Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) prepares to do fantastical battle in Brazil.
[Before we kick this one off… As with all my other articles, there is a risk of significant SPOILERS, so please bear in mind! This is particularly relevant to this film as, for reasons outlined below, multiple different versions and edits exist, of which a rundown is available at faqs.org. This article takes as its reference point the full “Director’s Cut” edition, which is now (as well it should be) the standard DVD release version of Brazil.]
By turns bitingly satirical and deeply moving, chillingly terrifying and laugh-out-loud hilarious, Terry Gilliam’s dystopian farce Brazil is a film that prides itself on confusing the viewer; the latter was certainly the case for Roger Ebert, who detected within the film a palpable and “general lack of discipline”. Indeed, as Jack Mathews documents extensively in his book and documentary The Battle of Brazil, these qualities (combined with Gilliam’s intransigence towards compromise) made it the subject of a protracted dispute between the director and his distributors at Universal, so much so that an alternative cut was prepared (without Gilliam’s blessing) simplifying some of the film’s narrative and, famously, altering its thoroughly ambivalent ending. It is precisely this ambiguity, however, that makes Brazil not only memorable but, as Mathews writes in an accompanying essay to the film’s Criterion Collection DVD re-release, quintessentially Gilliam-esque. Indeed, the film conforms perfectly to the description offered by a Criterion forum member of “Monty Python meets 1984“, as the nightmarish system it depicts, a true bureaucracy where everything is governed by paperwork, is effortlessly omnipotent and fundamentally inefficient all at once, the machines and suited bureaucrats that run it both unassailably powerful and inherently ridiculous.
IMPORTANT – this article contains not only spoilers, but links to clips that some people may find disturbing or frightening (it’s about a horror film, after all). Please proceed with caution!
Among John Carpenter’s substantial corpus (corp’s(e)?) of work as a director not only of horror, but a great many other fine genre movies, his 1982 alien creature feature The Thing is something of an anomaly. For one, following a previously unbroken a streak of commercial (if not always critical) hits – the more independently financed Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween and The Fog, and the bigger-budget dystopian action thriller Escape from New York – the film was, at least at first, a resounding failure, making minimal profits on its budget and promptly losing Carpenter the major studio backing from Universal Pictures he had only just recently secured, leaving him, somewhat like its survivors, adrift in the (Hollywood) wilderness. On an artistic level, it also bucks the trend prominent in Carpenter’s back catalogue of the director (for both artistic and financial reasons) scoring his own films, often with the aid of his long-time musical collaborator Alan Howarth. (This practice would continue long after the release of The Thing and would, indeed, lead later to Carpenter pursuing a side career as a musician, including two studio albums of Lost Themes released last year.)
Leonard Bernstein at work.
[The musical examples referred to in this article are taken from the original soundtrack album reissued in 2015 on Madison Gate Records. Also worth a listen is Bernstein’s own Symphonic Suite arrangement of music from the film, of which his 1961 recording conducting the New York Philharmonic is my preferred version.]
Much as director Elia Kazan reportedly solicited Marlon Brando’s involvement in his seminal 1954 drama On the Waterfront in the hopes of securing a larger budget (there was already an implicit agreement in place with Frank Sinatra to play Brando’s Oscar-winning role of Terry Malloy), producer Sam Spiegel saw the need to broaden the film’s commercial appeal by attaching a similarly big name to provide the music – hence his decision to seek the services of Leonard Bernstein. While initially reluctant to participate in a project that would require him necessarily to rein in his own musical ideas, one might not have guessed this from some of the reactions to his score in later years from Kazan and from scriptwriter Bud Schulberg, both of whom considered portions of it obtrusive and distracting. Certainly, Bernstein’s sensibilities as a well established classical composer and conductor mean that the music in On the Waterfront is often not content merely to occupy a background role, but, as film music historian Jon Burlingame asserts, it does not so much jostle for attention as engage as ‘a full partner in the filmmaking process, matching the script, direction and acting in conveying the essence of the drama’, something that was unusual for the period and would go on to revolutionise the practice of film scoring.
First of all, welcome to Son et Lumière.
Werner Herzog and “best fiend” Klaus Kinski
Forgive the pretentious-sounding title – a penchant of mine, unfortunately (if it helps my case, it’s also the name of the song that starts off the Mars Volta’s kick-ass album De-loused in the Comatorium).
Secondly, a little bit about myself. I’m a PhD student at King’s College London, and I’m currently researching a project on West German films of the 1970s (a period commonly referred to as the “New German Cinema“) and their use of soundtracks by bands and artists from the contemporary experimental music scene known as “Krautrock“.
Thirdly, what this blog is about. As the name may suggest (I initially wanted to go with Sight and Sound, but apparently there’s a widely-read film magazine that already has that name – who knew?), I’m looking to use this blog to write about all sorts of matters related to films, music and the way in which they combine and work together.
While I’m sure my PhD topic will creep in and influence my train of thought at numerous points, I’m hoping to write about other, less niche films as well because, hey, a good film is a good film, right? So one week I might write about Werner Herzog’s use of music (which I’m planning to) and another about Quentin Tarantino’s (which I’m also planning to!), so there’s something for everyone.
I think that’s all it really falls to me to say, apart from to stay tuned for forthcoming posts, and to please subscribe/follow the blog if it takes your fancy at all.