Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!
“Somewhere in here I was born… and here I died. It was only a moment for you… You took no notice.”
Even just reading those words gives me goose bumps. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film that’s not light on ominous, eerie moments, it is probably the one scene that most gets under my skin, even after I’ve seen the film a half-dozen times. It is strange and uncanny (even if it is actually part of an extended con), but also, and perhaps most of all, it is sad, as many of my favourite ghost stories are. The woman in front of you pointing at the tree rings, pointing out where she was born, first, and then where she died.
At the very least since I first watched Star Wars recorded off ITV onto a Betamax video tape, I’ve had a keen interest in special effects, and in films that use special effects to create unique and different worlds and beings. In this respect, though, the last twenty years or so have been something of a disillusionment: while CGI visual effects have become more and more realistic and indistinguishable from reality, they only rarely recapture one of the things I enjoyed most as a kid. See, the kind of special effects I’ve enjoyed most were never about verisimilitude, at least not first and foremost. A fantastic world is made believable and engaging by the imagination going into it more than by the number of pixels and shaders. And sure, I prefer a well-made green screen effect providing the illusion that those kids on broomsticks can really fly to a bad green screen effect aiming for the same thing and failing, but the special effects that stick most in my mind are the ones that transport me to a different, more interesting world – and that can be achieved by miniature spaceships suspended on threads you can make out if you look closely.
In case the trailer didn’t already give it away, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a comedy. Its dialogue bristle with sharp, satirical thorns. It is at turns witty, goofy, absurdist and madcap. It is also like one of those works of art that, when you first look at them, seem to depict a rabbit or a beautiful young woman – but then you realise that you’re actually looking at a duck or an old crone, and once that realisation has set in, it’s difficult if not impossible to again see what you thought you saw at first. Once that moment has set in, The Death of Stalin becomes something much darker. The verbal humour remains, but it is revealed to be the poisonous icing on a meal that tastes of ashes and death.
“I think we lost him.” That is still one of the most chilling final lines of any movie I’ve seen. (Another very effective last line, and one of my favourite, would be: “Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘The World is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”) And whatever else you may think about the film, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil has one of the most effective endings in film history.
On the whole, I like films the way I like my sharks: single-minded. (Okay, that wasn’t exactly the most successful simile this side of Metaphysical Poetry.) Films that are trim, lean, effective. I also like the sprawling epos, but if a film is messy – if it’s jam-packed with ideas and images that in the end don’t really lead anywhere – I tend to lose patience.
Brazil is a big mess of a film. Terry Gilliam isn’t exactly a disciplined film-maker, and Brazil is one of his least disciplined movies. There are dozens of scenes, incidents and characters that seem to be in the film because it seemed a good idea at the time. It’s garish, cartoony and unfocused – very much like its central character, really. Nevertheless, for me it’s the best, most affecting dystopia on celluloid.
Part of this is Gilliam’s success at using a handful of characters and actors to anchor the film in some sort of emotional reality. Yes, so many of the characters remain flat cartoons that are there for a joke or to make a point (which usually kills a film’s credibility for me), but then you’ve got Mrs. Tuttle’s anguished “What have you done with his body?” or Michael Palin’s greatest creation, Jack Lint… or Sam Lowry, Jonathan Pryce’s funniest, saddest part ever. The forlornly happy look on his face at the very end, after he’s “escaped”, still breaks my heart. And the interrogation scenes are still both funny and frightening (although I could do without the “pinball prisoner” scene).
Would the film be better if it was more focused, if Gilliam had been less sprawling, running off in several different directions at once? It’s impossible to say – a streamlined, single-minded Brazil would be an entirely different movie. Sufficient to say, though, that Brazil remains my favourite Gilliam film, even after a dozen viewings. And its happy ending is the saddest ever filmed.
Just make sure not to watch the “Love Conquers All” edit, unless you have an unhealthy fascination with watching road accidents as they’re happening – or if you can dissociate yourself enough from what you’re watching to observe, clinically, how a different edit can change a film into a grotesque mockery of itself.
Oh, and while we’re at it: one of the most fascinating (Un-)Making Of documentaries must be Lost in La Mancha, which documents the disastrous production history of Gilliam’s take on Don Quixote. If you ever want to see a mad ex-Python as unwitting King Lear, or if you have any interest in how films come about, check it out.