Love in the Time of Bureaucracy

In 1985, one year after the year in which the all-encompassing State of Orwell is set, Terry Gilliam released Brazil (on the Criterion Channel until October 31 or for rent on Amazon Prime). It is all the dread and paranoia of Nineteen Eighty-four superimposed with the absurdity of Monty Python. The world of Brazil is ridiculous and absurd. There are large air ducts running through even the nicest houses, and small ducts and tubes everywhere. Everything depends on the ant-like bustle of transferring paperwork from one bin to another, and from that department to this. The Ministry’s SWAT-like apparatus is always ready to execute some arrest order or another, making the next of kin sign receipts, in duplicate at least.


There are the typical signs with the cheery platitudes of the totalitarian regime: “Don’t suspect a friend; report him!” And “Suspicion breeds confidence!” There’s also a Salvation-Army-type group with a sign that says “Consumers for Christ.” And, above all, “Happiness! We’re all in it together!” Which, incidentally, is what people keep saying about our current circumstances. But until I get invited on a post-quarantine island vacation, I refuse to believe it when celebrities and the wealthy say, very solemnly and earnestly, that we’re all in this together.

The bureaucracy of Brazil is never-ending, and Sam (Jonathan Pryce) is happy to be where he is, just a cog in the eternal, technological machine. He works for Mr. Kurtzmann, who is, indeed, short. He does not want to rise above his station, though his wealthy mother (with her ongoing plastic surgery) does what she can to get him a promotion. He doesn’t have desires, and he doesn’t have dreams. He doesn’t have anything, he tells his mother, her friend (who has a different plastic surgeon, with a different way of fixing faces—though she is beset by continual “complications”), and her friend’s daughter, with whom the mothers keep trying to set Sam up.

He does have dreams, though. He has dreams of an unknown woman, who calls his name as he flies through the clouds in a suit of armor. Like Parry in The Fisher King, who has his own unmet love, Sam (looking a little like David Bowie) has an enemy to vanquish. For Parry, the enemy is his unacknowledged trauma, but for Sam it is the elusive bureaucracy that both rules people’s lives and prevents them from living. Later, his fight also becomes a metaphor for trying to keep Jill, his love interest, safe from being arrested for collusion with terrorists. Or maybe it is him from whom she needs to be kept safe?

The only “terrorist” we meet is Robert De Niro’s Harry Tuttle, who goes around fixing what Central Services can’t or won’t. When Sam watches Harry back up the sewer into the suits of the guys from Central Services, and says, appropriately, “Oh, shit!” Harry smiles and says, “We’re all in it together!”

By this time, we have begun to wonder whether the Ministry of Information is behind the explosions, which have been going on for 13 years. When asked in the first scene why the M.O.I. hasn’t been able to stop the terrorists, Mr. Helpmann (who helps no one) says it’s “beginner’s luck.” Most people, however, don’t seem to be afraid of the terrorism, even when they are its victims. But the ongoing bombings allow the Ministry to continue arresting anyone who might be problematic.

The world of Brazil is to real-world totalitarian states what Spaceballs is to Star Wars (which Gilliam apparently despises). But while the satire laughs at the totalitarians, it is funny in the same way that the Newspeak neologisms are funny in Nineteen Eighty-four.The Ministry is full of incompetent managers confident that they can do no wrong, because the bureaucracy itself prevents it. If a mistake is made—say, if Archibald Buttle is confused for Archibald Tuttle because of a literal bug in the system—that can be only because someone else signed, filed, or filled out a form incorrectly, not because the system is so impersonal that human error can lead to someone’s death. It parodies the “execution” of the Soviet Five-Year Plan or Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Any failure is not a fault of the system, but of those who function within it, who will then be punished accordingly.

We might be lulled into thinking that because Sam and Jill are trying to escape from an absurdist parody of a totalitarian government that we have nothing to worry about. But is the state of our lives any better? While in Brazil Central Services is responsible for the visible ducts that run everywhere (you can personalize and decorate them!), we have essentially invited invisible ducts into every corner of our existence by means of the internet and our ubiquitous, hand-held, connected computers. We pride ourselves on living in a “free” country, and fighting for freedom, and then we enslave ourselves to the point where we think we have no choice about how we are to live. I feel it every day when I turn on my devices, but I keep doing it anyway.

Ours, at least for now, is not the centralized totalitarianism of Nineteen Eighty-four or Brazil. It is a diffuse totalitarianism chosen by independent individuals who, nevertheless, end up looking identical to everyone else, or at least to everyone with whom we align ourselves politically. While fearing the totalizing state, we have freely chosen the totalizing technology. This is, as Neil Postman presciently put it, much more Brave New World with its deadening by self-chosen entertainmentthan it is Nineteen Eighty-four with its externally imposed controls.

In Brazil we think that Sam has finally been captured for good when they slip the gray hood over his head and cart him off to the bowels of the Ministry of Information. They offer him the chance to be free, with an excellent interest rate, if only he will admit his “crimes.” When he’s about to be tortured by his former friend Jack, they give him one last opportunity: “Don’t fight it, son. If you hold out too long, you could jeopardize your credit rating.”

At the last moment, we think that Sam has been rescued by his only friend, Harry Tuttle (who is later swallowed by paperwork), and then by Jill, as they escape to live in an unspoiled agrarian paradise, not unlike the land in Sam’s dreams. And a dream it is, produced by whatever Jack has done to him. Is it a good thing that Sam can live his longed-for life in his head? Is that all we, in our own all-encompassing bureaucracies, technological or otherwise, can hope for? Sam could not and cannot escape the Ministry of Information chosen for him. Can we escape the Ministries we have chosen for ourselves? Or is the best we can say is that we’re all in this shit together, grin, and bear it?

Sam may not have been able to escape the Ministry in the end, but he has his eyes opened by Jill to the ways he was ignorantly complicit in the ways of the Ministry. She asks him at one point if he’s okay with the things that his department does, and all he can say is, “Well, it’s only my first day.” It is far beyond our first day subject to our Ministries of Information and our Central Services. To me, it seems that so much of the discussion focuses on the symptoms—see, e.g., the questions put to top tech executives in Congressional hearings—looking for some big, bad enemy to blame, rather than to recognize the fact that we are complicit in the system itself. Are we new here?

Maybe, at least until an electro-magnetic pulse takes out all our computers, we can’t be fully free of it. Maybe we can’t all buy farmland in Kentucky and be mostly self-sufficient, tied to the land. But we don’t have to accept the premises of the Ministry. We don’t have to live according to the lies assumed by much of the entertainment we consume. We don’t have to consume. Perhaps Fahrenheit 451 can give us a better example of what to do than many other dystopian stories.

We can make friends by means of the unrighteous mammon, rather than using it all for our own selfish desires. We can live, as people have always had to live, within our own circumstances place and time, none of which we can control, with a trust and a hope that does not originate within this world. That hope is not a delusion brought on by torture or lobotomy. It is not a dream that we are having in the basement of the Ministry. We are not in the Matrix. It is a reality brought to us by the one who has already accomplished it.