Mid '80s Gems Revisit Big Screen

Local Screenings

'Brazil' And 'Antonio Gaudi' Showing Locally This Week

July 24, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

When Jonathan Pryce's Sam Lowry, the bureaucrat at the center of Terry Gilliam's mad chef d'oeuvre, Brazil (1985), goes to work in the Department of Information Retrieval, his office resembles a badly multiplexed movie theater.

Saturday at 10:15 a.m., in the Wheeler Auditorium of the Enoch Pratt Free Library downtown, the Pratt's Film Talk series will present Brazil - and with the fate of the Senator uncertain (anyone who hasn't seen the new print of Akira Kuroswa's Rashomon should rush there now), it's critical for Baltimore movie fans to support film organizations and events like Film Talk, which continue to cater to movie lovers.

Out of cabaret, sci-fi, comic strips and maybe some Classics Illustrated versions of Orwell and Kafka, director Gilliam, one of Monty Python's founding members, pulls together a vision of a neo-fascist near-future. The plot is daunting and rickety - an enormous inverted pyramid resting on Pryce's widow's peak. It starts when a bug gets caught in the workings of a government machine and results in a mistaken arrest. In order to protect his dream girl (Kim Greist) when she protests the alleged wrongdoer's arrest, Lowry must rebel against the authorities. But the movie itself is the major act of rebellion. It's ironic that Gilliam fought with Universal chief Sidney Sheinberg - one of Steven Spielberg's mentors - over the completion and release of this movie. For in many ways it's like a bleak, dirty-minded Steven Spielberg film. You can see why J.K. Rowling wanted Gilliam to direct the Harry Potter movies - and why the suits at the studios wouldn't stand for it.

The film is a visual masterpiece. Norman Garwood's gleefully eclectic production design mixes Mussolini-era monoliths, art deco and found objects from a couple of centuries in a style that could be labeled art drecko. The master plan of the entire movie is what gives Brazil its seedy grandeur. In Lowry's fantasy life, his antagonist is a huge, sinister samurai warrior who looks as if he's been pressed into being by piles of metallic garbage. He's almost a parody of the heroic figures in Kurosawa's Ran (which means Chaos).

Brazil starts with a TV discussion of ducts, which isn't just a whimsical touch. Ducts and popes and tubular passages of all kinds dominate the imagery, snaking through the background or popping out like kudzu or taking center stage at a tony restaurant. They literally tie the society - and the movie - together. They're the mirror-image of the serpentine politics and viperlike functionaries of the State. When the Marx Brothers turn up on a TV set, the homage is earned. Brazil isn't just Gilliam's Chaos. It's also his Duct Soup.

This week's attraction at the Charles revival series, Antonio Gaudi (1984), is, at least in its imagery, a perfect matched opposite to Brazil. Hiroshi Teshigahara's nearly wordless documentary salutes the work of the revolutionary architect who brought the forms of the Catalonian landscape to the streets and skyline of Barcelona. As Teshigahara's camera caresses the unexpected curves and deeply textured surfaces of Gaudi's constructions, the film becomes a dream of urban beauty. Antonio Gaudi contains just as many crazy twists and details as Brazil, but in Gaudi's nature-loving art they induce not despair, but euphoria. The movie screens Saturday at noon, Monday at 7 p.m. and Thursday at 9 p.m. at the Charles.

In my favorite moments in Brazil, Robert De Niro shows up as a terrorist repairman who dresses like some kind of Maytag frogman and swings from skyscrapers like Batman. It's one of De Niro's freest mid-1980s performances, revealing the humorous gusto he had when he made Greetings and Hi, Mom for Brian De Palma. Happily, Hi, Mom will be the opening attraction for a new film series starting Friday, July 31, at 8:30 p.m., at the Hampden coffeehouse El Rancho Grande. More on that next week.

Before then, you can catch the closing-night attraction of the West Shore Park summer film festival, Joe Dante's giddy horror comedy Gremlins. If it attracts a big enough crowd, maybe next year we'll get to savor this director's crowning achievement, Gremlins 2: it would be lovely and subversive to watch Dante's satiric Manhattan-skyscraper inferno in the open air.

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