Brazil and torture
February 25, 2007 6:45 AM   Subscribe

What Brazil tells us about torture today. A thoughtful discussion by Clive James of torture in the context of the movies in general and Terry Gilliam's Brazil in particular. Warning: occasional descriptions of awful behavior, and the reader may have his opinion of humanity lowered. "The historical evidence suggests that on the rare occasions when a state begins again in what a fond humanitarian might think of as a condition of innocence, a supply of young torturers is the first thing it produces... In the Nazi and Soviet cellars and camps, people were regularly tortured for information they did not possess: i.e., they were tortured just for the hell of it."
posted by languagehat (50 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Dammit, I forgot HTML gets stripped in titles; obviously, that should be "Brazil and torture" (although the country is mentioned as well). Also forgot: via wood s lot.
posted by languagehat at 6:48 AM on February 25, 2007

Yeah, good article.
Has anybody seen the film he mentions: The Battle of Algiers? I've seen it mentioned repeatedly
posted by jouke at 7:02 AM on February 25, 2007

Has anybody seen the Fox network version of Brazil where they lop off the last ten seconds of the film in order to give it a happy ending? LOL love those guys. (speaks volumes today, although they did this 15 years ago)
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:08 AM on February 25, 2007

I haven't seen The Battle yet, but as one of my Algerian asylum seekers reckons he can see his house in some shots, I will do soon.

I must admit that James is one of those guys whose intellectual rep suffered in my eyes by his almost incessant series of pap TV in the 80s & 90s. What am I talking about, 'one of those guys'?!?! His only competition - in the UK - was Tarrant on TV and Dennis Nordern.
He's head shoulders and barrell chest above those guys.

Good essay.
posted by dash_slot- at 7:12 AM on February 25, 2007

Shouldn't the link be this rather then this? With the "#page_start" fragment at the end, the page jumps to the middle of the article.
posted by delmoi at 7:13 AM on February 25, 2007

That's a really disturbing article. I need to go pat a puppy or something now.
posted by biscotti at 7:17 AM on February 25, 2007

For more on torturer as sadist vs. torturer as technocrat, read Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People.

I always link to this book on discussions of torture, because it is so powerful, and it refers to events that happened in our own backyard, at times of perceived 'national stress' far less than exist today.
posted by lalochezia at 7:25 AM on February 25, 2007

In the Italian transit camp of Fossoli during the Republic of Salo (the last stage of Mussolini's Fascist regime, with the fanatics well in charge), there was a female officer who indulged herself in the Dantesque experiment of packing a cell with victims and keeping them without nourishment of any kind until they ate each other. Many of her victims were women. She seems to have had a social problem: She was cutting prettier, wealthier women down to size.

Oh My God. I've heard a lot about the despicable acts people do, but I'd never heard of anything like that.
posted by delmoi at 7:27 AM on February 25, 2007

I too am usually standoffish about Clive James. And although I enjoyed that essay I actually thought the part quoted in the post preamable about 'condition of innocence' was not as well reasoned or supported as the rest of the piece.

I suppose I wanted to hear why Cambodia under Pol Pot ought to be regarded as having begun from a 'condition of innocence' and why that single point should be believed as being evidence of a world history of such behaviour. It may be true, but it struck me as a bold and skimmed-over assertion in contrast to other arguments he outlined. Just me?
posted by peacay at 7:32 AM on February 25, 2007

peacay - not just you. I would go so far as to question the condition of innocence of Russia 1917 and Germany 1933. Moreover he doesn't touch such other bold experiments as France 1789 (torture specifically outlawed, incidentally) or USA 1776.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:54 AM on February 25, 2007

Sayeth James:

In the long run, the Banality of Evil interpretation of human frightfulness is not quite as useful as it looks. It helps us appreciate the desirability of not placing ourselves in a position where the rule of justice depends on natural human goodness, which might prove to be in short supply. But it tends to shield us from the intractable facts about human propensities.

