Friday, June 26, 2009

Film Friday: Rope (1948)

Alfred Hitchcock's most twisted film, Rope, is the story of two men who kill their friend and then host a dinner party over the chest in which they’ve hidden the body. And that’s just the beginning. If you haven’t heard of Rope, there is a reason. Calling Rope “an experiment that didn’t work out,” Hitchcock bought back the rights, along with four other “lost Hitchcocks” (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry and Vertigo), and he kept them from being shown in public for 30 years, until his daughter released them after his death.

** spoiler alert **
Rope: Hitchcock's Big Experiment
Based on the 1929 play Rope’s End by Patrick Hamilton, Rope was Hitchcock’s most experimental film. Indeed, not only was this Hitchcock’s first color film (ditto for Jimmy Stewart), but the film was shot in ten segments, ranging in length from four minutes to ten minutes, with each segment being filmed as a continuous take. Thus, as the camera and sound gear moved around the set (the film takes place in an apartment), the film crew rolled away walls and returned them, the prop men moved furniture out of the way and returned it, and the actors followed an elaborate choreography to keep out of the way of the film crew. Amazingly, you never notice.
The Story
Inspired by the real-life murder of fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924 by two University of Chicago students, Rope opens with Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) murdering their friend David by strangling him with a rope in their apartment. The scene opens as David gasps his last breath and goes limp. Brandon and Phillip then stuff David’s body into a large chest in the middle of the apartment. They killed him because they wanted to prove they could commit the perfect crime. They chose David as the victim because they viewed him as "inferior."

To satisfy his twisted ego, Brandon complicates matters by inviting David’s father, aunt, and fiancee to a small dinner party that will be held in the apartment. Unbeknownst to Phillip, Brandon upped the ante by also inviting David’s former best friend, who used to date David’s fiancee, and their former teacher, Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart). At the last moment, Brandon further ups the stakes, by moving the dinner party from the dining room to the living room and choosing to serve food off the chest in which David's body is hidden. As the guests begin arriving, Brandon tells us, “Now the fun begins.” And so it does.

As the story unfolds, Hitchcock gives the audience a steady dose of black humor, allowing us in on the joke as the characters deliver dozens of lines like “these hands will bring you great fame,” and as Brandon makes repeated subtle references to David’s being dead and steers the conversation to the topic of murder. But with each passing joke, Brandon pushes further, becoming more and more careless and maniacal, while Phillip begins to crack.

Yet, Hitchcock tricks us into cheering for Brandon and Phillip. He does this by using their bickering to force the audience to empathize with them. Like Quentin Tarantino does in Pulp Fiction, Hitchcock uses their interaction to pull the audience into their relationship. You become invested in them. Combined with the sense of belonging one gets with being “in” on a joke, as we are with Brandon's repeated jokes at the expense of his guests, the audience slowly begins to pull for these two villains to get away with their crime. Indeed you find yourself increasingly tense as it gets more and more likely they will be caught. We even find ourselves becoming annoyed with David’s father, who is preoccupied with his missing son, and who repeatedly ruins the party for us with his sour concerns. We no longer see him as a caring father. Instead, we see him as the guest we wish hadn't been invited.

We also begin to distrust and then even dislike Jimmy Stewart, who becomes suspicious and begins to investigate. The more he pushes, the more unhappy we become. In a brilliant bit of manipulation, we watch Stewart use a metronome to force Phillip to play the piano faster and faster, as Stewart crossexamines him about the holes in their story until Phillip nearly breaks. But rather than celebrate Stewart's victory, this only increases our feelings of unease and disgust with the weakening Phillip, who is falling apart before our eyes. We begin to wonder, will we make it to the end of the party before he breaks.

