B for Brazil

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Matt Feeney at Slate compares one of my five favorite movies, Terry Gilliam's surreal Orwellian masterpiece Brazil, to this spring's comic-book blockbuster V for Vendetta, which Damon Dimmick recently reviewed in these very (Web) pages. Having seen the latter, it's no surprise that the comparison isn't particularly flattering for V, which is a fun but scarcely brilliant movie. But here's Feeney's interesting insight: In V—in the film and even more so in the mystically-inclined Alan Moore's graphic novel—there are, in the words of the titular Guy Fawkes–masked terrorist, "no coincidences." Like the converging plotlines of a Seinfeld episode, seemingly random events turn out to be components of an elaborate grand design, memorably illustrated by a scene in which V sets off an elaborate cascade of dominoes forming his trademark symbol just as his plan is coming to fruition. In Brazil, by contrast, it's all about randomness:

The comic beauty of Brazil's portrait of totalitarianism is that everything rests on random coincidence, which nudges the bureaucracy into its own blind and murderous momentum: A dead fly falls into a computer printer and—voilà—poor law-abiding Buttle is mistaken for dangerous subversive Tuttle.

I think that's a profound truth: You can go mad digging for government conspiracies, but as so many classical liberal thinkers have noted, relatively little of the evil in the world is by design. That's why I think Dimmick is right to criticize the filmmakers for turning V's fascist heavies into cartoonish caricatures: For all the controversy over the movie's supposed glamorization of terrorism, there's actually nothing especially—or, for that matter, remotely—radical about opposing a murderous Nazi-esque regime with no higher purpose than its own power, even by means of V's surprisingly bloodless campaign of violence. As Hannah Arendt so famously noted, most evil is the product of banality, of bureaucratic obedience, rather than malevolent genius.

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  1. Julian, that’s very well said.

    As the old saying goes, never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity.

  2. I think that the difference is of more value than that. It’s the dirty little line that separates the big murderers from the huge murderers. Fascists regimes are all about physical order for its own sake and therefore their bad deeds do tend to be quite deliberate and do descend from malevolent intelligence, even if they do rely somewhat on bureaucratic obedience. Communists regimes are all about a shared delusion and therefore their bad deeds tend far more often to stem from banality and systemic incompetence. The first is evil with malicious purpose and intent and the second is evil without any overarching malice or intent. It’s simply interesting that the second is so far more destructive and enduring.

  3. For my daily reference to Napoleon:

    Never ascribe to malice what can adequately be explained by incompetence.

    Humans are very rarely capable of conscious wickedness, but we’re very good at taking baby steps that, if we thought about it much, inevitably lead to wicked results. We’re also very protective of ourselves, and so will do other small things that lead to evil results, but that we think of while we do them as necessary to self-preservation. I had a law professor state that the only difference between any of us in his class, any 10 random people on the street, and Hitler was that we and the 10 random people lacked Hitler’s opportunities. Given the right set of circumstances, all of us would be mass murderers or tyrants. The only way to avoid this is to recognize the possibility and do what we can to stay away from those circumstances. By making us believe that only obviously evil people do evil things, the V for Vendetta filmmakers salve our egos that we someone aren’t capable of doing those bad things.

  4. Ugh, “someHOW (not the nonsensical “somoone”) we aren’t capable of doing those things.

    Also, interesting point on the distinction between fascist and communist dictatorships. Personally, I’d say that fascists came off with a lower body count only because they didn’t last as long. Imagine what even a relatively benign fascist like Mussolini could have done with the Soviet Union’s 74 years.

  5. Imagine what even a relatively benign fascist like Mussolini could have done with the Soviet Union’s 74 years.

    Give them the best train system on Earth?

  6. When you’re watching V for Vendetta and you’re absorbing the mix of paranoia and gullibility that makes up its worldview, you get the unpleasant feeling that the Wachowskis actually believe this crap.

    I got the impression they believed The Matrix, too. They certainly believe that what they have to say is Important(tm). I saw this last night, and it’s not as bad as I’d feared. They also wanted to make sure that nobody missed their gay/lesbian themes, either. Subtlety was not a priority. Fun “smash the state” themes, and stuff blowing up. I won’t be quoting it much, though. I do occassionally ask engineers if they’ve filled out a 27b/6 when they come in looking for data. Blank stares from all.

  7. Let us never forget that the worst evil often comes from neither malice nor incompetence but from those who believe they are controlling us for our own good.

