Presidential Executive Order Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs
Two for One
Jackson Arn on Brazil
The cinematic style of Terry Gilliam has been vigorously discussed but never conclusively defined. Too often, the Gilliamesque is mistaken for its distant ancestor, the Kafkaesque, its father, the Pythonesque, or its favored sibling, the Lynchian, or else written off as a hodgepodge of quirks and obsessions—vermicular tubes and wires, wide-angle lenses (one of which has been nicknamed “the Gilliam”), grimy metal surfaces, dwarves. Rarely does anyone treat it as a coherent set of ideas about the way the world works.
A recent sign that Terry Gilliam’s films might have something worth saying about contemporary America came on January 30 of this year, when the president signed Executive Order 13771, on “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs.” Giving the Trump administration far too much credit, The New Republic summarized 13771 as “an order to cut two regulations from the federal bureaucracy for every new regulation created,” though, in fact, it specifies that government agents need only identify the regulations in question, most of which, in all likelihood, protect public health and safety. Meanwhile, the order doesn’t apply either to defense or foreign affairs (since signing, Trump has sought a $54 billion increase in military spending).
Executive Order 13771 is, in other words, the most unintentionally hilarious in the long series of bombastic, largely symbolic gestures the federal government has performed in response to its own bloat. Previous record holders include Bill Clinton’s claim that the era of big government was over, delivered two years after he signed the largest crime bill in American history, and Ronald Reagan’s line about government being the problem, not the solution, which he kept in his repertoire even after lavishing billions on its budget. What distinguishes 13771 from its predecessors, however, is the unintentional succinctness with which it encapsulates why the federal government will never downsize voluntarily. Except on paper, rules can never truly cancel each other out; in the real world, they just create more bureaucracy, and, in some cases, act as a smokescreen for more government. Divorced from political pomp, the idea of big government shrinking itself is curiously koanlike, like the sound of one hand clapping, or the snake eating its own tail. Or—to cite one of the thousands of supposedly life-improving, actually life-destroying gizmos scattered through Gilliam’s oeuvre—a tiny television screen that, instead of being replaced by a better model, gets supplemented with a big, ugly magnifying glass.
If, as David Foster Wallace posited, the Lynchian consists of “a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter,” one could start to get a sense for Gilliam’s worldview by substituting “historical” for “mundane.” In a Gilliam film, horror can always be traced back to one of the major isms of the modern era—chief among them, the state, science, capitalism, and consumerism—which promise to make life better but leave it even more unbearably complicated. It’s appropriate that many of his films begin with intertitles situating the story in its precise era: 932 A.D. in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which he co-directed with Terry Jones), the Age of Enlightenment in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the 20th century in Brazil. Put together, these intertitles tell a single, cynical story, in which centuries go by and life remains as bleak as ever. This might seem like a harsh, if not laughably naïve, way to think about history (the political satirist P. J. O’Rourke once offered a single-word rebuttal: “dentistry”), and it’s sometimes hard to tell if Gilliam believes his own ideas, filtered as they are though the eyes of the schizophrenics, paranoids, and dreamers who populate his films.
“When I pray to God, I find I am talking to myself,” says Jack Gurney, the decidedly Gilliamesque madman played by Peter O’Toole in The Ruling Class. Self-styled visionaries—a category into which the better part of Gilliam protagonists fall—are often accused of solipsism, and the same charge is sometime made against Gilliam himself. One of the most nagging criticisms of his films is that they say a great deal about what goes on in their director’s head but very little about what lies outside of it. Brazil remains Gilliam’s most artistically successful film because it juggles the historical and the hallucinatory, the eternally true, the prophetically true, and that which is only ever true in his mind. It’s also the definitive film about how people live with excessive rules and regulations—meaning that it speaks equally clearly to Gilliam’s curmudgeonly persona, the eighties, the entire modern era, and, in 2017, the early days of the Trump presidency.
There are few subjects unsexier than bureaucracy: it robs human beings of direct, authentic human contact and leaves them with the false friendliness of a business transaction. Confined to a cubicle for long enough, the bureaucrat forgets how to talk about anything other than work, or how to judge other people by anything other than numbers—their salaries, their mortgages, their credit scores. The very structure of bureaucracy discourages basic human decency and empathy, to the point where we become so concentrated on our own, tiny department that we grow numb to anything else.
