HEROES: CLEESE, GILLIAM, IDLE, JONES, PALIN and THE MEANING OF MONTY PYTHON (2013); plus THOUGHTS ON ALEX WINTER’S ZAPPA (2020)
As reunions of great collaborators go, it must be one of the least hyperbolic in pop culture history. In 2013, the five surviving members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus—John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin—gathered together in a little flat in London’s Sloane Square, near Knightsbride and Chelsea, for a one-hour sit-down discussion for British television, and they got an unassuming, hour-long documentary out of the process. (Well, four of them were gathered together, anyway. Idle, foreshadowing the current worldwide necessity for the Zoom conference call, appears via satellite feed on a big TV monitor in the center of the room— a Los Angeles resident at the time, he claims to be suffering from having to being awake for the conference at 3:00 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, while showing none of the ill effects of sleep deprivation.) The Meaning of Monty Python, now available streaming on Netflix, is the Monty Python reunion true fans will have hoped for, recognizing that the time is past for on-stage recreations of the comedic trailblazers’ favorite and/or most famous bits and instead opening up an avenue for the five men to spend ostensibly relaxed time together, reminiscing, analyzing, philosophizing, for the most part avoiding argument, and even, if only tacitly, acknowledging the onset of twilight.
Nobody looks especially comfortable, I suppose, but neither do they look especially uncomfortable—the flat appears intimate and cozy, not unlike some of the only-lightly-skewed domestic environs that could occasionally been seen on some of the Pythons’ more domestically oriented TV sketches. Jones and Palin occupy the left side of the frame, Idle’s monitor, absent the crowning presence of a penguin, both in the center and occupying the camera position for the wide master shot (the better to be seen and interacted with by the other members), and Cleese and Gilliam on the right. There are cuts to unvarying medium shots of the individual men in their chairs as they speak, and to a close-up of Idle shoved tight against the camera on his monitor, alternating with the occasional pull-back to that wide shot. And that’s it for a visual scheme to The Meaning of Monty Python, all the better to focus intently on what’s being said.
After a thoroughly enjoyable and often hilarious warm-up in which the five joke around and settle into the congeniality of the situation—it’s fun to see them all sitting around, referencing their own material as if they were Python fans like the rest of us (“Lemon curry?!” “Luxury!”), a chapter heading designed to recall the dividing sections of their 1983 film announces the shift of the conversation– “Part I: The Meaning of The Meaning of Life”– and off we go into a discussion of the Python’s final, Cannes prize-winning feature. Cleese, Idle and Palin are the prime movers of the hour, and they kick things off here with discussion of how the six original members hurriedly (perhaps too hurriedly?) approached the production of the film in the shadow of Life of Brian’stumultuous reception, as a sketch grab-bag, essentially, and had a lot of difficulty trying to land on a unifying principle and theme. Idle and Palin both confirm that there was about 300% more material written for the film than actually appeared in it, and Idle even mentions one script, entitled Monty Python’s Fish Film(a work Cleese doesn’t even recall), which, while sharing much of that bounty of would-be Meaning of Life material, apparently had even more stuff in it that was ultimately set aside. (The Blu-ray and DVD for The Meaning of Life features new and quite hilarious sketch material used as bonus features, and I wonder if some of that might be among the original rejects.)
But Cleese almost immediately addresses his dissatisfaction with The Meaning of Life, assessing that because of its haphazard history at the writing stage, while that there are some very good things in it, much of it he considers quite bad, unsuccessful in terms of comedic structure or basic laughs. As you might expect, given their anecdotally documented personal history, Gilliam, with Jones one of the film’s two credited directors, bristles at Cleese’s criticism and brings up director Henry Jaglom’s observation (Gilliam: “Remember Henry Jaglom?” Cleese: “Mmm, vaguely.”) that its sketch-oriented nature allows the stronger material to by default amplify the level of the stuff that might not work so well. It’s to Cleese’s diplomatic credit that he offers his belief that the liver donor section of the film—“The Meaning of Life Part V: Live Organ Transplants”– to be some of the best work in the film, perhaps of their careers. (In the sketch, he and Graham Chapman, who died in 1989, arrive at the house of an orthodox Jew, played by Gilliam, and, after objections from the expected donor– “But I’m still using it!”– forcibly extract, with much grunting and screaming and arterial spray, the vital organ from its soon-to-be-deceased owner.) Eventually pressed by Jones to be more specific as to what he considers “bad” in the film, Cleese eventually admits that he found the sketch in which the soldiers bring gifts to their sergeant on the battlefield before being picked off by enemy fire to be not up to snuff. Cleese also appears baffled by the “nonsense” of the giddily surreal “Find the Fish” segment, which Gilliam happily defends as one of the film’s more enduring and repeatable bits.
