by John Hutton
Cut, no. 32, April 1987, pp. 5-7, 14
It was surely inevitable that in 1984, a year saturated with media references to "Big Brother" and "double-think," Orwell's work itself would be brought to the screen for the second time.[open notes in new window] Far less predictable was the form such a film would take, the particular reading of Orwell's novel and its central themes. Nor was it a given that Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL would appear as well — a deliberate reworking of Orwell's dystopian vision, corresponding to a very different set of fears and nightmares.
Both Michael Radford's film of 1984 and BRAZIL correspond in a broad sense to a loss of faith on the part of sectors of the intelligentsia of their respective eras. In their own ways, each derive from deep-rooted cynicism and despair. Yet that despair and cynicism have sharply differing targets. Orwell's work marks a declaration of independence from the hopes and struggles of the left in the 1930s — part of a surge to the right on the part of many progressive intellectuals at the outset of the Cold War. Gilliam's film, by contrast, launches a broad-based assault on contemporary consumer society. The difference is crucial. If neither film offers hope or the possibility of some better form of society, the two represent contrasting and even counterpoised social phenomena.
Orwell's vision is one of defeat and surrender, while Gilliam's film corresponds to an inchoate but very real sense of bitter rage. It is scarcely coincidental that Radford's film was received with polite (if mostly ceremonial) applause from critics and producers, touring the U.S. on a brief but celebratory excursion somewhat in the manner of the King Tut show. Gilliam, by contrast, had to fight for over a year to win a U.S. release for his film. Only a desperate series of public appeals by Gilliam saved the film from a savage gutting by the studio (which wanted an upbeat, Rambo-style shoot-em-up ending).
1984 and 1948
Anthony Burgess has pointed out that 1984 is really about 1948. It would be more accurate to state that 1984 represents 1948 as interpreted by a middle class writer increasingly disillusioned by socialism and frightened of the nascent Cold War. The book scarcely took place in a vacuum. From the late 1930s, a series of books by ex-leftists had begun to generalize from the experience of Stalinism and fascism, constructing an image of a world doomed to permanent bureaucratic dictatorship. For most, this stance was a mere way-station on the way to a full blown defense of capitalism against the "Red Fascist" Soviet Union.
James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution (1941) was typical in this respect, marking a rest stop on Burnham's transition from Trotskyism to the National Review. George Orwell was particularly impressed with Burnham's work, making extensive notes from it as a preliminary to writing 1984. Much of Burnham's thesis — that the New Deal, the Third Reich, and the U.S.S.R. under Stalin all represent prototypes of a totalitarian bureaucratic system reaching for world conquest — finds it way almost verbatim into 1984.
Orwell had never been a Marxist. His socialist writings were always characterized by a contempt for theory while in works such as The Road to Wigan Pier, he characteristically cast shuddering glances at his fellow socialists and a peculiar mix of admiration for and revulsion at the English working class. His experiences with the quasi-Trotskyist POUM in Spain (summarized in his Homage to Catalonia) left him convinced that there was no fundamental distinction to be made between Communism and fascism. Burnham's nightmarish vision served as the catalyst for Orwell's novel. Orwell's Oceania itself was cobbled together around Burnham's theories from bits and pieces culled from the prior decade, the purges of the 1930s, the shortages of postwar (Labor Party-ruled) England and the nascent Cold War, with its division of Europe into enemy camps.
As such, 1984 presented problems for those who sought in the 1950s to adapt the work for stage, television, or film. It is, after all, a tale which (despite its name) looks not forward but backward. Wrested from the time and place of its creation, its protagonists seem impossible imbeciles. The Thought Police, by contrast, seem utterly omnipotent and omniscient. The thinness of the plot is only fitfully disguised by large blocs of ideological babble in the form of the writings of the heretic Emmanuel Goldstein (basically Orwell adapting Burnham masquerading as Trotsky). The sheer, pathetic passivity of Winston and Julia is masked only by the all-purpose myth of the death wish. All of the characters speak in exactly the same voice except Julia, who alternates between Scarlet O'Hara and the Spider Woman. ("I hate purity, I hate goodness! I don't want any virtue to exist anywhere. I want everyone to be corrupt to the bones.")
