Terry Gilliam’s beginnings in animation are vital to the visual style of his films, and Brazil (Gilliam, 1985) is no exception. Even though the film is exclusively live action, the production design and obsessive attention to detail obviously stems from a mind used to designing every single element in the frame. Gilliam uses his inventive and exaggerated production design to tell his story as effectively as the narrative or dialogue.
A highlight of the production design is the ever present ducts. Gilliam presents an alternate reality or dystopian future in which some natural or man-made climate change has left his characters living in a smoggy furnace. The air conditioning necessary to survive is piped via giant utilitarian ducts into every space that a person could conceivably occupy. But these ducts also seem to carry the information stream piped continuously to this unnamed nation’s citizens; the ducts connect to every TV, every computer.
Gilliam implies a totalitarian state in which information is closely monitored and controlled by some unseen central government. By connecting the flow of information to the flow of life saving, cool air, Gilliam highlights the dangerous tendencies of rulers to hijack crises like wars, terrorism and natural disasters, using them as an excuse to monitor and control their own (innocent) citizens. And it’s no accident that Gilliam’s cast of characters are always watching these TV screens (surreptitiously or otherwise). He presents the audience with a society in which everyone is always watching something, almost to the point of obsession. The general population’s fanatical viewing of TV mimics their rulers’ obsessive monitoring of them, and to an extent seems to normalize it, so that few ever question the bureaucratic spies and their all-seeing robots. These themes of governmental oppression by stealth are as relevant now as when the film was made.
Brazil also explores is the conflict between individuality and bureaucracy. Gilliam writes about people who are seen as no more than cogs in a huge, impersonal machine, and have little or no power to right the wrongs inflicted on them and others by the faceless corporations that they work for. Maybe it’s another representation of the banality of evil? And the views of the government and its spymasters are made clear in the very first scene, in which the fly is squashed as the news reporter speaks of squashing terrorists. Those who don’t conform, who rebel, are seen as no more than insignificant insects to be snuffed out by their betters.
Gilliam, T. (1985) Brazil, Embassy International Pictures