As the discussion returns to the difficulty of reining in the material with a thematic through line, Palin and Idle argue that while the quest of King Arthur and the burgeoning political awareness of a defiantly anti-religious figure in, respectively, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, provided a necessary narrative structure, perhaps the lack of an obvious narrative thread is something that weakens The Meaning of Life. Perhaps, as Idle speculates, if they’d been able to follow one character throughout the progression of his life, applying the various chapters to their scabrously satirical approach to the human condition, the movie might have been perceived as more successful. He also reminds his colleagues that in its very fragmented stylistic form, The Meaning of Life is essentially a musical—eight numbers in all, including the justly revered “Every Sperm is Sacred,” which, as Palin delights in recounting to the troupe, lost the BAFTA award for best song that year to “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman, to the great consternation of the assembled audience of the awards.
It is here that I found myself arguing with these great comedic minds. Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life did win the Grand Jury Prize at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, after all, a singular achievement and one that no other widely beloved comedy film has ever managed to pull off, before or since. It seems to me that rather than Meaning of Life, it is instead Life of Brian which is probably the spottiest of the Python films in terms of consistent laffs, even if its satirical targets, politics and religion (and the point at which the two meet on the graph of human folly), still stick the landing, and I think that might be because it’s the only one of their features that is built around an obvious narrative progression—how does Brian get from point A to point B to point C(ross)?– even if, in sequences like Brian’s interstellar joyride, you can still feel the troupe pushing against traditional structure. Of course, there are plenty of moments of isolated brilliance in Life of Brian—Palin’s lisping Pilate (“Incontinentia Buttocks!”) and Jones’s vicious mother of Brian (“That’s Capricorn, is it?”) among my favorites—even if the whole seems unduly weighted with narrative obligations.
But I believe The Meaning of Life is a success in large part because of the absence of a tether to conventional questions of plot and structure, and no matter who’s mounting the argument it seems rather perverse to suggest that a troupe so grounded in fertilizing and harvesting ideas in surreal blackout comedy would be unduly hobbled by that very approach simply due to an extended running time. My own estimation of The Meaning of Life has only grown in 37 years since I first saw it—it’s a formally daring movie, and it cuts, for real, into just about every established institution or idea or inescapable condition that has poisoned history since the onset of human sentience. If anything, the quest for the meaning of life, however facetiously the Pythons may have approached it, does provide more than a blank wall onto which these geniuses might fling their shit in order to see what sticks, and that overriding theme is addressed in unexpected ways, making tangential connections to seemingly inorganically related subjects seem richly germane to that theme.
In other words, The Meaning of Life often stubbornly refuses to do all the work for an audience, and if that is perhaps has been an alienating concept for some viewers, it’s also a quality that the film shares with a lot of great art, one which keeps a viewer like myself returning to it long after having memorized most of the great bits in order to see how the synapses of the structure and the subject still fire, and how that electrical process, in me more than the film, might have changed over time. Cleese, who admits moving to A Fish Called Wanda after The Meaning of Life because the idea of having 40% control as opposed to one creative voice out of six appealed to him, might be accurately describing the haphazard manner in which the movie came together to give shape to his perception of it as a not entirely successful piece of work, but I don’t think that’s an apt way to describe the movie itself.
