Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Monty Python, No. 3 - Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

During the premiere of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Eric Idle grew sick of reporters asking him what the comedy troupe’s third film would be, it having not even been considered yet. In final exasperation, he responded, with veiled contempt, Jesus Christ – Lust For Glory.

But no matter, for the troupe was schisming. Monty Python was going their separate ways at this stage, the “Flying Circus” having landed.

John Cleese took off prior to the final season to write and star in “Fawlty Towers,” possibly the greatest sitcom of all time (having created the greatest sketch programme of all time, why not, eh).

Terry Gilliam began a fruitful directing career with 1977’s Jabberwocky, very much a companion piece to Holy Grail. It had the same medieval setting, the same heaping torrents of grime, the same Michael Palin (and also Terry Jones). Twas even released Stateside under the Python moniker, which was a fallacy.

And Graham Chapman devoted himself fully to the bottle, surely the noblest goal of all.

But the lure of doing for the New Testament what they’d done for Arthurian legend was too strong. Toying with this broad notion, sketches concerning Jesus were battered about – of note, a bit where He berates the cross builders for their poor carpentry. But the Pythons discovered that Jesus was not deserving of their mockery, as even their atheists had to admit to a soundness of His philosophies. Instead they looked to areas surrounding the Christ for their yucks.

Ultimately they conceived the completely unassuming Brian Cohen, a man alive during the time of Christ who is himself mistaken for the Messiah. This allows for the basic backbone of the New Testament, a framework for sketches, while keeping the Lord safe from lampooning. Now Monty Python’s Life of Brian (the possessive needed to indicate brand name, and label this a “sequel” of sorts to Holy Grail), the Pythons invested “a concentrated two-week writing and water-skiing period in Barbados.” The result is the closest thing in the troupe’s history to a proper narrative, suggesting an evolution of their approach.

Life of Brian is still populated by sketches, Monty Python’s bread and butter, but the story concerning Brian is itself very strong, with the plotline much more than a simply connective tissue. It is the focus, with sketch-like gags layered and built throughout. This is necessary, for with Life of Brian Monty Python intends a specific satirical point, beyond the abstract anarchical absurdities of Holy Grail. Western religion, obviously, takes quite the spanking here, as do topical political problems now disguised in a First Century milieu.

This degree of heightened focus extends to the director. Now ‘tis Terry Jones alone in the role, Terry Gilliam acquiescing to the positions of art director and animator. This works best for the comedy, leaving Gilliam free for personal exploration in other works like Time Bandits and Brazil. But the same problem that plagued Holy Grail comes back to life in Brian: budget issues. Not that there ought to have been, considering Monty Python’s increased reputation. However, their script did put off many investors (EMI Films), what with the blasphemy and all. In the end, their savior was once again a rock star, George Harrison (a Beatle), whose Handmade Films funded the faux-Biblical epic almost entirely out of pocket.

Of course, it helps that filming in Tunisia allowed the Pythons access to the sets and extras of a real Biblical picture, a self-serious and professional, realistic effort no one cares about anymore: Jesus of Nazareth. This is the desert equivalent of Holy Grail’s Scotland.

Now that Monty Python has, for the first and last time, embraced real narrative, I suddenly do not wish to microscope the story as I’ve done before. Certain elements of the tale are familiar anyway (or at least should be), as they parallel Jesus’ final years, His sermonizing to disciples and death on the cross.

Life of Brian gets to that – eventually – but there is so much more about life in Judea, A.D. 33 (SATURDAY AFTERNOON, ABOUT TEA TIME) that is of interest to Monty Python. There is the Roman occupation, for one, and the existing Hebrew rabbinical tradition clashing with it. All in all, the historical conditions which made Jesus’ ministry so fruitful are equally fruitful for a richly populated comic universe.

