Thursday, June 27, 2019

Christ, You Know It Ain't Easy...

You know how it is. You've been putting off some unpleasant task for years and years. One morning you think "Is there any reason today shouldn't be the day that I do it?" And you finally get around to it. And of course, it's never as bad as you thought it was going to be. You wonder why you didn't get it out of the way years ago. 

You know the kind of things. Fixing the boiler. Getting your teeth checked out. Watching Monty Python's Life of Brian. 

I was slightly too young to go and see Life of Brian when it first came out, two years after Star Wars, although lots of people in my class seemed to have managed. They also managed to get in to see Alien in the same year. Alien was an "X": it would now be called an "18", but "X-Rated" sounds much sexier. The first X-Rated film I ever saw was The Fog. I was only 17 and it was not very frightening. Monty Python's Life of Brian was a Double A, I suppose mainly because of Graham Chapman's penis. 

At University I started to move in evangelical circles, and "I have never seen Monty Python's Life of Brian" became a bit of a shibboleth. Oh, we said, we aren't like Johnny Muslim, we don't think the film should be banned and we certainly don't want to chop anyone's head off, we merely choose not to go and see it. All things are permissible but not everything is beneficial one Corinthians six twelve. You wouldn't expect me to go and see a film making fun of the death of my Grandfather, would you? Oh but Andrew the film isn't making fun of the death of Jesus. If anything it is making fun of the death of Kirk Douglas. Have it your own way. Perhaps I just don't think crucifixion is a very funny subject. 

So I rather got stuck with this as a point of honour. I had Never Done Drugs and I had Never Seen Life of Brian. I persisted in my obstinacy even after it was pointed out to me exactly what had been in those chocolate brownies I used to like so much. Time passed and it became one of those films I just never got around to watching. 

Last night I was editing the latest installment of my commentary on St Mark and felt the need to say a few words about the Messianic Secret. It is a curious fact that in Mark's Gospel Jesus doesn't want anyone to know who he really is. Demon-possessed people keep screaming "you are the Son of God!" at him and he keeps straightly charging them to hold their peace. 

"You might almost think" I found myself typing "That only the true Messiah denies his divinity." 

Oh come on, I thought, this is silly, and went to the back room and switched on Netflicks. 

It would make an excellent punch line if I could now say: "And do you know what? It really is the funniest film ever made. I can't believe I've been avoiding it for so long." It would be almost equally good to be able to say "All my worst fears were realized. It really is a desperately squalid and offensive movie." 

Unfortunately, I wasn't particularly shocked or offended, and I very much doubt that I ever would have been. But I am equally sorry to report that I didn't actually think it was all that funny. 


The film feels like a collision between two slightly different ideas. Someone clearly thinks they are making a comedy adventure, somewhere between Planet of the Apes and Inspector Cluesoe. A young man, Brian Cohen, joins a revolutionary sect because he hates the Romans. ("A lot.") He becomes involved in an inept plot to kidnap the governor's wife, spends a lot of the movie being chased by Roman guards, and is eventually captured and crucified. Some of the characters have Biblical names and the nominal setting is Jerusalem; but this material has only the vaguest connection to the New Testament. The central gag about revolutionaries who spend more time arguing among themselves than they do fighting their oppressors could have been set in any milieu. 

The humor is much broader and more mainstream than I remember Monty Python's Flying Circus being, depending as much on old fashioned slapstick as on surrealism. The idea that two different groups of rebels infiltrate the palace at the same time, and fight each other rather than joining forces is a little bit funny, but the actual fight seemed interminable. I kept wanting to shout out "Get on with it!" like Captain Blackadder at the music hall. In the years between Flying Circus and Life of Brian John Cleese had made two seasons of Fawlty Towers which is shaped like a sit-com but is actually a sustained piece of vaudeville knockabout, so maybe that the place Cleese wanted to be. But it is a little disappointing that a comedy troupe which made its name with jokes about Proust and Descartes is now basing entire routines around a character called Biggus Dickus. Pilate can't say his Rs and Biggus Dickus can't say his Ss and all the other characters find this incredibly funny. Perhaps "He wanks as highly as any in Wome" seemed cleverer at the time than it does in wetwospect. These were the days when you could hardly say "bloody" on the BBC. But I kept thinking of Eric Morcambe's advice to Andre Previn "We mustn't know it's funny. If we find it funny then the audience won't." 

