by Fred Glass
Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 12-13
From the "anarcho-syndicalist commune" of THE HOLY GRAIL to the fratricidal sectarianism of Jewish liberation fighters in LIFE OF BRIAN, Monty Python has evidenced more than a passing sympathy for the concerns and styles of the left. In these earlier films, though, the British comedy group's jokes tended to be scattered every which way, with the unifying thread — if any could be found — taking the form of an overripe absurdism. Now, what was formerly as often as not squandered to self-indulgence has been brought under control and aligned to a steady purpose: the making of entertainment films that critique the existing order. THE MEANING OF LIFE operates on an overall strategy of subversion: of film and television convention, of its audience's expectations, and of society itself. The writing (and Terry Jones' direction) has grown from mere eclecticism into a broad social vision. It combines self-reflexivity, narrative reversals, associative montage and principled ambiguities into the best English-language Brechtian cinema since THE MUPPET MOVIE. The film is also — literally and figuratively — funny as hell.
THE MEANING OF LIFE lifts its ostensible format from well-mannered BBC documentaries. "Classy" intertitles solemnly announce each section, which correspond to the seven stages of life. Within this loose frame, however, the filmmakers give themselves leave to rake over the coals all things oppressive, in a most un-BBC-like fashion. "Birth," for example, compares hi-tech hospital birthing for the privileged with the unceremonious and nearly unnoticed splatting on to a kitchen floor of the newest addition to a Catholic working class family. Set in "the Third World" (Yorkshire), this sequence becomes a beautifully executed song and dance number (one of several in the film). Beyond parodying OLIVER and MARY POPPINS, the sequenceachieves an impressive Stanley Donen-level choreography. The chorus, sung with mock-religious modality, intones:
In another section, "Education," we are treated to a spectacularly graphic sex education lesson in "public school." Boys are punished for missing the point of the lesson by being forced to play in an one-sidedly violent rugby match. Pitting students against masters, the metaphoric implications of classroom competition and sexual insult are carried to a literalized extreme as the "educators" brutalize the boys. This in turn leads to it logical consequence, from organized male team sports to team sports by other means: War. To ensure that no one misses the parallel, a brilliant match cut takes us from a close up of a boy with hands covering his face on the rugby field to another close up of a soldier in the same position on a battlefield.
Such Eisensteinian montage devices are deployed to great effect throughout THE MEANING OF LIFE. In the film’sopening segment, elderly clerks slave away for "Crimson Permanent Assurance.” A long tracking shot along their rows of desks reveals the miserable clerks swaying beneath their burden, as an efficiency expert from Very Big U.S. Corporation looks at his stopwatch and shakes his head. The mournful rhythms on the soundtrack are underscored by a leather, mask-and-muscle-clad, galley beater swinging a pair of heavy hammers on kettle drums. Suddenly we're down in the hold of a Roman trireme, slaves (the clerks) pulling their leaden oars to the accompaniment of a whip wielded by the efficiency expert. With the cut timed to the movement of the oarsmen, we're back in the offices of Crimson Permanent Assurance.
This opening 15 minutes is presented as if it were a short before the feature, including end credits (a bit of chicanery that works so well, most people I've spoken to confessed they were fooled into believing it). The Crimson Permanent Assurance building is expropriated by its old workers from the Very Big U.S. Corporation in response to the sacking of one of their number. Transformed into a pirate ship — all while remaining a 19th century office building — it attacks the gleaming glass towers of modern capital. Then it sets sail (under power of Terry Gilliam's animation) to find more corporate prey. Unfortunately, it tumbles off the edge of the world, while the narrator intones that it would have destroyed all the corporations, only the pirates hadn't taken into account their wrong theory of the shape of the world. You figure it out: is it pure surreal whimsy, or does it refer to the antiquated means and theories of the left in the modern era? During their revolt, the workers fashion their "weapons" by pulling down blades from the overhead fans They make stilettos with desktop paper holders. Coat racks become grappling hooks, and filing cabinets are rather surprisingly easily transformed into cannon. The office building/ ship itself — straight out of Dickens — sails bravely through the canyons of late capitalism's office buildings, dwarfed by their cylindrical shining surfaces. It manages, nonetheless, to inflict severe damages to the Very Large U.S. Corporation boardroom, setting fire to its computer, killing off its executives, and savaging the surrounding buildings. The relative scale of the antagonists, not to mention the violence of the fantasy, suggests the relation to reality of the left's permanently crimson (re) assuring dreams.