To start with, Jones as director maintains the same well-researched devotion to authenticity he brought to Holy Grail. Of course, to accept that, one must willingly overlook the multitudes of willful anachronisms on display, for the general presentation of peasant life in Jerusalem easily wins out over the high-fallutin’ efforts of things like Ben-Hur (which Life of Brian makes to look like an epic, by its tagline’s assertion). So the visual fabric, the mise-en-scene as I believe the intelligentsia (and/or French) like to say, is mostly – mostly – genuine.

This has the Holy Grail effect of putting the silly comedy in highest contrast. One interesting thing about Life of Brian is just how it defines its comedy within the Roman world. Now, most period epics “spoken” in dead languages are in fact done in the ponciest, upper-crustiest British accents possible. Life of Brian is performed all in British accent, too, but something a lot more lower-middle class, with lots of anachronistic Cockney inflections, and other vocal tics. It makes all the characters seem somehow contemporary in attitude, turning debates on the meaning of Jesus’ teachings (and Jesus does appear briefly at the very back of a massive crowd scene) into pissy arguments over nostrils and marital bliss.

Some of the contemporary conversations are a little more couched in period trappings, to better mask their satirical intent. Consider the lilies – No, I mean, consider the political element. Long before Brian, in his purposeless existence, is ever taken for the Christ, he falls in with a political revolutionary movement called the People’s Front of Judea (to distinguish themselves from the Judean People’s Front, the Judean People’s Popular Front, and the Popular Front of Judea – splitters!). While the stated aim of the PFJ is the dissolution of the Roman Empire, both here and in Rome, their time is really taken up with petty in-fighting, endless speechifying, debate, and other inconsequential considerations (such as arguing the value of a man’s pregnancy).

The leader of the PFJ is Reg (John Cleese), aided by Roger (Michael Palin) and Stan/Loreta (Eric Idle). These roles are the closest these actors have to main roles. Unlike Holy Grail, the amount of multiple roles is greatly increased, including scenes with up to three separate John Cleeses at once. The one exception to this is Graham Chapman, as Brian is such an essential figure, he hardly has the opportunity to essay any other roles (only 2 more).

But I’m letting issues of casting get in the way of Brian’s story. He only joins the PFJ out of a totally unjustifiable attraction to a rare genuinely-female female: Judith Iscariot (Sue-Jones Davies). By her name, Judith may be a stand-in for Judas, though she has even more Mary Magdalene in her. The Christ stuff isn’t really central for the first half, save for the presence of Brian’s mother Mandy (Terry Jones, our noble director, in perhaps the single greatest drag act of his career) doing her best to parallel the Virgin Mary. Mostly by being completely unlike the Virgin Mary in every way, up to and including soliciting “her” sexual favors upon the Romans.

These are the main women in Brian’s life (of), and his main driving force. The issue of womanhood becomes quite prominent in Life of Brian, but it never weighs heavily. Rather, an early stoning scene accomplishes the logical end result of the troupe’s habitual cross-dressing. Only men are allowed to attend public stoning, forcing every woman in down to don an unconvincing beard. Keep in mind these are men-pretending-as-women-pretending-as-men, down to trying to do falsely deep voices in their false falsettos. It’s all pretty good.

The stoning scene, apart from being Holy Grail’s witch burning sketch for the Jews, is a good opportunity to focus upon the film’s religious angle. John Cleese appears as a Pharisee, insisting upon the immutable word of Judaic Law. The established religious establishment is a major literary element of the Gospels, for what Jesus’ new ministry stands against. In Python’s approach, these elements allow the film to start connecting Brian indirectly back to Jesus early and often, with surprising subtlety.

It isn’t until well after half way through – sometime after Terry Gilliam invades the movie for the sake of a multi-minute Star Wars parody, for completely no reason – that Brian irreparably gets himself mixed up with the Messiah. On the run from the Romans over suspected “terrorism,” Brian literally drops into the role, plummeting from the PFJ’s headquarters onto a prophecy pulpit. Brian barely mumbles his way through an ad hoc sermonizing, in order to hide from the passing centurions. But once they’re gone, he shuts right up, and that sudden withholding of “wisdom” is enough for the nearby onlookers to mistake Brian’s shyness for holiness. They pursue the shiftless sod, seeking further moral guidance, as Life of Brian comes into its own.