This part of the film takes as a starting point that left-wing political organisations are intrinsically funny. The jokes have not worn very well: it is taken for granted that we will all find it comically absurd that Eric Idle's character thinks they should say "men and women" rather than "men" and issue press statements about the rights of "men and women and hermaphrodites". It's political correctness gone mad. "Stan" wants to stand up for the rights of women because he wants to be one, and the other lefties say that they are going to fight for his right to have babies even though it is biologically impossible for him to do so. You can be kicked off Twitter for saying that kind of thing. (Also: women with false beards.)

Credit where credit is due: I laughed out loud at one  gag. While they are arguing about the difference between "the Judean People's Front" and the "People's Front of Judea" someone says "What ever happened to the Judean Popular Front" and someone else says "He's over there." But even this seems to assume that chaps like us all agree that political disagreements are really only ever arcane disputes of nomenclature.  

This is most obviously problematic in the famous "what have the Romans ever done for us..." sequence. This is basically the same gag as "no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition..." and is probably the best sketch in the movie: "Reg" (John Cleese) won't relinquish his basic proposition no matter how many exceptions are made. Maybe we are supposed to infer that religion and politics are equally matters of faith and you can never convert a true believer with counter-arguments. Maybe the point of the running Judean Popular Front / Popular Front of Judea gag is that religion and politics are both equally prone to sectarianism and schisms. But what most people are going to see on the surface is that the whole idea of revolution is ludicrous and that these silly olden days people with funny hats and big noses can't see that they are much better off under the Roman Empire than they would have been without it. For all their irreverence, the Pythons have imbibed the 1950s English public school Kool-Aid. The Roman Empire, like its successor the British Empire, was ultimately a Good Thing. Take up the white man's burden. It was alright for the Roman's to conquer Britain because at that time the British were still natives. 

The spirit of the English public school hovers over the whole thing. (Some of the school sketches from Meaning of Life were originally going to be in Life of Brian, presumably as some kind of framing sequence.) Another pretty funny sketch involves Brian writing anti-Roman graffiti in Latin and being chastised by a Roman soldier because he has conjugated it wrongly. I suspect the joke itself would now get lost in translation: no-one automatically associates Latin with their schooldays, and a teacher who twisted a boy's ear in that way would get locked up. Or is the idea of a police officer correcting a vandal's grammar funny even if you don't know what public school Latin masters used to be like? In his infamous BBC 2 debate with the Bishop of Southwark, John Cleese was still fuming about a bad sermon he had heard at his Prep School, some thirty years previously. 

So far, so not quite as funny as Carry on Cleo. Kenneth Williams would have done a better job with "Welease Woderwick" and, come to that, Michael Palin would have had a good time with "Infamy! Infamy!" But the film's reputation depends on what is strictly a digression: while running away from Pilate's guards, Brian quotes some passages which he once overhead Jesus preaching and is pursued by a mob who think he is the actual Messiah. 

If the Bishop of Southwark honestly thought that Brian represented Jesus, or that the movie was contending that Jesus was like Brian then he hadn't been paying attention. (There is a persistent oral tradition that he had in fact missed the first fifteen minutes of the screening.) The exact point of the movie is that Brian is as unlike Jesus as anyone could possibly be: he is a rather ordinary man who has, absurdly and ridiculously, been mistaken for Jesus. That is what comedy professionals call "a good joke". But Life of Brian cannot get away from its origins in sketch comedy: the whole "Brian mistaken for Jesus" conceit is exhausted in two set pieces. There's a rather wearisome sequence in which Brian tries to hide out in a hermit's cave while his followers say things like "How should we fuck off, oh Lord?" and everyone says "juniper berries" a lot. And then there is a very much cleverer sequence in which a huge crowd gathers outside Brian's window. The idea that Brian has to debate with a huge mob of "followers" who all chant back at him in perfect unison is clever, silly and original, and it builds up to the famous moment where the crowd mindlessly chant "we are all different!" while one dissenter says "I'm not!" The Messianic leader whose only message is "don't follow leaders"; the followers who says that they'll only believe he's the Messiah if he says that he isn't; the man in the crowd who asserts his individuality by claiming to be the same as everyone else. Joseph Heller wrote an entire book based on these kinds of paradoxes. I forget the title.