I have always found that Palin's character typified the banality of evil: he was banal, the simulacrum of Mr. Nice Guy; and he was evil--he enjoyed his work, in that detestable Pharisaical way. Had he not enjoyed inflicting pain, he would not have remained in his position. "Natural human goodness" is rarely an occupational qualification of high-level national security bureaucrats.

If we are shielded from "intractable facts" about human propensities, we shield ourselves. We are too often prepapred to accept a reassuring fiction--that Abu Ghraib was all the fault of a few rogue noncoms--rather than accept that there has been an organizational adoption of torture as U.S. policy. He who orders the employment of the torturer is just as culpable--if not more so.
posted by rdone at 7:57 AM on February 25, 2007

Arrested in May 2002 at Chicago's O'Hare airport, Padilla, a Brooklyn-born former gang member, was classified as an "enemy combatant" and taken to a Navy prison in Charleston, South Carolina. He was kept in a 9-by-7-foot cell with no natural light, no clock and no calendar. Whenever Padilla left the cell, he was shackled and suited in heavy goggles and headphones. Padilla was kept under these conditions for 1,307 days. He was forbidden contact with anyone but his interrogators, who punctured the extreme sensory deprivation with sensory overload, blasting him with harsh lights and pounding sounds. Padilla also says he was injected with a "truth serum," a substance his lawyers believe was LSD or PCP...

It's difficult to overstate the significance of these hearings. The techniques used to break Padilla have been standard operating procedure at Guantánamo Bay since the first prisoners arrived five years ago. They wore blackout goggles and sound-blocking headphones and were placed in extended isolation, interrupted by strobe lights and heavy metal music. These same practices have been documented in dozens of cases of CIA "extraordinary rendition" as well as in prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan...

These standard mind-breaking techniques have never faced scrutiny in a US court because the prisoners in the jails are foreigners and have been stripped of the right of habeas corpus--a denial that, scandalously, was just upheld by a federal appeals court in Washington, DC. There is only one reason Padilla's case is different: He is a US citizen. The Administration did not originally intend to bring Padilla to trial, but when his status as an enemy combatant faced a Supreme Court challenge, the Administration abruptly changed course, charging Padilla and transferring him to civilian custody. That makes Padilla's case unique: He is the only victim of the post-9/11 legal netherworld to face an ordinary US trial.

Now that Padilla's mental state is the central issue in the case, the government prosecutors have a problem. The CIA and the military have known since the early 1960s that extreme sensory deprivation and sensory overload cause personality disintegration--that's the whole point...

There is no need to go so far back to prove that the US military knew full well that it was driving Padilla mad. The Army's field manual, reissued just last year, states, "Sensory deprivation may result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, depression, and anti-social behavior," as well as "significant psychological distress."

If these techniques drove Padilla insane, that means the US government has been deliberately driving hundreds, possibly thousands, of prisoners insane around the world. What is on trial in Florida is not one man's mental state. It is the whole system of US psychological torture.
A Trial for Thousands Denied Trial
posted by y2karl at 8:02 AM on February 25, 2007 [5 favorites]

As I hum "Holiday in Cambodia" to myself, I think the idea was that, given that the average age of a Khymer Rouge member was so low, and that the whole thing came as a bit of a surprise, they didn't have a long history of torture to draw upon. You pick an average European guy, tell him to torture, he'll probably think, "Iron maiden, thumbscrews, the rack ..." and harken back to the golden days of yesteryear. These guys just had to invent it afresh. And didn't they do a marvelous job of it?