And then, to prove to us that we now emotionally support the murderers, Hitchcock presents us with a tremendous scene where we watch the maid clearing the plates and candles from the chest. As the other actors continue their dialog off camera, we watch her slowly, but surely clear the chest and finally reach to open it. By that point, we are on the edge of our seats, wanting to scream to Brandon: "look what she's doing! Stop her!" We are rooting for the bad guys.
The Message
But just as we succumb to Hitchcock’s manipulation, Jimmy Stewart snaps us back to morality. In a moment reminiscent of the speech given by Jose Ferrer in The Caine Mutiny (1954), which changes the entire emotional complexion of that film, Stewart makes us realize that Brandon and Phillip are indeed monsters and we should be ashamed of having hoped for them to pull off their crime. For Stewart realizes that he is the reason Brandon and Phillip killed David, and it makes him sick. He recalls how he discussed with them the intellectual concepts of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch while they were students and how he advocated to them (as he does earlier in the film during a conversation which upsets David’s father) the idea that superior men not only have a right, but a duty, to murder inferior men. And even though he never meant his comments to be taken literally, he now realizes how dangerous his words were when spoken to impressionable young men. . . men like Brandon, who may honestly believe Stewart would approve of their “work of art.” Therein lies the message: words have power and we must take care in choosing what we say or we will rue the consequences.

And when Stewart understands how he shares the guilt for the murder he believes has taken place, Stewart shows the audience a level of horror in his face and in his shaking hands that Stewart has never shown in any other film. And when we see this, we too feel sick for how we laughed and condoned and enjoyed being on the inside earlier.

If there is a flaw in the film, it is that while Hitchcock can force us to root for the two murderers by engaging us in their relationship, he never does manage to make us believe their views about superior humans. Thus, while we do eventually feel shame for hoping they get away with the murder, it is not as deep as if we had come to accept their philosophy before Stewart exposes it. It is the difference between being ashamed of having laughed at an inappropriate joke, versus being ashamed at having told it. Indeed, I believe this is why The Caine Mutiny speech ultimately has greater effect -- because we never consider that we could be wrong until Ferrer speaks, whereas here we always knew Brandon and Phillip were wrong, we just didn’t mind.

As an aside, there is another message hidden in here, which is Hitchcock's statement against anti-Semitism. It is implied that David's family is Jewish and that this may have been part of their motivation in choosing him, something that is reinforced with the discussion of Nietzsche's theories, which became a core of Nazism.
Implied Homosexuality
Finally, it's worth noting Rope was notorious because of the implied homosexuality of the main characters. Indeed, the film was banned in several cities because of it. Yet, while it is clear the characters are meant to be gay (as indeed were the real University of Chicago students upon whom they are based and as were actors John Dall and Farley Granger and the writer), the implication is not obvious to the casual observer, who could easily see their relationship as being explained merely in Brandon bullying the weaker Phillip.

In any event, I highly recommend this film.

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Film Friday: The Fifth Element (1997)

In the 1950s, science fiction was forward looking but silly. In the 1960s, science fiction became humorless and introspective about man’s place in the universe. Then science fiction became darkly dystopian -- we suck and it’s all going down the drain. It is against this backdrop of Blade Runner knock-offs and dark, leather clad aliens roaming ruined planets, that we find Luc Besson’s richly-textured view of the future in The Fifth Element. Besson (La Femme Nikita, Leon) presents a movie that is both ambitious and daring, and which, consequently, stands unique among science fiction films today.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
The Fifth Element is the story of the battle between good and evil. Representing good, we have (1) a religious order that protects a secret weapon placed on the earth by an alien species (Mondoshawans), (2) retired-soldier turned cabdriver Corbin Dallas (Bruce Willis), and (3) the universe’s supreme being -- a genetically perfect woman named Leeloo (Milla Jovovich). Representing evil, we have a powerful force hidden within a molten ball of rock and fire. Assisting evil is industrialist Zorg (Gary Oldman) and a group of mercenary aliens known as Mangalores. The story revolves around the need for the good guys to gather four stones and return them to an ancient Egyptian temple in time to allow the secret weapon to stop the evil force from returning to Earth. But it is beyond the basic story where The Fifth Element really becomes special.
Besson’s Daring Film
What separates The Fifth Element from other science fiction movies are the daring and interesting choices Besson makes as a director. Indeed, Besson violates several “rules” of the science fiction genre:

1. The Hero Must Defeat The Villain In The Big Showdown: Amazingly, Corbin Dallas, the hero, never meets with or communicates with either the evil force or Zorg at any point in the film. Corbin never even learns who Zorg is. At one point, Zorg does briefly shoot at Leeloo, but like Corbin, she has no idea who Zorg is and they never speak. Yet, the audience never feels deprived of the big show down.

