The Matrix before the Matrix: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil

2011 November 19
by roots

Off an on for a couple of years I’ve been returning to all of Terry Gilliam’s movies. A while back I returned to Brazil, his best movie. It appeared in 1985, when the neo-liberal reaction was comfortably settling in the guise of Reagan and Thatcher. It is striking to what extent the movie anticipates The Matrix (and Fight Club). Only the Matrix, following the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, picks up where Brazil left off. Neo, unlike Sam Lowry, the main character in Brazil, is able to eventually pierce the ideological dreamscape created by the machines and wake up to see the world as it really is.

When Sam Lowry finds himself in Jack Lint’s torture chamber he lets out a confused plea, “why did you do this to me?” The question goes to the heart of why, in part, this movie has the kind of staying power it has shown over the decades. Lowry’s sad appeal, suggests a displacement of agency. Palin’s own subjectivity is commanded to act against him by the bureaucracy that has reproduced itself inside of him. Yet this reproduction occurs at the very level of Lowry’s imagination. He hopes to escape his job and the mysterious struggle against the government.

Therefore it is not so much whether he can escape it. Instead it is more accurate to say that Lowry doesn’t recognize the real world. Lowry’s imagination, represented in ongoing daydream, is as displaced as his everyday self. His imagination has little relation to his everyday life, which is best dramatized in Lowry’s inablity to work out the contradiction between the “terrorist” specters and the woman he attempts to track down. His “love” for the woman is itself a symptom, both of the absent cause and a sentimentalism. A related split occurs in the heartbreaking scene when he goes to give the “refund” check to the woman.

This radical split is what marks Brazil as one of the most pessimistic movie by Gilliam. In Baron Munchausen, for example, the imagination is able to pierce the bureaucrat’s spectacle of what is “real” and then throw off his hold on the city. In Brazil, Gilliam and Tom Stoppard–who co-wrote the screenplay and brings a focus and symmetry unusual for a Gilliam movie–suggests that our daydreams have become the equivalent of the role of TV in the movie. Yet, inversely, maybe if the TV can be blown up, as it is in the beginning of the movie by the “terrorists” one of the bombings, then perhaps this kind of symptomatic day dreaming can be as well. Of course, to flip it over one more time, the fact that the only resistance we see is terrorist in fact means that a social, collective resistance is not possible, since such a strategy is one already of defeat.

With the world crisis, we are living in time when rupturing the ideological normalcy of what we are told is the “real” world–the accepted limits of what is possible, that capitalism works and the politicians are in control–is not only happening but will, for the first time in a long time, become a truly collective, mass experience. Such a situation was very far removed in 1985 or 1999. The latest form of resistance, the occupy movement, developing from the Arab revolution and the Indignados in Greece, Spain and throughout Europe, is, in terms of content, still back in 1999. However, the objective reality of the crisis means that resistance cannot and will not stay in within the imaginative framework of the 1980s and 1990s.

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