B for Brazil


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.