Terry Gilliam never read George Orwell. Sure, he knew about 1984. "But the knowledge I had was just general knowledge, the stuff you get from college. And then there was the simple fact that 1984 — the year! — was approaching. So I thought we've got to do 1984 1/2."
With Alice somewhere near the back of his mind, former Python animator Gilliam held a distorted looking glass up to Orwell, transcontinental bureaucracy, his own personal history, his outrage at the world around him, and — in doing so — created one of the most universally accessible, deeply personal future visions that cinema had ever known. Only, it wasn't a future vision. Brazil — named after a 30s Latin American hit song — was not set in that titular country, or the future. It was instead set in "every part of the 20th century," or "the other side of now." For a movie awash with a timeless set of images, that were both retro-futuristic and futuristically-retro, Brazil was, possibly more than any other film released round or about 1984, the most contemporary film of its day. And its triumph is that it still is.
"It allowed me to get out of my system something that had been bothering me for a long time," Gilliam later recalled "the frustrations of living in the second half of the 20th Century." Brazil began life on a beach in Port Talbot of all places. While on location for his first solo outing as director, Jabberwocky, in 1976, Gilliam found himself on the coal-dust encrusted beach, watching a lone figure picking up the strains of Ry Cooder's Maria Elena on his transistor radio. Around the same time he chanced upon a book at the home of noted historian and fellow Python Terry Jones that detailed how, in the Middle Ages, those accused and convicted — i.e. burned to death — of witchcraft, had to pay their torturers for the privilege of being tortured. Add to this some personal reminiscences — Gilliam's own inadvertent participation in the LA police riots of 1967 and his father's misguided belief in an acid-wielding plastic surgeon — and the nucleus of Brazil, then called The Ministry — or even 19841/2 — was formed.
Gilliam began writing the movie in 1979. It would take five years and several collaborators before it made it to the screen — in several different cuts. His first co-writer was Charles Alverson, a long time friend from Gilliam's early days working on the cult satirical magazine, Help!, in New York. Tom Stoppard subsequently took a few passes at it, followed by actor-writer Charles McKeown. "I was the one who had this thing
in his head, and probably had to use quite a few people to get it out," Gilliam later said.
Gilliam set about casting his movie: Jonathan Pryce as — for want of a better word, the "hero " — Sam Lowry beat out the likes of Val Kilmer and a then desperate to be in it Tom Cruise. The female lead Kim Greist snatched her role from the eager jaws of hot stars Kelly McGillis and Madonna to less lasting effect. The shoot itself proved problematic when, 12 weeks in, Gilliam and McKeown were forced to cut nearly half the film's fantasy sequences. Gilliam responded to such drastic cuts in his deeply personal vision by losing the ability to walk. "I don't know what happened," he said. "My brain just went catatonic. I couldn't get up. I couldn't move. I just went catatonic."
A week later, the director left his sick bed and completed a masterful film of neo-futuristic-retro chaos. With Robert De Niro cast as a subversive plumber, Brazil was always going to be a hard sell. But this was just the beginning of its long and troubled journey to finding an audience.
Universal Pictures in the US refused to release Gilliam's cut. He re-cut it and they still refused. He then took an ad out in film industry trade bible Variety questioning the studio 's decision and the LA Film Critics subsequently named it Best Film Of The Year. An Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay followed and Universal's hand was well and truly forced.
And in a strange way it's right that Brazil, the relatively little film about the cog in the wheel who dreamed of a better world, should have fought the fight it did. A film about oppression overcame its own and in doing so took a personal film and turned it into a universal (no pun intended) event.
Gilliam took Lewis Carroll's mirror and held it up to Hollywood and in the process discovered that he was indeed in one hell of a funhouse.
The most highly regarded American film in a year that has seen the fifth anniversary of YouTube is also the most topical: The Social Network, the story of the creation of Facebook. But just as widely discussed and altogether more controversial is the low-budget movie Catfish, which purports to be a documentary about an encounter involving Facebook between people from very different social backgrounds. It cost something like $30,000 to make, and on a limited release has taken $3m at the box office, which makes it a phenomenon of Blair Witch Project dimensions.
