Classic Hollywood Movie Spotlight: ‘Brazil’

BrazilThere’s an election coming up. It took me a bit to think of a classic Hollywood movie that reflected politics for me, and I realized that the reason for that is my own ambivalence with regards to politics. I don’t mean indifference, I mean ambivalence. Which is to say, I have all sorts of thoughts and feelings that confound one another and often leave me speechless. This is in drastic contrast to the balance of folks I know.

I’m only certain of the basics: Let’s keep up the roads and provide for the common defense and do our best to keep people from dying needlessly. That’s where my feeling of certainty ends. I’m not sure how I feel about labor, economics, technological innovation or education. Did I miss anything? Well, I’m not sure about that either.

The kind of change I’m interested in I don’t think can be achieved through politics, and if it can, I don’t know what those politics would look like. I don’t worry so much about terrorist attacks or outbreaks of super viruses or the possibly impending shift of the poles or 2012. I worry that the daily disasters we all live through will go on forever. The moments of selfishness, the lack of kindness, the way day-to-day drudgery can grind down imagination.

Imagination — now that’s something I support. Which is why thinking about politics leads me to this week’s classic movie: 1985’s Brazil

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is sort of like a funny version of 1984. Like 1984, the movie is part science fiction story about a future oppressive state, part allegory about the contemporary world of late-capitalist democracy and part narrative poem expressing what it feels like to be alive in the 20th Century. Also like 1984, all conversations about whether or not it’s “gotten that bad” are as outdated as debating whether or not we should allow globalism to take hold. Too little, too late.

Unlike 1984, Gilliam offers its protagonist Sam Lowry a way to get out of the dehumanizing day to day of it all: the imagination. Interspersed with oppressive bureaucratic traps and outlawed sexuality are these wonderful moments when Lowry breaches up out of the muck and into a fantasy of flight and power and beauty.

BrazilWhen I first saw the movie, at 11 years old, I became sure that imagination can save you from the more ferocious aspects of life. Then, years later, I saw the director’s cut. Spoilers follow!

The ending to the original release of Brazil indicated that our hero Lowry escaped into his imagination while undergoing torture, keeping him from breaking just long enough for his lady love to rescue him and take him off to join the revolution. That version burned itself on my adolescent conception of the world.

Much later on, when the director’s cut was finally released, Gilliam’s actual vision proved to be far more fatalistic. Rather than using his imagination to hold off being broken, Lowry escaped into it completely, and then died. After which, presumably, the revolution did what most revolutions do: slowly turned into pop images and sold on T-shirts.

I wonder whether or not seeing Gilliam’s version when I was 11 years old as opposed to the more sanitized ending would have left me with a drive to forge an idea of where I want this country to go and a clear idea of how to get there.

Learn from my foolishness. Vote. It is one of the noblest applications possible of our imagination.