Michael Palin said that if the film had a point, it was Brian's speech about not doing what other people told you, thinking for yourself, not following leaders and watching the parking meters. I think that the message most audiences would take away would actually be "religious people and (left wing people) are crazy" or "funny olden days Jews would say that anyone was the Messiah." Tim Rice had made that joke rather better eight years earlier. 

Chekov said that if you do something slowly, it's tragedy, but if you do the same thing quickly, it's farce. So perhaps the point of the angry mob is that the kinds of doctrinal arguments which take centuries to develop in real life are here shown breaking out in seconds. Or perhaps it is just quite funny for hundreds of Jewish people to stand outside a naked man's window and wave their shoes at him.

There are really only two or three scenes that could be said to directly mock or lampoon Christian iconography. In the first sketch, Three Wise men are shown worshiping a new baby. The character who appears to be the Virgin Mary turns out to  be Terry Jones doing his standard cockney housewife voice ("oh dear, Mrs Niggerbaiter's exploded"). She doesn't know what Myrrh is and neither do the Wise Men, who have to rush back in and reclaim their gifts when they realize they've come to the wrong stable. One could imagine this having been a stand alone Flying Circus sketch; with standard issue BBC costume and a painted backdrop: in which case it would have provoked a couple of stiff letters to the Radio Times but very little else. The trouble is that Life of Brian has, or at any rate is able to fake, Hollywood level production values. The opening shots (which quite specifically allude to Ben Hur) would not have disgraced a serious Biblical epic: desert, stars, Bethlehem street scene, lush pre-Raphelite stable, heavenly choirs singing something which is not quite Adeste Fidelis... The music and the cinematography say "This is something profound and awe inspiring" and then we transition to Terry Jones in drag. The presentation still has the capacity to shock: the actual material is essentially harmless. 

In the second sketch, Jesus -- played entirely straight and working from the New English Bible -- is shown reciting the beatitudes to some entirely sane followers. We pan back to the grown-up Brian and his mother who are at the back of the crowd and can't hear what's being said. The scene presupposes, contra Muggeridge an English school level familiarity with the material. If you don't know the text, then "blessed is the Greek" and "blessed are the cheese makers" aren't funny. But the sketch rapidly stops being about people mishearing the Sermon on the Mount and becomes about who has the biggest nose. Perhaps the sketch is saying "Isn't it sad that even when the greatest sermon of all time is being preached, some people will not pay attention and fight about trivia instead?" But I think it is probably mostly saying "Isn't it funny that Jews have big noses?" 

I don't, incidentally, think that the film contains what are now known as Tropes. It doesn't say that Jewish people are rich or mean or that they secretly control the media. But there are a lot of nose jokes. 

There is a set up, later in the movie, about Brian's father not being Jewish but Roman, but this doesn't particularly pay off either as a joke or a plot point. Terry Jones is a clever man -- he followed up Monty Python and the Holy Grail with a serious scholarly book about Chaucer -- so it is possible he has in mind the old libel that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier. If you happen to be aware of the Panteras theory you might possibly stroke your beard and say "aha, we see what you did there". But it doesn't make a great deal of sense in the actual movie. 

The Sermon on the Mount sequence could also be imagined as a one-off sketch in a BBC studio. Imagine:  no actor playing Jesus, no crowd, just four Pythons in robes and sandals saying "Speak up!" as the viewer gradually spots which famous meeting they are ignoring. 

Two hundred years ago, if you had tried to imagine a scene from the Bible, you would have found that your mental stock of imagery came from stained glass windows and manuscript illuminations. Maybe water colour pictures in your children's Bible. Now, most of think in terms of Jesus of Nazareth and The Greatest Story Ever Told. (Life of Brian was largely filmed on sets which Zefferilli had left behind.) So unconsciously, we feel that we are looking at the actual nativity or the actual Sermon on the Mount. The idea is smuggled in that these people are talking over and mishearing Jesus's actual preaching. The fact that Jesus himself is portrayed respectfully accentuates, rather than mitigates, my sense of discomfort. 

