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jungian films

November 23, 2010

This began as a term paper I composed in 2008 during my final year at University of Toronto. I’ve added a thought or two here and there. Most of what I was obsessed by and wrestling with at that time in my life went into this paper. I have no idea if it makes any sense at all to anyone else; I never even bothered to collect my professor’s comments after I handed it in, partly because it wasn’t really finished yet. Beware, it’s over three thousand words long and uses some technical terminology.

I can remember exactly where and when my favourite film first entered my consciousness: it was during an art class in junior high school, as the teacher was returning our sketchbooks after marking them. One of the images that I came up with happened to be that of a truck, driving across a highway over ruined apocalyptic landscape, with the surrounding devastation hidden from the driver’s view by an immense, unbroken wall of propaganda billboards. A penciled-in note on the margins from my art teacher asked, “Have you ever seen the Terry Gilliam film Brazil?” I told him later that I had never heard of it. At the time, any knowledge of Terry Gilliam’s directing career (beyond the brilliant Monty Python films) was news to me. The sketch derived from a seemingly incongruous image from my unconscious mind randomly introduced into my conscious awareness. I have since come to realize that its appearance merits further insight into how and why the film has resonated so strongly with me, and why it continues to spark off a web of associations and ideas both conscious and unconscious.

Many people have reported similar experiences upon viewing Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, which like Brazil found a cult audience on home video after its unheralded theatrical release. People recognize in the starkly beautiful visions of these films some elements of their own consciousness’ symbolic landscape. Yet a troublesome issue presents itself when analyzing the shared familiarity of filmic artworks such as Brazil and Blade Runner: they have been presented to audiences in fundamentally different ways at different times. Both films have, after their initial theatrical runs, been re-issued and re-visited by new audiences in “director’s cuts” that alter the work in an attempt to capture “final” or “definitive” forms.

Even delicate variations in the editing of a film can create or destroy the impact of its impressions on a subtle, unconscious level, blurring the distinction between what is and is not part of the audience’s experience — far more than editorial differences in, say, a work of literature. Psychological analysis of films depends on the effect they have upon an audience, and because a significant part of that psychological impact arises from the film’s compositional editing, the variance in experience caused by editing choices is necessarily part of that debate. This is especially apparent in the critical uproar when significant films become subject to revision and re-editing after their release (the classic example being George Lucas’ Star Wars and its sequels/prequels). Because the alternate editions of Brazil and Blade Runner tamper with the audience’s experience on not just a subtle but an overt level, it is even more important to analyze the impact of these variations.

It just so happens that no less than five editions of both Blade Runner and Brazil exist, all with slight differences. The first version of Brazil I ever saw was on a somewhat blurry home video cassette, played on a small television screen. I can remember the experience in detail: what the room looked like, where I was sitting in relation to the TV set, the lighting in the hallway outside… and of course, I immediately recognized the image that my art teacher had pointed out. Suffice to say it had an immense, visceral impact on me, and the more I watch the film, the more that feeling is unpacked. It has personal significance and lasting power partly because of its symbolic use of imagery, and partly for its adherence to as well as deliberate questioning of the archetypal heroic trajectory described by Joseph Campbell in his theoretical hypothesis of mono-myth. Gilliam co-wrote the film along with Tom Stoppard, whose predilection for using audience familiarity with pre-existing myth should be evident from his brilliant Shakespeare pastiche, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

The most impressive of all the film’s attributes is its sumptuous and incredibly detailed production design, into which Gilliam obviously poured his heart and soul. The psychodrama of Brazil takes place among a visual torrent of detritus from the entire 20th century. Universal Pictures marketed the movie with a poster depicting a man rising out of the dreary, workaday bureaucracy where he lives into a colourful fantasy world of his own imagination. This campaign presents a simplistic understanding of the function dreams provide, relegating them merely to a form of escape from reality. It may rest on an equally simplistic understanding of films themselves, which have the power to sweep up an audience in their grip without conscious participation. In any case, as with Blade Runner, the company that marketed Brazil initially had little idea of exactly what they were supposed to do with it.