2. Everyone Speaks English: Several of the aliens speak languages other than English, and they are not subtitled. More significantly, Leeloo, the heroine, does not speak a recognizable word of English until near the end of the film. Yet, it works. Not only does Besson find alternative means for making her understood, but it lends her character a reality that is lost in other movies when the strangest of aliens start speaking perfect English.

3. Always Tie Your Move To The Present: To draw the audience into the film, science fiction directors always tie the movie into the present. This can be as blatant as including scenes from the present day to as “subtle” as having the characters pontificate about “the twentieth century” . . . looking at you Star Trek. Besson does it differently. The film begins with an opening sequence that takes place in 1913, and then immediately shifts to 2263 (jumping over us entirely). And unlike Star Trek, there is no mention of our time. Yet, the audience never feels distant from the film because the film shows us a future that feels like a natural outgrowth of our own times.

4. The Sounds of Minimalism: Science fiction soundtracks have increasingly trended toward minimalist or surreal music (like Phillip Glass). Besson takes a completely different approach. Besson uses a combination of techno music that is heavily influenced by Arabic music, Paris street musicians, and Opera. Indeed, one of the most interesting moments in the film involves the opera performance by the Diva Plavalaguna, a sort of techno opera.

5. Avoid Unusual Film Techniques: Most science fiction directors play it fairly straight, probably out of fear that they are already out on a limb with their story lines. Besson, on the other hand, does something amazing. Besson uses incredibly precise cuts to give the movie a fast paced feel despite its 127 minute run time. Moreover, Besson uses these cuts to mix different scenes involving different characters in such a way that we almost feel they are speaking to each other. This allows Besson to give us information from multiple perspectives simultaneously and it dramatically cuts down on the amount of dialog and number of scenes needed to convey necessary information to the audience. In the hands of a lesser director such cuts could easily have seemed gimmicky or confused (see Smoking Aces), but in Besson’s hands, these cuts are so well done it is difficult to conceive of this movie being filmed without them.
Besson’s Ambitious World
Beyond his daring, Besson gives the viewer another treat unlike anything in modern science fiction: he gives us an immersive world. It is the rare science fiction film that can resist showing their view of the future. But when they do, it usually takes the form of some quick narrative at the beginning of the film, followed by a handful of plot-irrelevant moments where the audience is asked to focus on an idea or two about how we will live in the future. These moments are almost always accompanied by some comment along the lines of “I can’t image how they used to. . .” and are quickly abandoned once the plot begins moving again. Consequently, these moments typically offer little more than a distraction. Not so Besson.

Besson never once makes his ideas about future conveniences into the focal point of a scene. Instead, he weaves them seamlessly into the background of each scene. For example, we see Leeloo and Zorg’s secretary applying make up, we see Corbin’s bedsheets automatically folded and his bathroom automatically washed, we see food rehydrated and a 23rd Century version of a cigarette machine, but these things happen in the background of scenes. Besson never stops the film to highlight them.

Moreover, Besson’s characters are real people with real lives. Corbin’s apartment is dirty and cluttered. His mother nags him. He has an ex-wife, who ran off with his lawyer. Several characters have pets. Each of the characters has a unique wardrobe -- no generic civilization-wide jumpsuits here. We see how they entertain themselves. We hear their music, we see their television ads, and we meet Ruby Rod (Chris Tucker), a truly believable 23rd Century evolution of Howard Stern.

