No Place/like Home: Terry Gilliam's "1984 1/2," Brazil

By Taylor, Ed | West Virginia University Philological Papers, May 2011 | Go to article overview

No Place/like Home: Terry Gilliam's "1984 1/2," Brazil


Taylor, Ed, West Virginia University Philological Papers


"8:49 p.m.... Somewhere in the 20th Century" words superimposed over a salmonsunset-tinged, creamy cloudscape through which the camera--after the film's initial black screen, a waking eye or a dreaming one?--flies: with this image, Terry Gilliam opens his visionary 1985 film Brazil. In introducing that blurring of certainty and uncertainty, of precise knowledge and ambiguity, of reality and imagination, the film immediately hints at fundamental principles that foreshadow an act of artistic patricide: Brazil's contradiction of the film's key antecedent and inspiration, Orwell's 1984.

Branham and Pearce note: "Every communicative act is a text that derives meaning from the context of expectations and constraints in which it is experienced" (qtd. in Rogers 41): Brazil's context is 1984. An early working title for the movie was "1984 1/2," according to Variety and other sources. Gilliam has said: "When I approach any film I start by digging up whatever seems applicable--in the case of Brazil, we can go back to 1984, the book" ("Director's commentary"). Brazil, however, slyly undermines 1984 and diverges from the book's forecast of the inevitability of statist omnipotence. While sounding a darker, more accurate warning concerning "Big Brother," it also presents a paradoxical happy-unhappy ending to their joint story telling.

The two works, while differing politically, share the positing of a phenomenological truth. In spite of both Webster's definitions and generally lived definitions of reality--a word that appears as a graffito on a wall in Shangri-La Towers in Brazil--the novel and movie convincingly argue that "reality" doesn't exist. Instead, contemporary political societies have "realities," (e.g., "framing" in American political discourse today) and these are, according to Wheeler, "derivative: cannot be considered independent; are plural and variable depending on the who, when and where of individual perception; and crucially can be manipulated and programmed (or deprogrammed) using the correct tools" (95). In essence, not history but lived reality down to the grain of memory and fact is written by the victor.

Reflecting this truth, and its corollary that literary naturalism and realism can be not only impotent but active distractions from "truth" in exploring twentieth-century political reality, in Brazil and 1984, the authors looked elsewhere for forms to depict the political and social worlds that disturbed them both. Orwell, for only the second time in his career, used fable. He hews his narrative to a "one-step-beyond" style, in which the fabulistic world he creates is only, for most of the book, one step beyond the everyday lived reality of mid-twentieth century England. He uses his earnestly wrought fable, however, to argue that imagination and personal life were incompatible with and impossible in a totalitarian society of the kind he saw as an outcome of political evolution in both the East and the West.

Brazil, written by Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown, weaves together numerous literary threads in its warp, from Raymond Chandler to Thomas Hobbes, Franz Kafka, Anthony Burgess, Ray Bradbury, and Lewis Carroll. At its heart, however, the film is a variation of literary chivalric romance. (It should be noted that Gilliam explicitly referenced chivalric and specifically Grail romance with his 1991 film The Fisher King.) Gilliam does not constrain his story using a "one-step-beyond" style, although he insists that all the key elements in the film's world, regardless of their outrageousness, came directly from life and history ("Director's commentary"). This reflects a fundamental truth of Gilliam's not shared by Orwell: the power of dream and imagination as counter-discourse in a totalitarian paradigm.

The traditional chivalric romance was constructed around a core of four common elements. First is the Hero, often wounded in some way. Next is the Lady, symbol of purity and love, of spirit unstained by body or life. …

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