Friday, December 2, 2011

The Criterion Collection: Brazil 3-DVD set commentary and extras (1985)

"We do chicken right," declares Kentucky Fried Chicken, and if they hadn't gotten there first, The Criterion Collection might have wanted to co-opt the slogan. Except about DVDs, not about chicken. Although there is an extra-sized bucket of delicious fun in each and every Criterion DVD release!

Renowned for their comprehensive and respectful collections of important art house and foreign films (and Armageddon), Criterion attempts to give the viewer the most complete movie experience, championing the widescreen (or other original) format, and chock-full of commentary tracks, documentaries, behind-the-scenes extras, stills, and alternate cuts. Needless to say, I'm a big fan of the Criterion Collection. One of the very first DVDs I bought—a few weeks before I even had a DVD player—was their edition of Grand illusion. Made even grander than the first time I saw it (on a wobbly-screened VHS copy in French class), the Criterion edition boasted a completely restored film transfer. A good enough TV along with a Criterion DVD and you can count the hairs in Erich von Stroheim's nose.

The gem of the Criterion Collection is, as far as I'm concerned, Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Run out right now and buy it. Whoa, you're thinking as soon as you see it on the shelf or in your virtual shopping cart, this sucker's not cheap! That's because it contains three DVDs in a hardy translucent slipcase. Three discs? Three discs? Isn't that a little overkill, even for a solid modern masterpiece like Brazil? The movie that caused so much strife between Gilliam and Hollywood that it set the standard for the ex-Python's conflicts with studio department heads as he battled to preserve his specific vision on this and other films.

It's precisely the troubled history of Brazil that makes the Criterion edition essential, and each of its three discs serves a vital purpose in perhaps one of the most solid educations on film studio politics you'll get without getting yourself a SAG card.

Disc One is the meat of the meal: a digitally restored and letterboxed 142-minute director's cut, completely arranged to Gilliam's specifications. The restoration is solid but not perfect. It's not completely free of noise and specks in some sequences, which is surprising for a Criterion disc. Depending on your attention to technical details, this may bother you. I found them minor enough to only note down to mention them here.

It's on Disc One that the extras Criterion is so famous for and that make this such a shining set begin to impress me, with an extensive commentary track by Gilliam. Telling, funny, sardonic and enthusiastic, Terry Gilliam "explains it all for you": the tone and the sweep of what he was shooting for in from scene to scene, and an extensive explanation of why this is his preferred cut. There's his sad, resigned, sometimes angry and well-argued explanations of what happened when Universal demanded cuts and re-edits to the final film. (Keep these details in mind; you're going to see them in action later.

For dessert there is a tray of assorted tasty tidbits on Disc Two: a collection of more than the usual assortment of extras: storyboards, design, soundtrack creation, stills and the trailer. (A lot of these are text of still photo oriented, so get ready to exercise your one-frame-forward clicker thumb extensively.) The highlight on this disc are two documentaries that lay the framework for the history behind Brazil's creation and de(con)struction. The first, What is Brazil?, is a swift and compelling behind the scenes documentary covering the making of the film and interviews with the cast and crew. It's the kind of doc you'd expect to see on HBO around the time a movie is released, pushed by the studio to promote and generate pre-release hype and attention. The fact that this documentary wasn't seen by the general public until the compilation of the Criterion Collection edition is especially telling—a clue in the disownment of Brazil by Universal like shuffling an embarrassing child under the table.

Documentary two is even more important and telling, and fills in this history of the clash between Gilliam and Universal in an hour of history and interviews by Jack Mathews, former film critic of the New York Daily News and author of the definitive book on the film's controversy, The Battle of Brazil. (You'll want read his book after you watch this doc.) Mathews's documentary is a great intro to studio infighting and politics, chronicling Gilliam's increasingly frustrated attempts to get the studio to release his cut of the film with publicly embarrassing (for Universal) publicity tactics including clandestine "guerilla" screenings that brought the director's cut to viewers and critics around the country. The compromise eventually reached—a 132-minute cut that incorporated more of Gilliam's original vision and plan but still contained much of the studio's meddling. If you saw the film in theaters in late 1985 or '86, you saw this cut.

