Assessing Terry Gilliam.

Assessing Terry Gilliam.

Assessing Terry Gilliam.

A guide to 20th-century culture.
Feb. 20 2007 2:52 PM

Terry Gilliam

What Braziltells us about torture today.

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The following essay is adapted from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.

"No no no no no no no no … "
—Terry Gilliam, Brazil

Terry Gilliam. Click image to expand.
Terry Gilliam

Born in Minnesota in 1940, Terry Gilliam, after pioneering his personal graphic style as a resident artist for Harvey Kurtzman's Help magazine, reached international fame by way of Britain, where his visual inventiveness, based mainly on the silent wit of animated collage, was an important part of the "Monty Python" television series. In his subsequent career as a film director, he earned an unjustified reputation for extravagance when his Adventures of Baron Munchausen left its budget behind and sailed off into the unknown, but on the level of cold fact, he has proved, with several Hollywood projects, including the extraordinary Twelve Monkeys, that he knows exactly how to bring in a movie on time and on budget. (These undeniable achievements availed him little, however, when his film version of Don Quixote had to be abandoned. A measure of his idiosyncratic creative energy is that even a documentary about that film's abandonment— Lost in La Mancha—is required viewing.) Really, he doesn't fit the Hollywood frame at all and needs his own country of which to be a representative writer; if he had been born in Montenegro instead of Minneapolis, today there would be an annual Gilliam Festival on the shore of Lake Scutari—although his tendency to giggle at a solemn moment might still queer his pitch. His best work depends on an audience that can see past his laughing facade to the troubled man within.

Gilliam came nearest to inventing his own country with Brazil (1985), one of the key political films of the late 20th century. Brazil is one of the great political films, an extraordinary mixture of Fellini and Kafka, with a complex force of synthesized images, which belongs to Gilliam alone. A meek, distinctly nonglamorous secretary is taking dictation through earphones. She types up everything she hears in the next room. In the course of time, the viewer of the film deduces that she is compiling an endless transcript of what a victim is saying in a torture chamber. Even if he screams it, she types it up as if he has merely said it. She herself says nothing, and her face betrays no emotion as the words quietly take form. Her boss, the torturer, is played by Michael Palin in the full, sweet spate of his bland niceness. This is the ne plus ultra of torture as an everyday activity. The torture surgery contributes one of the most brain-curdling of the film's many disturbing themes (still revealing their subtleties on a third and fourth viewing). The suggestion seems to be that a torturer need be no more sinister than your doctor. That's the picture we take away. But how true is the picture?

In modern history, there is plenty of evidence that torturers are people who actually enjoy hurting people. What was true in medieval Munich was true again in the cellars of the Gestapo HQ in the Prinz-Albrecht Strasse, and what was true under Ivan the Terrible was true again in the Lubyanka and the Lefortovo. The frightening thing is that any regime dedicated to ruling by terror so easily finds a sufficient supply of lethal myrmidons. Even Americans, on those occasions when they bizarrely conclude that the third degree might expedite their policies instead of hindering them, never suffer from a shortage of volunteers: At Abu Ghraib, the dingbats were lining up to display their previously neglected talents. On the whole, the man in charge is not a sadist himself, presumably because it would be a diversion from his organizational effectiveness if he were.

In his huge and definitive political biography of Juan Peron, the esteemed Argentine historian Felix Luna gives us a once-and-for-all illustration of how the author of a state that rules by terror can detach himself from the brute facts. Luna takes the view that the torturers were just doing their job. He calls them tecnicos and describes the subtleties of the technique, which on the torturers' part did indeed require a certain lack of passion if the victim was to survive for long. If Luna gets you wondering how he knew so much about it, your questions are answered a few pages later, where he records a conversation he had with Peron in 1969. "But in your time," said Luna, "people were tortured." Peron said, "Who was tortured?" Luna said, "Plenty of people. Me, for example." Peron said, "When?" With due allowance for Luna's emphasis on their clinical indifference, the maniacs who do the work seem mainly to come from the unfortunately plentiful supply of those who do enjoy inflicting pain for its own sake. "In what pubs are they welcome?" Auden asked rhetorically. "What girls marry them?" It is a nice question how large the supply would be if circumstances did not create it. Alas, the circumstances seem often to be there. Many of the Nazi torturers enjoyed their omnipotence on the strict understanding that without their place in the regime they would have been nothing: hence the tendency to go on tormenting their prisoners even after Himmler called a halt. They faced going back to where they started, which was nowhere.