  8. Eryk Boston,

    Don’t you think that “controlling people for their own good” could count under either “malice,” or “incompetence,” if not both?

  9. No, you can do it well and with good intent.

  10. That’s the problem with a police state. It’s the state, so it’s going to be incompetent. But there’s no way to correct mistakes – that’s what that whole rule of law thing was about. So no matter how well-behaved you are there’s nothing you can do to keep from getting into trouble, even if only by mistake. Brazil shows that nicely. Conservatives used to understand this sort of thing.

  11. I applaud the movie. Basic ideas about liberty and tyrrany cannot often enough be beaten into peoples heads.

    Did anyone else who saw it get a little freaked out by the scene where the whole crowd is dressed as V? Sorta a “Here comes the new boss/same as the old boss” vibe.

  12. Every time I think of the banality of evil, I think of Eichmann.

  13. Never ascribe to malice what can adequately be explained by incompetence.

    That’s not Boney, it’s Hanlon’s Razor.* NB may have said something similar, probably in French, of course.

    I may have to reread V4V before seeing the flick. I read it originally as it was published in WARRIOR, and always thought it had more style than substance – but what style!

    Kevin

    * http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Murphy%27s_Law

  14. @ AML:

    I sure hope so… considering Arendt is famous for (among her other books) “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.”

    And that someone already referenced Arendt in this thread.

  15. You can’t have the kind of moral confusion you’re talking about in a Hollywood movie.

    How would you show it?

    You’d just confuse the audience. They wouldn’t know when to cheer.

  16. You can’t have the kind of moral confusion you’re talking about in a Hollywood movie. How would you show it?

    Well, I thought the first Matrix film had a bit of it, although I think that was probably unintentional. After all, the “heroes” were fighting to “liberate” people from normal (but illusionary) lives and release them into a ruined and hostile Earth — and, of course, killing quite a few innocent people in the process.

  17. I tend to go with the Clarke correlary to Hanlon’s razor,

    “Sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguisable from malice.”

  18. SPOILER ALERT

    I thought it interesting, the suggestion, that V’s campaign was personal rather than political and, hence, was indicative of some kind of inner conflict. …As if anyone would act against a system so without any personal stake in the game. …intention vs. coincidence indeed. …There was nothing random about the wholesale slaughter that was a Nazi concentration camp, and there was nothing random about the virus that killed all those children.

    …and the film seemed radical to me, perhaps because the audience I saw it with clapped at the end. There’s something wonderfully insidious, if not radical, about getting a general audience to applaud the overthrow of a government predicated on security against terrorism, stylized though it may be.

    The dictator became incensed when he got the Benny Hill treatment, and what a silly treatment that was. That fascist state may have seemed cartoonish in the film, but it still made the right impression on a general audience and that seems the important thing to me. Heavily stylized villains–maybe that’s what general audiences respond to?

  19. “Did anyone else who saw it get a little freaked out by the scene where the whole crowd is dressed as V? ”

    I thought that was a “I’m Spartacus!” “*I’M* Spartacus!”, everyone’s Spartacus, kind of moment.

  20. Ken writes: “As if anyone would act against a system so without any personal stake in the game”

    A personal stake, but nothing to lose.

    “Heavily stylized villains–maybe that’s what general audiences respond to?”

    I think any real-world authoritarian state is going to rise accompanied by heavily stylized, stage-managed, and polished media presentation.

    People will differ as to whether he’s a ‘villain’, but his Mission Accomplished flight onto the carrier was nothing if not ‘heavily stylized’.

  21. Er, I’m referring to Bush, of course.

  22. I thought that was a “I’m Spartacus!” “*I’M* Spartacus!”, everyone’s Spartacus, kind of moment.

    “I’m Brian!” “I’m Brian!” “I’m Brian, and so’s my wife!”

  23. I am the singer of songs!

  24. Brazil is one of the greatest movies ever made, IMHO, in part because it is so weird and message-free. Just a great artistic vision, executed perfectly.

  25. baby steps, folks.

    Sure, the state in V is easy to hate because it is obviously a villain, but like joe said, I don’t think people would have given it a chance otherwise, much less a studio. It’s already receiving quite the outcry.

    It’s important to have a movie that at least starts lefties down the path to realizing that the big government they think they crave can be used for evil.

