Stale Pies and Static Dreams
Stale Pies and Static Dreams
As a child develops into an adult there are critical developmental steps that are necessary for a complete and successful transition. The physical transition is the most obvious change, but underneath the thick skin and amongst the complex systems, exists another layer of transitions. Ideas, rationales, ideologies and beliefs all dwell within this layer of each being. It could be said that a nation can also fit this transitional framework. A nation grows in both size (wealth, population, power), and in ideological maturity (emancipation of slaves, civil rights, women’s rights…etc). This constant evolution of ideas and size is the foundation of a successful government. Without change and growth, the system currently in effect will grow stagnant and inevitably harmful to the public. The United States encourages an “American Dream”. Deeply rooted within the capitalistic, republican values of the nation, the American Dream has been pursued by generations. The concept is simple: to attain one’s stake, your slice of the pie, all that is required is good old fashioned hard work. There is no room in the American Dream to question authority or pursue truth. Of course, one must not think of the activity that hums quietly in the background, that’s just government protecting you and your interests. Brazil, directed by Terry Gilliam, is a film that brings into light often hidden aspects of the American Dream, exposing the bold contradictions that turn the greatest symbol of personal drive into a hauntingly apparent contradiction. The film succeeds in pulling the fallacies of establishment out of the murky soup of facades, and in conveying them using the perverse decomposition of the character named Sam Lowry.
Gilliam’s method of saturating the viewer with a smorgasbord of double meanings is complemented by his Orwellian governmental implications. The film is riddled with disturbing parallels to current governments close to home. In Sam Lowry’s peculiar world, he works as an employee of the Ministry of Information’s Department of Records. The Ministry is the umbrella corporation/government that runs everything from utilities and credit ratings to enforcing the confusing laws that they themselves have created. The working environment is presented to the viewer as efficiency at its finest. His office shows every person engaged dutifully in their quest for filing the right papers into the right files. Not a paper is discarded on the floor; every paper is clearly accounted for. The man who is in charge of the operation, Mr. Kurtzmann, is seen standing next to his office door holding a militant stance, watch in hand, suspiciously supervising his lively mechanism. The whole environment exudes subtle nobility in working for a greater good. This is quite typical of what would be considered a utopia for government offices. The employees participating in the great American Dream, chasing the promotion, the bigger house down the block. Yet before long Gilliam shows that the efficiency is purely superficial. Once Mr. Kurtzmann steps inside of his office the televisions are flicked to life and the whole machine stops. The workers show no difficulty in ignoring their duties. The truth behind this once seemingly perfect workspace shows itself only moments later, as a collection of detached robots carrying out the minimum amount that their job requires. Gilliam exposes the lack of investment that exists among employees of such convoluted bureaucracies. This scene, mocking the capitalistic work ethic, proves to be a microcosm of the Ministry of Information as a whole. Gilliam sets his audience up for the methodical dismantling of his adapted governmental monolith.
The bureaucracy as a self-defeating entity becomes a consistent theme throughout the film. Slogans are posted systematically throughout the various environments adding to the already established 1950’s/WWII era atmosphere. Slogans such as, “Suspicion Breeds Confidence” loosely mirrors in effect and ambiguity the popular World War Two phrase, “Loose Lips Sink Ships”. Perhaps the most striking of slogans is seen etched into the base of a massive bronze archangel statue placed centrally in the lobby of the M.O.I. that reads, “The Truth Will Make You Free”. The statement echoes the words that marked the entrance to Auschwitz, “Work Shall Set You Free”. Aside from the link to Nazi propaganda, the phrase seems to convey a virtuous declaration of justice. However after further examination, Gillian’s intent becomes clear. The statement has an unnecessary hostility or force between its letters. The truth that the statement speaks of can be seen as the Ministry. The Ministry of Information presents itself to the public as an unwavering pillar of truth and justice. Correspondingly, the freedom portion of the statement refers only to the ministry’s version of freedom, which as the audience knows at this point is an illusion. To compound the hostility of the phrase is the verb: make. To make someone free in this case mandates every individual in the system to adhere to their dizzying world of records, fees and signed dotted lines. The lobby of the M.O.I. continues to provide other easily ingestible shards of propaganda. During the camera’s exploration of the vast marble hall, Gilliam focuses on a small booth around which a few bystanders listen. The uniformed official running the booth was explaining to a passing inquirer the effectiveness of the 9mm submachine gun. Over his gun booth was a generic looking sign that read, “Information – The Key to Prosperity”. The viewer soon realizes the bystanders are actually nuns. The satire and irony is thick enough to cut.
