So Orwellian, Kind of Orson Wellesian
Recent news events have led some public figures to call the actions of social media companies “Orwellian” for banning Donald Trump and thousands of his followers who had advocated for political violence. It’s kind of a litmus test for stupidity to see people misuse the term “Orwellian” or basic application of the First Amendment, but it did get me thinking about the movie 1984. I have a strangely nostalgic relationship to the movie and recently purchased the Criterion release of the movie, which looks spectacular.
There was a time from my mid-twenties until turning 30 that I had a few Christmases away from home that were spent by myself where I would be searching through Netflix for something to watch. This was more than ten years ago when streaming Netflix was so sparse that once you got through the offerings from Starz, you really could watch everything that was watchable on their service. 2009 was a Christmas where I did not plan things very well, I went to see Avatar on Christmas Eve in Pittsburgh and had planned to buy food for Christmas after the movie, only to realize all the stores were closed. I looked and looked all over Netflix for something to watch and settled in on the Michael Radford directed version of 1984, which I’m not sure I had seen before. I was in a mood where it was more enjoyable than depressing, so the experience was pretty memorable. The next year I was in Phoenix for my first Christmas there and my family would come to visit either right before or after the holiday and 1984 was available yet again on Christmas, and so a strange little tradition had begun. Since having a family, I don’t quite get away with gathering everyone around to watch John Hurt getting tortured by a fascist regime on Christmas morning, but I do chuckle to myself thinking of what I used to do.
Initially, I had also seen a really moving story about a man’s family who had been almost entirely lost at Auschwitz after he had seen images of a man at the Capitol Insurrection wearing a sweatshirt glorifying The Holocaust and considered doing a double feature of 1984 with another one of my favorites, Schindler’s List. I decided to keep it purely Orwellian to save my sanity and made a little watchlist of movies similar to 1984 that came to mind from a Criterion Group member who asked about similar movies.
The movies that come to mind come in three overlapping groups that all fall under the umbrella of dystopian movies. First, 1984 (1984), V For Vendetta (2005) and Brazil (1985) all have direct Orwellian influences. Additionally, 1984, V for Vendetta and Snowpiercer (2013) all feature John Hurt in very different roles in dystopias. Finally, The Trial (1962) and Kafka (1991) both are dystopias influenced by Franz Kafka, and are dark and dirty, authoritarian cities reminiscent of 1984. Unfortunately The Trial and Kafka aren’t very easy to track down these days either streaming or from especially good DVDs or Blu-Rays, so I skipped watching them here.
The Big Lie
It’s pretty interesting how quickly the terminology for the false claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election was coined as “The Big Lie.” It’s really fitting. It’s the lie that the insurrection requires to believe in order to drive followers to do outrageous, violent and destructive acts against the best interests of everyone. These dystopias all require some kind of big lie to justify the loss of liberties and to constantly escalate the power of the authority.
The movie of 1984 was made entirely in the year it was set, one scene was even shot on the day it was set, although it was purely by coincidence, and released in the year 1984. Brazil is a dark comedy that came out just a year later whose dystopian setting is so similar to 1984 that I often confuse scenes in my mind. Both involve a forbidden love story, a big lie of the dystopia, and an interrogator. The big lie and interrogation are both running themes throughout these movies. Both movies are set in futures that were dreamt up from 1940’s aesthetics. For the Orwell story it is because that is when the book was dreamt up and the movie does not assume more than what the brain of the author could have dreamt. Brazil takes on a similar aesthetic because the big lie of its story comes from the value placed on the regime for bureaucracy and the technology that has not caught up with the needs of the society. It’s that inefficiency of the outdated technology and overbearing amounts of paperwork that accelerates the plot and throws Tuttle into the resistance. It’s also a commentary on consumerism and takes place around Christmas, making it actually a dystopian Christmas movie.