But most importantly, we get to see the entire range of human endeavor. Almost without exception, science fiction films limit their characters to a few chosen “important” professions. Beyond the individuals directly involved in the plot, you rarely see more than soldiers, scientists, industrialists and government types. Besson shows us these, but then goes so much further. You meet religious figures (from multiple religions), cabbies, secretaries, commercial pilots, stewardesses, garbage men, dock workers, cops, McDonald’s employees, and many more. And each of these characters has a speaking part. Unlike the sterile, lonely future that is commonly presented, this is a real future where we can truly believe that billions of people live and work.

And in that regard, we are given something else that is not common in science fiction films: livable space. While most science fiction tells us that our great grand children will live in dark, dank warehouses or sterile, plastic apartments, Besson’s characters live and work in bright, ergonomic, livable (and lived in) spaces. This is the world as humanity would really make it, not a world designed to increase audience tension. Seriously, would any human really go into space aboard the Event Horizon?

Lastly, Besson does something truly unusual -- he gives his aliens a full range of personalities. Indeed, the Mangalores, the main bad guys (right), are some of the most emotive aliens ever to come along. They run the gambit from joy to frustration to anger to dismay to simple puzzlement. They are stupid and foolish. They play around. They scratch their heads when they are confused. They are unlike any other aliens seen on film, and that makes them compelling.

Science fiction could learn a lot from Besson about how to create a layered, interesting view of the future.
The Message
Finally, we come to the message of the film. This is the one area where Besson fails. Despite crafting such an interesting and many faceted world, when it comes to the film’s message, Besson punts. Admittedly, he does tack a standard liberal “gee ain’t we bad” message onto the end of the film, but this seems to be used solely for the purpose of getting Dallas to admit his love for Leeloo. Indeed, earlier in the film Leeloo is seen enjoying Kung Fu movies of the type that now supposedly cause her to see nothing good in the human race. Moreover, once Dallas admits his love, this “oh rotten humans” message gets utterly discarded and the new message becomes that one person’s love can redeem the rest of the human race. And while this could be seen as religious symbolism, there is no follow up or depth to support such a message.

Earlier in the film, Besson makes several attempts to give us a message through Father Cornelius (Ian Holm). Each time someone tells him they do not have sufficient time for something, he replies: “time does not matter, only life.” But this message is meaningless. Indeed, even if Besson had something specific in mind for this message, there is no moment where we see the pay off. Thus, we are left without a message to be gleaned. . . although, maybe that's not such a bad thing?

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Film Friday: Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)

Ladies, did sexual liberation work for you? Steven Sonderbergh doesn’t think so, and he has some advice for you. That advice can be found in Sex, Lies, and Videotape, a $1.8 million movie that was added to the United States Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2006 after being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” That’s got to mean something, right?

** spoiler alert **

Sex, Lies, and Videotape ostensibly tells the story of four unhappy people. Ann (Andie MacDowell) is the repressed housewife of John (Peter Gallagher), a lecherous attorney who is having an affair with Ann’s sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). As the story begins, John has invited old college friend Graham (James Spader) to stay with them. Graham, who is impotent, videotapes people talking about sex. After Graham tapes Cynthia, each of their lives begins to change. Before everything is said and done, Cynthia dumps John, Ann demands a divorce from John, and Cynthia and Ann reconcile.
What This Movie Is Not About
So what is Sonderbergh’s point? Well, before we can delve into Sonderbergh’s meaning, there is something you must realize: this movie is entirely about the evolution of Ann and Cynthia, they are the only characters who matter. Everybody wants to focus on Graham because he’s the most unique character in the film, but this movie is not about Graham. Indeed, many critics spent their entire reviews speculating about Graham, only to ultimately express their confused disappointment that the film never answered their questions. What they miss is that he’s a red herring. Graham tells us as much when he volunteers right away that he's impotent. That is an admission that he may only watch, he can take no action. And true to form, he never once drives the plot, he merely acts as a sounding board against which Ann and Cynthia reassess their lives. In fact, you could replace him with a priest, a therapist or even another female friend, and nothing would change about this movie.

