Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Monty Python, No. 5 - Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life was always meant as the troupe’s swan song, their final “all original material” movie meant to accompany Holy Grail and Life of Brian. As they’d already tackled revered British myth, then Christianity, The Meaning of Life had to aim pretty high to top that subject matter in audacity and gumption. Hence life itself, with attendant notions of man, death, aging, the soul, all a heady stew of philosophical preponderance dismissed with typical Pythonesque learnedness and irreverence. Python bows out with an intellectual, tit-filled epic.

For such a broad theme as “life,” coherence is hard to come by. In place of a uniform story, “life” is defined roughly as the “Seven Stages of Man,” as in William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It:” infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon, second childhood. The end result mostly a series of unrelated sketches. So it’s a return to the format of “Flying Circus,” with all the anarchy that implies, but on a much grander scale.

That scale is a problem. Terry Jones returns as solo director, and his direction is ever more assured and professional than ever. That is a problem. “Flying Circus” and Holy Grail, amongst the cheapest, fly-by-their-seats Python productions, gain a noted energy and verve from those hindrances, which surely do not plague The Meaning of Life. There is nothing akin to the coconut-banging inspiration here, as the Pythons have a free reign to do as they will. This means, too, lots of ambitious filmic passages which are not concerned with comedy. That approach worked to ground Grail and Brian, with their uniform period settings. The Meaning of Life does not need that, which bogs down the yucks when it needs a light and madcap pace. This it does not have.

The Pythons seem tired in this effort, a bit older and a bit wiser and a bit less risqué even while their final film boasts moments more calculated than ever to offend. Basically every single sketch is over-long and wordy (like this blog!); often the writing gets caught up in actually relating intellectual ideas sans joke, even while resolutely refusing to completely engage in the endeavor of actually defining the Meaning of Life. Some could cite this as anti-humor, that it’s funny for characters to start rattling off ontological considerations in a medium where such debate if usually discouraged, even in pretentious fare. Certainly the Pythons know their shit. But there’s the impression The Meaning of Life substitutes laffs with off-pacing, self-indulgence and complacency.

Of course it’s Monty Python, so it is still funny!

An example of The Meaning of Life’s bloat is the short feature which precedes it, The Crimson Permanent Assurance. This wonderful effort directed by Terry Gilliam was originally meant as a part of The Meaning of Life. Subbing for his old animations (of which he’d grown tired), Gilliam does this special sequence in live action, as a training run for Brazil (with which this short shares much of the same crew). Left to his devices, the thing grew into its own beast, from a 5 minute gag to a half hour epic. By pacing, tone, style, et cetera, The Crimson Permanent Assurance does not fit in with the rest of Life. Hence its banishment to the start.

Outside of the larger context, Gilliam’s mini-movie is a wonderfully surreal, fantastical merging of the insurance industry and old-timey Errol Flynn swashbucklers (clearly The Crimson Pirate). It isn’t funny per-se, despite its comic mien, but it’s an uplifting, bizarre, wholly engaging effort.

Of course, the whole of The Meaning of Life is built upon pieces which don’t quite fit (by the writing process), sketches written in the “Flying Circus” style a good decade after “Flying Circus.” This means that a sketch on, oh, let’s say war, lacks the inspiration and youthful ridiculousness it would possess in the old TV format. Such a sequence exists in The Meaning of Life because the “Stages of Man” necessitate a soldier section. That’s kind of the wrong way to go about mocking the military.

As a vague effort to provide this disheveled picture some cohesive glue, behold the film’s “symbol:” all the Pythons in fish guise. There’s pretty much no particular joke to this, beyond the visual of the fishes (and the sense that fish = surreal, in a premeditated sort of way). Later on, these aquatic M.C.s become a Greek chorus, even offering up complaints as to the film’s lack of focus (anticipating audiences’ reactions). Still no particular joke, though.


The first sketch proper concerns John Cleese and Graham Chapman as doctors in a big, expensive, hospital. They oversee a birth, and the film’s first Pythonesque detour. Graham Chapman, who was a REAL doctor, brings his knowledge – and indeed, Chapman plays almost entirely doctors in Life. Actually, the whole of Life appears a wank on the actors’ various educational backgrounds, hence all the philosophical name-dropping and lengthy jokeless discourses.


Here’s one of the problems with Life: Their sections have subsections, as though there was more than one idea for “BIRTH.” with the various writing teams unwilling to throw out their babies, if you will. “PART 2” is a film highpoint, so I can see retaining it, but the film’s overall pacing becomes very lurchy.

As a contrast to the above, this Michael Palin, Terry Jones-starring segment lampoons the Irish Catholic habit of overpopulating our world. There is a good visual gag about over-filling the frame with children, which is then over-milked by director Jones as are most of the decent jokes. What really makes the Irish section sail, though, is Palin’s show-stopping musical number, “Every Sperm is Sacred.” See, the scene develops out of a discussion of Catholic attitudes concerning human reproduction. The word “sperm” gets sung several dozen times, to differing effect. Like any good musical, this escalates into unreality, the best example of Python’s late-era surrealism.