Aside from sadism, power, turning the tables, etc., one neglected feature of torture that drives it is what I refer to as ghoulish curiosity, the desire to innovate a fresh, horrible thing, and probe its nightmarish results for peeks at human behavior that, if viewed objectively, do give insights into things about which we'd rather not think. Why, yes, women really will eat each other, rather than starve, no matter what they profess. Gruesome, cruel, and ... just a touch fascinating. You always did wonder if the survival instinct would overcome dignity and revulsion, didn't you? So did they, and the jackboots are just an excuse to find out.
posted by adipocere at 8:11 AM on February 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

You always did wonder if the survival instinct would overcome dignity and revulsion, didn't you?
Oh God—I hope no one gives me any jackboots.
posted by adoarns at 8:33 AM on February 25, 2007

I almost liked this essay at points. But there were too many times it seemed to be arguing against itself. For instance, it seems to say that Brazil tells us little about torture today.
posted by dhartung at 8:35 AM on February 25, 2007

It would help if mankind were the only animal that tortured its prey: We could persuade ourselves that only a social history could produce such an aberration. Unfortunately, cats torment mice until the mouse turns cold

Actually studies show that cats do this because they are afraid of the mice until they are sure they are dead.
posted by delmoi at 8:35 AM on February 25, 2007

Devils Rancher: Has anybody seen the Fox network version of Brazil where they lop off the last ten seconds of the film in order to give it a happy ending?

Actually, that was done by Universal, the American distributors. Wikipedia has more info, but basically, the studio didn't like Gilliam's dark ending, and recut a shorter, happier version. Under pressure from Gilliam and film critics, they released the "Love Conquers All" version, which Gilliam supervised, but which did have the happy ending. The Criterion 3-disc set includes that version as well as Gilliam's original cut.
posted by papakwanz at 8:40 AM on February 25, 2007

Has anybody seen the film he mentions: The Battle of Algiers?

It's a superb movie—by all means see it. (Criterion does a typically excellent job with their reissue.)

Shouldn't the link be this rather then this? With the "#page_start" fragment at the end, the page jumps to the middle of the article.

D'oh! Sorry, and thanks for the better link.

I suppose I wanted to hear why Cambodia under Pol Pot ought to be regarded as having begun from a 'condition of innocence'

What adipocere said, and the rest of his comment is disturbingly spot-on as well.

(I don't really understand why people have a bug up their ass about Clive James—I guess it's an Aussie thing—but surely the article can be judged on its own merits.)
posted by languagehat at 8:50 AM on February 25, 2007

The thing that strikes me most about Brazil is that every time I see it again, I find it a little less absurd. Especially the way it treats "terrorism". The fact that, in the film, antiterrorism has become a big self-perpetualizing bureaucracy. The outrageous things done to people in the name of "security". How the people have adapted, and accept the terror acts, and the anti-terror acts, as a given. And, of course, the torture.

Whether or not we agree that sadists will gravitate to these interrogator roles is irrelevent to me; it's more worrisome to me when the practice is rationalized and given legal justification, because that means the society itself is becoming morally corrupt.

Unfortunately, the only lesson learned from Abu Ghraib is to ban the bloody cameras. Without pictures, no-one would have kicked up a fuss, it would have all been deniable. Gitmo is an obscenity - a legal and ethical limbo.

[derail -
In Brazil, I particuiarly loved the character played by Robert Robert De Niro - the outlaw repairman. As a geek, I love messing with and fixing things, and the fact that I can make a living from this is sometimes secondary. So he struck a chord with me there.]
posted by Artful Codger at 9:04 AM on February 25, 2007

self-perpetuating, sorry.
posted by Artful Codger at 9:05 AM on February 25, 2007

Actually, that was done by Universal, the American distributors. Wikipedia has more info, but basically, the studio didn't like Gilliam's dark ending, and recut a shorter, happier version. Under pressure from Gilliam and film critics, they released the "Love Conquers All" version, which Gilliam supervised, but which did have the happy ending. The Criterion 3-disc set includes that version as well as Gilliam's original cut.

There are three major versions: Universal's butchering (which eventually was the one shown on commercial TV), Gilliam's recut ("Love Conquers All"), and the 142-minute version released in Europe and elsewhere.