Watching the movie more closely with the advent of leisurely home viewing outside the theatre reveals aspects of its gleeful flirtation with depicting conscious expressions of the dreams experienced by its protagonist, Sam. An entire “special feature” on the dreams in Brazil exists as a bonus clip on the Criterion Collection boxed set presentation of the film. It delves into the fears and desires from within Sam’s unconsciousness that appear in his dreams, which not only parallel waking life, but also provide glimpses into his unconscious desire for a healthier course of action. They are not simply an escape from Sam’s dreary existence, but comment upon that world as well. One dream, sadly not included in the final film, was to depict a whole landscape composed of eyeballs that followed Sam’s path as he flew overhead. The image of disembodied sight organs on mechanical apparatuses and Ministry propaganda recurs in the waking world of Brazil, so the unrealized dream would have certainly implicated Sam for not resisting his passive role in the living nightmare around him.

Perhaps the most terrifying image in the film is that of the doll’s mask, a Buddha-like infantile grin juxtaposed over top of the dream-world “forces of darkness” to chilling effect. This mask embodies the Jungian persona, a façade for the outside world that hides undesirable, unrecognized forces of the unconscious shadow. Sam never really resolves the conflicts within himself; although he decides to take the “heroic” path of taking up resistance against the harmful bureaucracy around him, he neglects its unintended consequences (namely, the harm done to other people). Sam’s friend Jack, a devoted family man, wears the same porcelain doll mask in order to separate his humane interests from the inhumane torture he must inflict upon victims of the bureaucratic Ministry of Information. Sam’s dreams play out scenarios of how he might behave as a heroic challenger to the Ministry’s reign, confronting the evil for which he is partially culpable. Reality does not turn out how he intended it, however, and the forces of darkness win out over Sam’s good intentions.

Nor does consummation with Sam’s mystical love interest, Jill, whom he first encounters in dreams, provide the promised unity of the Self that the dreams suggest. Near the climax of the film, Sam’s confusion of Jill for his mother (an object of desire to other men around her, whose addiction to plastic surgery indicates a corrupt desire for eternal youth) proves that he was mistaken all along in putting his hopes in their fervent love affair. Sam’s dream-like image of Jill surrounded by clouds and flowing hair is realized when they escape to his mother’s empty apartment, but this escape is brutally truncated the following morning when both are captured and Jill is apparently tortured to death while Sam himself is lobotomized by Jack. At the very moment of Sam meeting his fate, however, he finds another escape within his unconscious mind, constructing an elaborate dream of rescue and escape to a “happily ever after” ending with Jill by his side. In a brilliant directorial move by Gilliam, the audience does not initially realize this final escape is a dream at all: at the moment it begins, a bullet pierces Jack’s mask and there is no obvious signal that the audience is observing anything other than reality until the finale when Jack jarringly re-appears.

However, there are several versions of the film, one of which appeared on American television and completely reverses Gilliam’s message. Trimming some forty minutes of footage, including nearly all of the dream sequences and any indication that the “happily ever after” dream ending is a dream at all, it presents a far more traditional love story, wherein finding love saves Sam from any undesirable consequences of his reality. In a misguided attempt to make the film more accessible for general audiences, Universal Studios assembled this edit and, like their marketing campaign, it misses the point entirely. Anyone who saw this version of the film and no other must be sadly lacking appreciation of Gilliam’s intent to make a complex investigation into the heart of modern society’s psychological darkness.

Inspired by totalitarian regimes in real-life South America, and as depicted in science fiction films like Star Wars, Gilliam set out to make a commentary on how fear dehumanized society to the point of denying even the unstoppable power of the unconsciousness. Though he had never read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the film at one point went under Gilliam’s working title of “1984½”, and he admits to a limited understanding of the novel’s meaning gleaned via its status in the cultural “collective consciousness” (Gilliam’s words). Orwell, like Gilliam, created a variation on mono-myth where the hero does not return home, but instead is sidetracked on the path to heroism by forces greater than his own will can overcome.