Or the pitiful strength of British capital relative to its U.S. cousin? The office is reminiscent of hardier times for the Empire. The pirate images recall the Queen’s coffers filling through the efforts of Sir Francis Drake and other patriotic buccaneers. The different levels of possible interpretation of this "short preceding the feature," as well as other sequences in the film, bring up one of the dominant formal properties of THE MEANING OF LIFE. The Python message has a principled ambiguity, which refuses to admit that any meaning is settled once and for all.
In their earlier work this free-floating quality to the images and stories usually got the better of the films' coherence. Here, though, focused around an appropriate purported theme — the meaning of life, certainly a slippery little devil as far as final definitions go — the ambiguity strengthens the film's flexible form while deepening the political and philosophical discourses spun off by the narrative. Perhaps this ambiguity’s most beneficial effect is to ignite arguments about just what it is they do mean by this or that scene.
For instance, the playing of women by (male) Members of Parliament raises a question. Is this in the worst tradition of sexist old Thespis, reaching in a line back through Shakespeare to ancient Athens, when only men were allowed to strut the stage. Or is it part of another tradition entirely: of Epic theater, which through such devices as role reversals refuses the audience its usual comfort and safety in identification with players' characters?
In a parody of a British TV show where individuals select their way of death, we watch the man who, condemned to death "for superfluous sexist scenes in his movies," chooses being chased over a cliff by a dozen scantily clad, bare bosomed young women. Without the voice over, the sequence would be unambiguously sexist. But what does the reflexive reference do to the meaning of an otherwise clear image? By Heisenberg's principle, it doesn't do nothing. On the other hand, does such self-consciousness atone for the sin? Or is Monty Python simply covering its collective ass?
Such clearly stated ambiguity adds a layer of complexity to the experience of watching THE MEANING OF LIFE. We are not allowed to be entertained without thinking about the form of our amusement. Self-reflexivity is not new for Monty Python, but it works most successfully in this film. Avant-garde film theorists in the late 1960s and early 1970s touted the virtues of the "read text" over naturalism, or the subversive power of film art that consciously strove to break illusionism's snare. But most of the products of this set of ideas (including the late 60s Godard, who was arguably the most visible practitioner) never reached mass audiences, or even fairly broad ones. Monty Python seems to successfully approach the happy medium long sought both by the left and avant-garde artists facing the problematic of “purity of ideas, small audience; (compromised) popularization, large audience.” The group looks as if it is doing exactly what it wants to do — aesthetically and politically — and raking in their numbers for the front office while it does so. However, it is legitimate to wonder just how much audience reflection goes on during THE MEANING OF LIFE. Its frantic pace tends to cut back the time necessary to soak in political points. In this respect the earlier TIME BANDITS, with its razor-edged slashing of the bourgeois family and consumerism, written by a couple members of the group, is perhaps a better model.
Some people are bound to be offended by what Monty Python wants to do. In fact, Monty Python would be doing something wrong if this were not the case, since they take on multinational corporations, British imperialism, patriotism, religion, male team sports, puritan attitudes about sex, lifestyles of the ruling class and "middle class," the military, pretentious hi-cult educational films of the BBC/PBS ilk, the mystique of science, and not least, the ideological manipulations of the mass media. In this light a word must be said about the infamous "barf sequence,” since it is one of the few scenes that might well be capable of offending everyone.
