The Meaning of Life

The Meaning of LifeSynopsis: Those six pandemonium-mad Pythons are back with their craziest adventure ever! John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin have returned to explain The Meaning of Life. These naughty Britons offer the usual tasteful sketches involving favorite bodily parts and functions, the wonders of war, the miracle of birth and a special preview of what’s waiting for us in Heaven. Nothing is too sacred for the Python crew. After seeing them in action, you’ll never look at life in quite the same way again. It’s far-out, frank, and jolly good fun. Winner of the 1983 Cannes Film Festival Special Jury Prize.

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The Meaning of Life 7.75

eyelights: the basic concept. the production values.
eyesores: the loosely-connected theme.

“M-hmm. Well, it’s nothing very special.”

Following the enormous success of ‘Life of Brian‘, Monty Python were interested in making another motion picture. They first considered doing a satirical ‘World War III’ or an absurdist picture that would have them on trial (accused of making a tax dodge, not a movie, and trying to prove it), before eventually coming up with the idea for ‘The Meaning of Life’.

This followed from a series of grueling writing sessions that did not initially bear fruit – to the extent that the ‘Live at the Hollywood Bowl‘ shows and picture were put together in the meantime. Eventually, the Pythons decide to make a sketch film, having written enough material for a feature. The through line that loosely connected all the better bits came later.

To say that ‘The Meaning of Life’ is a mixed bag would be appropriate. Whereas some of their most ingenious and hilarious skits can be found here, there are a also lot of reheated/recycled ideas and some that don’t quite deliver. The troupe has since conceded that it’s no nearly as good as their previous two, with Cleese calling it “a bit of a cock-up”.

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the picture: the core concept of a multi-part sketch film exploring the meaning of life is terrific. And there are great laughs to be had. But it feels incredibly long at times – although sketch films often sag at about the 50-minute mark, this one is no doubt hampered by an opening salvo that is as overdone as it is unique.

You see, instead of doing animation (as was his main role in the group), Terry Gilliam went off on his own and shot a short sequence called “The Crimson Permanent Assurance”. Although it was originally conceived as one of the many sketches in the whole, it eventually ballooned in size – and cost (it was reportedly as expensive as the rest of the picture combined!).

This is Gilliam’s anti-establishment side coming forth, his slice of unsubtle social commentary. It’s funny but far too long, clocking in at 17 minutes even though it achieved its aims after seven minutes. It’s quite creative, though. Personally, I love all the satire and I’m quite fond of the imaginative props, like the cabinet canons. Cut 8 minutes out, keep the end, and it’s perfect.

The problem is that this segment completely threw the momentum of the picture, so the Pythons decided to use it as an opening short film, before the rest of ‘The Meaning of Life’. It makes total sense, but it doesn’t change the fact that we are now looking at a 1h47m sketch film. Still, at least it lends the picture an artistic credibility that is otherwise missing much of the time.

The 90-minute feature presentation is broken down into seven distinct parts: The Miracle of Birth, Growth and Learning, Fighting Each Other, Middle Age, Live Organ Transplants, The Autumn Years/The Meaning of Life, and Death – along with some interstitial material to tie it together. It is very plain to see that the Pythons were stretching the boundaries of the theme slightly.

For me, there are three superb moments that stand out from the rest and that come to mind when I think of ‘The Meaning of Life’ (note the apostrophes to indicate that I’m referring to the movie not to existential musings):

1. The Yorkshire skit, which begins by showing a poor Catholic family overrun with dozens of children. The mother (Jones) is doing the dishes and grotesquely plopping out a newborn at the same time. The father (Palin) has been laid off, so he announces that he’ll have to sell off the children. Then it turns into a musical to the tune of “Every Sperm is Sacred”, which looks amazing and features some superb choreographies. It’s extremely self-indulgent, but terrific. Unfortunately, the soundtrack is too echoey to fit the image; it’s clearly not live. A damned shamed. The whole bit is followed up by a superb bit with an older Protestant couple discussing religion and sex. Chapman and Idle are genius in these roles; it’s some of their best performances ever.

2. The sex education class skit. John Cleese plays a teacher trying to bring his students (who are played by the other Pythons and a bunch of teenaged boys) up to speed on human sexuality. Cleese is genius at this type of stuffy character and his delivery is brilliant (ex: “Har-den”). But the clincher is when, after quizzing his timid charges, he pulls out a wall bed and asks his wife to join him for a more visual lesson. I’m amused by the concept and the way it’s been put together, especially with the kids all distracted and disinterested.

3. The Mr. Creosote skit is one of the most recognizable ones of the whole Python oeuvre due to its outrageously stomach-churning performance by Terry Jones in the lead. It’s pretty much 6 minutes of projectile vomiting, which is so cartoonish that it’s funny. But it’s the side characters that elevate it, like Cleese’s head waiter and Idle’s waiter. And it begins with one of the most spectacular songs ever, the “Penis Song (Not the Noel Coward Song)” which is short and funny – just like my own John Thomas. Unforgettable stuff.

