Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For Thanksgiving, we’re going off the beaten path this month and asking contributors to write about the movie they’re most thankful for experiencing. Read the rest of our coverage here.
I blame Monty Python for my overwhelming student loan debt. If it hadn’t been for them, I’d have never thought to go to university in order to find like-minded comedy nerds to start a comedy troupe with. Alas, I did get two nice English degrees out of it eventually. So I can’t blame the universities of Oxford and Cambridge for all that.
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life is a fantastic, uneven, frustrating film in which my favorite comedians throw a lot of shit on the wall to see what sticks. What’s interesting is how much of it ultimately does, at least to me. I’m thankful for it like Graham Chapman’s Protestant husband is thankful for the freedom that his church allows him to go down to the local shop and buy “a con-dom” anytime he so chooses. It’s a wicked good time at the cinema or on TV anytime it comes on.
In a way, the Python’s last bow as the original sextet is a call-back to their start as sketch-comedy comedians on TV, and in their initial cinematic foray, 1971’s And Now For Something Completely Different (a great introduction, but it pales in comparison to the sketches in their original versions). Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, and “the two Terrys” (Gilliam and Jones) blazed a path through the cinematic landscape of the Seventies and Eighties, and the Pythons were changing up what could be done on the silver screen as much as mavericks like Peckingpah, Scorsese, and Coppola. They were just funnier about it.
Each of the four films that the Pythons made together prior to Chapman’s death in 1989 is worthy of college-level discourse. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is justifiably famous for pulling the pants down on the Hollywood medieval epic; Life of Brian is justifiably controversial for showing how religion is easily manipulated, often at the expense of the very belief system its followers subscribe to. Meaning of Life is justifiably divisive among film fans and Python nerds alike because it’s not as great as the two previous efforts. But it has a certain energy to it, an anarchic potency that still grabs the viewer by the jugular and dares him or her to turn away.
The set-pieces that still work for me are the musical numbers; in many ways, this is the Hollywood musical of the Pythons’ filmography, with production values worthy of a Busby Berkeley spectacular or an intimate Gene Kelly routine. The Pythons have been called “the Beatles of comedy” for a very good reason: they’re both British (or in the case of the Pythons, five-sixths British).
But also, the comparison holds up because the Pythons did for comedy in the Seventies what the Beatles did for music in the Sixties; they dominated it, and their influence can still be felt today. I would say Life is the “White Album” of the Python’s discography, if only because it feels like every member gets more than one moment in the spotlight to shine. And with the standalone short “The Crimson Permanent Assurance,” we even get something of a free preview of Gilliam’s 1985 masterpiece Brazil.
It has a certain energy to it, an anarchic potency that still grabs the viewer by the jugular and dares him or her to turn away.
The be-all, end-all number, of course, is “Every Sperm is Sacred,” a hilarious hoofer in the style of Annie’s “Hard Knock Life” that is played completely straight. Michael Palin starts off as a Yorkshire miner much too productive for his own good, with a household of kids literally living in the cupboards and on the stairs. He gives them the bad news: “it’s medical experiments for the lot of ya.” His kids helpfully suggest different manners of birth control (including “couldn’t you just get your balls cut off?”), but Palin and mother Terry Jones are insistent; their Catholic faith forbids it because “every sperm is sacred.”
What follows is one of the most glorious musical numbers in the history of cinema (and no, I’m not being hyperbolic). Watch it for yourself and tell me that you’re not humming along by the time the holy relics in the shop window chime in.
“The Galaxy Song,” in which Eric Idle (always the most musical Python; he came up with the Rutles, after all) whisks a reluctant housewife along to her mortality by reminding her of her insignificance, and “Christmas In Heaven,” Graham Chapman’s best moment in the film (he plays a Bing Crosby-esque crooner surrounded by topless female Santas) are the other big numbers. Yes, “Mr. Creosote” is pure gross-out comedy, and there are a million other highlights in the film, in moments large and small. But the musical numbers keep me coming back to this, the last real Python film (though the bizarre “where is my fish” sequence comes a close second).
Monty Python has been a huge influence on my world outlook, and not just in terms of comedy; they sold me on the notion that figures of authority are usually pompous windbags out to get theirs, and to hell with the rest of us. That they did so with the nicest British accents (well, except for Gilliam) is just icing on the cake, as far as I’m concerned. Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life may never explain the actual meaning of life to everyone’s satisfaction, but it does speak to me: people aren’t wearing enough hats. Wait, I may have heard that one wrong.