So, when I was in college, one guy with the Program Council heard the story and asked, "Has anyone seen the European cut?" Turned out no -- the Gilliam recut was what was on VHS in this country. So, he set out on this quest to obtain a print of the European version. Eventually, he got hold of the right guy, figured out how to get it through customs, and showed it one weekend at Chem 140 (to some major fanfare). It sold out all three nights.

It was also the last hurrah for the campus film series. A couple months later a dollar theater opened on Baseline, and that sucked second-run movies -- and dollars -- out of the Program Council. Eventually, what was the largest campus movie schedule in the country (they were showing as many as 10 in 4 different classrooms) wilted from the competition from the dollar cinema and the spread of cheap TVs and VCRs. Sad, really, since they exposed me to a lot of people I'd never heard of in Oklahoma. They used to do John Woo and Jackie Chan weeks -- this was long before they were even heard of in the US.
posted by dw at 9:09 AM on February 25, 2007

Has anybody seen the film he mentions: The Battle of Algiers?

They showed it at the Pentagon in 2003 as part of a session on what Iraq could turn into. Looks like the article that confirms this is buried behind the NYT's pay-wall, tho.
posted by dw at 9:17 AM on February 25, 2007

This is a good article but I'm surprised Milgram didn't get a mention.

Clive James seems to get a mixed reaction in the UK. While he's clearly a smart guy he never seemed to mind slumming it in popular culture. While his TV reviews were well liked by all, his popular TV shows were less well received. Personally I disliked his travelogues and his interview with Ronald Reagan was embarrassing for all concerned.

What most people remember him for though is shows like "Clive James on TV". I have fond memories of it because he would have fantastically funny guests like Stephen Fry and Peter Cook and let them have free reign. Ironically this show is best remembered for showing clips from a Japanese gameshow called Endurance where, you guessed it, contestants were tortured in fantastically inventive ways. Of course those contestants could leave any time they wished so it's hardly the same - still, it's pretty funny to recall that in this context.
posted by dodgygeezer at 9:25 AM on February 25, 2007

> This is a good article but I'm surprised Milgram didn't get a mention.

Or, thinking in a similar vein, Philip Zimbardo.
posted by SteelyDuran at 9:58 AM on February 25, 2007

What Does the Pentagon See in 'Battle of Algiers'? (copy of the New York Times article).

The Pentagon's Film Festival: A Primer for The Battle of Algiers. From the Pentagon flyer:
How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas...Children shoot soldiers at point blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.
(It's available from Netflix, and Amazon has the Criteria edition. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 looks like a good book about the conflict.)
posted by kirkaracha at 10:07 AM on February 25, 2007

I'll second (or third, or nth, or whatever) recommending The Battle of Algiers. It's excellent.
posted by Flunkie at 10:08 AM on February 25, 2007

“If you can take the hot lead enema, then you can cast the first stone” Lenny Bruce
posted by hortense at 10:16 AM on February 25, 2007

Wow, I have all kinds of problems with this essay.

The main argument here seems to be "torturers are sadists / torture is universal". Right?

But none of the logic he uses to make this argument makes any sense at all. It's circumstantial if not actually racist. Like: "Apaches and Cambodians are unsullied by civilization, and yet they too tortured, therefore torture is universal." wtf?

And it completely ignores substantial research / evidence that "ordinary" non-sadistic people frequently wind up being the most effective torturers. Milgram is the first that comes to mind (kudos, Dodgygeezer). Also, read this haunting WaPo confession from an Abu Ghraib torturer — this guy is hardly a sadist, and yet.

Even putting the shoddy arguing aside, it's not clear how the point is relevant to the problems we're facing today. He seems to imply that Abu Ghraib was just a cat-toying-with-mouse situation, (i.e. "just a few bad apples",) and that torture is inevitable, regardless of political/social/military structure/conventions/regulations. Which annoys me, of course.