At the crucial moment in the mono-myth, when Joseph Campbell notes that the hero must “descend and disappear” into the grave in order to be reborn, Gilliam’s hero Jack has already lost his conscious mind. Beset by any number of unconscious signals that Sam is dreaming, that what he sees around him is not real, the audience’s realization that the final twenty minutes of film have all been a lobotomized fantasy is still shocking at first, and perpetually disquieting. Rather than slaying the monolithic monster of bureaucracy (as he imagines doing in an explosive cataclysm of paper blowing into the sky), he becomes the nemesis that he once faced in his dreams. Unmasking the alien-looking Orientalist façade from his dream nemesis, Sam sees his own face on the monster.

Along with these psychological insights commenting on the personal involvement of individuals in the establishment of totalitarianism, Brazil also contains visual references to George Grosz and Fritz Lang’s early 20th century critiques of the Weimar Republic, and its imposing architectural manifestations of monstrous ego-inflation. Both Brazil and Blade Runner take place in societies that are clearly dystopic, yet draw from a range of familiar spaces and situations from the 20th century, and so place their narratives in the context of our collective cultural angst over suppressed unconscious activity. The cities in which both films reside deliberately embody the underworld of unconsciousness, in the vein of mythical Hades, with pervasive darkness and fire imagery throughout. This terrifying but beautiful landscape consumes all images of hope and renewal: in Brazil, Gilliam ironically juxtaposes the comforts of modern life underneath the parasitic tubes and ducts delivering it all.

Blade Runner additionally confronts the trope of humanity striving to create beings in its own image. This story is as old as the myths of the Golem and the Homunculus, re-appearing in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and countless works of science fiction as technology approaches human cloning on the order only previously imagined. Brazil contains flippant references to this human endeavour, as well. Sam’s comedic one-liner about how “time flies” as Jack’s young twins have paradoxically become triplets gestures towards the familiar theme of cloning becoming so widespread as to deprive society of values promoting individuation, and the respect for other individual human beings. In Blade Runner, the evil scientist Tyrell personifies this dehumanizing drive to eliminate subjectivity and replace it with technological replication. The totalitarian overtones of his corporation’s motto “more human than human” are terribly apposite.

Sam’s dreams are the only form of escape from the society he cannot ever leave, yet in Blade Runner the possibility of escape is not quite as clear: seeing a different version of the film may change the final analysis of what the story’s narrative conclusion becomes. One of the key mysteries of Blade Runner is that the humans behave somewhat like machines, and the so-called machines known as Replicants seem more truly human to us in their emotional responses. The question most frequently raised by critics and never fully answered by the film is whether the main character, Deckard – an anti-hero detective in the film noir tradition – is a Replicant or a human. Ridley Scott emphatically states he made the film with the intention of portraying the protagonist as initially uncertain, but by the finale certain that he is indeed a machine. Fans of the film and even those who worked on it continue to debate this conclusion, and it cannot truly be answered positively or negatively.

There is a moment in the “revised” editions (and an early work-print edit) of Blade Runner where Deckard dreams of a unicorn in the wilderness; this interruption from his unconscious mind at first seems to relate to nothing else in the film. Only later, when the mysterious trickster figure of Gaff leaves an origami unicorn behind in Deckard’s apartment, does the audience glean its symbolic meaning. Again, it was the director’s intention to use this scene as a clue that Deckard’s memories are synthetic, and thus accessible to anyone else. While Scott’s intentions are on record, the original theatrical presentation of his film bespeaks another story. It ends not with the ambiguous revelation that Deckard may be a non-human, but with a “happy ending,” in which he and his synthetic love interest Rachel escape the society much as Sam and Jill dreamed of doing. There is no trace of the unicorn dream in this version; instead, the unicorn as a piece of origami is solely a symbol, as are Gaff’s other origami figures placed at moments of his unconscious commentary upon the proceedings.

