator, who wouldn't sink so low, but could arrange society in an orderly way for the greater good.

I think part of that logic is how we wound up in the political situation we're in now, where Chavez can joke about he and Castro being to the right of Obama. Why many in the artistic community see no problem with consolidating so much power because they believe (falsely) that if done in a friendly manner that control of all things could make for a better world. The problem is we live in the real world, not the land of make believe, and all of the Cincinattus' are dead and gone. Once power is handed over, it's never simple to get back; once someone has a constant guiding hand on your shoulder, it's easy for them to move it to your neck if you fall out of line, and eventually just if they damn well feel like it.

Brazil is indeed a warning about how power corrupts, even small power, but the message is aimed at the wrong source of that abuse. Which makes it surprising to me that Gilliam was surprised by the following the film has on the Right, he's an intelligent man and was either being disingenuous, or very ironical at his own expense.

AndrewPrice said...

Captain, I think you assess the movie correctly (particularly Sam's character) and you make some great points.

I agree with you that one would think that Gilliam, who is by no means stupid, would understand that the things he's criticizing are a natural outgrowth of his own leftist philosophy. But he doesn't. Indeed, leftists rarely grasp this.

I think part of it is the delusion factor as you note, the idea that their ideas have never been put in place by the right people. But I think a bigger part of it is that most leftists actually believe that we all think a like. This is why they can't understand crime. They look at criminals and say, I wouldn't do that AND everyone thinks like I do, SO how could this happen? Conclusion: It must be some external factor -- like poverty.

Thus, since they know that a "good" person would exercise power only for the good, they never grasp the idea that it is the very nature of power that corrupts, not that corrupt people wield power.

Anonymous said...

Hi! ScottDS here from Big Hollywood. Is it bad that I actually own a Central Services t-shirt?

I'm not as articulate as you guys so I'm just going to write some random thoughts about the film.

I highly recommend listening to Gilliam's audio commentary. It's considered one of the best. Gilliam is nothing if not excited (and excitable) and is more than eager to detail the trials and tribulations that occurred during the making of the film.

Brazil might be my favorite Gilliam film, yet it's difficult to watch at times... not difficult like a horror film where I might be compelled to turn away, lest I be grossed out... but difficult in its own unique, convoluted way. It's a bit slow at times and the last twenty minutes are completely chaotic. I enjoy the acting and the technical skill on display (my God, the art direction!), yet it's not a movie I watch that often. I suppose, like Kubrick's films, I admire it and I feel almost obligated to have it on my DVD shelf, but when I'm bored I'm more likely to toss in something else to watch.

The Criterion DVD also goes into detail regarding the different drafts of the script (jokingly titled "1984 1/2" at one point). I enjoy Tom Stoppard's little touches, including the following exchange:

Sam: "How are the twins?"
Jack: "Triplets."
Sam: "My how time flies."

On John Nolte's old site (which seemed, truth be told, a bit more civilized and controlled than BH), I left two links from a sci-fi blog you guys might enjoy, and which might be relevant to this film:

"Future dystopias where conservative have won"

"Future dystopias where liberals have won"

One last thing - per the DVD supplements, one of the original openings the filmmakers came up with for Brazil was a long tracking shot where we follow a fly through the forrest... the trees are torn up and we follow them to the mill where they are turned into paper... eventually the paper is used to print up posters that tell people to "Save the Forrest!"

Okay... ramblings over.

AndrewPrice said...


Welcome! We're glad you found us, please feel free to drop by any time -- and ramble all you want, we're always interested!

You are 100% right about the commentary. Gilliam is nothing if not fascinating. His commentary is probably one of the best I've heard -- right after Ebert's commentary on Dark City.

I agree with you that this movie is absolutely worth watching. To me, it also is a lot like Kurbick's movies -- I respect them, I am drawn to them and watch them repeatedly, but I don't "like" them. Strange huh?

I bought the DVD box set for Brazil a few years back, and it included both the 131 minute version, the 94 minute version, and an extensive commentary about the movie. If you watch the 131 minute movie and then the 94 minute movie, you just find yourself stunned that they would ever release the 94 minute version. That just really highlights the disconnect between the studios and the talent I guess. But it also shows that the studios don't trust their audiences.

It's the same story with Blade Runner in many ways, how they added the voice over and the happy ending.

I never saw Nolte's site before I first found Big Hollywood, but I've heard good things -- though the site apparently is shut down now.

P.S. Thanks for the links, I'll check those out.

AndrewPrice said...


Also, the fact that you have a "Central Services" shirt is fantastic!

Do people "get it" when you wear it?

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Thanks for the kind words!

You can still see Nolte's old site at I know BH is first and foremost a conservative website but it seems to have a.) more trolls, and b.) more people who chime in with comments like "That libtard Obama's not my president!" while contributing nothing of substance. That's just me. :-) And as someone who wants to work in the biz one day, comments like "I'm not giving Hollyweird my money anymore!" don't help a whole lot either. As I'm fond of saying, I have no problem with how people spend their hard-earned dough but if you don't support the good movies and TV shows, then all that will be left are the bad ones.