(Also what does this sentence even mean? "It is a nice question how large the supply would be if circumstances did not create it.")

Brazil has lots and lots to say about 21st century USA and fascism. I'd love to read a well-reasoned essay about the connections. Unfortunately, this isn't it.
posted by Tones at 10:33 AM on February 25, 2007

languagehat writes "guess it's an Aussie thing—but surely the article can be judged on its own merits."

Let me elucidate but this is strictly for myself. I don't claim to have representative views. Clive James grew up not a very long way from where I'm sitting and like dodgygeezer et al from the UK have described in relation to their memories, I have a lifetime of Clive James permeated media from which my current opinion has been informed.

I agree with the way James has been characterised above as having a great intellect but with large slices of his back catalogue devoted to more sleazy forms of entertainment. He is or at least was, a tits and bum low humour comedian who infused very dry insinuating jokes which I found often cruel into his schtick, to such an extent that you always know to listen closely or read him twice - a little like the sarcasm that wizzes by in this place at times - so as to be sure about the real meaning that he's trying to communicate.

So, no, I don't think an article by Clive James can be judged simply on its own merits when you have had the opportunity to observe his character and manner of communicating in the media over a long period of time.

In the present case, while I agree wholeheartedly with everything adipocere said (and may have to brush my hair without looking in a mirror for a couple of days), I don't accept a simple conclusion that the Pol Pot army being young allows James to leap to the historical conclusion that a 'condition of innocence' itself begins by amassing torturerers. Either he was just being sloppy or perhaps he didn't have the space but it allows a someone such as me to read 'condition of innocence' as 'primitive' or 'apes from the trees' or some other unsavoury connotation, particularly when, in this example, he pointedly advises - with numbers - that all but a few were ultimately massacared. I'm saying I can read this as a colonial schtick, that ignorant Cambodians were worse in fact than the educated germans or russians or italians in the other examples.

Perhaps if it wasn't Clive James I wouldn't have such a potentially perverse take on it. And don't get me wrong, I don't necessarily believe that James is insinuating these racist undertones, but it's a reading that comes to my mind as possible when, as I said, I believe that he has made a great leap to a widesweeping conclusion from a single instance of torturing behaviour.

But I also said that I liked the essay for the mostpart - it's not a 300 page thesis of course - but I just expressed the single thing that kind of stuck out for me as being out of character with the rest of the argument.
posted by peacay at 10:44 AM on February 25, 2007

Battle of Algiers is amazing. I'm surprised people here haven't seen it. It's a classic.
posted by chunking express at 11:34 AM on February 25, 2007

Based on the positive feedback of you all I'm definitely going to see Battle of Algiers. Tx.
posted by jouke at 12:56 PM on February 25, 2007

Michael Palin mentions the movie Battle of Algiers, and of course the actual battle, on his stop in Algiers filming the Sahara with Michael Palin travel documentary.

/derail of coincidence
posted by jaronson at 1:26 PM on February 25, 2007 completely ignores substantial research / evidence that "ordinary" non-sadistic people frequently wind up being the most effective torturers. Milgram is the first that comes to mind (kudos, Dodgygeezer).
The abuse dished out in the Milgram experiment was almost entirely pointless. It was (so the test subjects were told) pretty much pain for pain's sake. What can it even mean to describe such abuse, and such abusers, as "effective?" What can it mean to describe people who willingly perpetrated sadistic acts as "non-sadistic people?"

Surely the lesson of Milgram (et al.) is that "ordinary" people turn out to damn well be sadists, under the right circumstances.

I think that's in perfect agreement with this (admittedly rather unfocused) essay's thrust: that torture is something human societies just naturally take to. The usefulness of torture, or lack thereof, has nothing to do with the urge to torture. As Orwell put it, "The object of torture is torture."
posted by Western Infidels at 1:37 PM on February 25, 2007

Great post that has precipitated some interesting comments.