The tendency in the 1950s was to utilize 1984 as a straightforward attack on Communism, in the manner of Ayn Rand's We the Living. Yet the all-embracing gloom and pessimism of Orwell's tale made it awkward to fit into the standard mold. Anti-Communist novels and films were supposed to highlight heroic resistance. In 1984, the issue is which of the protagonists will give up first.
Michael Anderson's 1956 film of 1984 tries unsuccessfully to straddle each and every difficulty and, not surprisingly, fails to bridge the gap. For North Americans unhappy with the pessimistic ending, an alternate happy finale was provided. A bland disclaimer at the film's beginning announced that the film was not intended to predict the future. Simultaneously, however, the film sought a "futuristic" look, giving the viewer the odd sensation of suddenly chancing upon a slum quarter in Buck Rogers' Neighborhood. The bits and pieces from Orwell's dialogue sound bombastic and strained. The additional dialogue is trite and flat.
By the 1960s, any attempt to synthesize a single reading or Orwell had become an impossibility. The resurgent New Left made adroit use of Orwell's earlier writings to attack British capitalism. The Tories fought back by emphasizing Orwell's later anti-Communist writings. To update Orwell in 1984 posed even graver difficulties. Britain in 1984 was being torn apart by the Thatcher government's ferocious repression of the Miners' Strike. To attempt to engage 1984 at any level with contemporary British society risked offending whole sectors of the British populace.
Under such conditions, Radford's strategy for 1984 was quite simple. The film is not so much interpreted as it is stuffed and mounted. The work has been converted into a cultural artifact or period piece. The opening sequence sets the pace. We see a series of stock film images from World War II England and hear an oily narration closely modeled on Nazi propaganda films. As the propaganda reaches a fever pitch, we see the workers of the Ministry of Truth (among them John Hurt as Winston, Suzanna Hamilton as Julia, and Richard Burton as O'Brien) watching the film in a ramshackle auditorium, dressed in ordinary mechanics overalls from the 1940s. The scene is vividly rendered in minute detail, but there is nothing in it to suggest anything but the dead past.
Throughout the film, the careful balance between minutely observed detail and 1940s ambience frames and defines the film. The combination evokes the sense of a beautifully rendered study of a bygone — and safely dead — era. Nothing, for example, could be further from the aluminum foil, stage set cafeteria of the 1956 film than the grubby, crumbling version of Radford's film. The weapons of war are those of World War II; so, too, are the cluttered graphics of the omnipresent posters. Even the two-way wall-screens are vintage, produced from vacuum tubes and bakelite rather than printed circuits. Radford's 1984 is eternally trapped in a world war that never ended and never will.
It should be noted that Radford's 1984 largely avoids the easy "anti-Communist" reading of the novel as well. The feel of Oceania is that of a classical fascist state, from the black-uniformed, goose-stepping soldiers and Thought Police to the black and yellow party banners and the mass public executions of prisoners of war. The nasty children of the Young Spies dress in Hitler Jugend hiking uniforms. Even Big Brother resembles Oswald Mosley, the leader of British fascism in the 1930s. (In the U.S., of course, the distinction between fascism and Communism has seemingly become all but impossible, so intense has been the conflation of the two by political and media ideologues.)
In this world of ever-present, relentless brutality, there is no attempt, as in the 1956 film, to make Orwell's story believable as an episode of revolt and betrayal. In the 1956 version, the betrayal of Julia by Winston (Edmund O'Brien) is too abrupt to be ultimately convincing. Here John Hurt's Winston seems clearly doomed from the outset. He radiates a mute sense of bewilderment and defeat. A victim in search of victimization, when he tells Julia, "We are the dead," the film offers nothing to contradict him.