The Pythons do move on to other subjects, including the origins of comedy (much attention paid here to post-WWII creative forces such as Beyond the Fringe and The Goon Show); the politics of creativity (Gilliam: “Satirizing the modern world is a difficult proposition because it’s so diffuse… It was easier when the class system was core clearly delineated”); why fish are inherently the funniest creatures in the animal kingdom; the television bureaucracy that both hampered and encouraged their artistic freedom at the BBC; and, of course, death and the possibility of an afterlife, a possibility vigorously defended by, of all people, Cleese, who dismisses organized religion outright while reserving credulity for reports of out-of-body experiences in near-death moments. (And speaking of death, the reminiscences of the absent Chapman never rise to the brilliance of having an urn of his ashes parked next to the rest of the surviving members, as happened during one of their previous Python summit conferences, but are instead restricted largely to warmhearted remembrances of Chapman’s prickly brilliance and apparent inability to arrive at the set even close to on time.)
All the while, Cleese and Idle, and perhaps to a lesser extent Gilliam, are the main engines of the conversation that ensues over the brisk and too-short hour of The Meaning of Monty Python, while Palin delivers less frequent but no less hilarious and pointed contributions to the general discourse. But its hard to watch The Meaning of Monty Python without being constantly reminded of the fate that befell Terry Jones, who died in January of this year after living for several years with a degenerative aphasia and eventually succumbing to the mounting effects of frontotemporal dementia. At the time which this documentary was filmed in 2013, Jones was still two years away from an official diagnosis of aphasia, which impairs the ability to speak and communicate, and according to an article in the British publication The Guardian (Terry Jones: ‘I’ve got dementia. My frontal lobe has absconded’ | Dementia | The Guardian) published in 2017, it became apparent midway through 2014, during a performance of Monty Python Live (mostly), a reunion performance held in London, that all was not well in terms of Jones’s health:
“’Terry was always very good at remembering lines,’ (recalls Palin in the Guardian article). ‘But this time he had real problems, and in the end he had to use a teleprompter. That was a first for him. I realised then that something more serious than memory lapses was affecting him.’
Jones… later passed standard tests designed to pinpoint people who have Alzheimer’s disease. His speech continued to deteriorate nevertheless. ‘He said less and less at dinner parties, when he used to love to lead conversations,’ said his daughter Sally.”
Jones is certainly the least vocal participant in The Meaning of Monty Python, seemingly content to sit in his presumably comfy chair and listen to his friends jabber on in their very entertaining way, offering only the occasional comparatively generic contribution to the conversation (“I remember being very frustrated by the exclusion of Life of Brian from year-end critical roundups”), the sort of comments which the other members regard with respect but which spark little in the way of reciprocal engagement. After a few minutes of observing this pattern of Jones’s participation, the sadness begins to settle on his very countenance, and the viewer is left to speculate if the awful disease, such a bitterly ironic ailment to have descended upon such an obviously gregarious and brilliant man, hadn’t already begun to manifest itself even earlier than when Palin noted for The Guardian.
Near the end of the documentary, however, something occurs that might, for any viewer watching in 2013, have seemed oddly humorous in a Python vein, or at the worst inexplicable, but which, judging by the reaction of the other members, might also have been a portent of things to come for Terry Jones. In the midst of one of Gilliam’s comments during the discussion of afterlife options, Jones rises from his chair. He’s the only one to do this during the entire hour, so it certainly counts as a violation of the project’s modest mise-en-scène, one which a director like Jones might well have been coyly aware. Jones begins a slow move toward the camera, which is placed facing the arrangement of chairs on which the rest of the Pythons remain—it is presumably in the same position as a second monitor on which the others can see the Idle feed, which we see placed center among them on the primary monitor. As he does so, and while we viewers are waiting for the reveal of a possible joke, there is a cut to a closeup of Idle’s monitor. He is the only one we see visibly reacting to Jones’s sudden displacement, and that reaction is an obvious mixture of befuddlement and concern. We then see, in the wide shot we’ve seen throughout, Jones approaches the camera, bends down, murmuring and making an unknown adjustment of some sort, before returning silently to his seat, where he resumes listening to Gilliam and Cleese’s conversation which has continued throughout the movement without missing a beat. At one point, Gilliam even looks over his shoulder away from Cleese to glance at Jones, whom he regards without comment while continuing the point he was making. The others, apart from Idle’s initial look of concern, react not at all. It’s The Meaning of Monty Python’s one unsettling moment, not only for the contrast it provides to Jones’s familiar sharpness and its reminder of the unfortunate fate of this most engaging comic artist, but also for its dovetailing into the troupe’s discussion of the inevitable procession toward death (“I’m against it!” chirps Idle), a subject tapped into here but more successfully brushed up against in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