I haven't seen Brazil sinnce I was a kid and Battle of Algiers at all.

Also I agree with Western Infidels, but it is only a semantic argument.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 4:13 PM on February 25, 2007

He's had a long interest in torture, as anyone who's read his collected TV reviews knows. I've always remembered a line of his which goes, "Living in your street there's someone who would jump at the chance of pushing an old lady into a cesspit."
posted by emf at 4:35 PM on February 25, 2007

What Artful Codger said. We recently bought the Brazil DVD and I saw it again for the first time in 10 years or so, and it really struck me as much closer to reality than it did before. The first shot of the movie is a terrorist (or "terrorist" ?) attack, and the camera zooms in on a bomb-damaged TV as it drones on about the new tactics being devised to deal with the terrorists.
posted by localroger at 4:45 PM on February 25, 2007

I agree, I thought that Brazil was shockingly relevant to the world today the last time that I saw it. Brilliant movie, I love some of Gilliam's later ones but I don't think that he's topped it since although "12 Monkeys" comes close.
posted by octothorpe at 5:04 PM on February 25, 2007

I'm actually totally opposed, rather strongly, to his description of Palin's character in Brazil. It almost makes me think he hadn't seen the movie before. It seems abundantly clear to me that Palin's character isn't a banal torturer, but rather a wholly reluctant one whose primary motivator (namely: obligation to society and perceived propriety as an ambitious up and coming executive) has supplied him with the worst job imaginable if it weren't so very secure and lucrative. When he comes out of the room and goes to massage himself in front of his mirror and sink, it's the one moment we see him away from his cheerio demeanor, and he is seen to visibly and almost physically snap himself out of it in front of company. But in that moment, we can see that he despises what he does. Further, he shows some regret at what he has to do to Sam Lowry at the end, but again relies on his obligation to propriety (one which Lowry has shirken at every opportunity) to bring him to anger enough to do the job. If anything, he is a depiction of the nature of societal repression backlashing both against the individual and the society. That Palin has been made a monster by trying to be a gentleman seems to be the whole point of the character, and this article looks like it almost willfully ignores that.

But maybe I'm just getting my dander up. Film buff trying to work his way up in the industry who happens to have a special attachment to Brazil, which I have seen literally dozens of times. I'll take a deep breath, now.
posted by shmegegge at 5:57 PM on February 25, 2007 [2 favorites]

Surely the lesson of Milgram (et al.) is that "ordinary" people turn out to damn well be sadists, under the right circumstances.

I know this topic can't be discussed without Milgram and Stanford being dutifully trotted out but, with respect, the lesson of Milgram is not that people turn out to be sadists. Have you watched the footage? It's all about obedience to an authority figure -- in one group, having that figure standing over your shoulder demanding that you continue. Subjects pleaded on behalf of the "other participant", asked to have the experiment stop, and generally showed a great deal of distress. It's the fact that despite this they continued that is the interesting part. They did not suddenly come to enjoy the act. Interviews conducted afterward had many participants saying that they hoped to "just get it over with as quickly as possible", both so they could get out of there and so the other candidate could be released (and possibly get medical attention -- by that point, the recorded screams from the other room have stopped).

Is that what you think these regimes have had for their cadre of professional torturers? Nervous participants who need to be watched and coerced into continuing minute to minute or they themselves will flee? Doubtful.

Stanford OTOH, is a little more like what you are suggesting, and far more important for this topic, because the candidates actually began to act sadistically of their own free will, simply by virtue of adopting a role.

And back on topic, it's unbelievable to me that anyone could think that merely cutting off the last 10 seconds of Brazil would be a good idea. The events that begin with the miraculous, dare I say unbelievable rescue, from the torture chair continue in fairy-tale fashion completely out of tone with the rest of the movie. I'd be interesting to see Palin's happy cut to see what else he did with the piece.
posted by dreamsign at 6:31 PM on February 25, 2007

Brazil makes its points a hell of a lot better than I've ever heard Clive James do, and it does, indeed, get a little less farfetched every year.

