Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard & Charles McKeown
There’s a moment when like becomes love. When fascination becomes obsession. When all the tumblers fall into place and you just get it. And something that once had been simply just another diversion comes alive with possibility and inspiration. There’s a distinct dividing line in my appreciation of film, between my stumbling adolescence and my cinematic maturity. And that line is Brazil.
I first heard the film mentioned by a college professor at Rollins with whom I had a scholarship interview during my senior year in high school. I was already pretty film crazy, inspired by various “making of” specials, wanting to be part of some equally sprawling creative endeavor. And this professor — who was the one who suggested I major in English if I really wanted to get into any kind of writing — said I simply had to see a movie called Brazil. It was brilliant, he said, full of symbolism and imagery and artistry. It sounded exciting, but at the time, if it wasn’t at the multiplex, it was out of my frame of reference. Places like the Enzian either didn’t exist or were in their infancy in Orlando at the time, so I filed away the title in the back of my mind while I continued my diet of mainstream blockbusters.
Then, during my freshman year in college, the film hit home video. We might deride Blockbuster now, but back then, they weren’t simply 800 copies of whatever new release had come out that week. They had a pretty eclectic selection, and when I spied Brazil on the shelf during one of our movie gathering trips, I snapped it up. We got back to the dorm and popped it in the VCR, not knowing what to expect.
We watched it twice in a row that night. We had to. We got to the end and didn’t want it to be over. We had to experience it again right that instant, to bask in what we’d seen, to search for things we might have missed, to plumb every possible depth in the rich tapestry we’d just watched. It made us feel alive, flush with ideas and passions. I hadn’t exactly been unaware of the visual power of film, but never had it seemed so clear, so compelling, so directly tapped into my subconscious. The second viewing was just as enthralling as the first, and my head swelled with theories and interpretations, chief among them being the power of the human imagination, both as it was displayed in the film and in its making.
When I became involved with the weekly film program later that year, I insisted we show Brazil when it became available to us. While not exactly a true big screen presentation, seeing it projected on something much larger than a TV screen was still a revelation. The sheer scope of Terry Gilliam’s vision blown up to the size of a wall was overwhelming. I looked at every empty seat in the auditorium and wondered what someone could possibly be doing that justified missing this. Reading the film is what opened my eyes to the real meat of English major, the meanings behind the words, looking beyond the literal. It was both an intellectual and an emotional awakening.
Later, learning the story behind the release of the film would provide even more inspiration. Gilliam’s struggles with the monolithic movie studio was a powerful echo of the film itself, imagination battling a heartless corporate machine and winning out in the end. Even if that victory was small in the grand scheme of things, the machine grinding on with only the most momentary of pauses, that a film like Brazil could exist seemed a hopeful thing.
And what amazes me most is that I can watch the film now and still feel wonder at the first image of Sam soaring through the clouds. Time and repetition hasn’t diluted the experience in the slightest. There’s still a visionary beauty to Brazil that never fails to inspire, even if the world we live in constantly reminds us more and more of the oppressive one Sam seeks to escape. Or maybe that beauty still moves me precisely because our world often looks so much like Sam’s. And I want to believe that imagination — both my own and others’ — can make it a less frightening and impersonal place.