At the centre of Catfish is Yaniv Schulman, known as Nev, a young, New York-based photographer specialising in pictures of dancers. He receives an email from Angela Faccio, a housewife in smalltown Michigan, sending him a naive but rather striking painting by her eight-year-old daughter, Abby, based on a photograph of his. A correspondence ensues in which Angela introduces Nev to her husband, two sons and Abby's 19-year-old stepsister, Megan, an attractive artist, dancer and veterinarian's assistant. Megan herself joins in the communications, and sends Nev composite photographs of herself and him and some songs she's written, gradually upping the erotic ante. It is at this point that Nev's brother, Ariel, and their friend Henry Joost, a partner in the small film company they run, become fascinated by the relationship.
From then on in Nev, as the subject, and Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, as directors, become involved in a jokey collective documentary in which Angela, the distant, unseen Michigan housewife, is the unknowing fish being played on their hook. Certain discrepancies in her story and in that of daughter Megan arouse crucial doubts, and the trio string her along. Then, on their way back from a documentary assignment in Colorado, they make a side trip to confront Angela and Megan in Michigan. It is at this point that I draw a veil over the intriguing story. I need hardly say, however, that the outcome is not as gratifyingly romantic as the revelation that the lonely faceless widower in Sleepless in Seattle turns out to be Tom Hanks, or that the anonymous penpals in Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner are revealed to each other as Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart.
Much of the apparent authenticity of Catfish derives from the grainy, rough-and-ready quality of its filming. This is a developing story captured on the wing by larky, creative explorers with cameras in hand. If it is real, are the makers exploiting their unwitting collaborators? If so, are they men with that "sliver of ice in the heart" Graham Greene thought all true artists should possess, performing a valuable public service in exploring the effects of the new media? On the other hand, if it isn't true should we take pleasure in a cleverly made fiction employing traditional methods that novelists have used since the days of Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson to give their work the texture of unmediated reality?
In an essay about Othello, WH Auden interpreted Iago as a practical joker turning a chaotic universe into a meaningful personal world by manipulating the lives of others. In this light one can see Catfish as a tale of hoaxers being turned upon by other hoaxers in a succession of mirror images that ultimately involve us as spectators the way double and triple agents function in the espionage underworld. We live in a time when we regard everyone in the past as peculiarly innocent and gullible and think of ourselves as particularly sophisticated and sceptical. Yet the physical separation and anonymity of cyberspace and the new media seem to have made us even more open and vulnerable. Confidence tricksters flourish today as never before, exploiting old and new media and playing as usual on greed, desire, fear and guilty consciences, as well as more admirable human traits such as compassion, generosity and altruism.
Catfish, in fact, belongs, to a whole group of films that deal with various kinds of deception in electronic media. A little over 40 years ago Jim McBride's American independent ultra-low-budget production David Holzman's Diary was widely believed to be a genuine movie autobiography of a 60s hippie and now endures as a satirical portrait of its time. More recently and problematically, Casey Affleck's I'm Still Here, a fake documentary following the apparent breakdown of Joaquin Phoenix, showed you could fool all of America some of the time. Yet in less than four months after being shown in the official programme at Venice, it's now a minor curiosity.
More interesting are a pair of movies based on true stories. In The Night Listener, scripted by Armistead Maupin, a gay late-night broadcaster played by Robin Williams is drawn into the lives of an abused child with Aids who has a great literary talent, and his adoptive mother, neither of whom he's ever met. They happen to live in a Wisconsin town not far from the one in Catfish. In Easier With Practice, based on a piece of reportage in GQ magazine, a writer becomes obsessed with a seductive woman who phones his room at a New Mexico motel while he's on a promotional tour. They enter into a relationship not unlike the one between Nev and Megan in Catfish. There is a built-in warning in Catfish, when one of the people involved provides the film's title by telling a folksy story about how catfish were once put in barrels of live cod on ships bound for China. The object was to keep them fresh, alive, on their toes.