Philosophy and literature overflow with critiques of the dehumanizing effects of bureaucracy, but cinema has a more complicated relationship with the subject. It’s unusual for an English-language film to present bureaucracy as anything more than a starting point for the protagonist’s moral education (in this sense, the depictions of office life in American Beauty or Fight Club, both 1999, aren’t so different from that of The Apartment nearly 40 years earlier). The protagonist’s escape from the chains of bureaucracy, usually embodied in a single, blustery male supervisor, is often comically easy; rarely do films study the lasting psychological effects of a bureaucratic mindset. That Universal gave Terry Gilliam, coming off of the success of Time Bandits, 15 million dollars to direct a science fiction film remains one of the happiest mistakes in cinema history: Brazil is the rare film with a budget high enough to mount a full-scale attack on government run amok andthe maturity to depict bureaucracy from the inside—which is to say, without a villain or a hero.
In place of a hero, Gilliam gives us Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a perpetually hurried, mid-level employee of Central Services, Brazil’s pathetic version of a government. In his first scene, we see Sam eating soggy toast prepared by a whining, malfunctioning gadget that recalls the eating machine from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Much like Chaplin, Pryce projects the sense of having just stumbled into a new situation, and of never being entirely familiar with the world around him. His sole friend is a fellow bureaucrat, Jack Lint (Michael Palin) whose expression is as relentlessly, chillingly cheerful as Sam’s is befuddled; beyond that, his only real companions are his mother, Ida (Katherine Helmond), with whom he has an uneasy and unmistakably Oedipal relationship, and Ida’s friends, who seem to be competing to get the most grotesque plastic surgery.
It’s a critical commonplace that Brazil, originally titled 1984½, evokes Orwell without Big Brother (the highest-ranking official we ever meet is only a Deputy Minister). This is a society in which civilians are arrested, tortured, and executed, not because they’ve challenged the official religion or plotted against the government, but because a bug fell into the printer and their names ended up on the wrong forms. Central Services is weak but flexible: when anything goes wrong, responsibility diffuses among hundreds of apathetic workers. In place of the fascist’s proud slogan “For the fatherland,” Gilliam offers a more seductive alibi for evil: “Not my department.”
Decentralized though Sam’s society is, however, it might be more accurate to say that Brazil dramatizes the challenge of living without some incarnation of Big Brother, real or imagined—the instinct to structure our lives around a strong antagonist, into which we can channel our guilt and rage. It’s telling that on the one occasion when Gilliam yields to the temptation to personify bureaucracy, Sam is dreaming—flying through the air, wearing armor and glittery paint, rescuing a damsel in distress. As Sam imagines it, bureaucracy in the flesh looks like a hideous, fire-breathing samurai, something like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man imagined by H. R. Giger. Like the mechanisms of control that keep Sam tied to Central Services, the samurai is everywhere and nowhere, so that, as soon as he strikes it with his sword, he finds himself waving at thin air. When, at last, Sam defeats the monster, he removes its mask and sees his own face, reminding us of the most frightening aspect of Brazil’s dystopia: it’s primarily self-imposed. Sam wants to believe that he, no less than the wrongfully executed civilians, is the victim of an all-powerful regime, when in reality he’s a victim of his own indifference.
The visual eclecticism of Brazil’s dream sequences speaks to a film that treats art, literature, history, current events, and film like those cutouts in the ingenious collages Gilliam created for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. One senses that nothing in Brazil quite fits—that even the haircuts and chairs have been transplanted from an array of different sources. Some of the film’s visual gags are quintessentially 1980s, such as Ida’s plastic surgery addiction or the prominence of a “Consumers for Christ” sect, which reeks of Jim Bakker and his fellow evangelist-hucksters. Others evoke cultural artifacts of earlier eras: thirties Nazi propaganda, forties Allied war posters, fifties magazine kitsch, sixties psychedelia. In borrowing odd bits and pieces from so many different sources, Gilliam seems less concerned with communicating their originators’ precise intentions (he claims he’s never finished 1984) than repurposing them for his own.
Like his idol Federico Fellini—the second influence apparent in Brazil’s working title—Gilliam frequently faces the charge of self-indulgence. His films, with their grotesque special effects and disorienting layers of homage, strike some as being needlessly complex or, to paraphrase Gore Vidal, much harder to watch than they were to make. Understood in this way, the disorderliness of Brazil’s society betrays the disorderliness of Gilliam’s own creative faculties; its tyranny of decentralization reflects Gilliam’s own tyrannical abuses of his audience’s patience. Gilliam’s films are challenging, but they’re rewarding because they refuse to treat chaos, kitsch, grotesquerie—in short, the many different kinds of ugliness—as clear-cut, easily vanquished foes. Instead, ugliness in Gilliam’s films seems as elemental as the air the characters breathe and the food they eat—in large part, whether you appreciate Gilliam’s films depends on whether you agree with him on this point. Brazil, by far Gilliam’s least self-indulgent work, confronts a form of spiritual and organizational ugliness too real to annihilate and too familiar to ignore, and asks how, at the very least, we might survive with it.
