Ducts: A Representation of Bureaucratic Chaos in Brazil
In Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, when the wall panels are removed from the home of the main character, Sam Lowry, a mess of tubes and wires spill out into the room like greasy intestines. From the very beginning of the film the symbolic importance of ducts is clear; the first scene is an advertisement for different styles of ducting available for homes. The ducts are portrayed as a means of connection between people; however, because they are completely controlled by Central Services – a self-perpetuating autocracy that controls every aspect of the citizens’ lives – they also represent the corruption of the bureaucratic system of governance. Through Brazil, Gilliam depicts a society that promotes an image of seeming proficiency with a ducting system of support, while, in reality, these ducts are just an unorganized mess of cables and wires. This conveys the frightening reality of total reliance upon a deficient centralized government obsessed with processing and controlling information: whoever manages the information technology within society yields an unbelievable amount of power. Thus, if the controlling power is inept or corrupt – and Central Services is both – the results can be catastrophic. Gilliam, ultimately, is drawn to this theme in fear of our own contemporary societies becoming entirely subservient to a corrupt government.
In the opening scene of Brazil, the audience is confronted with a salesman displayed on several television screens in a shop window:
Hi there. I want to talk to you about ducts. Do your ducts seem old-fashioned, out of date? Central Services' new duct designs are now available in hundreds of different colors to suit your individual tastes. Hurry now while stocks last to your nearest Central Services showroom. Designer colors to suit your demanding tastes.
The ducts are a system of tubes that run throughout the citizens’ houses and present a way to carry out numerous tasks within the home in a supposedly convenient manner, from heating and air conditioning to communicating all information. However, the ducts rarely make life any easier for any of the characters in Brazil. In an interview, Gilliam admitted to drawing the major inspiration for the ducts from the old Victorian era houses in which everything from plumbing to heating was retrofitted. Gilliam's view was that “adding 'modern conveniences' defaced the beauty of these old homes” (Glass 23). In the working-class Buttle home, the family members live their lives while giving way to ducts that hinder their daily activities. In the scene where we first meet the Buttles, the family is sitting together in their family room, which, according to the notes in Gilliam’s original screenplay, “is oddly encumbered by huge metal conduits that snake unpleasantly across and through the walls” (Mathews 12). These ducts are noticeably emblazoned with the Central Services logo. In Sam's home, the ducts are not visible initially, but make their presence felt as an undertone when they break down. In the middle of the night, Sam awakens, “dripping with sweat and screaming,” because “his room is oppressively hot” (Mathews 32). After attempting to fiddle with his thermostat to no avail, he must force open a window in order to get enough normal air inside his house to call Central Services and demand his air-conditioning ducts be fixed (Gilliam). In the words of film critic for the Text and Performance Quarterly, Richard Rogers, “The heating system in [Sam’s] apartment is a mass of intestinal tubing and breathing apparatus that makes his life miserable, not comfortable” (Rogers 39).
In the Ministry of Information Retrieval, however, there appear to be no ducts at all. Instead, the ducts bring all of the information to the Ministry; they deposit the information, and then stop. Prominent, on the other hand, “are the security measures, which include automatic mobile cameras, video screens, and groups of security who search all who enter” (Mathews 43). This conveys the immense irony of the bureaucratic society. The lack of information ducts within the Ministry and the abundance of security measures imply that, while there is no need to monitor the government, the citizens pose a threat and must be watched and guarded against. Ironically, the government is actually the one doing wrong, as they interrogate and murder innocent Mr. Buttle as a result of a fluke error in information retrieval, for example. Gilliam thus reveals the corruption of a government who claims to provide stability, when really they do more harm than good. In this way, he also critiques the political systems that existed once existed in his home country, England – the corruption of the bureaucracy and the subsequent domestic violence that came about as a result of public unrest (Orwell).
The ducts have clearly infiltrated the citizens’ lives, revealing that Central Services is an omnipresent governmental force. In Brazil, while Central Services claim that the ducts allow the community to be drawn together by providing a central system of communication, they actually drive people apart, requiring them to leave their homes less and less as they become completely dependent on technology to meet their needs. For example, as soon as Sam Lowry’s alarm goes off at the beginning of the movie, all of the appliances in his apartment start up: window shutters, bathroom taps, coffee maker, television, and an automated closet. However, most of the furnishings in the apartment appear to be built-in, and “many have the Central Services logos on them with the admonition ‘Do not obstruct or remove’” (Mathews 12). The ducts that control every aspect of Sam’s home allow him to be monitored and watched at all times. In this way, Terry Gilliam criticizes the bureaucratic system of Central Services, which “has seemingly seeped into every crack of society with the purposes of controlling the most valued commodity of the modern age: information” (Fister 292).
The most serious problem of this control is presented when the walls come down and the ducts are exposed. Archibald Tuttle, played by Robert DeNiro in the film, is a free-lance duct worker who once worked for the government but left as a consequence of the cumbersome amount of paperwork, a universal symbol of burdensome bureaucracy. His character provides the main source of opposition to Central Services, and his terrorist activities against the government lead to the wrongful capture of Mr. Buttle in the beginning of the film. While he is in Sam's apartment, attempting to fix the air-conditioning system, we see the unorganized mess of conduits and cords that make up the duct system. This chaos is the main instrument of support and control for society. However, “the information technology that underpins the system is often baffling even to its own executives” (Fister 91). Central Services controls society using this complicated mess of ducts; however, clearly, neither Central Services nor the ducting tubes are in a condition suitable to hold such power. In the words of film critic and author of Spirituality and Practice, Frederic Brussat, Central Services and the Ministry of Information Retrieval are “an inept bureaucracy that creates chaos everywhere” (Brussat 12). The people also have no real understanding of the information technology and, thus, no way to control it. Therefore, the underlying problem of the society in Brazil is the lack of any competent power in command of the flow of information. This is a shocking discovery to the viewer of Brazil, as we come to realize how easy it is for even our own governments to control all means of communication. With this power in their hands, any kind of governing body poses a great threat. It seems that Gilliam holds no hope of deterring the trend of governmental control, as both Sam Lowry and Archibald Tuttle suffer painful deaths at the end of the movie. Lowry appears to have lost all capacities after receiving a lobotomy, and Tuttle is ultimately consumed by piles of flying paperwork outside of the Central Services offices. Clearly, Gilliam predicts a grim fate for any society that becomes entirely controlled by a centralized, oppressive governmental force.
Ultimately, the ducts that pervade Brazil are an important symbol, though they might seem unrelated to the primary narrative. They provide a cautionary note about the direction in which modern society is moving. Through his film, Terry Gilliam clearly wishes to provide a warning about the threats of oppression by the bureaucracy in our contemporary culture. The viewer comes to realize how easy it is to sink into a state of complete subservience to the government; the bureaucratic society essentially has the power to dominate our lives. The development of information technology and the ease of communicating ideas only adds to this power. In our society, “Good and evils are difficult to separate…[and] technology, instead of simplifying our lives, adds to the confusion.” (Rogers 44). We must consider this warning carefully as the information age continues to accelerate, with more and more webs of communication being created through the advent of new technologies and means of social networking. Ultimately, as Gilliam successfully reveals, whoever controls the flow of information into society is going to have tremendous power. In the words of Mr. Helpmann, Deputy Minister of Information in the film, “Information is the name of the game. You can’t win the game if you’re a man short” (Gilliam). Thus, in our own contemporary societies, we must be extremely cautious about where we delegate the great responsibility of information management. Otherwise, we might well become destroyed by the information, as Tuttle is consumed by a mass of symbolic papers at the end of Brazil.