    Now, the Star Wars series had a great premise. Lucas f’ed up the execution, but his formula was brilliant – first establish that the empire is bad, then go back and show how it arose from a Republic much like ours. Watch neocons who used to point to the first triology as supporting their worldview twist in the wind as they see themselves in the mirror in the second.

    That’s the only way you could accomplish the nuance you guys are asking for and not have the movie bomb.

  26. “Did anyone else who saw it get a little freaked out by the scene where the whole crowd is dressed as V?”

    Ned Nederlander: This is not a town of weaklings! You can use your strengths against the Chancellor. Now, what is it that the town of London really does well?
    Townspeople: Hmmm. Hmmm? Ummm.
    [long pause]
    Mama Sanchez: We can wear masks!
    Dusty Bottoms: There you go, you can wear masks.
    Ned Nederlander: Ah.
    Dusty Bottoms: If only we had known this sooner.

  27. Brazil is one of my favorite movies, too, although I didn’t like the fact that De Niro was a scab plummer and the union guys were stereotypically bureaucratic also. (Interestingly, Moore’s V for Vendetta graphic novel was written against Margaret Thatcher who came to power fighting against the unions.)

    Just saw V for Vendetta last night. It’s not the best movie, but I disagreed with many of the Slate piece’s themes and points. The writer should think about its politics in the context of, say, Belarus, or Saddam’s Iraq, or ETA (Basque terrorists) giving up the gun.

    The movie was slightly boring, but it was thought-provoking too. A powerful moment for me was where V faced off against the head of the Security Services, Creedy. What will a society value more, police state tactics versus liberty? And of course, John Hurt rises to power via fear, stays in power via the complacency and fear of the citizenry and religion.

    The question I have for Joe and anti-war liberals is, V for Vendetta portrays a dictatorship in some ways milder than Saddam’s Iraq, and yet they argued to leave the Iraqis to their fate. Are they anti-fascist or not?

  28. kevrob said:

    but what style!

    You really nailed it. The original story was a bit of a mess if you really sat back and pondered it for a while. In fact, the story behind Moore’s writing it described something of a mess.

    The message clearly had some value as well, but the real beauty was the style. When V made an entrance on a scene, you got goosebumps and you knew that something amazing was about to happen. The songs may have been kind of hokey, but they always had a verse or two that really hammered into your psyche. Even the style of the supporting characters kept your enthralled.

  29. “The question I have for Joe and anti-war liberals is, V for Vendetta portrays a dictatorship in some ways milder than Saddam’s Iraq, and yet they argued to leave the Iraqis to their fate. Are they anti-fascist or not?”

    I’m sorry, I missed the part where Saddam was overthrown by his own people….

  30. Fascist Britain’s deus ex machina was V. Fascist Iraq’s deus ex machina was the coalition forces.

  31. “Fascist Britain’s deus ex machina was V. Fascist Iraq’s deus ex machina was the coalition forces.”

    I’m sorry, did you miss the part where it was established that V was himself a victim of the regime?

  32. They also wanted to make sure that nobody missed their gay/lesbian themes, either.

    Actually, that was Alan Moore. The movie was actually reasonably faithful to the source material, all things considered.

  33. “As Hannah Arendt so famously noted, most evil is the product of banality, of bureaucratic obedience, rather than malevolent genius.”

    I thought of Douglas Adams’ Vogans when I read that statement.

    So long and thanks for all the fish.

  34. and the fact that V was hell-bent on revenge bore nothing in common with the coalition’s rationale of the war…

    oh, wait a second

  35. I think the “everything is planned” meme explains a lot of why people want to believe September 11th was a conspiracy, and George Bush secretly planned the whole thing. People prefer to believe that bad things happen because a bad man made it happen!, not just because the world is a messed-up place. If there’s a bad man, you can go stop him; if it’s just systemic, there isn’t a lot to do. I also blame Star Wars for a lot of this, with tongue slightly in cheek; everybody wants to be Luke Skywalker, fighting the evil Empire, and it will all be better as soon as you blow up the Death Star. Being told that the system is the way it is because of unescapable historical factors, and blowing up the Death Star won’t help is kind of a bummer.

  36. Actually, that was Alan Moore. The movie was actually reasonably faithful to the source material, all things considered.

    Aside from dropping the point that Norsefire’s purges were also racial…On the other hand, if you’re paying attention, that’s a damned white London, and Storm Saxon is still a popular TV show.

    The GN was more nuanced, but then, it wouldn’t have fit in the running time.

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