Accusations of self-indulgence also ignore the deftness and economy of Gilliam’s direction. Watching Brazil for the second, third, and fourth times, one realizes not just how many allusions Gilliam squeezes into each shot, but how skillfully he orients his viewers in his elaborate fictional world. Though he found fame as a collage artist, his first love was the comic book, and in scene after scene he proves himself a master of concise visual exposition—never more so than in the breezy tracking shot that introduces us, one row of desks at a time, to Sam’s office. In a sense, this shot’s technical virtuosity represents the ultimate rebuttal to Brazil’s chaotic clutter: a form of hidden resistance that allows us to breeze past bureaucracy while the characters remain mired in it. Sam Lowry fantasizes about defeating Central Services for good, and, in so doing, loses his grip on reality. Brazil’s viewers, guided through Central Services with Gilliam’s careful assistance, win a modest but equally important victory: maintaining their sanity.
Science fiction tends to be evaluated, sometimes unfairly, on how closely it resembles the world we live in. Thus, in the 21st century, admirers of Brave New World and 1984 debate over which text better describes a globalized, wireless society that neither Huxley nor Orwell could have predicted in its entirety. Treating Brazil as prophetic in any literal way seems fruitless, especially since it’s not explicitly set in the future at all; its visions of dehumanization are as much an epitaph for the first 85 years of the 20th century as they are a forecast for the last 15. In interviews about both Brazil and his most recent sci-fi work, 2014’s The Zero Theorem (met, like everything he’s done since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with resounding indifference), Gilliam seems uninterested, rather than clueless, in making his films speak to the current moment.
A film about a dystopian society without Big Brother might strike some as being altogether irrelevant to America in the year 2017. Part of the problem with the parlor game of finding fictional and historical analogues for President Donald J. Trump, however, is that it takes a vulgar fraud at his word—put another way, it accepts the President as the menacing, larger-than-life bogeyman that, by all accounts, he wants his enemies to believe him to be. Brazil could never have predicted Trump, but it does offer a lens (wide-angle, of course) through which to understand him: not as a single, clear-cut enemy, but as an immaterial force, alternately horrifying and banal, that worms its way into our brains and our electronic devices and refuses to go away. He’s much less competent, and therefore much more dangerous, than Big Brother.
A further implication of Trump’s victory, seen through a Gilliamesque lens, would be that there were no heroes or villains during the 2016 elections, only people with varying degrees of complicity in Trump’s rise to power. These would include not just the 63 million people who turned out to vote for him, but also the tens of millions who didn’t vote for anyone because they didn’t think the election mattered; the TV executives who aired his rallies free of charge; the spineless conservative politicians who chose to fall in line with the rest of their party; the youths who re-Tweeted his vitriol; and, not least, the people, myself included, who didn’t think of him as a serious threat until it was too late, like tired bureaucrats shirking responsibility with the words, “not my department.”
The facts of Trump’s incompetence don’t mean he isn’t extremely dangerous in his own right. Nor should it suggest that 300 million Americans are responsible for gutting the Environmental Protection Agency, firing James Comey, or preventing millions of Muslims from entering the country. In the end, the greatness of science fiction rests more on its ability to magnify and distort the real world in provocative ways than on measured, factually accurate predictions. Brazil’s hysterical humor and hyperbolic vision of bureaucracy gone berserk push us to confront our own indifference to the misery of others, and our latent involvement in systems that legitimize evil. It reminds us that incompetence and willful incoherence, of the kind exemplified by Executive Order 13771 and the Trump White House in general, aren’t mutually exclusive with tyranny, and are, on some occasions, its very definition.
It may be too early to say what forms the resistance to the Trump administration will take, and activists would be ill advised to ask Terry Gilliam for his advice on the matter—he’d probably tell them not to bother. In spite of its director’s cynicism, Brazil offers Trump-era activists something more basic than resistance: unmitigated, unapologetic defiance in the face of stupid tyranny. Psychologists say that strange people are usually the bravest in a crisis—they’ve been expecting disaster for so long that, when it finally happens, they don’t bat an eye. At a time when Americans are still struggling with what to think and do about the Trump administration, we need films like Gilliam’s: November 8, 2016 came as a shock to many, but Brazil was fully prepared for it back in 1985.