In myth, the unicorn is a figure of salvation: Jung wrote that its image shares mythical power on par with the Christ figure. Earlier in the film, Deckard had locked Rachel inside his apartment to complete his mission of killing or “retiring” Replicants (yet sparing her life). He returns home to find the door open — unsure if she has survived an intrusion in his absence. Gaff’s visitation of Deckard’s apartment suggests that he was on orders to “retire” Rachel, and yet chose not to do so. His deployment of the unicorn could be a calling card to Deckard, reminding him that their escape was an act of his salvation. Again, this interpretation depends on the audience registering all this information entirely subconsciously; the editing of the other versions obscures this interpretation by adding the more conventional implication that Gaff was merely reading Deckard’s synthetic memories.

The first appearance of Deckard’s unicorn dream occurs when he is reviewing family photographs that Replicants carry with them to “create” a past for themselves. Some argue that this juxtaposition implies Deckard only keeps his own photographs to create an artificial past for himself. A more nuanced take on this scene would incorporate the fact that all human beings behave in the same way: regardless of whether photographs actually represent an historical event that includes them, they nevertheless hold personal significance as an object of association and personal identification. The artificial “objectivity” of a photograph creates and solidifies memories in humans, just as Tyrell’s corporation does to their Replicants by implanting a fictitious past in their minds.

Joseph Campbell, writing on mono-myth, articulated that a completed cycle of the hero’s journey indicated a completion of psychic revelation. In Brazil, or at least the un-compromised versions of it, Sam realizes his own role in society’s destructiveness. Deckard reaches a similar conclusion when he confronts the humanity of Replicants head-on. His revelation goes perhaps a step further than Sam’s, if Deckard indeed realizes that he is a Replicant and thus is “the business” (a target for his own hatred and violence) that must be retired, just like his anima figure, Rachel. This is less clear in the original version of Blade Runner, where the unambiguous ending enforces a more simplistic rehearsal of the hero quest. Sam and Jill, tragically obliterated (mentally and physically) by the apparatuses of society, still find some escape in most versions of Brazil through their psychological responses. Unfortunately, the compromised version of the film severs any tension between Sam’s role in reality and his inner psychological life.

Campbell commented that comedy was a more complete revelation of truth than tragedy. In this respect, Brazil accomplishes a more revolutionary insight by combining both approaches in one story. Sam does not end his life trapped in the underworld, railing at a vengeful god; instead, he lives out his lobotomized existence in limbo – a perpetual state of vegetative happiness. He has grown apart from his old ideas and embraced his dreams, but because his outer and inner situation was so restrictive, it did not lead to a complete escape. He is not a tragic figure, because in a world of tragedy, the one glimmer of hope afforded by mental fulfillment can seem like a heroic victory. Sam has indeed been delivered from the clutches of those exerting control over him. For him, there is clarity after the chaos, despite the world itself remaining unchanged. On the other hand, Sam’s life is now completely identified with the unconscious. He will never detach from his vivid fantasy life again.

Like the “happy ending” of Blade Runner, which was imposed during the editorial process, the removal of this bleak conclusion throws the entire interpretation of the film into a different context. By avoiding a consciously constructed order, the moments of dream-world interruption from the unconscious (which may have provoked bewilderment to the Hollywood film studios) pour significance and richness into the artful blend of story and technique achieved by both films. Balancing both the mythic fulfillment privileged by Campbell and the numb reality of twentieth-century totalitarianism, Brazil straddles the conscious and unconscious sides of its classic hero myth. Blade Runner questions the human condition in its ambiguous treatment of what is and what is not significant about symbols and memories. To grasp the mechanics of their power it is necessary to appreciate the varying contexts in which the films were presented, all the better to examine modes in which they are perceived.

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