The Terry Gilliam Retrospective Part 3: The Maverick Expatriate

Paul Risker continues his Terry Gilliam retrospective…

Brazil is the film that best represents the pinnacle of Gilliam’s career, and if not it would certainly feature in any such discussion. If I am permitted to express my subjective opinion, then I would land on the side of it being his masterpiece, comparable to both Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet; Gilliam and Brazil are synonymous with one another.

For John Scalzi, president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Brazil is a “dystopian satire.” Gilliam believes it is a comic book movie without the traditional superheroes, addressing the themes explored within comic books. The director has suggested that it is a documentary, the Communist totalitarian rule of the Soviet Union never far from Gilliam’s mind whilst making the film. I however, have always perceived Brazil as a companion piece to Orson Welles’ The Trial. These two films I believe are two iconic examples of cinematic purgatory, in what is a more of a mature imagining than the devil with tail, horns and red hot poker. From Brazil’s bureaucratic hell, to the world of Kafka and Welles’ The Trial, where an individual can be charged with a crime unknown to even he himself, the quest for information or clarification is both futile and bewildering. Brazil and The Trial have seared onto my mind images of an alternative, but nonetheless equally powerful purgatory, of a bureaucratic hell, of forms and procedures that make society all the more confusing and hellish.

That said Brazil is a film filled to the brim with the Gilliamesque: an ambitious visual and narrative story, giving his own spin on the Orwellian 1984 tale, the attempt of the protagonist Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) to escape his reality, and the thin veil between fantasy and reality. Brazil would afford the creatively ambitious, impulsive and confrontational Gilliam the opportunity to secure his place as one of cinema’s great maverick directors. Whereas the controversial Sam Peckinpah pissed up the studio wall mid-interview to show his disdain for the Hollywood hierarchy, the expatriate Python found an equally creative and disrespectful means to demonstrate his disrespect for filmmaking bureaucracy: fighting the ‘Battle of Brazil’, This whole drama fits in rather tidily with the film as a cinematic representation of hell.

Gilliam prior to Brazil had been fortunate, afforded a great deal of creative control, and whilst Time Bandits was a surprise hit, it was produced by Handmade Films, founded by George Harrison and Denis O’ Brien who were supportive of individual artistic vision. Unfortunately for Gilliam, his next film was to be distributed in the U.S. by Universal, and distributed throughout the international market by Twentieth Century Fox. Without any complications or controversy Fox released Gilliam’s cut of the film in Europe, which proved to be a success. As with Jabberwocky it would be the U.S. distribution that would give Gilliam a recurring case of the toothache.

In what could only be described as one of those moments of life imitating art, not unlike his protagonist Sam Lowry, Gilliam would be drawn into conflict with the bureaucratic chairman of Universal, Sid Sheinberg. Ironically Sheinberg had asked Gilliam to, “Let me be the friend who tortures you”, believing both he and Gilliam would be able to work amicably together to recut the film. For Gilliam the ending was never up for negotiation, Sam’s descent into madness the reason he had wanted to make the film. At the very least it was the ending he had had in mind for a long time. Sheinberg had believed that the poor test screenings supported his view that the film was unwatchable and could not be released, disregarding the success of the film in the international market. If Sheinberg was correct, it would suggest American’s were not as cine-literate as their international neighbours, for the film was screened successfully abroad, and was both therefore watchable and could be released to the hope of making money as it had done for Twentieth Century Fox. The ending now known as ”Love Conquers All” version above all other changes Sheinberg was looking to make meant war between Sheinberg and Gilliam was inevitable. I’ve always been amused by Jack Matthews’ line: “The difference between fiction and reality here, however, between Terry Gilliam and his character Sam Lowry, was that where Sam Lowry went mad, Terry Gilliam went for the throat.” And so I would suggest Brazil was only ever a case of life imitating art to a point.

