Essay / Movie Review

The War on Error: Brazil in the Age of Alternative Facts


Information: The Key to Prosperity

The social fabric is ripping at the seams, or so our politicians would have us believe. But politicians have never been paragons of truth before, so why should we trust them now? Well, in the future that is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the authority invested in the state has gone unquestioned. Fact is no longer the Truth; rather, it is simply Right and whoever believes otherwise is Wrong. The citizens of society have acquiesced to this new modus operandi: they are content so long as the Thought Police aren’t coming to knock down their door next.

This is not the future that we should aspire to fulfill—surely, there is no one among us who wants that, right? It is the stuff of movies and novels. And yet, there are times when it feels like reality is flirting with fiction as our landscape becomes more authoritarian, militarized, and, more rapidly, disillusioned, desensitized, and disinterested.

It is a dangerous cocktail when authority strengthens and accountability abates. With the masses sedated, the most powerful can get to work. Such is the case in this movie, Brazil, set in a semi-dystopic retro-future where facts are invented by the government and mistakes are always someone else’s fault.

It’s only fitting that the movie should begin with a mistake, then. A negligent bureaucrat within the Ministry of Information squishes a massive fly on the ceiling with his newspaper. (Already we can see the state vanquishing the undesirable, bludgeoned by a fabricated version of the Truth.) The dead fly drops into an automatic typewriter and alters a single letter on an arrest warrant for a particular troublemaking heating engineer, last name Tuttle. But through the error, “Tuttle” becomes “Buttle,” and the man arrested, a shoe repair operative and father of two, is whisked away from his home, and through the process of interrogation in conjunction with an undocumented heart condition, later dies.

This is all discovered by the film’s protagonist, Sam Lowry, played by Jonathan Pryce, an employee of Information Records. In trying to rectify the mistake, Lowry, a man who prefers to coast under the radar, will find himself entangled in the mangrove of the Ministry of Information’s unscrupulous habits. He’s a natural problem solver, and to his chagrin, this quality will be the source of all his problems.

Suspicion Breeds Confidence

What is this world of Brazil like? Chiefly, it’s an authoritarian’s all-white fantasy. In this setting, goofy go-go gadgetry abounds, which is always on the fritz or about to be. There’s a network of tubing and ducts that connects the homes and offices of every citizen on the grid, allowing for an ease of communication, administration, and observation (when it’s working). Central Services, a sort of nationalized chimera of consumerism, is responsible for upkeep, but we only ever see two employees making house calls.

Supposedly, this is meant to reinforce the motif of inefficiency. Queues and paperwork, the bread and butter of a strong bureaucracy, slow everything down. A broken air conditioning unit puts one at the mercy of Central Services’ goons, and apparently, it’s quite hot here, because when Lowry’s breaks, his only reprieve is the refrigerator.

Enter the vigilante repairmen (Robert De Niro). After Lowry places the call to Central Services over his A/C unit, a masked man storms his apartment at gunpoint. The repairman is none other than Archibald Tuttle, the rogue heating engineer that was supposed to have been arrested instead of that poor bloke Buttle. He used to work for Central Services, but quit because of the paperwork. This Batman of BTUs totes a utility belt that can fix Lowry’s inoperative unit with a simple, illegal attachment.

Tension escalates when the two Central Services goons arrive suddenly, forcing Tuttle to hide. To buy time, Lowry demands some obscure form (the dreaded 27B-6) before the goons can enter and work on his unit. Well, they haven’t got it, but as they retreat, defeated by their own bureaucratic prestidigitation, they promise they’ll be back.

This all loops back into the plot when Lowry returns to work the next day. His boss, Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), was cut a refund check in order to reimburse Buttle over the wrongful arrest fees. As Lowry discovers, however, Buttle is dead and his widow doesn’t own a bank account, so Lowry must drive out to her flat and have her sign the check so it can be deposited into her husband’s estate.

Here is where the hero crosses paths with the romantic interest, Jill (Kim Greist), who happens to be the upstairs neighbor to the Buttles. She’s the woman of his dreams. No, really: angelic and suspended in the clouds damsel-like as Lowry cruises the skies in an 80s-glam rock armored breastplate, long hair, and a pair of giant white wings.

Turns out, it was Jill who filed the wrongful arrest complaint, which worked its way through the Ministry until the mistake was found and the refund check cut, all which prompted Lowry to meet with Mrs. Buttle to sign the check so that he could run into Jill (the woman of his dreams!) and begin his pursuit of her. Now the meat of the plot can commence digestion. Lowry hitches his wagon to Jill’s, embroiling himself in a harebrained scheme to undermine the very institution where he’s built his professional career. Zany antics and terrorism ensue.

Don’t be fooled. Brazil is not a love story. The romance is shoehorned so clumsily that if you step back and look closely at the motivations of each character, you’ll see that Persistence is the real winner. Lowry’s only hope to get Jill’s attention is to first steal passage into her rig, for which she rightly boots him out, and then he kidnaps her. In his defense, being the chivalrous desk jockey that he is, he was only trying to save her (see: damsel).

It seems the Ministry is none too pleased when she goes kicking over rocks to uncover the wrongful arrest and subsequent death of an innocent man. So, she’s labeled a terrorist in a knee-jerk reaction, much in the same way that contemporary politics vomit up the phrase “Fake news” whenever backed into a corner. Zany antics and terrorism continue.

Help the Ministry of Information Help You 

At the movie’s halfway mark, Lowry is chugging along with Jill in her rig after escaping the Ministry. In the midst of their getaway, she asks, “Doesn’t it bother you the sort of things you do in Information Retrieval?”, to which he responds, “I suppose you’d rather have terrorists.”