The reactionary essence of Orwell's vision — maintained intact by Radford — lies in the character of Julia. Suzanna Hamilton is trapped within a role which makes her the backdrop to Winston's rebellion rather than the protagonist of her own. Julia is less a human being than a foil to Winston and a symbol of the primal Earth Mother:
Winston can rebel in his party overalls; Julia, by contrast, can assert her humanity only by returning to a dress and makeup. There is no recognition in film or novel that clothing or appearance is seen as sensual only in a socially generated context. On the contrary, traditional "feminine" appearance is seen as primal, on a par with Julia's ready discarding of her clothing — any clothing — as needed or her relentless pursuit of liberation via orgasm. Julia appears only as required to illuminate stages in Winston's rebellion and fall. Radford follows the novel in largely discarding her after the two are arrested, resurrecting her only in the brief final sequence.
Surrounded by bestial brutality, Winston finally succumbs and is destroyed. Radford retains this condensed thematic concept from Orwell, relying on it rather than the vestigial plot to unify and give sense to the film. The dialogue is almost entirely Orwell's, but it is scaled down, stripped away to what is often little more than a string of aphorisms.
The film translates the visual imagery of the novel with an equally ferocious literalism, but the strategy is different. While the dialogue is pared away, the visual imagery of the film extends and embellishes the hints provided by Orwell's descriptive passages. Radford's Oceania becomes minutely realized in a way that totally absorbs the viewer into the illusory. There is no distancing. Even technical artifice works to draw the viewer into the tale, as the very colors resonate with Winston's emotions. In most scenes, the colors are exaggeratedly muted, desaturated so as to convey a thoroughgoing sense of drabness and misery. Only a few bright colors penetrate sporadically: a brief short from a propaganda film, for example, of soldiers tramping past with the state/party banner. It is only when Winston and Julia escape for a brief interlude into the relatively unspoiled countryside that the screen is suddenly saturated with rich blues and greens. The sense is that it is there — outside of the artificial misery of the warfare state — that Winston can really come alive and feel.
The rural interlude provides a core to the film. We return to it via Winston's scenes continually, so that the warm natural setting becomes juxtaposed to the barren prison and torture cells in which he is confined. The pastoral interlude also provides the turning point for the film, setting in motion the outlaw love affair, which leads to the inevitable arrest. It haunts Winston throughout the film, contrasting all the more vividly with — and thereby rendering all the more squalid — the endless streets of crumbling tenements and Winston's own grim cubicle.
In Orwell's novel, there is neither escape nor hope. If Radford breaks with his source at all, it is in this. In Orwell, Winston and Julia have a final bleak meeting, at which they confess their mutual betrayals, then depart. Only loyalty to the state is left alive in them: "… the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother."
By contrast, in Radford's film after Julia leaves, Winston mutters tearfully, "I love you." He is half turned between the wall screen (which is announcing fresh military victories) and the door through which Julia has left. It is unclear which of the two he is addressing. It is not a reversed ending, but a murky one. Radford has pulled his punches.
The decision to excise from the film almost all of the theoretical analyses by the heretic Goldstein has a perhaps unintended side effect. In Orwell, Winston's faith in the revolutionary potential of the "proles" is thoroughly contradicted by Julia and by the Goldstein text. Oceania is portrayed as immortal. In O'Brien's words, "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever."
With this eliminated, we are left with Winston's hopes more or less intact. In the last moments before arrest, Winston tells Julia that the proles represent the hope of the future. There is, perhaps, more than a little irony in the fact that a film deriving from the most popular anti-Communist novel of the 20th century ends up making a statement in favor of proletarian revolution, at least as a potential end to someone else's — fictional — society. Yet the deliberate walling-off of 1984 from any connections to the present renders that distinction almost without meaning. It seems in the context of the film a mere anachronism, of a piece with the jackboots and World War II bombers.