The old site also had articles with titles like "daily dose of hubba hubba," filmmaking 101 pieces, and a conservative film listing with Amazon links.

So far, the one person who recognized the Central Services shirt was, believe it or not, the doorman at FAO Schwarz! My dad and I went to NY two weeks ago for a bar mitzvah and we spent a day in Manhattan. The doorman looks and says, "Hey, you like Brazil?!" (I also got a photo of myself in front of the firehouse from Ghostbusters but that's another story.)

As for Brazil, I find it fascinating that it ended up on both National Review and MoveOn's top 25 list. (I think it was MoveOn that did the liberal list - although it seemed to be haphazardly put together and full of documentaries).

AndrewPrice said...


While I think that we all love Big Hollywood, I agree (and have said at BH) that they focus far too often on lame articles about "Gee, Obama/Penn said X and isn't he a jerk." I would like to see a lot more forward looking articles.

That was one of the reasons we opened Commentarama -- because we wanted to talk about more issues than were being discussed at BH.

And I absolutely agree with you that anyone who is proud of ignoring our culture is wasting everyone's time. We need to engage in the culture to shape it because it will shape the world around us.

On films, I am doing one "review" every Friday (I've done three so far if you're interested, take a look, I'd love to hear your take.) What I'm trying to do that is a little different from the typical review though, is that I'm trying to get to the meaning of the film or of something in the film, and relate that to politics, philosophy, or to our lives.

It is interesting that Brazil made it onto both lists. That's probably worth an article at some point.

That said, I was not at all impressed with the National Review list of conservative films. I honestly don't think they really got the concept. To me, National Review's list seemed more like a favorites list with whatever justification they could find for calling it conservative. Indeed, when we discussed this at BH, it amazed me how many people picked very leftist films and called them conservative for reasons like: "this movie kicked ass". Really? Come on, folks.

At some point I hope to offer my own list of conservative and leftist films, but first I want to get through a few more reviews.

Captain Soapbox said...

Hello there ScottDS (Golani from BH here all incongnito...wait I blew that just now didn't I?) good to see you here. :-)

I'm with you guys, I love BH but I don't think it merits 4 articles a day on "So-and-so said x" when some liberal actor says something stupid, when one would suffice. But hey, sometimes it is nice to just unload some righteous venting at people so I can deal with the original intent, but 4-5 articles? Not so much.

You bring up a good point at the questionable nature of many of the movies that make the Conservative and Liberal lists. A lot of times it seems that someone just likes a movie a whole lot so tries to find one tiny little point in it to justify labeling it a "Conservative Film" simply because they wanted it on their favorites list and were looking for an excuse.

Full Metal Jacket is one I see that happen with a lot, yeah I love the movie, but a Conservative film? Not by any rational definition unless you base your entire judgment of the movie on some things Animal Mother and Gunny Hartman say, and even then Kubrick was obviously making them the "rube" characters that were intended to have you shake your head at, not give a thumbs up for their pronouncements. But I have seen that movie on many a misguided Conservative Movie list. Good movie? Yeah. On my favorite movies of all time list? Hell yeah. Conservative? Only if you intentionally and obviously take a very few threads of the whole, try to knit a blanket from them and then try to wrap the rest of the movie with it.

Captain Soapbox said...

Oh and Andrew, I'm glad you thought I was on the right track with Brazil too. One of those times when dangerous minds think alike I guess. Hehe.

To me Sam is one of the most vile characters ever to have the "hero" label applied to him. But also it's a testament to Johnathan Pryce's acting ability that some people really do believe that he is the hero. They buy into Sam's world because of the ability of the actor, because they want him to be the hero even as the evidence piles up around them that he's not.

Which is a theme and execution shared with The Ninth Gate as well with Dean Corso, the protagonists are both set up to be the "non-hero" for lack of a better term, someone whom the audience will think of as the hero, and a character that may think of himself as a hero, but is in fact the villian.

I'm consciously avoiding the use of the anti-hero label with both because to me a true anti-hero is self aware that he is, in fact, not the hero but at best a neutral force who is as likely to do you harm as save you. Elric and in some cases Conan come to mind here from literature, the type hasn't been as fully explored in film though. Or at least I'm drawing a blank at the moment of some easily identifiable anti-heros from movies.

At least true anti-heroes since it could definitely be argued until the final act of Star Wars that Han Solo could have been a classic anti-hero, with a minor nod to that again in the Hoth scenes pre-Imperial landing in Empire Strikes Back but by that point even the intimation fell flat because we knew Lucas wouldn't pull the trigger on it. But I'm sure Lucas at some point with get his own in-depth treatment around here so I'll save my more cutting thoughts for when that happens.

CrispyRice said...

Thanks for an interesting post and an interesting discussion everyone.

The only thing I'll add is that, I think it's normal for people to need power. However, the more freedom a person has, the more power he has over his own life, and the less his need to exert power over others. The more we are hemmed in with no control over our own lives, the more we'll need to control others.

Megalomaniacs excluded, of course...

AndrewPrice said...


