Sunday 21 December 2008

The Hanged Hangman

The other day I saw the film Brazil ( ). It was made in 1985 and starred Jonathan Pryce (currently in BBC3’s comedy series Clone) as Sam Lowry, a petty government clerk living in a dystopian fantasy similar to the setting in George Orwell’s 1984. Here’s a trailer: . And here’s a documentary with the director of Brazil, Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam: . Despite their similarities and constant comparisons there is one vitally important difference between the settings of 1984 and Brazil though. The New World Order in Brazil is not actively malicious, just deeply, deeply stupid; a monstrous anal-retentive bureaucracy, obsessed with red tape and rigid official documentation, completely devoid of any humanity and individual justice. In fact the driving force of the entire plot comes from an incident in which one of the character’s names gets inadvertently misspelt on a certificate and so they are mixed up with someone else. In the Brazil bureaucracy it is pointless to complain that such a mistake has been made for the reason wonderfully illustrated in the story of the Hanged Hangman, a joke about the consequences of a reality defined by officialdom rather than day-to-day reason and experience.

This joke appeared in the historical sitcom with Rowan Atkinson, Blackadder II (written by a man significantly-inspired by Monty Python, Richard Curtis), but I think it originally dates back to Dick Emery. It has several variations but goes along these lines:

John, an executioner, is up late one night filling out death warrants. He’s very tired and has trouble concentrating so he accidentally signs his own name in the box where the Death Row prisoner’s name is meant to go instead of the dotted line where the executioner usually signs. In the morning he is woken by the police breaking into his house and taking him away to be put to death. As his fellow hangmen tie him up and put the noose around his neck he protests his innocence: “Come on, guys! You can’t be serious! It’s me! You’re hanging the wrong man and you know it!” His colleagues reply: “Sorry, John. We hear what you’re saying, but you see we’re not hanging the wrong man. We’re hanging the right man and we’ve got the paper to prove it”.

This pathological fixation on rules, regulations and paperwork is very skillfully captured in Brazil. It’s a comedy film, but one with a pitch-black satirical wit that stuck me hard. In fact if I’d been producing the movie myself I’d have given it the title: Sign Here or Dotted Line. The urge to obey orders and rules at any cost is one I’ve noticed in our own society. Brazil is an exaggeration, but only just. I once heard a bus driver tell a passenger that the passenger could not buy the fare with her bus pass because it was only valid after 9AM and the time was 1 minute to 9! The passenger protested: “What difference does just 1 minute make?” The driver replied, and I can well believe him: “I could lose my job for letting you on board with this pass, even if I do it just one minute early”. For me this kind of brutal inflexibility in rules and laws is almost as sinister as things like Homeland Security and Internment. In a situation where the New World Order does get introduced (not if I’ve got anything to say about it!), I can well imagine that its hateful and spiteful nature probably would not last long; after a transitional period of imprisonments, shootings, torture etc its form would slowly change. Once the will of any dissent was neutralized forever it would probably eventually settle down into an insensitive and pitiless bureaucracy just like the one in Brazil. So along with overt and hostile government oppression like ID Cards and the War on Terror it is just as important to resist dehumanization and blind obedience in regulations and law.
The film is currently available for free on YouTube:


Alex Robinson said...

Hi Ben
Funnily enough I was looking at a poster for 'Brazil' yesterday - in an 80's movie poster book.

What gets me is how any living human being can become so rigid - is it that their world has become so small & inflexible that they wish to reduce everyones to the same level?

Was reminded of the Blackadder episode where he signs the death warrant for Lord Farrow for a Monday so they can have the middle of the week off LOL - a great series indeed.


Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Well there's synchroncity for you, WW!

I love the Blackadder series. The last one set in the Great War is the funniest and definitely the most satirical. Stephen Fry is brilliant as General Melchet. "Never fear, if you should falter remember that Captain Darling and I are right behind you"... "Yes, about 35 miles behind you!"

Devin said...

Ben -a great post-hi to you also wise-I believe I watched Brazil in 06 or 07 and was astonished at how much-the USA and perhaps the UK are getting there. The film, being made in 85 was incredible in some of its foresight-I always loved the line "Have you ever seen a real terrorist?" Best to you as always Ben-will try to link to you now-my computer or servers might be doing funky things-on my page it is insisting wise woman has a new post called 'Dont bank on it'-I try to go there and it says too long in this place doesnt exist!? Best to you Ben and thanks for your hard work-I am really upset at myself for trusting 'O'--heck things might even get worse-if thats possible after what has happened under '43'-I refuse to talk about him using his surname.

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Hi Devin,

Thanks, mate. I've had a look at your blog and it looks interesting too. Yes I like that "Have you ever seen a real terrorist?" line too. As Gilliam says in the documentary, at the time the film was made Britain was under attack from a bombing campaign that killed hundreds of people as well as some horses being ridden by the Household Cavalry. We were told that these attacks were the work of the IRA, and indeed a number of people were caught and convicted of the crimes, but most, if not all of them, have been aquitted after appeal!

I hope there are no further problems with your blog or WW's. It seems to be working at the moment. I can nsee the "Don't Bank on it" article.

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