Friday, April 4, 2014



I awoke, the morning after the White Party, on some tropical beach. My little white cocktail frock was in shreds and stained with salt water. The ship was nowhere in sight and my only company was a large sea turtle of unpleasant disposition. I was marooned, lost at sea while water skiing. Fortunately, there was a road not too far behind the beach and I was eventually able to flag down a motorized rickshaw thing headed for Roadtown, Tortola where I might find something useful like a telephone. 

When I got there, I found that I had forgotten my purse and had no change. They would not take a check written on the back of a pamphlet for the local 'Swim with the Dolphins' attraction so I had to tap for thirty minutes in the middle of the town square until I had collected enough pennies to call Joseph, my manager, to come to my rescue. Joseph was downright hostile on the phone. Complaining about my drug addled behavior and he announced that he and Madame Rose, my publicist would be there at the first available opportunity to perform an intervention and to get me into an appropriate rehabilitation program at the Betty Ford Clinic. 

I was in shock, I had no idea that the Special K I had been using was a powerful mind altering substance. I had half a mind to call Corey Feldman and read him the riot act when I began to hallucinate again about flying over a pristine landscape from which large monolithic buildings were erupting. This, of course, reminded me of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, one of my favorite films which has recently been released on DVD by Criterion. Criterion has pulled out all the stops with this release, marketing it as a three disc boxed set which includes the full Gilliam cut, the Universal Studios syndicated cut, and a full disc of extras chronicling the film's fascinating development and history. The result is a film school seminar in the ways that editing can completely change tone, mood, and meaning of film, as well as being a primer on hardball Hollywood politics. 

For those unschooled in late 20th century film art, Terry Gilliam was the sole American amongst the Monty Python gang, responsible for so much classic humor of the 60s and 70s. Gilliam was originally hired as an artist and animator for the original TV show (and created all the classic cut-out animated sequences which served as sketch links and credits), but his unique vision, sense of comedy, and performing gifts eventually led to his being a full-fledged member of the troop. He co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail and later, when Python was less active, went on to other projects such as Jabberwocky and Time Bandits where he further refined his unique visual style and story-telling gifts. 

He began work on Brazil, a dystopian fantasy about a dreamer's attempts to cope with and escape from a monolithic totalitarian state, in the early 1980s with a screenplay treatment. The success of Time Bandits put him on the Hollywood radar screen and his producer, Arnon Milchan, was able to secure financing for Brazil through a deal in which 20th Century Fox received international distribution rights and Universal the American distribution rights. 

Brazil is the story of Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce),a minor functionary in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, set in a society of no particular place and time. The title refers to a cheesy old rumba song that accompanies his dreams, not to the country. The society into which Sam is born is one of control and conformity. Bureaucrats retrieve and hoard acres of information on everyone in the name of public safety. The society is built on technology run amok which is always in poor repair. The innards of technological supremacy are on ostentatious display as the ductwork and wires are exposed and decorated rather than hidden from view. Sam dreams of escape from this dreary world as a flying superhero, trying to rescue a beautiful young woman from the clutches of dark figures in a dread cityscape and the film cuts back and forth between his fantasy world and his reality, both so unique and strange that it's at times hard to tell which is which. 

Sam is an embarrassment to his society mother, Ida (Katherine Helmond), who is absorbed with plastic surgery and attempting to marry him off to the highly unsuitable Shirley (Kathryn Pogson). He wants to remain in his non-descript job under his minor despot boss (Ian Holm) rather than move up in the world. When a bureaucratic error, caused by a literal bug in the system, results in the wrong man being brought in for questioning, Sam attempts to straighten things out and meets the beautiful truck driver, Jill (Kim Greist), a dead ringer for his fantasy woman. Sam cannot discover her full identity, however, without moving up into the Department of Information Retrieval (a polite euphemism for torture) where his friend Jack (Michael Palin) works. Once there, he tracks down Jill, and attempts to escape the oppressive society with her, but fate has other plans. Throw in a renegade maintenance worker (Robert DeNiro), some bureaucratic incompetents, and a terrorist bombing campaign and you've got a hell of a film. 