Naturally, there are tons of other fun moments throughout the picture, but many are uneven, great ideas lacking a certain je ne sais quoi:

  • The opening credits animation sequence and song: With animation by Terry Gilliam, naturellement, and a new song by Eric Idle, naturellement (bis), the film opens with a relatively inspired credits sequence. The animation lacks the rough edge of the earlier work and the song isn’t the best, but I suppose this B-grade quality opener is rather appropriate, all things considered.
  • The “Miracle of Birth” sequence: I love the idea of poking fun at all the meaningless technicalities surrounding hospital births, and then commenting on the modern administration of hospitals in the process (I love when they have to explain the procedure to the Administrator, who shows total disconnect), but on the other hand it sometimes feel a bit too contrived. Oh well.
  • The “Growth and Learning” sequence: Although it’s a bit dry and dull, the sermon and the prayers that the boys are subjected to are hilarious; they’re funny bits in a very unfunny context.
  • The rugby massacre: I love seeing the teachers pitting themselves against the students at rugby and deriving much pleasure at beating them to a pulp, going so far as to cheat and pound on them mercilessly. But it outstays its welcome.
  • The “Fighting Each Other” sequence: I love the irony of the sentiment portrayed in this one, what with the going away presents and cake, but it’s yet another great idea that becomes a one-note joke and could have been shortened or spruced up.
  • The military drill skit: It’s a funny idea that the sergeant (played by Palin, doing a Cleese role rather well) would actually give the soldiers leave at their request, destroying all potential for discipline, but it’s once again a one-note joke. Clever, ironic notion, but not much meat here.
  • The 1st Zulu war skit: I really loved this exaggeration of the stereotype that the British remain cool-headed while under fire. The dialogues are hilarious and the staging of the violent combat taking place in the camp is phenomenal. It’s a superb skit until they realize that the mosquito bite is actual a tiger bite. That feels like a punchline, but they dragged the skit on for a couple of minutes afterwards – and to no good end.
  • The “Middle Age” sequence: The setting of this skit is hilarious, even if the connection of a middle aged couple and the Middle Ages is too facile for my taste; I just love the idea of a dungeon restaurant for tourists, complete with Hawaiian dancers and musicians. The idea of a conversation menu is amusing contextually, but it feels like a rehash of previous Python ideas and it doesn’t go anywhere.
  • Live Organ Transplants: I find it funny that this is considered as important a part (5 of 7) of the “meaning of life” as the others, when it has nothing to do with it whatsoever, but it’s also incongruous, which annoys me. And I like the idea, as grotesque as it, but it outlasts its welcome. At most 50 seconds would have been fine: take the donor to the other room and move on to something else entirely.
  • The condemned man skit: It’s hilarious that the man would be given the choice of a form of execution and, instead of a traditional one, he is chased by lovelies in g-strings (and helmets and knees pads). It’s totally gratuitous, but it’s so contextually absurd. It’s even funnier when one considers that Chapman was gay. Plus it’s… ahem… an eye-catching moment. But a totally, totally gratuitous one, I’ll grant you. I suppose it’s the Pythons at their midlife best.
  • The depressed autumn leaf: There’s a short animation of a leaf committing suicide, which I find hilarious. But it’s so short that it doesn’t really deserve a full mention. Still, it’s rather memorable. This is Gilliam at his absurdist best.
  • The “Grim Reaper dinner party” skit: I love the grim, dark look of this one, and I find the couples’ aloofness in the face of the Grim Reaper droll. But it doesn’t really serve much of a purpose. If not for Palin’s delicious performance and final ad lib it would be a washout. It’s unforgettable though.

Then there are the interesting but misplaced ideas:

  • The fish greeting each other in the fish tank and discussing the content of the film and the meaning of life. It’s contextually amusing, but it’s not especially funny.
  • The “Find the Fish” segment: I really like the surrealistic aspect of this bit, but it’s just weird, not funny at all. And it goes nowhere.
  • The Meaning of Life (a.k.a. Part VI-B): I enjoy the idea that we would be forced to follow a waiter through the streets and over hills, …etc., as he intends to show us the meaning of life. But as Julian Doyle suggested in ‘Monty Python Speaks‘, it kills the impact of “Mr. Creosote”; this bit should have run through the credits, to keep people in the aisle on their way out – only to tell them to “fuck off” at the end. THAT would have been superb. It would have been a gag on the audience and let the film end on a high note.

Alas…

So, as you can see, ‘The Meaning of Life’ has plenty of interesting moments, but very few highlights and lowlights for me. It’s basically an okay film with memorable bits in a fairly forgettable whole. It’s an unfortunate swan song for a troupe that had probably piqued just a few years earlier. Frankly, I think that they rushed into the project and shouldn’t have.

Well, that’s the end of this blurb. I know, I know… it’s kind of abrupt. What more is there to say, really? Good, not great.Such is ‘The Meaning of Life’.

Oh, yeah, that’s right… I was forgetting all about the meaning of life, which is the whole point of the movie in the first place. In the end the Pythons probably had it right: it all comes down to the fact “people aren’t wearing enough hats.”.

Simple as that.

Now fuck off.

Post scriptum: The DVD and BD has a terrific commentary track that I think makes the movie even more enjoyable to watch, making up for the lulls and misfires. Featuring Michael Palin, this “Soundtrack for the Lonely” has us listening to a man coming home from work, putting the film in, muttering to himself, taking calls from friends and making calls, trying to get people to come over, ordering a pizza, getting solicitation calls, …etc., all while humming, sighing and passing wind. All while the movie is playing int he background! Of particular note it this great surround activity when the neighbours start hitting the wall to tell him to turn it down. Brilliant!

Date of viewing: April 3, 3015

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