Now, this is the central issue of Life of Brian: Is it blasphemous? Accusations were lobbied at the film even prior to its production to this effect, that is mistreats Christ as the target of juvenile jokery. The religious establishment in the UK and elsewhere reacted quite strongly to Life of Brian, sharpening their barbs in a dry run for Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ later that decade. This amounted to picketing, “Nuns with banners” in Palin’s estimatioon (Michael’s, not Sarah’s – shudder!), and to endless debate about the film’s no-doubt untold immorality.

The picture was even banned! Some of this took place in random British townships, odd considering these places didn’t even have movie theaters. Makes sense that uproar would happen in Britain towards the end of the ‘70s, as this was around the same time that Mary Whitehouse began a righteous crusade against presumed violent content on VHS – the “video nasties,” which really has nothing to do with Monty Python, but those guys sure do love a good purposeless digression. Of course, Whitehouse was a leading anti-Brianite as well, the priggish beast. This nonsense climaxed as whole nations, Ireland and Norway, outright forbade the picture! (Thus the Swedes were advertised “the film so funny that it was banned in Norway.”)

The Pythons couldn’t be happier! One thing movie picketers never seem to realize is that their efforts to destroy movies simply earn them more recognition. And in the subsequent interviews the Pythons gave, they earned the chance to appear far more reasoning than their aged establishment critics.

Given all this furor, just what is the content of Brian’s religious satire? Brian himself is dead set against his new Messianic reputation, and seeks to dodge his unwanted disciples. It is only they who pursue the issue, hounding Brian unto the ends of Jerusalem. Within the first hour of this new faith’s existence, it runs through a potted history of the Catholic (and Protestant) Church: faith forms, sects schism, persecution follows. The mockery of this section is entirely at the expense of Brian’s followers, who are so very clearly pursuing a false belief.

So to the question “Is Brian blasphemous?” one must answer “No it is not…It is heretical.”

Indeed, the Church’s form of belief gets thoroughly mauled, but all to Monty Python’s central thesis: You’ve got to think for yourself. (Of course, agreeing with that statement is a sheep-like thing to do.) False and unintentional miracles are taken seriously, devotion sown blindly, the entirety of Brian’s supposed godhood created entirely by his followers. A choice bit of dialogue:

An exasperated Brian: “Just fuck off!”

Disciple: “How shall we fuck off, O Lord?”

The specifics of the Christian belief are never themselves attacked in Life of Brian. The issues surrounding belief, however, are. Faith, as a worldly phenomenon, is shown as zealotry, in this case at least. Dialogue shuts down, even from the voice of Brian himself (not Himself), lest something he says jibe poorly with the believers’ preset notions of divinity.

One with a permissive faith would have no real issue with this argument. There is no question that the Church has schismed since the time of Christ, and that horrible things have been done in God’s name, things like the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition (no one ever expects it), those Left Behind movies. The stubborn dogmas of all world religions are an impediment, with real questions lost under the weight of holy gourds versus holy shoes. But I think I’m suddenly on a soapbox.

For the less permissive, any criticism of the Church or its followers is tantamount to religious treason. It makes the perpetrator (the Pythons) an enemy to be combated rather than someone interested in a healthy debate.

In labels of blasphemy, Christ never once literally becomes involved in this farce. The Christ story is visited indirectly. The closest Brian comes to doing as Christ did is his final crucifixion, alongside 139 other convicted felons. Some lobby accusations that this is false, that it trivializes the torture Christ went through upon the cross, ignoring the fact that crucifixion was a historical punishment routinely employed during the Roman Empire. Brian was due up for a cross long before he ever because a False Prophet, thanks be to his run-ins with Pontius Pilate (Idle).