Disc Three contains the dirty deed of the three. If Discs One and Two were a meal and a dessert, this is a trip to the vomitorium. (Betcha didn't guess I was going there with that metaphor when I started it, huh?) This is the original 94-minute cut by Universal, sardonically dubbed the "Love Conquers All" version, which rearranges and re-edits the film into a document of more slapstick comedy, an obvious and dull black-and-white "us vs. them" theme the slices the throat of Gilliam's shades-of-grey subtlety, giving it a happy ending that allows the lovers to fly off into the future together. You've likely seen this version on TV, but hopefully not often. It's accompanied by a very telling and fascinating commentary track (yes, that means you'll probably need to watch this turkey version twice) by film critic and author David Morgan. Morgan edited one of the definitive books on the history of Python, Monty Python Speaks, a collection of late 1990s interviews with the surviving Pythons that may be the closest we'll ever get to having all five of them and Graham Chapman's ashes sit down to do commentary tracks for every episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, a project that's sadly only a wishful hope of mine. So there's no doubt in your mind whose side Morgan is on from minute one. Inferior as this cut is, it's essential viewing for Morgan's commentary, a thorough autopsy of the Universal cut, including clear-minded arguments showing Universal's failure to understand the film.

It's a pity, then, that for all I joke about the garbage aspect of the film, that part of the production quality on this Criterion disc adds to that perception. This is, quite frankly, a rotten print of this cut, full-screen and noisy, with color bleed and fade, and specks sometimes so large you'd guess Universal had been eating cornflakes over the print. I call shenanigans on this print on you, Criterion: there must have been a better print of the "Love Conquers All" version of the film. Putting a lousy transfer cheats by making the lesson we're learning about Hollywood politics over the top. Even watching identical scenes from Disc One to Disc Three tilts the argument in Gilliam's favor. His case is so strong, it would have been more effective with a play-fair pristine cut of the Universal edition. That's a little like buying a complete set of the James Bond films and then argument about the picture quality on Moonraker, but hey, it's Criterion. You don't expect them to skimp, even on the poor stuff.

Gilliam is one of my favorite directors and one of the very few who can pull me into a theater to see a movie on the director's name alone (that is, if the movie even gets finished). He's got a wide reputation of directing failures and flops wrought with disaster, sometimes tragic luck, sometimes playing hardball against the studio. But even his lesser films are interesting to me. When he's firing on all cylinders (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is another example as far as I'm concerned), Gilliam is a genius in my eyes. Perhaps that's at the heart of the controversy that defines both this Criterion box set and Brazil itself: it's not easy to grapple with Gilliam. His films aren't paced, aren't framed, aren't structured in a traditional manner, and it's sometimes hard to comprehend one without a repeat viewing. Twelve Monkeys baffled and outright infuriated me the first time I saw it, and I still can't quite wrap my mind around his intentions in The Fisher King, but that's OK. Gilliam challenges his audience like a good foreign film does: a Hayao Miyazaki film isn't structured or paced like a Pixar film, and this approach is often harder to connect to, but both are capable of eliciting delight, sadness, excitement and other emotions even if the story beats aren't in the same places in the US and Japan. To dismiss Brazil as a futuristic (it's not) dystopian fantasy like that of George Orwell (well, not if you actually read Orwell, no) that requires a happy ending to appeal to film-goers is to miss the point catastrophically, which is just what Universal did, and, I presume, continues to do as does every other studio. We just don't get to see it or hear about it. Viva Gilliam for bringing us Brazil, viva Criterion for collecting the films and documents that make a convincing argument for Terry G. as one of the great directors of the late twentieth century, and that open up the story of the Hollywood system more concretely and clearly than any single-disc, non-extra'd DVD of the director's cut itself could.

Brazil is available on DVD from Criterion in both a single disc and a three-disc slipcased set. You know which one you want.

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