December 7, 2016

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)

And so to seasonal review number two, 2011. OK, this is, I’ll admit, a tenuous link even by my standards, but it’s got a song about Christmas in it, so as far as I’m concerned, it counts. And anyone who posts vast rambling complaints on the comment board will duly be laughed and pointed at. So there….

I’ll be the first to admit, readily, that there’s not an awful lot to be said about The Meaning Of Life (the film, not the concept) that hasn’t already been said, but with a film so multi-layered, it’s always worth saying it again in a different, maybe more personal, way. Face it, for most people of my age, this was the defining Python film- we were too young to really take part in all the furore surrounding the Life Of Brian and its Muggeridge-induced backlash (although I remember it, and I saw the film on Phillips VCR 2000 in 1981) were barely out of our prams when The Holy Grail hit and weren’t even glints in our parents’ eyes at the inception of And Now For Something Completely Different, but we were just into double figures (ah, lovely quaint old term) by the time this hit retail video (teens at the time of its first TV screening) and Python were still very much a functioning entity then, so to gather round your mate’s house and watch this in its entirety was quite an event. The Flying Circus may have belonged to our Dads and Uncles, but this was our film. It still is.

Being the age we were, we probably weren’t quite sharp enough to detect all the subtle inferences and references contained within, such as the blatant satire of Thatcher’s recently deregulated health service displayed very early on in the ‘Miracle Of Birth’ segment: at 12, the “machine that goes ping” would have stuck in our minds and the rest would have gone over our heads. Nor would we have noticed just how much sheer vitriol, bile, hatred and spite drips from practically every sketch- we were too busy laughing with sheer incredulity at the fact that we were watching a large group of kids younger than ourselves playfully leaping up and down a Yorkshire street singing a song entitled “Every Sperm Is Sacred” and wondering how the makers got away with it (bearing in mind, this was the 80s, we’d only known what sperm was for an average of between four to five years, and it generally didn’t get mentioned on television, or, to our knowledge, in the movies- at least not in the films we were allowed to watch) But now, through an adult’s eyes, and with the benefit of some 30 years of hindsight, every implicit broadside, jibe and barb is glaringly visible.

Sure, in true Python tradition, it’s still ridiculously daft (best evinced during the “fish” sequence in the middle of the film, in which Chapman rather worryingly appears to be wearing something he might have donned during one of his private sexual encounters) but the zany madcap nonsense they excelled at between 1969 and 1975 is now replaced by scathing satire. What’s all the more incredible is that this is a film based on the opinions of not one man, but a team of six: Chapman, Cleese, Gilliam, Idle, Jones and Palin’s bugbears are, for once, perfectly in tune with each other (disagreements having been rife during their earlier years), their sheer fury and disillusionment with the world united as one. Every major institution of the establishment gets it in the neck from start to finish: the health service, organised religion, school, sport, employment, the Army, marriage, America, sex and even death. And yet it’s still all ball-breakingly, side-splittingly, bum-achingly funny.

To list the film’s highpoints in turn would be pointless for anyone who’s already seen it, and would ruin the whole experience for anyone who hasn’t, but special mention must be made of Terry Jones’ exquisite choreography for the Sperm sequence, which is worthy of Bob Fosse or Dickie Attenborough at their best, and can, when in the right frame of mind, leave the viewer agape at not only what a genius the Welshman can be when he’s allowed to express himself, but the sheer cinematic scope of his vision. Like Lindsay Anderson (with whose Britannia Hospital the film shares not only an era but a definite sense of style and underlying theme), he captures the disparate elements, largely in decline at the time of production, which once made British cinema great- such as artistic flair, science fiction, a love of the grotesque (the infamous Mr Creosote being the prime example), and, in the Death segment, chilling horror- and turn them all into prime comedic material.

Cleese’s portrayal of the Grim Reaper in that very sequence must also come in for high praise, achieving a rare balance of terror and humour not seen in many other productions. It’s impossible to be truly scared of him, as we know it’s him under that cloak and scythe- for a start, no-one else would intone a line like “you Americans, you talk and talk, you say things like ‘now let me say this’ and ‘I just wanna tell ya something’, well you’re all dead now” or “you Englishmen, you’re all so fucking pompous, none of you have got any balls” with such jagged venom- but at the same time, his delivery carries such a sibilant, dishevelled rattle of doom, set once again to some sublimely bleak photography and remarkable settings (Jones, unlike many other British directors, is not afraid to damn the unions by travelling hundreds of miles beyond London and the Home Counties to find the best locations) that it’s still unsettling viewing. For a man who had already found his niche as a director, Gilliam is subdued here as a performer (a drag turn and some of his usually fantastic animation aside), but Palin (“LEAAAAAAAAAAARNING THE PIAAAAAAAAAAAANO?”), Idle and Chapman, the last-named excelling both as a ranting Protestant reformist and the unctuously smug singer of the song “It’s Christmas In Heaven”, are at their fiery peak.

