Bravo New Worlds


Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet called it “retro-futurism,” and that’s as good a label as any to slap on Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a willfully absurdist dystopian fable about an impossible future that feels more like an antiquated past, a Romantic pretzel- twisting of Orwell and a nursery-rhyme-inflected sci-fi dream epic that appropriates equal parts Fritz Lang, Hellzapoppin’, Orson Welles, and illustrator Brian Froud. It remains a stunning achievement, if nearly as exhausting and frustrating as the Tex Avery bureaucracy it roasts, but Gilliam’s stylistic dysfunctionalities, art-directed out of junkyards, are what still percolate in the forebrain. The brass-and-rubber technology, the maggotlike ductwork, the reappearance of primeval electronic equipment for high-tech ends, the constant visual suggestion that the future is run on steam power—Gilliam understood that all futuristic films end up quaintly evoking the naive past in which they were made, and turned the principle into a coherent comic aesthetic. Gilliam is never one to hide his handmade miniatures or shower-curtain chintz too carefully.

Everything, the saying goes, will eventually be seen in its director’s cut, and since Brazil may be the last quarter century’s most notorious Hollywood final-cut skirmish, here’s the film’s European version, touted as being “closest” to Gilliam’s original conception. The additional 12 minutes are, outside of an entire scene in which Jonathan Pryce is visited in a padded cell by Peter Vaughan’s wheelchair-bound bigwig dressed as Santa Claus, nearly undetectable, but do directors’ cuts really make a difference? With or without the new footage, Brazil 13 years later seems more thoroughly conceived and surely executed than it did initially, just as Michael Palin’s portrayal of the complicit company man seems to be its year’s best supporting perf and the ending, for which Gilliam fought so hard, is perfectly, joyfully grim.

Another tabletop sensibility that lives and breathes in a very small world all his own, Bill Plympton has a way of making his animated sketch movies dumbly ponder their own collapse into flesh-rending chaos. When nothing is moving, his pencil lines still do, as if shifting uncomfortably with the helpless knowledge that something horrific is about to happen.

Plympton seems to have learned a lesson from his earlier, disappointingly hokey feature The Tune, and with I Married a Strange Person he pops the cork off every vision of distended human flesh he ever had. Plympton is famous for his runaway distortions of uncomprehending human physicality (often tying numb middle-aged men in knots through their nostrils, etc.), and his new feature spills more blood and guts than Saving Private Ryan. It’s hardly a restrictive scenario Plympton’s dreamed up for himself: thanks to a misdirected laser or something, a dim-witted newlywed hunk acquires a swollen neck lobe, which, for better or worse, materializes his every daydream.

What you get is in-laws overrun by beetles, lawn grass that stalks its owner, a copulating wife (this year’s most outrageous sex scene) whose breasts grow until they invade the yard. There’s no subtext here—it’s all right there on a plate for you—but Plympton’s strength is his visual timing; he’s a master of the pregnant pause cut short by the abrupt punch-image, of slow-motion calamities abbreviated by the sudden ka-thunk of gravity. However hampered by poor vocal acting and lousy songs, Strange Person is packed with Plymptonian thwacks, like the fantastically still moment before a giant corporate thug punches a flack’s brain out his mouth. It’s the pause that separates the men from the boys.

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