And of course, that is the exact point. Nothing is sacred. No-one should ever take anything seriously; or at any rate everyone should sometimes take some things frivolously. Of course you would fly out to Tunisia, go to some trouble of enacting the Sermon on the Mount so it looked like an oil painting come to life, and then use it as background for nose jokes. If you could get Karl Marx and Che Guevara into a BBC studio, then of course you would ask them trivia questions about football.

The part of the film which made me most uncomfortable was the crucifixion sketch. Brian's crucifixion is not Christ's crucifixion: it is portrayed as a mass execution for insurrection and strongly recalls the ending of Spartacus. ("I'm Brian!") But that's a two edged argument: Kubrick's Spartacus becomes Christlike precisely because he is crucified. So, as a matter of fact, does Conan the Barbarian. Tens of thousands of people were crucified by the Romans, but two thousand years of Christian art means that any image of a body on a cross automatically makes us think of Jesus. (In Christian art, the two thieves are generally shown being bound to T-shaped scaffolds, specifically to avoid the sense of there being three sacred crucifixes, side by side.)  It takes some seconds for Brian to be attached to a cross. There are no jokes; it is simply part of the narrative. The imagery deliberately recalls that of Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps there is only one way to represent a crucifixion cinematically. But it still felt to me as if something holy and (depending on your point of view) horrible at popped up in the middle of a Carry On film. And maybe that's in itself a joke.

There is a whole genre of newspaper cartoons in which a man tied to a medieval torture wrack says something ironically chirpy. There used to be an advert in which a French aristocrat cheers himself up after having had his head chopped off by smoking a Hamlet cigar. Jokes of this kind specifically exclude any horror or empathy: we can't tell a joke about the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman up before a firing squad if we are thinking about the horror of a military execution at the same time. We can't both laugh at a cartoon of a man on a desert island and imagine what it would be like to die of dehydration. A one-frame cartoon of a group of people being crucified while singing "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life" could have been funny on precisely this level. It's not a joke about crucifixion or death or torture: it's a joke about the false optimism of chirpy musicals in which whistling a merry tune and thinking about your favourite things is the solution to all life's problems. 

But he have been asked to treat Life of Brian as a story, albeit a very silly one, and to think of Brian as a person. Graham Chapman plays him straight, and a lot of the jokes rely on us empathizing with him to some extent. (We have to share his embarrassment when he inadvertently appears nude in front of a huge crowd of people; we share his irritation at being chased by a crowd; we even think he is talking quite good sense during the "you are all different" sequence.) So are we supposed, at some level, to look at this scene as if a character we quite like is being hurt and killed? A whole sequence of people come to see Brian on the cross, momentarily raising his hopes and then dashing them. (Is it just me or was this riffing on the old English folk-song about the prickle-aye bush? (*)) Are we supposed to be hoping that Brian will get off? Or is Brian at this point merely a line drawing or a cartoon who we are not supposed to engage with? Or is the clash of registers the whole point -- that in this corner we have a moderately serious Hollywood depiction of the death of Jesus/Spartacus and in that corner we have some comedy Jews singing "for he's a jolly good fellow"? 

A very long time ago I saw a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado in which, utterly bizarrely, the beheadings alluded to in the script are depicted on stage as Texas-style lethal injections. I didn't find it funny; it made me feel very uncomfortable indeed. I found the ending of Life of Brian unsettling in the same way. Maybe I was meant to.

Python always depended on surprise: the idea that there is a Ministry of Silly Walks or that a man named Ptang Ptang Olay Biscuit Barrel is running for election is funny exactly once. The endless repeats, revivals, and people who won't stop quoting it at you have infallibly destroyed the joke. I went into Life of Brian knowing the general concept, even if I didn't know all the punch-lines. Perhaps if it was still 1979 the general sense of shock and incongruity would have carried the day. "Oh. My. God. They look like Bible characters but they are making cock jokes." (Viz started in the same year Life of Brian came out: there, the joke was "Oh. My. God. They look like characters from the Beano but they are making cock jokes.")  

