19 August 2003

Brazil: The Criterion Collection DVD

Brazil is the best SF movie I have ever seen. It is also the movie which comes closest to realizing on film some of the sense and style of Philip K. Dick's novels and stories, even though it's not based on a PKD book, and I have no idea if director Terry Gilliam has read any of PKD's work. (By the way, this insight is not original to me: Gardner Dozois made the point in the "Summation" to one of his early Year's Best SF anthologies.) Gilliam's later film 12 Monkeys is also very PhilDickian, especially with its time travel themes, but though I think 12 Monkeys is a superb work, it's not as mesmerizing for me as Brazil.

The Criterion Collection edition of Brazil is one reason I bought a computer with a DVD player in it (since I don't own a TV). It's a 3-disc set, originally released as a laser disc (remember those?), and it includes all sorts of extra material -- commentaries, production art work, and a couple of documentaries, one of which looks back at what has been "The Battle for Brazil", when the studio releasing the film insisted that Gilliam cut it down to no more than 120 minutes (from 142) and make the film as a whole focus on the love story between two of the main characters. The studio ended up cutting their own version of the film (at about 90 minutes), and that version is also included in the Criterion edition. It makes for fascinating viewing for anyone familiar with the longer version originally released to American theatres, because it demonstrates how some clever (and sometimes clumsy) editing can completely change a film's tone and meaning.

The Criterion edition is also especially pleasing because it includes the longest and most complete version of the film available, with roughly 20 more minutes than was available on the version released on VHS and on the cheaper one-disc DVD. The extra length does not change too much of the meaning, and some viewers may find that it prolongs the experience of the movie too far, but for me it is glorious, because much of what I love about Brazil is revelling in the sumptuous imagination fueling it all.

One of the wonders of Brazil, especially the longest version, is that you can watch it over and over again and still discover new elements within it. I have seen it at least 20 times, and have found myself engaged in the narrative and the surreal world with each viewing, for the detail is remarkable. This is not a movie which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make; the production costs were relatively small, and yet it has far more depth and imagination than any blockbuster.

Unlike some of Gilliam's other films, Brazil doesn't live or die on its visual impact -- its script is as strong as any that has been written. Much of the credit goes to Gilliam's collaborators, the great and clever British playwright Tom Stoppard and actor/writer Charles McKeown, both of whom helped Gilliam give form to his original idea, and both of whom added many of the little touches which ultimately make the film so intriguing.

The wonder of Brazil is that it doesn't interpret itself for the viewer. It is a Chinese box of mysteries, a grand flow of paradoxes, an unsettling mix of humor and horror, as if Franz Kafka found himself on the whirling teacups at Disneyworld with Buster Keaton to one side and George Orwell to the other. Some viewers hate the film because of its ambiguities, but for me this is what makes it a masterpiece: while having a strong narrative structure, it is also open to many interpretations, for it houses many ambiguities and circularities within its careful, and often seemingly logical, framework. How much of the story is only in Sam Lowry's head? When is he conscious, when is he dreaming? What, really, is his fate?

Some viewers find the ending to be depressing and take from it a "message" that life is hopeless and dreaming is futile. I don't see this at all. For all he has gone through, what has propelled Sam through so much is his imagination, and even in the end, it seems to me, he is able to escape from pain and suffering by sending himself to the world of his dreams, making him useless to the malevolent forces which seek to impose more and more torture on him. He wins, in the end, because his enemies give up. But the cost is great.