I count myself lucky never to have seen the "Love Conquers All" version.

schmegegge's reading of Jack Lint's personality and motivation is exactly right, in my view.
posted by flabdablet at 7:27 PM on February 25, 2007

I stronly recommend seeing the love conquers all version from the criterion set. not because it's good, but just because it's funny how really terribly edited it is. I mean it's horrible. horrible the way that line about "stupid stupid minds!" is from Plan 9 From Outer Space.
posted by shmegegge at 9:41 PM on February 25, 2007

I don't just recommend it stronly, however. I also, if such a thing is possible, recommend it strongly.
posted by shmegegge at 9:42 PM on February 25, 2007

Okay, some people see Palin's character (Jack Lint) as being the embodiment of evil's banality, and others see Palin as kind of a martyr; a reluctant cog in a cruel machine. I disagree with both.

The reason why Lint thrives as a torturer is because he is completely closed off to other people. The suffering he displays in one scene (in which in a private moment, he massages his temples and groans, obviously having finished a gruelling session), is not the empathic suffering of a reluctant torturer: Lint suffers because his victim's screams have given him a headache, and he is feeling sorry for himself.

Later on, he berates one of his victims in a fury, convinced that the prisoner's captivity and presence in his 'operating theatre' is a personal attack designed to ruin his reputation.

Lint doesn't see himself as a torturer. He doesn't even recognise what he does as torture. The reason why is that he cannot see other people's suffering. He's a closed system. Nothing gets in and nothing gets out.

By the way, the 'Love Conquers All' version of Brazil differs in respects other than the final few minutes. Some scenes have been edited differently to make Sam Lowry appear more confident and manly. He often gets the last word in, for example. The framing of other scenes has been changed by the use of optical zooms on the film stock. These are easily picked out, as during these scenes the grain of the film stands out distinctly. Looks bloody awful.

(I bought the Criterion 3-DVD box set years and years ago.)
posted by Ritchie at 2:57 AM on February 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

I may have missed something in Brazil, but I found it derivative and superficial. ("Brave New World probed the value of human existence; 1984 explored the nature of political power; now Brazil asks why you can't get good plumbers any more.")

In particular, I don't think there was anything especially foresighted in the depiction of terrorism and its concomitants: that was just an American's raised-eyebrows take on what living with the IRA in Britain was like at the time. Now you don't need to cross the Atlantic to get a taste of that experience, that's all.

Great special effects, of course.
posted by Phanx at 5:19 AM on February 26, 2007

To echo Tones above, I thought the essay was rubbish - just a long-winded, pretentious wankery with some cultural refs thrown in for the benefit of the self-important crowd.
Then I thought it might be because it was culled out of a larger context and trimmed.

Or I'm just reading it at a wrong time as I'm tired of the just-fill-the-page journalism so abundant in the printed media today.

Plus, it wasn't really about Brazil the movie in any way.
posted by Laotic at 8:00 AM on February 26, 2007