Then there’s even a sub-diversion within this sub-diversion: a stopover in a nearby Protestant household, where Chapman’s staid husband (arguably not a doctor, so scratch my above statement) launches into an extended debate about the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. It’s well-informed, well-researched and well-stated, but the only joke is the occasional description of condom usage. If that conceit is not immediately amusing, the whole bit runs too long. That is an ongoing Life issue, as the post-Airplane! era makes this now seem very slow-paced.


Extended scenes in an Anglican Church. Same issue as always: it goes on for too long, when the only real joke can be surmised from the title of the hymn Palin sings: “Oh Lord, Please Don’t Burn Us.”

Then we stay in the ill-defined school age setting, a sub-“Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)” assault upon British education. John Cleese’s schoolmaster enters into an extended sex education lecture for a bored audience of schoolboys – this on-screen boredom does not enliven the film’s tenor. As for Cleese’s dialogue, it’s all a dry and emotionless scientific extrapolation of the technical elements of intercourse, delivered while Cleese is actively engaged in the act of sexual congress. This contrast of elements provides the humor, as no single strand is amusing on its own.

A couple minutes of rugby viciousness force us to ponder how many lumpy sequences this “GROWTH AND LEARNING” segment shall cough up, when rather it becomes a segue for –


If only, for the sake of that one edit, they hadn’t the need for a long, unfunny sports scene…

WWI plays host to the first sketch, about a birthday celebration in the trenches. Same pacing problem as always, and that’s the last I’ll mention that. This scene really highlights how unlike “Flying Circus” The Meaning of Life is, even when it’d rather not be.

Then, because the movie has 20 minutes to spare and no better ideas, the rest of the “War” section concerns itself with the First Zulu War of 1879 of all things. At length, the jokes explore the distinction between the British officer and soldier classes, until that nail has been quite hammered home. Pretty much ignoring the “War” portion entirely, it becomes a debate about what happened to Eric Idle’s leg, it having disappeared off his body in the middle of the night. Chapman, the doctor, uses lengthy (I know) medical logic to determine this was done by a tiger, not a virus, never mind tigers don’t live in Africa.

The “tiger,” when found, proves to be Palin and a different Idle in a tiger costume, a far less amusing variation on the “Pantomime Horse” and “Pantomime Princess Margaret” nonsense pioneered in “Flying Circus.” This sequence really is just sputtering on fumes, with no end in sight, leading Terry Gilliam to force his way onto the screen and thankfully announce –


As if to celebrate this non-milestone, Michael Palin in drag announces an intermission of sorts for a calculated descent into surrealism: “Find the Fish”

This has to be a satire of surrealism, or something, for the Battersea Power Station-set routine is so stilted and awkward and random. It’s as if the Pythons had suddenly realized, as their last effort, they had to stuff in as many of their contextless gags as they could, regardless of context. This is OK with “Fish,” but the tenor extends into the continued movie proper…


For while this segment ostensibly concerns Palin and Jones’ couple at an antiseptic Super Inn vacation resort, there’s no accounting for a lengthy and unexplained Gilliam cameo in drag as Little Bo Peep.

Ditto the couple’s dinner table discussion about the titular Meaning of Life itself. Primed by cue cards, they run through assorted Germanic philosophical meditations, the joke being that this middle class, middle age couple could care less about such esoteric concerns. Meaning the joke is only funny to philosophy students, probably, and I sort of am a philosophy student. Visually, all this is set in a medieval dungeon, for no reason, which serves Hawaiian food (for no reason). After 5 minutes, that fact becomes very distracting.


Okay, this movie just doesn’t care anymore. Taking a Grand Guignol digression (within multiple sub-digressions to begin with), doctor Chapman harvests organs from an anesthesia-free Terry Gilliam (as a Rastafarian Jew, because whatever). They’re now failing to recapture the “Black Knight” sketch.

Cleese, who is there, loses interest, and instead discovers Eric Idle in the refrigerator (?!). Idle sings the “Galaxy Song,” which is simply a scientifically accurate description of the universe and its attendant galaxies, etc. Except for being a song, and a general non sequitur, there is no joke here.

Here’s where the Gilliam-directed segment would have fit in, to interrupt an Aquinian consideration of the soul taking place in the Very Big Corporation of America’s boardroom. The Crimson Permanent Assurance short still invades the feature proper, which is a nice little tweaking of the film medium (in good Python style), except… This only happens by necessity. Such a clever conceit was not part of the original concept, which is why so very much of Life is lifeless.


Idle sings “Isn’t it Nice to Have a Penis?” Because he wrote this song (biologically exploring the human penis’ characteristics ad infinitum), and it had to be squeezed in someplace.

“Oh shit! It’s Mr. Creosote!”