John too is not relevant to this film. John doesn't grow, he doesn't learn. At no point are we given access to his thoughts. And at the very end of the movie, rather than giving us some revelation of insight, John just walks away -- because he never mattered. His purpose in this film is to show us how Ann and Cynthia both fall for his manipulations even though one is “liberated” and the other is "repressed."
What This Movie Is About
So what is this film about? Sex, Lies, and Videotape criticizes the attitudes many women developed as a result of the sexual revolution. According to Sonderbergh, happiness cannot be found either in remaining repressed or in adopting casual sex lifestyle.

The key to this movie is the changes that occur in the two sister. Ann is repressed. She represents women who are ill at ease with sexual liberation (the archetype “prude”). She is so repressed that she finds even the mention of sex upsetting, and she will obsess about problems she cannot fix (like the amount of garbage in the world) to avoid any hint of sex creeping into her life. She no longer even lets her husband touch her. Cynthia, on the other hand, is the polar opposite (the archetype “slut”). She has adopted a casual sex lifestyle. She has no moral concerns at all about sex, as evidenced by the fact she's sleeping with her sister’s husband.

The introduction of Graham, provides the process by which Sonderbergh exposes these two women. Both will eventually make videos for Graham, and in both instances, the experience changes them for the better. Ann comes to realize that sex is not wrong and finds release from her fears and pressures by shaking off her repressed attitude. Cynthia, on the other hand, learns that there is a level of intimacy in sex that she is missing with her casual attitude. Sonderbergh’s message: fearing sex will only make you unhappy, but so will treating sex like just another pastime.

Moreover, Sonderbergh repeatedly stresses that it is within our own selves that the blame for our unhappiness lies, and that women must stop casting blame upon each other for their own problems. Before their awakening, while both women are still deeply unhappy, each blames the other’s “wrong” views on sex for their own unhappiness. Indeed, at one point, Ann admits:
“I hate it when I have feelings [Cynthia] has. It bothers me when I think about men because I know that’s how she thinks.”
Cynthia, on the other hand, essentially blames Ann for making it possible for her to sleep with John, and she admits to enjoying the idea of having sex with John on Ann’s own bed as a sort of revenge. It is only when the two women stop casting blame on each other and realize the power to control their own lives within themselves that they become happy.
Graham’s True Role
Though I said earlier that Graham is irrelevant to the movie, that is not entirely true. Sonderbergh has one more point, and he makes it through Graham.

We see Graham as some sort of strange voyeur, and he makes us uneasy. Indeed, Roger Ebert described his videotaping as “a form of sexual assault; [through which] he has power not over their bodies but over their minds, over their secrets.” But Graham represents us, the viewers: we are doing exactly what Graham is doing -- watching video of two women discuss their sexuality. And we are doing this for the same reason that Ann and Cynthia blamed each other for their own problems -- because we believe that seeing other people with more messed up lives means that ours are somehow less bad. You can hear this charge when Ann confronts Graham at the end of the film and he, speaking for us, tries to justify his voyeurism: “I see John and Cynthia and you and I feel comparatively healthy.” But Ann, i.e. Sonderbergh, responds simply, “You’ve got a problem.”

When Graham then replies, on our behalf, that his problems are his own, and thus, none of her business, Ann shoots that down as well: “You think they’re yours, but they’re not. Everybody who comes through that door becomes part of your problem.” And thus, we are told to examine our own lives to see if we are not repeating these destructive behaviors.
The Critics, Wrong Again
Finally, a quick word on the critics. Drawing deeply from the well of subtlety, many critics patted themselves on the back for recognizing that as Ann’s life was changing, Graham offered her water instead of ice tea when she came to visit. This was apparently deeply symbolic of the change in her life. But these same masters of the subtle arts missed the overall message. Indeed, most critics viewed this movie as simply a meaningless tale about sex with no particular message. They also loved to express their shock at Graham’s voyeurism (no irony there folks).

Ebert, who described the movie as being about four people with “confused sex lives,” declared the film “more clever than enlightening.” And strangely, after condemning Graham’s voyeurism as “a form of sexual assault” Ebert later concludes that the movie “reminds us of how sexy the movies used to be, back in the days when speech was an erogenous zone.” Ah yes. . . the days of sexual assault. . . the good old days.

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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.

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