"Guard: Don't fight it son. Confess quickly!
If you hold out too long you could jeopardize your credit rating."


Jeopardising your credit rating:
absurdity and intertextuality in Terry Gilliam's Brazil


I have always thought of Brazil as an absurdly funny movie. I think quite obviously it is. However recently, I have started thinking about what the word "absurd" really means with respect to Brazil, and the conclusion that I came to was that it's all bound up with the importance of intertextuality in the work, and in particular the idea that the success of the dystopic ideal is related to the degree in which it comments on the society from which it was spawned. In this node I am using intertextuality to refer to a text's references to a society, not its references to other texts.

A fairly simple definition of Dystopia is "an imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible."

Maybe a good way to look at Brazil, is that it is a place where, at least for the protagonist, everything is as bad as it can possibly be; and yet the effect upon the reader is twofold; we are forced into laughter, but also to think about the current state of our own society, and the similarities between the dystopic world that we are watching, and the world in which we live.

The idea of the absurd in this text is that we are forced to consider normal situations in an abnormal light. We are then forced to deconstruct the idea behind that normal situation with respect to similar situations in our own lives. This forces a re-evaluation of the significance of that situation in our lives, and leaves a window open for the text to substitute its own idea about that situation. Quite often this substituted idea is satirical and humorous.

I'd like to examine several scenes from Brazil which I think illustrate this point. The first scene starts off in a familiar way. We see a family who are preparing for Christmas. They are sitting in their loungeroom, the children are playing with toys, and the little girl says what has become a stereotypical statement - "Father Christmas can't come if we haven't got a chimney". The mother replies in the stereotypical way - she smiles and says "we'll see". This lulls the audience into thinking of a familiar paradigm of family relations; we expect to see the mother later on sneaking presents under the christmas tree and then claiming that it was Santa Claus.

In fact we end up with stormtroopers drilling holes through the roof and kidnapping Daddy. The punch-line, however, is yet to come. Once the father has been secured as you would probably secure a homicidal maniac, an officious-looking man with a clipboard presents a receipt for the mother to sign. He informs her that her husband has been invited to assist the Ministry with inquiries. The absurdity of the situation is that the Mother snaps out of her terrified whimpering for long enough to sign several forms calmly without reading them or even questioning their legality.

This device is amusing; but furthermore it brings into question the problem of bureaucratic paperwork in our own world of 2003. How often in our own lives do we sign away precious rights to nameless bureaucrats without reading what we are signing? Certainly quite often, and if you run a business you might even do it every day. Brazil intertextually references our world in this manner and begs the question; to what extent is our own world dystopic?

"This is your receipt for your husband ... and this is my receipt for your receipt."

The terrible power of the dystopic or utopic idea is that we can recognise elements of our own, much more anti-utopic world in them.

Filmic techniques that aid the absurd ideal

Gilliam uses a whole host of absurd filmic techniques to continually create a sense of the absurd in Brazil. He is particularly fond of taking technology that was around in the 1980's and twisting it into the shape it would come if it was misused to its worst potential in a techno-bureaucracy. Hence, we see:

  • televisions that fill every room in every house (even the bathtub)
  • robotic eyes that follow your movements
  • scanning devices that scan bags for terrorist kits, but also result in ruptured christmas presents
  • kitchens full of automated deviced that continually go wrong
  • a thermostat system that overloads and wrecks Sam's apartment
  • automated emergency telephone lines that are of no use whatsoever

All of these techno-bungles are used to remind us of the perils of technology.

Gilliam's world is reminiscent of that of the Maltese Falcon; it's dark, there are shadows everywhere, and every light is fluorescent and glaring. It's a Noir-ish universe in which Sam is the protagonist blundering around and trying to solve the mystery of his dreams and the meaning of the line in which they cross over into reality. Ultimately Sam's seductive siren truck-driver, Jill Layton, drags him down into a nightmare of insanity in which she is eventually shot and he retreats into his dream world and leaves reality permanently.

Against this noir-ish underworld of bureaucracy Gilliam throws the world of Sam's dreams, filled with bright sunlight, shining armor and a beautiful (and naked) woman calling his name. With this technique Gilliam is exposing the everyday dreams of human beings as farcical and far away from the stark reality of our everyday lives. He is saying that to dream is absurd and eventually fruitless.

Gilliam also constantly undercuts and satirises other genres of film. A good example of this is his portrayal of a "superhero", Harry Tuttle, who majestically saves Sam from his thermostat problem and then swings off into the night exactly like Spiderman, toting a handgun and a backpack of tools. If you examine the music in this scene you will find that the trumpet notes are reminiscent of the music used in super-hero movies such as Superman.

By painting such an absurd hero Gilliam is pointing out that not all heroes in our lives can fly through the air with magic powers; they could be the plumber, the electrician or the paper-boy. In a postmodern world where people don't believe in magic, the power of the everyday hero should not be underestimated.

Things to think about:

  • How successful is the use of the absurd to create meaning in Brazil?
  • What dystopic elements of our own society can we see demonstrated to the extreme in Brazil?

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