Gilliam's themes resonate stronger than ever in our post 9/11 world. The government keeps its stranglehold on the populace in this shadowy world by its promises of protecting the people from an ongoing terrorist campaign. As the film progresses, it becomes more and more suspect that terrorists actually exist and that the government actually causes the incidents to keep itself in power unquestioned and to have a reason for its self perpetuating bureaucracies. The Deputy Minister's (Peter Vaughan) lines even resemble speeches by John Ashcroft. Gilliam is uncompromising in his attempts to show the effect of totalitarian thinking on people and society and he denies the viewer a typical happy ending, saying, in sense, that imagination is sometimes the only escape. 

The visuals, which predate the use of computer generated imagery, remain breathtaking and are lovingly rendered in this DVD release. The flying sequences remain some of the finest ever filmed. Each scene, with its retro-technology, use of power-plant locations, and imaginative camerawork, offers something, even on repeat viewings. There are sequences that lift from other films (including a wonderful parody of the Odessa Steps sequence from Potemkin), details of costuming that recall specific film or cultural moments and an occasional visceral shocker such as a collapsing coffin of unspeakable contents. The whole is helped by Michael Kamen's wonderful score which uses the song Brazil as its jumping off point but which creates a jumble of musical styles that highlight the jumble of visual motifs. 

The performances are uniformly excellent. Pryce carries the picture as the hapless Sam; one of Britain's finest actors, he creates a character both endearing and melancholy and we ache at his final fate. The other parts are all supporting, but well done. Katherine Helmond uses her comic skills as his mother, de-aging from seventy to young womanhood as her plastic surgeon (a young Jim Broadbent) continues to work his miracles. Robert DeNiro injects gusto into his few scenes and Bob Hoskins provides some wonderful comic relief as an ill-fated air conditioning attendant. 

The history of the film, after its completion in 1985, is nearly as intriguing as the plot of the film itself. Gilliam completed a 142 minute cut of the picture in spring 1985 and 20th Century Fox released it in Europe to respectable reviews and moderate business. Universal, however, balked at the American release. Executives at the studio disliked the film and held several disastrous test screenings. They felt that the film needed to be markedly shorter, have different thematic elements emphasized (to make it a traditional 'Love Conquers All' story) and, above all, to have a happy ending. Gilliam, whose contract guaranteed him final cut (if the film were less than 135 minutes) refused to make the studio's requested changes. As he would not shorten the film the studio took back the film and began to re-edit it into a form they deemed acceptable. Gilliam hit the roof and a very public war broke out between him and Sid Sheinberg, president of MCA-Universal. As is usual in such situations, there was fault on both sides. The upshot was that Gilliam and his producer Milchan, began to sneak prints of the film into the country for screenings, in direct violation of his contract and the studio's rights. Legal battles ensued but enough secret screenings were held that the majority of the LA film critics were able to see the film and the LA Film Critics Circle voted it Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Director for 1985. Universal was humiliated and soon released a 137 minute cut of the film OKd by Gilliam which played theaters in late 1985 and early 1986. The film eventually paid back Universal's investment but was not a big money-maker. The studio's cut of the film was eventually finished and this 94 minute version, radically different from Gilliam's was eventually sold to the syndicated television market where it still plays. 

The Criterion DVD release contains the full 142 minute cut of Brazil as Gilliam intended it to play. The major additions to the original US release are some scenes late in the film that clarify the fate of Sam and Jill. It's in widescreen with a commentary track by Gilliam. The second disc contains a number of extras including the screenplay, visual and score development processes, a half hour promotional film with interviews with the principals made at the time of filming, and an hour documentary detailing the studio battles that followed. The third disc contains Universal's truncated cut, allowing a direct comparison of Gilliam and the studios vision. I find this version of the film an appalling two star mess but it's interesting to see what the executives were thinking. 

Malfunctioning breakfast machinery. Missing personal transporter. Husband receipt. Caged beauty. Plastic breasts. Salt passing. Exploding restaurant. Fascist caroling. Executive toys. Shared desk. Paperwork explosions. Cooling tower rope tricks.

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