Simon Perry, 1984's producer, wrote in a newspaper essay that he and Radford intended their film to be definitive:
The proclamation of a "perfect" reading is extraordinary. But it is of a piece with Radford's entire approach. While Virgin Films worked frantically to make the film "contemporary" — insisting, for example, on a potential "hit single" from the soundtrack by the Eurhythmics — 1984 is rendered "perfect" in the only way possible, by embalming it, slicing it from any transient contemporary reality. It is a safe choice, but ultimately a sterile one.
One goes away from 1984 with a number of striking visual images. Yet viewers feel no emotional response to the film beyond a fleeting depression. Orwell's paranoiac outcry of 1948 is gutted, mounted, and held up for all to admire as a cultural monument. We are not moved, though we marvel at the skill with which such emotion has been counterfeited.
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING SOMEWHAT DIFFERENT …
Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL was created literally in the shadow of Radford's 1984. In an interview shortly before the film's release in the fall of 1984, Gilliam stated,
Comparisons between the two are inescapable. Like 1984, BRAZIL is set in a bureaucratic police state. Winston in 1984 rewrites history for the Ministry of Truth. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Prye) the protagonist of BRAZIL, is employed by the Ministry of Information. He repairs the computer systems, which bill people for the right to be tortured ("information retrieval"). Winston falls in love with Julia, a mechanic who repairs the machines that write pornography for the proles. Lowry falls in love with Jill Layton (Kim Greist), a truck driver. In both films, it is this love affair that dooms the couples. Both films posit a world from which in a real sense there is no escape or refuge.
At base, however, Gilliam reassembles and reworks these elements with a freedom altogether absent from Radford's film. Gilliam's fears are not Orwell's, and the world he creates is simultaneously more fantastic and far more engaged with our time than the 1940s nightmare so painstakingly recreated by Radford.
Gilliam, formerly the animator for MONTY PYTHON (and later director and screenwriter for the films JABBERWOCKY and TIME BANDITS) gleefully warps both the all-too-familiar Orwell story and our expectations. As in 1984, the tyranny in BRAZIL spies on its people through two-way television. In BRAZIL, however, the young men who operate them prefer to use them secretly to watch old movies. The black-uniformed Thought Police in 1984 are merciless, inhuman archetypes of brutality. Their counterparts in BRAZIL practice Christmas carols in their spare time and complain in private about the way their Darth Vader-style helmets make the sweat run in their eyes. Orwell's world labors under ponderous symbolic slogans — "War is Peace," "Freedom is Slavery." Gilliam's London echoes the more chilling banality of today. Within the art deco Ministry of Information — under the deceptively cheerful "The Truth Shall Make You Free" (the motto of the CIA) — workers scurry about under posters stating, "Suspicion Breeds Confidence," and, "Don't Suspect a Friend, Report Him." The malign torturer in 1984 is the omnipotent, evil O'Brien (Richard Burton). His equivalent in BRAZIL is Michael Palm of MONTY PYTHON, griping that it is embarrassing to have to torture his best friend.
As in his earlier films, Gilliam relies on a Pythonesque mix of deliberate incongruities and surrealistic juxtapositions to create a darkly humorous world. But the mood here is far grimmer than JABBERWOCKY or TIME BANDITS, and the laughter is adroitly mingled with shudders and stark fear. The pessimism at the margins of the earlier works here permeates the entire film.
In discussions with the British press, Gilliam reportedly remarked that 1984 seemed unbelievable in the sense that no one in Oceania really benefited from the system as described. Orwell acknowledges that even the ruling elite live relatively austere lives, giving up many luxuries in return for pure power. In BRAZIL, there is no such metaphysical notion of power. Power is valued precisely because it means riches and benefits. The world of BRAZIL is a corporate state, a consumer society run amok. Winston in 1984 is totally cut off from any family ties, which the state discourages so as to eliminate foci for opposition. BRAZIL's Sam Lowry is born to privilege through his wealthy mother and deceased father (a high official for the Ministry). Sam's tragedy is that he neither grasps the nature of his society's power pyramid nor the consequences of casting himself off from it. Cut off from his own class, he becomes a victim.