The big lie of 1984 is actually closer to V for Vendetta than Brazil. 1984’s lie is about the War that requires theri society to be under tight restrictions and under the prying eyes of the totalitarian regime. There is a war movie in the background of 1984, although I’m not sure if we ever get a straight answer on whether the war is actually going actively happening or if they just pretend that a series of wars with different enemies have all been the same engagement through their history. The war is the vessel for the propaganda and the reasoning for the restrictions by the government. The lie of V for Vendetta is that the St Mary’s Virus is to be blamed on terrorists, when in reality it was created by the government (led by the authoritarian John Hurt) and when it was let out it resulted in 100,000 deaths. In a dark way, when I saw this I thought, “oh is that all? We almost have four times that now due to mismanagement from our government. Alan Moore has a keen sense of the cyclical nature of history and this has a massive outbreak in England at the same time as a second Civil War rages in the United States.
Alan Moore set another series of his books, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in the universe of 1984, although his books that give us stories of a group of antiheroes from literature including Captain Nemo, Allan Quartermain, Ishmael, and Jekyll/Hyde. The books span decades and at one point the time period between books skips 1984 including the rise and fall of Ingsoc although there are still remnants of authoritarianism that stick around. Although V For Vendetta isn’t set exactly in the 1984 universe, it is hardly foreign territory for it’s author.
The big lie in Snowpiercer is either the truth about the thawing world, which isn’t so much of a lie but a fact unknown to most characters, or the philosophy of the ecological balance on the train. It is that concept of ecological balance that contradicts itself as the security troops kill people from the back of the train and the numbers that are spared have more to do with anniversaries rather than carefully thought out balance based on resources. Another lie is that the leaders in the front and back of the train are in cahoots to preserve that balance, or that the abducted children are being brought to the front in order to maintain the engine that can no longer run on its own. The engine is treated as a religious object on the train and in the graphic novels it and Wilford are followed in a cult-like manner. The book has an added lie that Wilford had actually died a long time ago and a puppet was being used to try to trick the passengers. It works better in a comic than it would in real life, I guess.
The interrogators in 1984 and Brazil are quite similar. There’s a little familiarity with the main characters and the interrogators, who don’t come across as menacing until they have John Hurt and Jonathan Price in a room strapped to a chair. Hurt’s interrogator is played by Richard Burton, who takes the biggest fear of Hurt, rats, and threatens him with a cage that allows the rats to eat his face to get him to confess on camera. Before that time Burton is kind fo Hurt, making him comfortable which makes the turn even that more jarring. Price’s interrogator in Brazil is played by Monty Python alum Michael Palin who is silly and friendly, but ultimately more punishing that even 1984 as his interrogation results in the lobotomization of Price. Price is “lost” in the end, although it could be seen in a more hopeful sense that he finally can escape into his fantasies on a permanent basis, a frame of thought that would be impossible in the confines of the dystopia where he is not much more of an unrequited suiter of the real world love interest. John Hurt in 1984 is able to get the younger and more attractive love interest to be interested in him in the real world of his dystopia, but Jonathan Price needs to be completely detached from reality to live out his own fantasies of a love life.
The interrogators of Snowpiercer and V for Vendetta are much less straight forward. While it seems that Snowpiercer’s Tilda Swinton is the main interrogator, freezing and smashing off the arm of someone from the back of the train, it is later revealed that the seemingly benevolent mentor played by John Hurt is really the one who was getting information out of Chris Evans and relaying it to the Big Brother character at the front of the train, Wilford.
It is a similar situation in V for Vendetta, it could be thought that the interrogator would be the investigator, although he ends up being sympathetic to the revolution, or the propagandist talking head newsman, although he is dispensed with half way through the movie. It turns out the interrogator for Natalie Portman’s character comes from the faceless prison guards in her prison, who ultimately end up being V, himself. Her hair is cut off and she is made to read the final statement of a neighboring inmate, but all along it is V who is torturing her. She does take this abusive act to be informative of the bad acts of the government and help V, although she does leave him until the date of the final uprising. He is not the most sympathetic protagonist.
