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Modernity and Mise-en-scene
Terry Gilliam and Brazil
Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4    by Keith James Hamel -- page 2 of 4

The cloud-filled opening sequence from Brazil.

Modernity in Brazil

None of Gilliamís films do a better job critiquing the modern world than his 1985 sci-fi "tragicomedy" Brazil ó the centerpiece of all his films. All of Gilliamís important themes tend to materialize, or at least become evident, in this pivotal work. The optimistic fantasy images versus the pessimistic images of modernity's duality is no exception here.

Brazil opens and closes with the same peaceful shot of blue sky and stratospheric clouds.3 These shots are directly related to Samís (Jonathan Pryce) dreams and his desire for a fantasy world away from all the bureaucracy and technology of the "real" world in which he lives. Gilliam uses these tranquil shots to suggest the optimism related to fantasy: there is a chance of escape. However, a keen observer will note that the cloud opening is reminiscent of the beginning of Leni Riefenstahlís Triumph of the Will (1934).4 Due to that filmís connection with Nazism and fascism ó ideological views the bureaucratic state of Brazil seems built on ó the cloud shot becomes problematic. Echoing Riefenstahlís shot (and the subject of her film), the cloud shot in Brazil suggests that even the realm of the imagination is not free from the stifling power of modernity. (The movie's last shot, which shows Sam sitting in a torture chair amidst the clouds, fosters this interpretation: fantasy fails to provide escape).

The cloud-filled opening sequence from
Leni Riefenstahl's
Triumph of the Will.

Sandwiched between these cloud shots are more examples (particularly of the negative variety) of the dichotomy mentioned above. Many scenes in Brazil suggest the failure of modernity. An early example is the scene in which Sam prepares to go to work. He has all the modern gadgets that turn on automatically and are designed to make life that much easier. Yet the coffee machine pours coffee on the toast, the shower doesnít work properly, and even the alarm clock malfunctions and causes Sam to be late. All these modern items of convenience turn out to be quite an inconvenience to those who depend on them.

Sam's elaborate alarm clock malfunctions.

Gilliam provides a more profound example of the troubling nature of modernity in a complex tracking shot around Samís office. The shot starts with a close-up of a receipt being stamped and then pulls back to reveal workers moving at a frantic, but never out-of-control, pace. (Even chaos is logical in the world run by modernity). As the camera continues to track around a corner, the viewer becomes lost in the visual confusion of figures moving in and out of the frame before the camera finally stops on Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm). Interestingly, after Kurtzmann turns his back, the workers stop what they are doing and watch old movies on their tiny computer monitors. As it turns out, the workers were busy just for the sake of looking busy. There really is nothing to do in the modern workplace (perhaps because it has been taken over by automation), so they simply watch television (which itself is a byproduct of modernity ó recall Kevinís parents in Time Bandits?).

Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm) watches the workers in this scene from Brazil.

View an animated GIF of this scene. (30 frames, 214KB)

This scene thus becomes symbolic of the paradoxical nature of modernity; "On the one hand, the business corporation wants an individual to work hard, pursue a career, accept delayed gratificationÖ and yet, in its products and its advertisements, the corporation promotes pleasure, instant joy, relaxing and letting go."5 These workers, who both save time by working fast and kill time by watching TV, turn out to be evidence of one of the most typical products of modernity ó kitsch.6

page 2 of 4


© Keith James Hamel

photo credits: MCA Universal Home Video, Nostalgia Family Video


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