Lowry's own choice is to dream — Marvel Comics in which he is a winged superman rescuing a luminous, ethereal (and helpless) woman from grotesque monsters and robot warriors. His fatal error is to attempt to live the dreams, when he mistakes Jill for his dream woman.
In 1984, the fatal liaison between Winston and Julia is arranged by the state. In BRAZIL, Sam falls victim to a grotesque computer error. When a malfunctioning computer targets an innocent man in place of Harry Tuttle (Robert DeNiro), guerilla fighter and heating system repairman, Sam has to clean up the problems caused by the man's demise under torture. Attempting to give the widow a refund, he comes across Jill, a neighbor, who has attempted to rectify the error of the original arrest. For her pains, she herself has been targeted as a subversive. Lowry attempts to rescue her, but he only succeeds in entangling her in ever-deeper layers of official trouble. Ironically, when he finally stumbles on the perfect way to save her, it doesn't work. No one notices what he has done, and their destruction continues on course.
If possible, the world of BRAZIL offers even fewer escapes than 1984. Winston and Julia at least have their country refuge. The countryside in BRAZIL is made up of steaming muck, masked off from the roads by cheery billboards. The underground of 1984 may or may not be a myth. The "terrorists" of BRAZIL are almost certainly creations of the regime itself, the justification for a state of siege. (Jill pointedly remarks that no one has actually ever seen one of the "terrorist" bombers.)
Many of the workers bribe their way through the system, but the only open opposition comes from DeNiro as Tuttle. Though he has been targeted as a subversive, Tuttle's only real enemy is Central Public Services, the incompetent utility monopoly. His only goal is to fix heating systems when and where he wants. The modesty of his aim is counterpoised to the grotesque macho derring-do with which he surrounds himself.
The strongest character in the film is Kim Greist as Jill Layton. Left to her own devices, she would almost certainly have maneuvered her way out of trouble. Her misfortune is that Sam determines to save her. Jill wants no part of a bureaucratic twit like Lowry. Her first response to him is (literally) to kick him out of her truck. As each bungling attempt to rescue her entangles her more deeply, however, adding felony upon felony, she finds herself attracted by his well-intended campaign.
1984 embodies dominant clichés about women. BRAZIL turns at least some of them on their head. The scene in 1984 in which Julia defiantly dons a dress and makeup in place of her overalls has a carefully reversed counterpart in BRAZIL. The two have taken refuge in the palatial apartment of Sam's mother. Jill dons one of the mother's nightgowns as a prelude to making love to Sam. The action is clearly symbolic. In place of her bristly crewcut, the "feminized" Jill suddenly has the long, flowing hair of Sam's dream girl. She has become a part of Sam's ludicrous fantasies of helpless women and conquering heroes. But the real Sam is incapable of resisting the secret police, who smash in on them and the iiewiv helpless Jill can only scream. In 1984, Julia's act is a heroic defiance of a sexless society. In BRAZIL, a similar return to traditional sex roles gets both protagonists killed.
Katherine Helmond, as Sam's wealthy mother, is the antithesis of Jill — a vain, shallow figure devoted to conspicuous consumption and display. Jill plows her way through the demented society. Helmond screens herself off from it. (The point is made literally: when "terrorists" dynamite a restaurant in which she is eating, the carnage is immediately hidden by folding screens, the screams muffled by music.) In one of the final dream sequences, Helmond becomes a metaphor for her society, her relentless quest for a "rejuvenation" treatment leading to collapse and decay.
