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Excerpt Examines ‘Brazil’

Matthew Campora’s newly published Subjective Realist Cinema focuses in on “fragmented narratives and multiple realities” in films from Mulholland Drive to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Following is an excerpt from the volume, which turns its gaze to Brazil. This is the second entry from the author, the first of which can be read here.


[N. Katherine] Hayles and [Nicholas] Gessler explore what they call “slipstream” fiction, defined as “works that occupy a borderland between mainstream and science fiction because they achieve a science-fictional feeling without the usual defamiliarization devices” (482).


Their examples include The Thirteenth Floor (Joseph Rusnak 1999), Dark City (Alex Proyas 1998), and Mulholland Drive, films which they argue challenge everyday notions of reality and foreground ontological issues in much the same way as science fiction narratives do, yet, are not science fiction.[1] Hayles and Gessler argue that Mulholland Drive unsettles spectators’ ontological security through its creation of a “mixed reality,” which is done through its dream sequences, hallucinations, and flashbacks. Since the film does not establish a normative ontological framework before introducing the dream-world (as many feature films do), Mulholland Drive complicates the viewer’s ability to distinguish the real from the fantastic, oneiric, or hallucinatory. Unlike [Alison] McMahan’s description, the idea of “mixed ontology” is a clearly articulated characteristic of multiform narrative for Hayles and Gessler. Their work is important here not only because it is, along with McMahan’s work, among the only applications of [Janet] Murray’s term to cinema, but also because of the important distinction they make between the multiform narratives of science fiction and those of what they call slipstream fiction. Science fiction grounds its alternate realities in a material explanation, usually a futuristic technology. One of 12 Monkeys alternate realities, for instance, is the result of a time machine used by James Cole to travel back in time. By contrast, the internal-subjective multiform narrative of Terry Gilliam’s earlier multiform film Brazil (1985), although also set in the future, is motivated not by time travel but by the fantasy world of its central character. Like Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), the representation of the central character’s madness is the motivating force behind the use of the multiform narrative. As it also uses a multiform narrative to represent the subjective reality of its central character, it is an example of the type of multiform film I want to explore in this book.


Brazil as Multiform Film


Brazil can be described as a dark tragic-comedy set in a futuristic Orwellian bureaucratic-fascist dystopia. It uses a multiform narrative to represent the increasingly delusional reality of its central character, Sam Lowery (Jonathan Pryce), a highly capable but extremely unmotivated civil-servant working in the Ministry of Information. Lowery is introduced to spectators via a dream sequence (the first of the film’s two internal-subjective strands) in which he appears as a kind of medieval super-hero, flying above the clouds by means of mechanical wings, which are themselves attached to his suit of armor. The ontological status of the scene, which is actually a dream, is not signaled until its conclusion, when Sam is summoned back to the waking world by a phone call from his incompetent boss, Mr. Kurtzman (Ian Holm). The initial ambiguity of the scene disrupts the futuristic hyper-realism of earlier scenes (and also foreshadows Sam’s progressive disconnection from this reality). Sam’s dream is recurring and serves as one of the film’s three key narratives.


The first and primary strand of Brazil features a love story between Sam and Jill Layton (Kim Greist), who he meets when he is sent to sort out a case of mistaken identity that has led to the accidental death in captivity of an innocent man, Layton’s neighbor, Archibald Buttle. Much of the action in this strand follows Sam as he pursues the elusive Layton, but there is also a sub-plot that features Robert DeNiro as the plumber-terrorist Archibald Tuttle,[2] who assists Sam in his battle with the pedantic maintenance man Spoor (Bob Hoskins). The second and third narrative strands are both internal-subjective; that is, they both represent Sam’s dreams and fantasies from his perspective. The first of these follows the ongoing dream in which Sam stars as the super-hero-like-warrior who battles the forces of evil in order to free captives and rescue a beautiful maiden, and it follows a similar trajectory to the romance but in fragments that interrupt the main narrative. The second internal-subjective strand represents a delusional escape fantasy that takes place during Sam’s state-sponsored torture in “The Ministry of Information Retrieval,” which takes place near the end of the film. It presents his imaginary rescue by Tuttle and a band of armed terrorists. Since the shift that leads into this strand is unmarked, spectators assume that the events it depicts are taking place on the same level as previous events. However, there are instances of spatial, temporal and causal disruptions that ultimately point to its status as fantasy. These disruptions include the re-appearance of a building after its demolition, doorways that lead impossibly from one place to another, and the unexplained re-appearance of a character who has died in an earlier scene. These types of disruptions are eventually given an explanation when the sequence ends and the narration returns to Sam in the torture chamber at the Ministry of Information Retrieval. It is at this point that it becomes clear that there has been an ontological shift, and that Sam’s escape was fictional, a figment of his over-wrought imagination. Brazil is a complex film that employs a multiform narrative to tell the story of a character experiencing a psychological breakdown. It uses a combination of aesthetic and narrative techniques that include a multi-stranded narrative, ontological fragmentation, and subjective realist narration. As such, it is a clear example of the internal-subjective multiform cinema. In this brief analysis, I have sought to highlight some of the important features of multiform narrative as they will be explored in this paper.




[1]According to Robert Adam, science fiction “requires a material, physical rationalization, rather than a supernatural or arbitrary one […] this grounding of Science Fiction in the material rather than the supernatural becomes one of its key features” (5). The idea of the supernatural will be discussed below in relation to Todorov’s distinction between the uncanny and the marvelous; however, I would contend that both The Thirteenth Floor and Dark City are clear examples of science fiction films.


[2] The mistaken arrest of Buttle is the result of a clerical error, and it is actually Tuttle the authorities are after.




Matthew Campora is a Lecturer at the Australian Film Television and Radio School and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies. He holds an MPhil in literary studies and a PhD in film studies from the University of Queensland.