It is as if Buñuel's grossest fantasies have been pushed out beyond all imagining, this hulking rich slob barfing all over everyone and everything in sight. If Buñuel and Dali's original purpose was to "épater les bourgeois" in their collaborations in UN CHIEN ANDALOU and L'AGE D'OR, today such a goal can only be accomplished by matching the bourgeoisie's own accumulated grossness with images that might have revolted even the surrealists back then. In a world numbed by another half century of capitalist hegemony and (insult to injury) the sensationalist exploitation of its ugly realities by their mass media, what images can shock anymore? Monty Python — give them credit, folks, for such creativity — found one in the image of this bloated-capitalist-to-end-all-bloated-capitalists meeting his just desserts.
Likewise, the live liver “donation” sequence, with its gurgled screams, arterial blood plumes, and handfuls of intestines brandished about before the lens: sure it's gross. But is that all it is? The wife of the just deceased donor is given an unmistakably sexual come-on by one of the white-coated men in order to get her to give up her liver. She demurs. Out of her refrigerator pops a man in top hat and tails (also white), who with a wave of his cane blows out the dingy walls of her kitchen to reveal the star-bejeweled vastness of the universe sparkling around them. They stroll along an invisible path through the firmament. He sings to her about the size of it all, and our comparative insignificance. Completely dazzled by her intergalactic wooing, upon return to her kitchen she agrees readily to give up her liver — and her life.
At first, enchanted by the special effects and music, I thought the scene to be more or less a straightforward paean to the awesome beauty of the universe. At this point I probably would have given up my liver. But when we returned to her hovel and she — starry eyed — consented, I realized with a start that I'd been had, too. It was a smartly executed slash at the hi-tech space films of the past half-decade. It also takes aim at the seductive powers of what Belgian Marxist Ernest Mandel calls "technologism — the ideology that says science and technology — devoid of social content, “neutral" — will take care of us all. The song, perhaps best described as "electric music hall,” simply strings together huge statistics for its lyrics. But it is delivered with a subtly understated air of providing profound explanations for — what? Why one should give up one's life for science …? But even after ruminating thus, my first impression stayed with me. And I was left with the by now familiar unresolved tension between my enjoyment of the acting, song, special effects, etc., and the message that undercut that enjoyment.
Optimism is not THE MEANING OF LIFE's strong suit. I have heard the criticism that the picture painted by this group of humorists is so dark that ultimately, after the belly laughs subside into fitful giggles of remembrance, one's mouth tastes of ashes. It's true their vision — however hilarious — is such that the bold, gay colors never quite manage to cover up all the black. My response is, so much the better. The film — because of its atypical form — makes an interesting test case for the old debate over whether left wing art ought to offer explicit solutions to the world's problems. Once more Buñuel, whose own films are consistently "funny as hell," provides an illuminative example.
In LAND WITHOUT BREAD (LAS HURDES) Buñuel drew no explicit revolutionary lessons about the incredible poverty, ignorance, superstition and exploitation he found in that tormented land. But the entire film is riddled with contradictory ironies and cruel jokes. It’s as if to say that in the face of a social situation so bleak and disturbing, the only possible response is a savage black humor, within whose anger one might discern the outline of its causes which otherwise would go nameless: and which promises to be seen again, in other social forms, later on.
The discomfort that some scenes in THE MEANING OF LIFE engender is due to a similarly volatile brew of humor and anger. Marx, in a famous passage, claimed that history only raises problems for which the solution already exists, at least in embryo. But the solution to the problems raised by Monty Python in their latest film has become, over several generations since Marx's time, an overdue fetus indeed, blocked in birth by some very large obstacles (Very Large U.S. Corporations?). Until such time as those obstacles are removed, one could do worse than have a few laughs at their expense. In fact, such laughter might prove in the long run to contribute more than we might expect toward the obstacles’ removal.