How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?
On Friday, March 22nd, and Saturday, March 23rd, the New Beverly will be showing one of the funniest comedies of all time – 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail – followed by what may be one of the famous troupe’s most revealing – 1983’s Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
The title of the latter feature is certainly an arch, self-aware commentary that the Pythons are making about their own work. If Monty Python has espoused any single central life philosophy, it’s absurdism. Throughout even their most basic sketches going back to the Flying Circus days, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, and Carol Cleveland have all playfully sought to explore the inherent meaninglessness in, well, just about everything. Their humor arises from the odd foibles of stuffy, modern British archetypes (newscasters, pepperpots, nerds, and chartered accountants) seeking to find structure in a system that doesn’t – and never did – make any sense. Taking pages from Camus and Kierkegaard, the Pythons look to the world and find indifference, chaos, and futility. And, like anyone with a sense of humor, chose to point out how funny that could be.
Reality itself, then, is Python’s plaything. In the world of the Pythons, baskets of raspberries are weapons, penguins randomly explode, and Hamlet is besieged by bogus psychiatrists. In Holy Grail, King Arthur rides an invisible horse with his patsy clacking coconuts behind him to approximate hoof falls. This cute visual gag (necessitated by the film’s low budget and subsequent lack of horses) is immediately exploded by the characters themselves when a castle-dweller points out to Arthur that he has coconuts. He then asks where coconuts could have been acquired in medieval England, and two castle dwellers begin to theorize as to how coconuts could have been imported via ambitious swallows. King Arthur rides off. The joke was taken well beyond its logical extreme, and the King became bored with his own participation.
There is no floor in Holy Grail. No rules. To quote Sir Bedivere (Jones), the Earth is banana-shaped. We know the absurdity in the world. In some cases, that awareness takes the form of a criticism of medieval times (“Bring out your dead!”), a criticism of English Divine rights and the nobility of Arthurian legend (“You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you”), a criticism of dumb male sexual fantasies (“After the spankings, the oral sex!”), or even a cute meta-textual criticism of cinema itself (“It’s the old man from page 24!”). Even the film’s opening credits have trouble getting started; the subtitles get distracted by stories of a biting moose. Nothing functions in the Pythons’ world. And not because they broke it, but because we’re all cogs in something that looks like a machine, but is, in fact, a pile of non-moving parts. Banana-shaped ones.
This may be why Holy Grail has endured for as long as it has as a cult staple of teenagers everywhere: There is a rather natural need for young people – and people in general – to tear down all existing systems of decency and meaning to reveal the vast, apathetic universe underneath. Holy Grail taps into – politely and in a very British fashion – a wicked, punk rock impulse held in the hearts of all outsiders and rebels. What Holy Grail offers, though, is not cathartic death and destruction – there is no animosity or anger in Python. They don’t wish for anarchy or chaos. Holy Grail, instead, is a weirdly intellectual essay, arguing a counterpoint to mainstream society. What are you trying to deconstruct? What have you, my liege?
But Holy Grail is far from stuffy or intellectual. Indeed, it’s all very silly. Holy Grail is typically the most celebrated of the Python films because of its oddball, slapstick sensibility. If you can absorb a Bugs Bunny cartoon, you’re not too far from appreciating how funny Holy Grail really is.
When it comes to proper essays of absurdism, however, one need look no further than 1983’s The Meaning of Life, the Pythons’ final film. If Holy Grail sought to basically undermine the noble precepts of Britain’s royalty, and their Life of Brian sought to undermine the tenets of Christianity, then The Meaning of Life sought to undermine all of Philosophy. Meaning of Life – what an ironic title – was when they looked to themselves, and questioned their own absurdity. It’s the most ambitious Python ever got, and the most existentialist Python film.
It might explain why, then, Meaning of Life feels so stodgy when compared to its two Pythonic peers. Overall – the musical numbers notwithstanding – Meaning of Life is a smoky and slow-moving film. It feels largely unfocused and stream-of-consciousness. If Holy Grail took its stylistic and thematic cues from Sir Thomas Mallory, then Meaning of Life is square in the amorphous middle of James Joyce. There is a melancholy to Meaning of Life that is not present in any of their other works. If Holy Grail was the Pythons kicking the door open, Meaning of Life is them picking it up and leaning it back, broken, on the open doorway.
It was 1983. Now was the time to ask big questions, even if they knew there would be no answers forthcoming. When a couple sits to discuss the meaning of life over dinner, they don’t know where to begin. The waiter recommends they start by discussing Schopenhauer, one of the thinking world’s most notorious pessimists. The middle-aged couple can only remark that his name begins with an “S,” and their conversation lazily spins off into trivial songwriting facts.
Philosophy itself is ill-equipped to handle the universe. The actual Meaning of Life was always absent in Python. Their quest to find meaning shows that they, too, are pushing the boulder. Camus, although himself a dour pessimist, once advised those of us trapped in an absurd and indifferent myth – that of Sisyphus – to make our rock “our thing.” The Pythons took that notion to heart.
When confronted with Death – pictured as an enormous, growly-voiced specter – a middle-class British dining party can only discuss careers and food. Like a stuffy, British riff on The Seventh Seal, the characters are faced with their own mortality and are still not moved beyond their inability to find meaning.
The film’s climax may come when Eric Idle, playing a French waiter, explains his philosophy in simple terms: “You know, one day, when I was a little boy, my mother she took me on her knee and she said: ‘Gaston, my son. The world is a beautiful place. You must go into it and love everyone, not hate people. You must try and make everyone happy, and bring peace and contentment everywhere you go.’ And so…I became a waiter…”
Idle looks off into the middle distance, suddenly realizing how small that sounds. And then immediately becomes defensive. “Well… it’s…it’s not much of a philosophy, I know…but… well… Fuck you! I can live my own life in my own way if I want to! Fuck off! Don’t come following me!” Python has an idea, and they realize that it’s not much of an idea. Maybe better to not follow.
The Meaning of Life, while communicating defeat and philosophical bafflement, is luckily buoyed by several crowning jewels in the Pythons’ entire oeuvre. The film contains several extremely catchy songs and ambitious dance numbers that rival any of Hollywood’s better terpsichorean showcases. “Every Sperm is Sacred” is certainly a highlight, and the Gilliam-directed opening short – about an office block taking to the high seas as a pirate vessel – is some of the director’s better visual work. The opening title song is bold and brassy, and the mellow “Galaxy Song” reflects not only Python’s acknowledgment of our own smallness in a vast universe but also their compulsive need to sing and dance through it.
Holy Grail and Meaning of Life represent two absurdist extremes of the Pythons. In one, they were playful comedians seeking to dismantle cinema in the same way they dismantled British TV. With giggles. With Meaning of Life, they had become more introspective. They were 24 years removed from the debut of Flying Circus, and Cleese, Idle, Chapman, Jones, Palin, Cleveland, and Gilliam had all grown as performers and as people. Flying Circus was their impish childhood, Holy Grail was their rebellious adolescence, Life of Brian was more thoughtful post-college period, and Meaning of Life was Python at their most adult.
After Meaning of Life, the Pythons effectively broke up to pursue their own projects. They have reunited occasionally along the way for retrospectives and Q&As and performed together on stage periodically, but by the 1980s, the troupe had pretty much moved on from their adolescent deconstruction. The flying circus had to land eventually.
In interviews, you now see the remaining Pythons – now stalwart and feisty old people – still in Meaning of Life mold, commenting on the world with a knowing and absurdist wink, eager to giggle and to discuss. The world may be absurd, but then, there’s always at least a little silly fun to be had.