There is an air of flippancy to the crucifixion scene, needed perhaps in order to maintain the tenor of ludicrous humor through to the end. The final joke, far from the infernal condemnation or scandal more faithless viewers may hope for, is a simple song and dance number: “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life.” It’s strangely uplifting in how it addresses human mortality minus questions of false divinity. Still, Life of Brian’s ending must be second only to Dr. Strangelove’s in comic darkness – things aren’t wholly happy when 140 innocent people are cheerily singing about their own doom whilst propped before a mass grave.

The ending just sort of comes about, with no final punch line, though it is more decisive than what Holy Grail gave us. Monty Python has always had trouble with their endings, seeing as “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was founded upon the notion of writing sketches without endings. Of course, the movie format demands closure in a way assorted television shenanigans do not, which trips up the Pythons at the last lap.

Which is a shame, for much of Life of Brian is a blessed funny movie. One feels the energy slowly sapping out of it in the entire sequence leading up to the crucifixion. It could be that the weight of such a loaded moment is more than Monty Python is able to handle. Most of the comedy in the Third Act revolves around a variety of speech impediments, some like Pilate’s (his “R’s” sound like “W’s” – he is a “Woman”) losing much of the silliness they had before. There is a lot of stalling, a lot of humor by discomfort…extended efforts to engage with Terry Gilliam’s jailer madman. While clever, it simply isn’t as dense as much of the preceding film.

And Life of Brian surely is dense with its comedy. Even little moments, like the cock’s crowing at morn, become jokes – Terry Jones takes over for a rooster. There is none of Holy Grail’s stop, start momentum, because it is a lot harder to identify where sketches begin and end in Life of Brian. It helps to have a legitimate satirical point or two – religion and politics, specifically – which helps the Pythons create their most dramatically cohesive effort ever. Compared to simply mocking King Arthur, which is mostly a blank slate for any number of unrelated hijinks.

On the laugh front, Life of Brian is certainly comparable to Holy Grail. I prefer it, actually, but that’s because I enjoy the movie’s superior construction, and I find the central religious question an interesting and important one. In fact, I’d go so far as to call Life of Brian easily one of the most successful cinematic treatments of the Christ ever made – never mind it is not a treatment of the Christ. To that list I would add the aforementioned Last Temptation, as well as Carl Dreyer’s silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc – and that movie isn’t even about Jesus at all.

What all these efforts show is a unique and non-sentimental approach to the Gospels, which ironically comes closest to creating the sort of emotional and intellectual feeling one gets from directly encountering the Gospels. This is, for me, in direct opposition to Mel Gibson’s reprehensible The Passion of the Christ, the sort of self-important hagiography which offers up not transcendence but rather disgusting torture pornography far beyond the pale of even Saw III. Curious the things I find immoral and the things I do not – Monty Python’s Life of Brian is not an immoral work, for as much as it feels like it ought to be. It is actually serious about Jesus, in a way a formulaically prescribed Biblical epic cannot be. And it’s damn funny too, I can’t state strongly enough, a perfect melding of the sublime and the silly.

Within Britain perhaps more so than the U.S., Life of Brian routinely appears ranked as one of filmdom’s best comedies, if not the best. Of course, when Brian doesn’t appear, it’s because Grail is there instead. It is almost a point of contention which effort is Python’s masterpiece. Regular Python geeks surely prefer Holy Grail, as it is a more perfect assortment of easily-quoted sketches, with little larger context to throw things off. Life of Brian is all about its context, lending itself to acts of contemplation other than the standard “quote Monty Python until your friends ostracize you” routine most people prefer. But as a movie, a viewing experience, Life of Brian reigns supreme.

Related posts:
• No. 1 And Now For Something Completely Different (1974)
• No. 2 Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
• No. 4 Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982)
• No. 5 Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)

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