To add to what Western Infidels sed - not only is the object of torture torture (and the ultimate form of excercise of power) the subject of torture must be innocent, otherwise the torture is pointless. It is punishment - however extreme. Torture must be performed on an innocent. In this sense the subject is representative of all the citizens of the state and fear can permeate more effectively. If one tortures only people who are guilty, the average citizen - law abiding no matter how opressive the laws may be - has little to fear. The bottom line there is NOT that the average joe becomes a sadist, but that the average joe fears chaos and his own torture so much that he will become a torturer first.
This is within every human. All of us. As I’ve experianced a great many things that leads me to this conclusion, I’m typically well-armed.
And ol’ Aunt Biddy might mockingly question “Why do you have a gun and knives, Smedley? You were a soldier. You are a dangerous man. What can such a big strong man like you possibly be afraid of?”
And I would indeed answer: “You, Aunt Biddy.”
“Me? Little old me?” and behind her sheepish coy grin you can see in those ancient eyes millions of years of evolution that still remember the feral intensity of the ape and tiger. She’d kill me an eat me if it came to it. And despite years of training, despite my skill in killing and hair trigger reflexes, the only real advantage I have is that I know it. Oh, she herself I can easily take out, but that’s not how ol’ Aunt Biddy fights. She comes with soldiers and police in the middle of the night and devours me not with her own (false) teeth in her own mouth but emptys me into some black hole somewhere. She convinces others. She convinces me that it’s the right thing to do. With slogans and kind words and “Be a good dear and eviscerate yourself, please.” And of course, I’m the bad man, because I’m so very scary a person with my guns and my poison hands and sharp eyes. But it’s never her kind that winds up in the meatgrinder in the dark hole, is it? Because for all our ferocity, it’s ol’ Aunt Biddy who’s the real terror. And for no reason other than she wants it more, she’s more willing to live in that world of torture and I’m not and that makes her (and so very many people like her*) more dangerous than I’ll ever be. And well, that’s life isn’t it, dearie?

Mrs. Ida Lowry (Helmond) is the terrifying one, she’s the real monster. Everyone else is window dressing. If you don’t see it, watch the movie again.

(* I’ve been reading ‘I Am Legend’ by Matheson - last human alive in a world of vampires - gets sentenced to death by them. Yeah.)
posted by Smedleyman at 9:21 AM on February 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

MetaFilter: just a long-winded, pretentious wankery with some cultural refs thrown in for the benefit of the self-important crowd.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:46 AM on February 26, 2007

Mrs. Lowry wants to feed her son into the maw, is that it?

Mrs. Buttle's "What have you done with his body?" echoed through a couple of nightmares for me.
posted by pax digita at 12:22 PM on February 26, 2007

long-winded, pretentious wankery with some cultural refs thrown in for the benefit of the self-important crowd

Yeah, that's essentially Clive's schtick.
posted by flabdablet at 1:31 PM on February 26, 2007

“Mrs. Lowry wants to feed her son into the maw, is that it?”

Apart from the chimeric references (Sam being Bellopheron as well as Oedipus), yeah pretty much. And to save herself.
But my point is there is a whole set of persons who all do. Those that will betray anything, their own child - even their humanity - “Do it to Julia” and so forth. It’s only a matter of context really. People can be well convinced that extremely worthless bits of unreality are vitally important and real.
Hell, merely the experiance of internet arguments should be enough of an indicator of that.
To Mrs. Lowry that fantasy world of appreciation she lives in is worth more than her own son. And indeed, we’ve seen plenty of this in the real world. Keeping up appearances in favor of dealing with the reality. Myriad examples.
Of course, Mrs. Lowry is able to make her fantasy a reality and Sam is forced to escape to his fantasies. Simple enough really, since she values bondage (er...not that kind) and all the things that go with it. She’s integral to society (as indeed, is the sphinx) as she supports the illusions, and fortifies them enough that they become reality (actually Medea comes to mind there as well).
But my point is, that could be nearly anyone (indeed, it’s merely that in the film she excels at it - others do indeed try).
And it’s always been that which kills most. Not Joe Blow with a gun. One guy with a piece can’t pull of genocides and wars and all the other social ills. Indeed, even the most skilled technicians (Harry Tuttle, say - or the brutes on the other side) can do little to that which distorts the entire environment. Tuttle can fix the realities, the machines. He can’t, however, battle the product of illusion that drives society against him (and so he’s devoured by paperwork). And to the extent one identifies oneself with that totality - one thrives. One loves Big Brother and is immortal.

Pretty straightforward really.
What’s odd is how many of us madmen choose torture and death.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:41 PM on February 26, 2007

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