A Few Thoughts
The director of 1984, Michael Radford, was the only director of any of these movies to not have a pretty extensive and celebrated career aside from these dystopian movies, however his cinematographer Roger Deakins broke out as one of the most celebrated of his craft over the last four decades. The two of them wanted to shoot 1984 in black and white but they couldn’t get funding for the movie if they did that because it would be expected to be as much of a blockbuster as the financiers were hoping. Deakins found a Japanese movie that used a process to make a color movie look black and white, reverse engineered it and created the incredible look of this movie. Something about that process also makes the in-camera effects look more crisp, more spectacular and from a darker world than ours. Steven Soderberg made a 1984 type of a movie where the protagonist was a fictionalized version of Franz Kafka living in a dystopian version of Prague that was shot in black and white, until he breaks into the castle in the final act and the film changes to color.
Franz Kafka didn’t write the movie Kafka, but he did write The Trial, directed by Orson Welles. This is another black and white movie, although that was more expected at the time this movie was made. It’s the story of a man who gets trapped in a dystopian justice system of a city that seems to entirely exist inside a single enormous building. The sets are absolutely incredible although the dystopia feels like a mixture of an anarchy and a weird mob rule. It would be great to see this show up as a Criterion release, I think Kafka is getting a release soon and it will come with an alternate cut Soderberg just finished that was a couple of decades in the making.
Speaking of Orson Wells, there’s something about the speedy tracking shots and sets built on optical illusions in Brazil that remind me of Citizen Kane. Kafka and Brazil probably get compared to each other more often for their uses of humor and the surreal, but the style of shooting of Brazil is an illustration of Terry Gilliam’s amazing talent and his great filmography for so long.
V for Vendetta was not directed by the Wachowskis, although it was written and produced by them. It does feel like they had a strong hand in it that maybe feels as though it should be considered part of their filmography considering James McTeigue has been the assistant director with them for many of their movies. I found it interesting that the 1812 Overture was the song used by V for the demolition of The Old Bailey. The War of 1812 was fought between the young nation of the US and the British Empire over a dispute that British naval ships were capturing and impressing American sailors into the British navy. British troops burned the White House, invaded the Capitol and won every battle fought during the duration of the war. It was not a popular war, British citizens were horrified that they were at war in America because they were kidnapping American citizens and pressured their government into ending the War and returning the sailors. The U.S. won the war, but word had not travelled to Louisiana, where one last battle was fought, The Battle of New Orleans. The Americans were completely outmanned, but a failure to execute by the British meant that the battle lasted just over 30 minutes resulting in an American victory, 60 casualties for the Americans and 2000 for the British. Again, fought 18 days after the war had ended. Something about winning a war purely on public opinion against the British and ending it on a decisive victory despite kidnappings and brutal losses throughout the rest of the movie seems quite fitting for V For Vendetta.
Snowpiercer was the only one of these movies directed by a director whose first language is not English, Bong Joon Ho of South Korea, although the movie is almost entirely in English. His latest film Parasite was the very first foreign language film to win the Best Picture Oscar. Terry Gilliam’s only Oscar nomination was for screenplay of Brazil. Roger Deakins has been nominated for 15 cinematography Oscars and won twice for Blade Runner 2049 and 1917. Orson Welles was nominated for three Oscars for Citizen Kane and won for Best Original Screenplay, infamously depicted in the 2020 movie Mank. Steven Soderberg was nominated against himself for best director in 2001 with Erin Brockovich and Traffic, winning his only statue for Traffic.
Letterboxd Reviews of 1984, Brazil, Snowpiercer, V for Vendetta, Kafka and The Trial
Steven Soderberg Movies Ranked
Next Month: Okay, not really “next month,” this post kind of interrupted this month’s post which is upcoming and about Black and White alternative cuts of recent films including Logan, Mad Max Fury Road and Parasite.