During an interview on the BBC Breakfast News, in which Gilliam discussed the ‘Battle of Brazil’, he remarked, “Nobody had ever behaved like that before, and with no lawyer or no agent, I didn’t know any better.” If Gilliam had overstepped his bounds with the critics over their assessment of Jabberwocky, then he would really show Hollywood what a maverick director acted like, pissing metaphorically all over the bureaucracy of the American film industry. Gilliam much like Carpenter, Coppola and Peckinpah was a filmmaker and artist first, and businessman second. He hated any form of bureaucracy and having satirised it in his movie, was never going to lie down and let his film fall victim to a studio bureaucrat.

Gilliam would proceed to take out a full page add in Variety: “Dear Sid Sheinberg, When are you going to release my film, Brazil? Terry Gilliam.” He would hold underground screenings in L.A. and host secret screenings in the homes of Los Angeles film critics. In his interview with the BBC Gilliam compared himself to the terrorists in the film. In true maverick style his efforts led to the L.A critics announcing on the night of the prestigious Out of Africa premiere that Brazil had been awarded The Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for Best Picture and Best Director. If that was not bad enough, a screening at a college went awry leading to Gilliam storming the students Dean’s office with students in tow. Oh, and I should not forget the infamous amusing but nonetheless impolite letter Terry wrote to Mr. Sheinberg:

Dear Sid:

Once upon a time you told me that you were not the one that put me in the chair at the end of “Brazil.” I’m afraid that this is no longer true — unable as I am to think of anyone else who is directly responsible for my current condition. Your later offer to be the friend who becomes a torturer has more than come true. I am not sure you are aware of just how much pain you are inflicting, but I don’t believe “responsibility to the company” in any way absolves you from crimes against even this small branch of humanity. As long as my name is on the film, what is done to it is done to me — there is no way of separating these two entities. I feel every cut, especially the ones that sever the balls. And I plead, whether they are done in the name of legitimate and responsible experiments or personal curiosity, if you really wish to make your version of “Brazil” then put your name on it. Then you can do what you like. “Sid Sheinberg’s Brazil” has a nice ring to it. But, until that time, I shall continue to decline. Please let me know how much longer must I endure before the bleeding stops.

Deterioratingly yours,

Terry.

The ‘Battle of Brazil’ witnessed Gilliam behave in such a way that no other director had behaved before. By the conclusion of his battle with Universal Pictures and Sid Sheinberg, he had re-branded himself, ‘I am the sixth Python; I am Terry Gilliam the maverick director.’

Whilst Sam Lowry’s fate in the film is to descend into madness, Gilliam by going for Sheinberg’s throat saw the director supervise a 132 minute cut to be released in the U.S. Jack Matthew’s made an observation in his book The Battle of Brazil: Terry Gilliam v. Universal Pictures in the Fight to the Final Cut. “Had Gilliam quit – like Lowry, when faced with his torturers in the film – after the dust-up on the phone with Sheinberg, the Brazil saga would have been a case of life imitating art imitating life.”

I’m glad he didn’t because Brazil is not only a masterpiece – it is a masterpiece with a story, and one that makes director and film synonymous with one another.

The bureaucrats have a long memory and Gilliam’s dismissive attitude towards the hierarchy would not be quickly forgotten, and when his next film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen went over schedule and over budget, he would find himself slandered as an irresponsible and reckless director.

[Ian Loring’s original editor’s note: “Brazil was last night officially announced as FINALLY coming to Criterion Blu-Ray including the “Love Conquers All” edit of the film Paul writes of, along with extensive documentary material and commentary tracks. Speaking as a Criterion enthusiast, this may be their biggest release of the year personally, even if this set already exists in DVD form. Head on over to the official site for more details.” Since September of last year when this piece was originally published, the Blu-ray disc is FINALLY available to own (the Criterion DVD edition of which I purchased only weeks before writing this piece), one copy of which I’m sure is sitting snuggly on one of Ian’s many DVD shelves.]

Brazil features at #80 on Flickering Myth contributor DJ Haza’s ‘Films to Watch Before You Die.’

Paul Risker is co-editor in chief of Wages of Film, freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth and Scream The Horror Magazine.

Around the Internet…