For those whose comic sensibilities, whose very receptivity to comedy, was irreversibly shaped by the work of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a banner which went beyond these six to include the participation of folks like Carol Cleveland, Neil Innes, Connie Booth, producers John Goldstone and Ian MacNaughton, and many, many others, the at-least-partial answer to the query “What gives meaning to life?” (not that there necessarily is any meaning to life, as Gilliam cheerfully reminds us) must include the artistic achievements of these brilliant comic writers and actors. And for those who revere the work of Terry Jones, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam when they were known by the shorthand moniker Monty Python, the hour-long summit meeting that comprises The Meaning of Monty Python is a lovely, challenging, hilarious reminder of the meaning they themselves have brought to lives and life ever since their emergence as the Beatles of comedy in the early ‘70s. In the absence of Jones and Chapman, and in the presence of such a marvelous and influential body of work which continues to resonate and delight, which can likely never be topped, which will illustrate the value of fish slapping contests until the light finally winks out for all of us, well, that work is enough. And therein lies the meaning. Or as Gilliam wonders over the end credits, as the five are heard taking off their mics, “What is this (the documentary) for again?” Ever the optimist, Idle, the author of Life of Brian’s cheerfully nihilistic “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” quickly responds, “For posterity!”
And speaking of posterity, if you have any interest in music whatsoever, regardless of how you feel about the man or his own compositions, I would think that Alex Winter’s epic documentary Zappa would be a must-see. (The film is now streaming on various outlets, including Amazon, Vudu and through various virtual arthouse cinemas, like the Salem Cinema : Salem, Oregon Salem Cinema, where you can view it at home and supporting struggling independently-owned theaters across the country.) I may have more to say about the film once I’ve let it sink in a bit, but right now I can say that for this giant FZ fan Zappawas, in total, a bit overwhelming, especially emotionally, yet at the same time it wouldn’t have hurt my feelings one bit if it had gone on another three hours. Maybe that fantasy longer version would have had more time to focus on the bands from the ‘70s through Zappa’s last tour in 1988 (The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life) that I loved the most. But as it is, getting a deep dive into Mothers of Invention/Mother’s history, and the avant-garde/classical composition that dominated his interest while he was writing “strictly commercial” stuff, and then the last few years of his life, is thrilling, and the movie has an audio-visual dexterity that is sometimes the talking heads/doc equivalent of Bruce Bickford’s perversely funny animations, or of something like Zappa’s own most playful, pitch-black creations— dense, free-associative, welcomingly weird.
The movie also caused me to remember that Zappa, in the midst of and in the aftermath of the whole PMRC controversy, claimed that he was floating feasibility studies to run against George H.W. Bush for the presidency of the United States. That run never materialized, but I remember saying to more than one person at the time that I would have seriously considered voting for him, and as I sit here considering all the things Zappa stirred up in me and made me think about, one of those things would be that I might still be inclined to cast him my vote again, were he around to make a run. And if he was, what might he have made of the national nightmare which began in 2016 and is now about to close to almost universal scorn and a collective sigh of relief? (Now, there’s the seed for some fascinating speculative fiction, huh?)
I had just returned from my honeymoon in 1993 when I heard that Frank Zappa had died. It was no surprise—his battle with prostate cancer had been raging for a couple of years– yet it was devastating news. After Zappa had finished, I tried to remember, through fresh tears, if I’d ever cried at the news of a death of a celebrity, either before or since, and I couldn’t think of an instance. Yet even though I knew he was sick and that the outcome was inevitable, I still sobbed when I found out that Frank Zappa was gone. One of the most complimentary things I can think of to say about Alex Winter’s film, beyond its visual dexterity, humor and curiosity, is that, while never sidestepping the man’s aloofness, his contradictions, and all the qualities that one might find to justify the description “difficult,” Zappa is a film filled with reasons, musical and otherwise, that might cause one to weep at his sudden absence from the world.