In my opinion, that's the big flaw in Gilliam's thinking. He seems to think that ALL power is wrong. But show me a relationship that doesn't have some element of power in it? It's unavoidable.

The real questions are (1) what is too much power, (2) how do you prevent people from getting too much power, and (3) how do you exercise the power that you do have (in whatever form it's in).

If Gilliam had filled in some of those blanks, I think his message would have had a much better chance of succeeding.

Captain Soapbox said...

Good little logical excercise there CrispyRice and Andrew. Power does tend to corrupt, we all know that, and it's not just the inherently bad person that can be corrupted, all power can corrupt but it's not a given that it will. A lot of that comes down to the character of the person exercising that power in my opinion.

Now in the world of Brazil and 1984 we see that almost everyone is corrupted as soon as they have even the tiniest sliver of power. Does that mean every person would follow that route? Not necessarily, it is a danger to anyone, but in those sort of totalitarian societies the abuse of power is made easier by the nature of the regime itself.

I'm not saying everything is environmental. Not at all, but if it's not only easy but also assumed that power will be abused then since most people by nature "go along" then they'll tend to abuse it. Look at the Soviet Union or the Third Reich for examples of this phenomena.

But you're right, power is always there in any social construct. It's how we chose to exercise that power that determines whether we're a decent person, a cog, or a monster. At least in my opinion.

Now Gilliam filling in the blanks does raise an interesting point to, which goes back to the environmental effects of living in a society like that. Since most liberals are always insisting that environment is the root cause of all manner of behavior then that blank becomes easier to understand. To Gilliam if Sam would have been operating in a "normal" society he probably could have been the hero he always wanted to be, but his surroundings turned him into a middle-management bastard. Whereas I think Sam has some severe character flaws that would have come out even if he were working at some middle-management position anywhere, his nature is to be a callow bastard, so that would come out in whatever situation he found himself in, and he'd abuse whatever power he had. He wasn't just a "go along"-er, he had a complete lack of good character so would be a bad apple no matter what as I see it.

CrispyRice said...

Andrew, re asking how much power is too much -- at the risk of sounding slightly PC, I think it boils down to power over the powerless.

There always needs to be a healthy balance of power. Both parties in a relationship need to push on the power to keep each other in check, just like the way our government is theoretically set up. Even in an interpersonal relationship, one person may have more power, but the other person gives them that power and can ultimately choose to leave the relationship if necessary. If the "underdog" didn't have the choice for that ultimate power to terminate the relationship, then that would truly be too much power, I think.

And that's what you've got going on in Brazil- a bunch of people with nowhere to go and no way of pushing back. So they exercise whatever sliver of power they can grasp in the most egregious ways they can.

I'm not sure what Sam would be like if he had been raised in a different society. But its his obsession with the woman that sets off warning bells for me and tells me he isn't well-balanced to begin with.

AndrewPrice said...


I agree with each of your comments. Very perceptive. I particularly agree with your point about his obsession. That moment alone tells you what kind of "hero" he is.


I think you're right about Sam being odious. I don't know if he would be any different in a less totalitarian world, it is possible. But then, that would have been a more interesting point for Gilliam to address right?

Captain Soapbox said...

Andrew, I think if Sam were working in a less totalitarian setting it would have made for a more interesting movie too. But that didn't mesh with what Gilliam was trying to do, he was effectively trying to evoke 1984 and rewrap it to try to get pretty much the same point across, aimed at the an audience whose politics mirror his own, warning them about "the other guys."

He made a good movie, he just didn't meet his goals. Since as we've said, the left misses the point that totalitarianism like they're showing is a construct of their side of the spectrum, the "message" does not apply. At least not as an aimed revelation against the excesses of conservatism.

Plus since the overwhelming feeling is of oppression in the society, it fails as a character study or morality play because everything is so cartoonish, you wind up not being surprised at Sam's fall if you pay attention and put the hero notion aside. Which I found easy to do from the start based on Sam's basic character and the almost "wink wink nudge nudge" way that the setting was portrayed.

A much more complex character study on the excesses of power and crossing the line from humanity into monsters would be something along the lines of Conspiracy, the HBO original movie from a few years ago about the Wannsee Conference. It's easy to write off as "Oh another Nazi movie, yawn" but the interplay between Heydrich and Eichmann (may they both burn in hell, but brilliantly played by Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci respectively) while they try to seduce the other high ranking party, industrial and military leaders at the conference into signing off on the Final Solution is excellent.

I got more chills just from those men talking around that table, than many current filmmakers can evoke with their "Critically Acclaimed, Oscar Contender" movies that show the Shoah up close, personal and more often than not in a heavy handed fashion that horrifies you while you're watching it, but leaves you no real insight on what actually happened or how people could fall so far as to do such things for more than 10 minutes after it's over. That's always been the fascination for me, not the "What" of what happened since we all know that, but the "Why?" And I don't just mean the reasons why it happened, but why people that appear so normal could become like that. That is the interesting part to me, and something that should be studied further in my opinion instead of going for the immediate heart-string factor, a trend it seems in most current films on the subject.

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