So anyway. I've seen it now. Wasn't particularly offended. Didn't think it was very funny. Can't get over the Bishop of Southwark's accent. I have never seen Bambi or Gone With The Wind either. The Last Temptation of Christ is rather good.



7 comments:

  1. You've never seen Bambi?!

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  2. Yes, but what did you think of Monty Python and the Holy Grail?

    Is the Prickle-Eye Bush the same song as Led Zeppelin's Gallows Pole? Or, to put it another way, is the Prickle-Eye Bush the song that Led Zeppelin ripped off to write the Gallows Pole?

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  3. I think the Led Zeppelin song is based on Leadbelly’s song, which has the same structure as the English one. (“Oh sister have you brought me gold / or silver to set me free / to save my body from the cold cold earth / and my neck from the gallows tree”) The English version has a refrain which the various American versions don’t . (“oh the prickle eye bush that pricks my heart full sore / if ever i get out of this prickle eye bush i will never get in it any more”. The question of what is based on what is more than usually complicated.

    Bellowhead in their pomp: https://youtu.be/3oSRMfe7XQQ

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  4. I too have never seen Bambi or Gone with the Wind (OK, I saw bits of GWTW once when it was run, I don't know why, on national prime-time TV). Never missed them. (The reason I missed Bambi -- in the other sense -- was that my mother took my older brother to see it when it first came out (not me, being extremely young at the time) -- because after all, Disney famously made movies for children. And the death of Bambi's mother rather traumatized my big brother, 4-5 years old, as it did a whole lot of small kids, who for some reason make rather a big deal of the loss of one's mother. Didn't seem to occur to the Disney coporation, and it permanently put her off ever expecting good work from Disney. But I digress.)

    But I also never heard of the prickle-aye bush. Rather, what the extended crucifixion scene did put in mind was Everyman (to which I was exposed in my Higher Education, certainly not in my folk-Christmas early education, American style). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Everyman_(play)

    I mean, come on -- everybody Brian knows, and a bunch of others, come trooping by the man's death non-bed, and they all betray him one after the other. Including his beloved lady, who cheers his heroic sacrifice for the Cause. Of course, no savior comes along to save Brian. I thought that was quite good, funny if rather sickening, and therefore good Python.

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  5. Update: The Prickley Bush / The Gallows Pole is 95 in the Child ballad collection and 144 in the Roud folksong index. It goes back to The Fair Maid Freed From the Gallows. The Cecil Sharp House database has something like 350 versions. (The "hangman stay your hand" part is sometimes incorporated into totally different songs.) Like all folksongs, it is not as old as we would like it to be, but it goes back at least to the 17th century.

    It isn't surprising that Prickly Bush has affinities with Everyman since they were both written by same fellow, who Chris Wood calls the greatest writer of all time...

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  6. 'Actually, there's one theory that the environmental movement of our day was sparked by the rerelease of Bambi in the late 1950s.'

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  7. Aonghus FallonMonday, 08 July, 2019

    I didn't see 'Life of Brian' until I was in my mid-twenties, at which juncture I binge-watched all of the Python films one after another with a mate. It was banned in Ireland until then. I didn't see the TV series until much later, which suffered in my eyes by lacking the high production values of the films. That probably says something about how superficial I am.

    Crucially, I shared the same misconception that Life of Brian was a reimagining of the life of Christ (the chief justification for its ban in Ireland) whereas it is nothing of the sort. I'm not sure - had I still been a Catholic - that I would have found it blasphemous. The Python films are a weird mix of pointed social commentary and equally pointless slapstick.* Like you, I laughed out loud at the 'The Judean Popular Front'. On the other hand, I found the sketch of the legionaries searching the same room again and again just tiresome.

    * a natural consequence of them being the result of a collaborative process, maybe? Cleese is the funniest of the four on screen, I reckon (some people are just funny) but I wonder now how meaningful his contribution was when it came to the script?

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