As the plot twists and turns, Brazil furthers its quest to unpeel the realities that exist and reveal the inner fruit of evil. Gilliam’s brilliant creative mind pokes incessantly at the direction in which current governments are heading. The obsessive pursuit of technology within in the 20th century and on is well represented throughout the film. Gilliam presents a very relevant argument involving the consequences of technology. Technology paired with the increasing separation from the natural world results in the adoption of a dehumanizing indifference. With a consumer-driven market, manufacturers will continue to create mechanical and computerized appliances to supposedly provide relief from the mundane daily upkeep. These products are designed to make lives easier, yet in Brazil, technology is more of a cumbersome system of mistakes. Sam wakes up late into the day because, “the electrics here are up the spout” and his alarm clock was stopped. His apartment is equipped with every automated device one could imagine, each possessing its own unique way to malfunction. As Sam wakes up the machines work spastically at preparing him breakfast. When he drinks the coffee and sugar, minus the coffee, and when he tries to eat the coffee-soaked toast, a helpless look of indifference graces Sam’s face for a moment, then he goes directly to work. Everything that can malfunction does in the film. It is apparent in fact throughout the film that technology acts as one of the antagonists in the story, often preventing Sam from reaching his goals. For instance, in Sam’s quest to meet his dream girl he finds himself stuck in the troublesome lift in the Information Retrieval building. He can see her in the lobby, but the elevator won’t stop on the correct floor. Gilliam stresses the unreliability of machines, as well as the false sense of trust that modern society has in them. This trust can attributed to an inherent human arrogance, causing people to believe that they are too smart or developed to take care of the daily responsibilities that we find tedious. Yet those responsibilities are life. When the responsibilities are replaced by a machine that can only take care of it 30 percent of the time, not only are the essential parts of life being bypassed, but the chores are being done incorrectly.
Sam’s interactions with various friends, associates, and colleagues play out throughout the film. The language that Gilliam chooses to have the characters use is again riddled with double meaning. In Sam’s conversations with others, the audience is shown what the average man Sam’s age is concerned about. While Sam was in the midst of the labyrinth of security measures in his office building, he bumps into his friend Jack. Immediately the viewer sees a fanatical grin on Jack’s face. Equally disturbing is his over zealous response to Sam’s question, “What are you doing here (records), is there a problem?” To which Jack responds, “Problem? No problem. Everything is fine, wonderful, marvelous. Alison is in great shape, the kids are fine. I’m on security level five now…” Although the viewers at this point do not know Jack, his response exposes his facades and his acceptance of society’s expectations, and sets him up for his role in the movie as one of the most dehumanized characters.
These various slivers of Gilliam’s film demonstrate his clear intentions. The director chose various aspects of the American Dream from western civilization and held them up, exposed and isolated, for all viewers to see. He shows the difficulty his characters have with recognizing injustice from within the system. These traits are typical of what has happened throughout history when normal people become subordinate to new and oppressive bureaucracies. It seems that all a treacherous government needs in order to normalize the most disgusting violations of basic human rights is a convincing façade of efficiency. It could be said that the American Dream plays that role in current American society, that it is purely a façade to blind our eyes to the larger system. If the system succeeds in preventing people from gaining awareness of the larger picture, and indeed further compartmentalizes every aspect of life, the line between just and false laws become blurred. Gilliam uses “Brazil” to bring these often overlooked problems with government to the forefront of his viewer’s mind, making apparent that no element of human life is safe from this type of unconscious degeneration.