I love participating in film Blogathons.They give you a prompt, and off you go…so long as you can think of something for the prompt that you want to write about. When you’re a noir blog, that can be either easy or wickedly difficult.
I adore Monty Python. I grew up glued to the TV screen on Sunday nights in Chicago when it was shown on PBS. I laughed at the slapstick, gaped at the sex jokes, and boggled at humor that was far beyond my youthful brain.
When I was in college and saw Brazil, however, I knew I was in for something completely different, as it were. I adored the film and its retroSF style, its elements of homage to 1984, its superb cast, and its use of wild, satirical comedy to address serious political themes. I saw it multiple times and bought The Battle of Brazil when it came out in 1987 to learn the history and struggles to get the film released (at all and in the form Gilliam wanted it). I even remember rewatching it on WGN one evening, where the scenes were rearranged so completely that the film ma
de no sense whatsoever. (It opened with the bomb exploding the television set in the store window!)
Brazil remains one of my favorite films, both for my history with the picture and its unforgettable creativity and dark wit. I haven’t done a Top 100 and likely never will, but Brazil would be in it if I ever did.
To add to my love of the film, I’m now re-contemplating it via noir. So, for MovieMovieBlogBlog’s Monty Python Movie Blogathon, I present my evidence for
TERRY GILLIAM’S BRAZIL AS FILM NOIR
As you already know if you watch or study noir, it is known for its unique stylistic and content elements. Using these, we can break down the elements of Brazil that fit the designation of noir. This does not mean I think the film is best or only categorized as noir, but rather that it features noir elements and uses them powerfully to present its message of the evils of industrial living and the government/corporate machine.
The Doomed Everyman
Many fans think mostly about the hard-boiled detective when they think of noir, issues of crime and punishment and the anti-hero who straddles the fine line between law and chaos. But Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are only one type of noir protagonist. Another is the ill-fated schmuck, the everyman in the wrong place at the wrong time or who falls prey to a fast-talking criminal or femme fatale. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) in Detour (1945) is a perfect example. As he says at the end of a plot in which he has dealt with accidental death that looks like murder and the nastiest femme fatale on screen, “Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” And that’s Brazil‘s Sam Lowry in a nutshell. Computer error based on a literal fly in the ointment leads our antihero on the ride of his life…and ultimately death.
Brazil has been labeled retro-futurism and even, in retrospect, proto-steampunk. The best description I’ve found for its Oscar-nominated art design, however, is “scifi-noir,” described by James Berardinelli as “a view of what the 1980s might have looked like as viewed from the perspective of a 1940s filmmaker.” To my mind, this links Brazil with Blade Runner (1982), a film often discussed as neo-scifi-noir. But Blade Runner looks more like future fashion will return to 40s homage, where Brazil blends present, future, and past together with dark vividness. (We can apply this scifi-noir style concept to Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle (2016) in interesting ways as well.)
In addition, like original noir, there’s also more than a little influence of German Expressionism (see Lang’s Metropolis and M) in the picture — including shots from odd angles and use of a wide-angle lens.
When Sam gets a promotion, he ends up in a tiny office beside a petty, nasty colleague named Harry Lime. Noir fans will recognize this name as that of Orson Welle’s antagonist character in The Third Man. (They may not recognize the actor playing Lime in Brazil as the film’s co-screenwriter, Charles McKeown, however.)
There are of course as many non-noirish elements as noirish in Brazil because it defies easy categorization and works on multiple levels. Its complexity of plot led Roger Ebert to give it only 2/4 stars, but for many of us, that is its greatest charm, and why it remains my favorite Gilliam film.