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Posts Tagged ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’

Is it time for another potentially embarrassing confession? Could be. I have mentioned before that I never really had a favourite rock group or band growing up; I didn’t really get into music at until my late teens. That role was played by, amongst other things, comedy, which I was just as obsessive about as any Oasis or Take That fan. Forget all that ‘comedy is the new rock ‘n’ roll’ stuff people were spouting in the early 90s when David Baddiel and Rob Newman were selling out arenas – Monty Python were my favourite group a good six or seven years earlier. And yet – and here’s the thing – much as I loved the TV series when I finally got to see it properly, much as I fell about laughing when Monty Python and the Holy Grail finally came on TV, much as I followed the other projects of the group members – Fawlty Towers and Ripping Yarns, obviously; Michael Palin going around the world; any Terry Gilliam film you cared to mention – when I finally got to watch Monty Python’s Life of Brian, ten years or so after its 1979 release, I was distinctly underwhelmed by it.

This despite the fact that at least one member of the group considers it the pinnacle of their work together; this despite the general acclamation the film has received (as well as numerous writs for blasphemy). It’s almost enough to make one doubt one’s own opinion. But not quite, though.

The movie is of course another of those Terry Jones projects which managed to get itself banned in Ireland on its initial release. It opens with a tried and tested Python gambit – opening ‘straight’ and sustaining a note of serious authenticity for as long as possible, before something silly happens. In this case it is the Three Wise Men turning up at a stable in Bethlehem, in search of the new-born Messiah – only to be confronted by Mandy (Jones), perhaps the apotheosis of all those ratbag old women he played in the TV series, and her infant son Brian. Suffice to say the Wise Men have unwisely come to wrong stable, just around the corner from one where a more famous nativity scene is in progress.

Cue animated titles and the (rather magnificent) ‘Brian Song’, which leads us into a genuinely impressive recreation of Judea in the first century (shot in Tunisia, sometimes on sets left behind by Zeffirelli when he finished making Jesus of Nazareth – something the Italian director was apparently hopping mad about when he found out). Brian (Graham Chapman) and his mother lead fairly ordinary lives, until a shock discovery about his own origins challenges everything Brian believes in, and incites him to rebel against the Roman occupation.

Here’s one of the odd things about Life of Brian – you can summarise the plot in broad strokes and it doesn’t actually sound that funny. Brian attempts to join a local resistance group, the People’s Front of Judea, but ends up as the only survivor of a raid on the palace of Roman administrator Pontius Pilate (Michael Palin). While escaping from the Roman pursuers with the unwitting aid of some passing aliens (all right, this bit sounds quite funny), Brian finds himself mistaken for the Messiah and pursued by a large following. Can this help him deal with his various travails? One thing is certain: it’s never not a good idea to take a positive view of the world.

Needless to say, the various Pythons play various parts (John Cleese gets some juicy moments, Terry Gilliam contributes a couple of the gargoyle-like grotesques he seemed to specialise in at this point in his career, and while Eric Idle doesn’t get a single really memorable character, he does get to sing the closing number (which, stripped of its context and blackly comic impact, has nevertheless gone on to become hugely popular as a sort of vaguely jolly song).

It almost goes without saying that there are many sequences in this film which are very funny indeed and which have, in some cases, embedded themselves in popular culture – the unfailingly funny stoning scene, the ‘What have the Romans done for us?’ routine, the closing number, Spike Milligan’s cameo (demonstrating, as others have previously observed, the art of upstaging John Cleese and Michael Palin simultaneously – no small feat). But the odd thing about them is they do feel like sketches grafted onto a more extended narrative with varying degrees of success.

This, I think, is the main difference between Life of Brian and the Python films and TV shows that preceded it – it has a confidence and cinematic quality to it that the previous films often lacked, but at the same time the structure and nature of the film is more conventional – it doesn’t have the fake credits or non-ending that marked Holy Grail out as being essentially a continuation of the TV series, which often featured similar gags and conceits. Life of Brian actually has a fairly coherent story, with a moral premise of sorts, and even genuine moments of sincere feeling and pathos (only very occasionally, of course).

The movie is also surprisingly on-the-nose about its message, as well. It’s essentially about ideology, particularly the absurdity of fanaticism – something shared by Brian’s followers and the various squabbling terrorist groups he encounters in the course of the film – and the Pythons are not afraid to lay it on a bit thick in this department. ‘You’re all individuals! You don’t have to follow anyone!’ yells Brian to the pursuing throng, and the editorial message is so clear you almost expect a caption poking fun at the lack of subtlety at this point.

Not that anyone was paying much attention to the film’s subtext back in 1979, of course. I suspect that much of the stature of Life of Brian owes to the kerfuffle that greeted its release, some elements of which have virtually become folklore – Strom Thurmond attempted to ban it in South Carolina on his wife’s insistence, while many other bans succeeded – it remained banned in Aberystwyth for thirty years, at which point the mayor repealed it (the mayor’s own nude scene in the film may or may not have been a factor). Cleese and Palin’s skirmish with Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark on a chat show very quickly became the stuff of satire itself.

How much the Pythons were genuinely shocked by the strength of the reaction to the film is somewhat unclear. ‘Next year we will have to live with the impact of the film… there will be something of a sensation,’ predicted Michael Palin in his diary at the end of 1978. Nowadays the team are very clear that the film does not ridicule Jesus (he is played dead straight by Kenneth Colley, in a tiny cameo) and it’s more about challenging doctrinaire belief systems and parodying biblical epics, but this does strike me as a little disingenuous – especially as they are also on record describing cut material in which Jesus has trouble booking a table for the last supper and later helps out with the carpentry of the crucifixion. The presence of a number of biblical personages, and the use of some significant imagery (most obviously in the crucifixion sequence) also makes the claim that the film has nothing to do with the origins of Christianity sound a little disingenuous.

Maybe the film is still as shockingly irreverent (even heretical) as it sets out to be; I don’t know – maybe we’re all just too familiar with it now. As I say, there are some very funny sequences, but other sections of the film don’t make me laugh as hard or as long as other things they’ve done. For me it’s lacking the essential Python willingness to tear the formal conventions apart; it has a beginning, a middle, an end, character development, and all the usual stuff. Which make it a better conventional film, I suppose – but I come to Python looking for something completely different. It’s still a cherishable movie with some very funny moments, but it’s not really amongst my favourites as far as their work is concerned.

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