It is here that we find the film’s main motif: the control of information. Just who are the terrorists? Well, according to the Ministry, they include rogue heating specialist Archibald Tuttle and that busybody Jill Layton. Whether or not they’ve ever participated in the planning or implementation of a terrorist attack is irrelevant. The Ministry has the power to classify them to look like terrorists with just a few keystrokes.

More bombs and near-captures later, Lowry and Jill share a romantic evening together after he hacks her records to make her appear deceased on file. This doesn’t work, however, because Big Brother is something like a juggernaut without brakes, and the two are finally arrested and Lowry is taken in for interrogation. In a last-ditch attempt, Tuttle and his gang of fellow rogue engineers and whatnots break out Lowry and engage the ministry guards in a fierce gunfight. It all seems to end well for Lowry and Jill, who drive away into the idyllic veldt having nearly escaped, until the final scene, where we learn he’s still in the interrogation chair, drooling and deranged. Lesson learned: there is no escape.

It is a bleak message we take with us. In this world, the best hope for survival is to keep your head down and pray a bomb doesn’t go off under your lunch table, or a fly’s corpse doesn’t reset your fate. Individuality is a weapon to be used against you. Any question posed can be seen as an act of defiance. Critical thought has become a game of Russian roulette.

The movie, with its bizarre technological misconceptions of the future—of any future—can be endearing at times, though its madcap tone clashes with the more severe themes. For example, the dictator is an aloof, grandfatherly figure named Mr. Helpmann. Although he’s responsible for the government’s many atrocious policies, he’s never intimidating or authoritative and comes off completely unbelievable.

Also, for all its supposed inefficiencies (e.g. Lowry’s mother sends a singing telegram inviting him to a party to celebrate her recent plastic surgery and the telegram arrives an hour late. “It’s the backlog,” the deliverer says. “Everybody complains.”), spurts of efficiency manage to bleed through at just the right moment, like when Lowry calls Central Services to report his broken A/C but the offices are closed. Not ten minutes later, the two goons show up to fix it. Or when he shuttles the refund check for the wrongful arrest into the tubing network destined for Buttle’s widow’s bank account, and the bank spits it back in seconds with a reply stating she doesn’t own an account. This is akin to a magic system that gets put on hold whenever the plot needs it to be. It is a cheap solution.

So, rather than embrace full absurdity a la Dr. Strangelove, or the abject direness of its spiritual predecessor, 1984, Brazil tries to walk and talk differently at the same time. But just as it skirts the real heart of the subject matter, it manages to only glance off the funny bone, failing to ever land a direct hit on either.

All said, Brazil retains its charm, if not for being suddenly relevant again. It’s a more accessible quasi-dystopic film in an ocean saturated with dystopian media. While it isn’t so much concerned with the gritty details, trials-by-blood, and the societal upheaval in vogue with contemporary audiences, it’s an entertaining romp into a future landscape, one that for a moment in time could have been argued as a cautionary tale. Dystopian fiction these days, however, is consumed by visions of war and fallout. Oh, how the times have changed.

The Truth Shall Make You Free

Political screed starts here. (Optional, duh.)

Juxtapose the government of Brazil to our own of 2017. The same slapstick inefficiencies are there: missing aircraft carriers, bungled airstrikes, and downright, unfiltered lies paraded as truth, or rather, re-labeled as “alternative facts”. Except, reality isn’t as funny as the movies.

We’ve entered an age where the rigors of fact have turned malleable—a putty to be sculpted at will by the hands who control it.

Where science has slipped into the realm of a pejorative, and diversity and equality are uttered mockingly. Intellectuals have been rejected and supplanted with homegrown skeptics cum experts, now debating the intellectuals they used to deride. Conspiracy theorists no longer operate on the fringes; now they produce their own gravity. Doubt has become the most efficient political tool of the day, capable of fueling the most powerful administration in the world. Spouted loudly and for enough time, reinforced with self-referential evidence, it morphs into veritable truth.

Wrapped in enough cellophane, even the chintziest trinket looks expensive. Likewise, a huckster sounds all the more trustworthy when someone in the crowd can attest to his proclamations.

And if the last election was any indication, millions of us were buying snake oil in droves. Why? The intellectual elite are out of touch with “reality”; that is, their worldly, forward-facing agendas are not focusing on the right here, right now dilemmas affecting everyday Americans.

People wanted a cure, but what they got was an incendiary buffoon with a bag of stale tricks.

What do we do when the huckster’s stage is global? How do we fight fiction with fact when they’re one in the same? Believing in the truth is no longer enough: action is the lie’s strongest antiseptic. Support the freedom of words, but reject the dispersal of falsehoods. Challenge complacency and stare adversity in its scared, beady eyes. Spend your time uncovering truths and your money on information.

Quite simply, buy logic. Buy honest reporting. Buy cross referencing and fact checking. Buy full-throated takedowns in magazines. Hell, buy speculative rebukes in the form of novels … And make it all, too. Hawk your wares proudly, and for the more generous and fortunate among us, give them away freely.

Funnily enough to the paragraph above, facts are not for sale, but the vessels containing them are. Unfortunately, malefactors have learned how to package counterfeits into easily distributed and dangerously addictive substances. This can no longer happen. Information, and truth, and fact are universal. They exist. They are. There is no alternative.

The age of fact re-appropriation is overdue.

© 2017 Derek Thomas Conrad

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