Dream and reality finally fuse in BRAZIL. As actual options disappear for Sam, his dream options multiply. If the final twist ending is not (quite) so brutal as intended, it is only because we never believed that Lowry could succeed in anything. The title BRAZIL itself — and the repetition throughout the film of the 1930s hit to which it refers — summarizes the bleakness of Gilliam's vision. The lyrics of the song conjure up a happy world in which everything is sunshine:
The use of the title is apt: Brazil, after all, was named for a mythical Utopian land which early European voyagers sought in vain. That land never existed. In BRAZIL neither does the escape for which Lowry seeks. "Some day" will never arrive.
1984 mirrored the fears of an increasingly disillusioned ex-left at the birth of the Cold War. BRAZIL draws upon the fears of a whole new layer of intellectuals — some perhaps involved in the radical movements of the 60s, others with no record of any sort of sustaining belief. Watching a preliminary screening of BRAZIL in Los Angeles in January, 1985, Steven Spielberg reportedly exclaimed: "That's amazing! You've just shown me my nightmares." Even in the midst of the renewed Cold War in the era of Reagan and Thatcher, the hysteric anti-Communism seething throughout books and films of the 1950s no longer dominates the nightmares of intellectual circles as a whole. The reigning fear in BRAZIL is of a nation of morons, an idiot consumer society creating its own "terrorists" to justify victimizing its own people. (Oddly, such a society, one suspects, might still have a place for Spielberg's films.) It is a thoroughly nihilistic vision, heavily laced with elitism. A belief that, at heart, all people are swine seems never to be taken personally by such viewers.
At various junctures, however, such a nihilistic broadside can take on a useful function in exposing the pretensions and lies of those in power. Joseph Heller's Catch-22, scarcely more enlightened or hopeful, played such a role in the 1960s in laying bare the justifications offered by the government to support the war in Viet Nam. Lindsay Anderson's IF... played a similar role in the late 1960s in capturing the mood of frustration and bitterness among students. Such works cannot — and do not aspire to — awaken feelings of combativity or resistance. But in demolishing hegemonic lies and myths, they prepare the way for such developments, for all the chic despair in which they are couched.
1. 1984 was first filmed in 1956, in an independent British production by Michael Anderson.
2. As early as February 1985 a reporter for the (English) Guardian warned, "One hears that the Americans, upon whom as usual so much depends, are worried about both its length (2 hours, 22 minutes) and its tone, which is much more dark than light." Derek Malcolm, "Flight of Fantasy from Airstrip One," Guardian (21 February 1985), p. 11.
Reportedly, the U.S. distributors wanted to lop off the film at the end of the (fantasy) "rescue" scene, cutting the bleak final sequences. There were also threats to reshoot parts of the film to make it more "life-affirming" — the current buzzword for mindless optimism.
3. Anthony Burgess, 1985 (Boston: 1978), pp. 11-18.
4. The two most significant of these — in terms of their contemporary impact — were Bruno Rizzi's La Bureaucratisation du monde (1939) and James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution (1941); the writings of the ex-Trotskyist Max Schachtman shared many of the same elements, as did Milovan Djilas' postwar The New Class.
5. See Victor Gollancz' preface to the English book club edition of The Road to Wigan Pier (London: 1937), pp. xi-xxiv, for a careful, not unsympathetic criticism of Orwell's views. A much harsher critique can be found in Kay Ekevall, "British Road to Anti-Socialism," Artery, Nos. 28/29 (1985), pp. 41-43.
6. This inability to make such a distinction seems to underlie many of the hostile reviews which 1984 received from conservative critics in the U.S. One writer, for example, complained that the film played down the horrors of "a godless world of fear and loathing." Lloyd Billingsley, "1984: Too Little, Too Late," Christianity Today (15 February 1985), pp. 5254.
7. See the brief but insightful discussion of Julia's role in Daphne Patai, The Orwell Mystique: A Study in Male Ideology (Amherst: 1984), pp. 243-245, which does not depend upon the author's thesis that 1984 is an extended application of games theory.
8. Simon Perry, "THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY," Guardian (11 October 1984), p. 13.
9. Quoted in George Perry, "Big Brother and the Python," London Sunday Times (27 January 1985),