If The Meaning of Life offers anything of true value to the annals of Python, it is Mr. Creosote (Jones), the most disgustingly fat man in the whole wide world. And they didn’t even want to do this skit! The gist – Mr. Creosote visits a high-toned restaurant, vomits on everything, eats everything, then explodes gorily. This is pretty much the invention of modern gross out humor, and this is where The Meaning of Life best parallels the “Black Knight.” For that one pioneered dismemberment as comedy, as Mr. Creosote does for, well, fluid humor. This is the one moment of Life where over-extending the gag works.


Yes, a subsection.

Cannibalizing the puke-stained goodwill Mr. Creosote earned them, the Pythons decide for once to actually directly engage the notion of the Meaning of Life. This means lots of soliloquies, expertly delivered, but mostly lacking in anything discernable as “jokes.” Add to that an uncut tracking shot following Idle out of the restaurant and all the way to the countryside. Of course, the “oner” is a hallowed cinematic tradition, a director’s favorite means of showing off. This is what Jones is doing, for there is no joke to this.


At last! And when you think of death, what do you think of?

Scads of heaving, naked breasts, naturally. I’m not even going to provide the context for this.

Then it’s onward to dark comic fantasy, as the Pythons do Bergman. Ah, gags about obscure, pretentious Swedish cinema! Death himself (John Cleese) visits his reaping upon a dinner party full of typically blasé married couples. They mostly pooh-pooh Death, which seems like something out of a Terry Pratchett novel. The jokes are low on the ground, as usual, so at least this moment works as genuine eerie horror. Jones the director effectively conveys the cold, icy grip of Death, even when this approach is at odds with everything Monty Python (which may be the point).

Everyone travels to Heaven, the Super Inn resort, as the Pythons now do an extended Pressburger and Powell. It becomes a Las Vegas show tune, “Christmas in Heaven,” because Chapman wanted to drop the doctor schtick and do a Tony Bennett lounge act at the finale. More naked tits grace the screen, though these are plastic, a phenomenon not usually seen outside of Los Angeles.

Then the TV shuts off.


Palin’s drag queen hostess concludes the picture in the same way it mostly lived: in an extended rant on philosophy and nothing in particular, well-acted but without anything like particular jokes. The familiar “Souza March” sends us pissing off, as Monty Python’s official collaboration comes to an end.

One cannot lament the end of Python, because the troupe members were more than simply pieces of one comedic brand name. Each post-Python has made a name for himself, cashing in his anarchical early years for continued success.

Terry Jones continued with scant directorial output, notably Erik the Viking and 1996’s The Wind in the Willows. Freed from Pythonesque restraints, here Jones’ emerging style (a blessing and a curse in Life) could operate sans limitations (or at least, not Python limitations). Otherwise, Jones’ efforts have been in the area of writing, often as a historian (his true background), often even correcting popular historical misconceptions fostered by his Monty Python movies.

Terry Gilliam is the real director of the group, with Brazil coming immediately upon the heels of The Crimson…you know. His ornate, intricate, fantastical, stream-of-consciousness, over-adjectivized style is instantly recognizable in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Twelve Monkeys less so. Gilliam is likely the unluckiest director alive, shunned by studios, balked by backers, with his stars dying on him and the Spanish military practically bombing him. For over a decade he’s been struggling to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote; maybe some century… Man, what is it with “Don Quixote” and failed movie adaptations?!

Eric Idle is the most financially successful of the Pythons now, though it took him a while. His Broadway musical “Spamalot” rocketed Idle up to Mel Brooksian heights. Otherwise, Idle has been a consistent performer, largely a voice actor, and a prolific songwriter (see the Rutles…oh, and “Spamalot,” naturally).

John Cleese had already conquered non-Python TV with “Fawlty Towers,” and as a comic writer he has remained busy, for instance with the “Fawlty”-esque A Fish Called Wanda. (What is it with these guys and fishes?!) As an actor, Cleese is in damn near everything, most of is usually not very good without his writing. Take for instance his replacement as Q in the reboot-necessitating Die Another Day.

Michael Palin is the other most prolific actor, often appearing in his former teammates’ projects. Incongruously, he is now a travel writer. This goes hand-in-hand with Palin’s status as a BBC travel documentarian, a role he has expanded into programmes on artists. I can’t even begin to reconcile this with Palin the Python.

Graham Chapman died of cancer. The Pythons have honored his legacy in appropriately ill-fitting Python style, by cursing and badmouthing Chapman at his funeral, and by spilling his cremated remains during a reunion. Chapman wouldn’t have it any other way.

Chapman’s death is the definitive nail in the coffin as to a focused Monty Python revival, as though anyone doubted their schism in 1983. Those assorted reunions, and specials, and “Spamalot,” and money-grubbing ephemeral merchandise nonsense all combine to maintain the Python legacy, as though it needed any help. Their contribution to the language of comedy is immeasurable, also making it difficult at times to gauge just how revolutionary their early efforts were (and are). They proved comedy could be broken from formula, tradition and taste, and yet still be done with inestimable intellect.

Now – piss off!

Related posts:
• No. 1 And Now For Something Completely Different (1974)
• No. 2 Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
• No. 3 Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
• No. 4 Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982)

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