Brazil is a beautiful picture about the hacker ethic.
The protagonist, Sam Lowry, is trapped in an evil system, a world of senseless, crushing bureaucracy interrupted only by human vanity, sloth, impatience, and idiocy. The plot is too convoluted to explain (and a lot more fun to watch) -- it'll suffice to say that Sam's life is turned upside-down when a bug in the system brings him to meet a woman he falls obsessively in love with.
One of the genius visions of this film is its depiction of the crazy patchwork of technology that runs our civilization. Ducts are everywhere; wires and cables lurk behind every wall and make frequent appearances. The incongruous combination of bizarrely unusable computers, pneumatic tubes, and even the retro-style elevators is a modernized version of a Kafka fever-dream.
This system, presumably built by Central Services (a government or a corporation? it could be either), is constantly on the verge of falling apart. Nobody but the competent but unambitious Sam seems to know how to operate a computer. The breakfast machine pours the coffee onto the burnt toast. And the telephones should be Exhibit A in a gallery of poor user-interface design. Meanwhile, Central Services runs ads telling us to upgrade our "out of date ducts" with new designer colors. It's a hilarious parody of the situation that most of us find ourselves in today, with our Rube Goldberg, barely-functioning technology constructed by colossal, faceless bureaucracies -- moreso now than in 1985 when the film was made.
But it's not just forms, malfunction, and evil. The one hero of the film is the hacker. Robert de Niro plays the untouchable outlaw Harry Tuttle, who intercepts Sam's call for help with his broken air conditioner, and comes to fix it. He used to work with Central Services but now works freelance, for the love of the job.
This is a real hacker, even the archetype of the hacker. I'm not sure how it happened -- the writer/director, TerryGilliam, wasn't in tune with the computer underground that I know of -- but the character, in a few short minutes onscreen, captures the universal essence of hacking.
Tuttle isn't the dangerous criminal that the media wants to pin the word "hacker" on even to this day; he doesn't break things or work to disable the system. Much like the real-world media demonization of "hackers" as electronic graffiti-artists and ping-flooders, the movie's Central Services blames terrorists for the bombings which recur throughout the film. We're led to believe these may be staged incidents, or at least unorganized -- one character asks another near the end: "have you ever seen a real terrorist?"
But neither is Tuttle a squeaky-clean navel-gazer. Some people want to sanitize the word "hacker" (usually the same people who noisily point out the distinction between "hacker" and "cracker"). Tuttle's work is illegal; he wears black, defends himself with a gun, and escapes under cover of darkness.
It's too easy to forget that, back in the day, the only way for a brilliant, motivated computer geek to learn about computers was to work the system at a more or less unauthorized level. To name just one example, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, the founders of the personal computer revolution, built illegal blue boxes and sold them. I wish someone had had a camera at the moment when the phone system first shed its secrets to them -- when they first got a taste of look at this huge computer system. Look what it can do.
The hacker ethic that played such a large part in advancing computer science, building gcc, building Linux, indeed building the world's computer systems and engineering the biggest peaceful economic boom in history, is more than just a thirst for knowledge about computers. It's the obsessive belief that knowledge exists to be shared, that helping someone by making their computer run better (or their air conditioner) is one of life's joys, and that the rules that prevent sharing and helping exist to be broken.
And poor Sam Lowry pays the price for the hacker's work, for his fixing something without authorization. When I see this movie, I can't help but think of Randal Schwartz, prosecuted vigorously by Intel for running a diagnostic with the best of intentions, but without the proper paperwork. We live in a world where insane things like that can and do happen.
Somehow, 15 years ago, Terry Gilliam got in his head the same glimpse of underlying reality that Woz got when he learned about how the phone system works -- and it's all on film. The hero is the one who repeats the Central Services slogan, "We're all in this together," and makes it unironic (or at least differently ironic). The hero is the one who knows how to fix things, and fixes them -- despite not being "authorized." The evil is the paperwork we construct around ourselves, the forms and regulations that take the place of people freely helping each other. Everyone into open source should see this film.
Poor Sam Lowry's plight becomes a real-life horror for Brazil director Terry Gilliam, who faced red tape and monolithic Hollywood studios to release his picture. In addition to the full-length film with director's commentary, the three-DVD set of Brazil also includes the short film The Battle of Brazil, which chronicles Gilliam's fight to release the film he created. The third DVD consists of the 'Love Conquers All' version of Brazil, a 90-minute version that was edited down from the original picture by Sid Sheinberg and his team of hack-and-slash artists at Universal. Terry Gilliam refers to this movie as 'Sid Sheinberg's Brazil,' and it's just plain horrible. The 'Love Conquers All' version is a standing memorial to all films that have been cut to pieces by the studios. This version of Brazil was only released to the television market, and was previously unavailable to the public on VHS.
Terry Gilliam was a hacker in his own right. After a long, involved battle over release rights, he promised Universal that he would only show clips of the film to film students in California, and they capitulated and let him show brief passages from the film. In the end, he only showed one clip. It was only two hours and twenty minutes long. In other words, the whole thing.
The full DVD set of Brazil is a massive package of content, from film commentary to press photos to trailers to alternate versions of the film. Surprise, surprise, it's part of the Criterion Collection of films, which also gave us fantastic DVD versions of Robocop, Time Bandits, and Monty Python's Life of Brian. Here are the contents (as listed by the film packaging):
New pristine widescreen transfer of Terry Gilliam's 142-minute final cut
Remastered Dolby stereo surround soundtrack
Audio commentary by Terry Gilliam
English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired
What is Brazil?, Rob Hedden's 30-minute on-set documentary
The Battle of Brazil: A Video History, an original 60-minute Criterion documentary by Jack Mathews
Screenwriters Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown on the script
Production designer Norman Garwood on the look of Brazil
Costume designer James Acheson on the couture of fantasy and fascism
Storyboards for Gilliam's original dream sequences, many of which didn't make it into the film
Composer Michael Kamen unveils the sources of his score
A study of the special effects includes raw footage of unfinished effects
Theatrical trailer, plus publicity and production stills
The 94-minute cut of Brazil includes all of the changes that Gilliam refused to make, from the alternate opening to the controversial happy ending
Audio commentary by Gilliam expert David Morgan.
This three-DVD set is a lot of material. I ended up taking two days to get through all of it, and every second of it is worth it. From the beautiful new transfer of Brazil to the interviews and specials to the hacked-up 90-minute version of the film, the set stays consistent in packaging and iconography, and you'll be humming the main theme for a week. Brazil is a fantastic film, and the Criterion Collection DVD set does it justice.