Although it did well businesswise, and scooped- unusually for an English-language comedy picture- the big prize at Cannes, its episodic nature, coupled with the fact that despite its explicit sex and violence, it never generated the same scandal as the Life Of Brian, has meant that The Meaning Of Life has come in for some unfair criticism over the years, not least of all from the Pythons themselves- Cleese has never been particularly fond of it, even though at least three of his most acclaimed performances are contained within. Then again, as his counterparts have suggested, if Cleese himself had turned up for further writing, Idle’s idea of linking the stories by having the same character appear throughout every sketch may have come to fruition, and there would be more of an a narrative, rather than what remains essentially a sketch film, based around a very loose concept, whose constituent parts are thus forced to stand up on their own. Taking this as a given, the results are inevitably mixed, but still commendable:  at the very worst, they drag a little, at their best, they’re stupendously electrifying. It’s also been called overlong, although how many other films come with their own supporting quickie (directed by Gilliam and allegedly more expensive than the actual movie) boosted by a cast of “those” actors that always played pensioners’ bit parts in the 80s (most notably also seen in Ray Davies’ Return To Waterloo) and whom no-one can remember the name of, which also manages to return nearly an hour later to encroach on the main feature?

Personally, I think it’s just the right length: the DVD also features a director’s cut with some ten minutes’ worth of deleted footage, including a rather ribald sketch about Martin Luther and extended footage from the Autumn Years sequence, which may, on repeated viewing, add further depth to the existing film or be seen as unnecessary surplus, but it’s been shoehorned into the print so shoddily that it’s hard to integrate it into your memory of the film as you know it. My memories of The Meaning Of Life remain intrinsically good ones, particularly at this time of year when there always seemed to be something Python-related on the box to galvanise you into re-watching whatever you had of the entire back catalogue, and while it may have been surpassed by the Holy Grail as my personal favourite, its finest moments, such as Cleese’s assembly speech and sex education lesson, are still sublime enough to make you wish you wrote them, which in turn has inspired future generations of comedians to write something.

Furthermore, without its blatant leanings toward the gruesome and grotesque (although the same accolade could be awarded to their-then contemporary heirs such as the Young Ones and Comic Strip), the open lunacy of 1990s and 21st century comedy from Big Train to The Mighty Boosh may not have been possible. If only the protagonists of those shows were as likeable as the Pythons, the missing pieces would fall into place. Of course it has faults- some of the targets are dated now, there’s not nearly enough Carol Cleveland in it (unless you watch the deleted scenes) and several subtexts (capitalism is bad, multinational corporations need overthrowing, Americans can understand meaningless minutiae concerning hats or dinner but can’t get to grips with matter and energy, or even realise that they’re dead) are now not only old hat but have proved as pointless as those which they set out to lambast, particularly in the light of Idle’s descent from comic pioneer into profit-motivated mogul- but most of that’s simply association after the fact, in the same way that Sting’s cameo in Christopher Petit’s Radio On was perfectly acceptable at the time, only jarring years later after his fall from musical grace into utter twatdom, and besides, how many films are totally flawless from start to finish? Not many.

The fact that anything of artistic note got made in this country after the removal of the Eady Levy, never mind one as broad in scope as this, is a minor miracle anyway, and if you look, you’ll see at least one Python member involved somewhere, so if anything we should be thankful that The Meaning Of Life exists. Sadly, the death of Chapman in 1989 (just when the possibility of a new collaboration was being mooted) effectively spelt, a few hastily-assembled sketches for a BBC2 theme night in the late 90s aside, the end of the team as a creative force, although rumours persist of forthcoming commissions from American television and another live tour. Should they or shouldn’t they? Maybe. Will they or won’t they? Dunno. Closure in the form of a final endeavour would be good, but if this remains, after 30 years, the full stop, at least it was prefaced by a wonderfully executed sentence.

And if it really is Christmas every day in heaven, I sincerely hope it bears no resemblance to the consumer-orientated pissup we’re forced to endure now. A glass of single malt Scotch and a selection of decent British films (or, for that matter, “Jaws, 1, 2 and 3” – maybe that’s the elusive fish of which they spoke?) will do me any day, and this one, along with several other Python-related titles, may well be among them. Or at least they usually are in my house.



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About Drewe Shimon

Drewe Shimon has written 61 post in this blog.