Oh No You Di-n't
Anthony Lane comments on the re-release of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Why?
This week sees the rerelease of “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.” What has the movie done, you may ask, to earn the privilege of a Second Coming? True, it first showed twenty-five years ago, but then so did “Kramer vs. Kramer,” and the public has yet to clamor for a fresh look at Dustin Hoffman playing split-the-kid with Meryl Streep. On the other hand, one cannot help imagining the slow grins that spread across the faces of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, and the film’s director, Terry Jones, when they heard that “The Passion of the Christ” had racked up three hundred million dollars and rising. Now, if ever, was the time to let Brian out of his cage.
For the benefit of any Python virgins, the story runs as follows: Brian (Graham Chapman) is born down the street from Jesus Christ. Thirty-three years later, Brian joins the People’s Front of Judaea (not to be confused with the Judaean People’s Front), sworn to defeat the Roman oppressors. From this point, without really trying, he topples into trouble—pursued by admirers, arrested, brought before Pontius Pilate, and sentenced to death. In the final scene, he is crucified, with other ne’er-do-wells, upon a hill; they sing themselves into the afterlife with glee.1
Brian himself is a ne’er-do-badly who brims with a gentle exasperation, aghast at the frothing certainties of his fellow-men.2 I failed to notice that niceness before, but then, as a teen-ager, I wasn’t looking for it; the Python fan base was a heaving cluster of schoolkids and students, and we yearned for the team to go on the attack, even if we—and, in retrospect, they themselves—weren’t entirely sure what the target was. Cowardice prevented me from voicing my doubts, but I used to find the TV programs too skittish and splintered for their own good.3 The best cure for that fragmentation was to bind it with the kind of narrative glue4—one can hardly call it rigor—that holds together “Life of Brian.” Only here, and in patches of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” does the Python squeeze leave an enduring mark.5
[rest of article truncated because oh my fucking lord]
1 In the second paragraph Anthony Lane wrote some sentences which summarized the plot. Then that paragraph ended at the very moment the third paragraph began. Then a great hammer came and hit him on the head.
2 I don’t even know what a ne’er-do-well is, let alone a ne’er-do-badly. I suggest you use neither of these terms. Now as a substitute, what about, say, chickarina? Now there’s a word. I have no idea what a chickarina is either, but I guarantee it's a whole lot cooler than a ne'er-do-whatever.
3 Yeah, I guess that’s why they pale in comparison to the great SNL sketches of last week, which really know how to stay the course.
4 You mean like how your film essays bind together your ne’er-worth-much insights.
5 Oh my fucking lord.
Lane has a point.
In fact, though it would be easy to assume that Python’s influence has been wide and pervasive, it’s hard to see extensive evidence of it. In terms of sheer scope and intelligence and willingness to hit the extremes of high-brow and low, only a few shows have come close: the late-seventies show SCTV The Kids in the Hall, a Canadian show that ran into the mid-nineties; and Mr. Show, the recent HBO series starring David Cross and Bob Odenkirk. I think we had a negative effect, Terry Jones said. Python shows were very, very packed, and we covered such a lot of subjects and styles. And afterward people began to say, ‘Oh, we can’t do that—Python already did that.’ — Dave Eggers (Critic At Large)
Lane has a point?
While Idle originally pictured a cast of unknowns, Nichols handpicked a group of actors—Azaria, Curry, Hyde Pierce—to play the leads, and every one of them said yes immediately, and has committed to eight performances a week for up to a year. Azaria has known The Holy Grail by heart since he was fifteen; Hyde Pierce can pinpoint the moment when he first saw Monty Python as a teen-ager: I remember explicitly that I was home and I was up late. I turned on Channel 17, the PBS station in upstate New York, and they were doing a skit called ‘The Dull Life of a City Stockbroker.’ Michael Palin was in a bowler hat, and he would step out to get the paper and unbeknownst to him a Zulu warrior would pop out of the bushes and try to stick him with a spear. And the stockbroker’s day continues that way, with all of these near-death experiences. It was astounding—the combination of absolutely dry wit and total anarchy.
In mid-October, Idle was eating lunch in a midtown Manhattan sushi restaurant, and he looked a bit wan. It was cold in New York, and he’d been up much of the night before, revising Act II....The waiter, a tall man with halting English, came to the table and greeted Idle. When the waiter saw a tape recorder, he began whispering. He crouched near Idle, and whisper-asked if he would like some water. Idle picked up the cue. He leaned away from the tape recorder—as if it were a sleeping baby not to be woken—and whispered that he would. The waiter seemed confused, but soon came to the conclusion that, given Idle’s whispering, he, the waiter, should not speak at all. He mouthed a “sorry” and left. For the rest of the meal, whenever the waiter approached, Idle spoke to him sotto voce. In response, the waiter nodded gravely and served in absolute silence.
The cast settled into a semicircle, each with a new version of the second act of “Spamalot.” This would be their first read-through. Against the barre, at a long table, Idle and Nichols sat side by side, with John Du Prez; Casey Nicholaw, the choreographer; and about a dozen others.
When the read-through began, it became immediately clear that the dialogue in the act, much of which hadn’t been changed from the original film, was holding up well, even with different actors, almost all of them American. It’s easy to forget that the Pythons were writers first, performers second; thus the script of “The Holy Grail” is funny on the page, as is “Spamalot.” Tim Curry (not American) was playing King Arthur dignified and oblivious, just as Chapman had, but because Curry has to sing, he’s added both more camp and more melancholy to the role. David Hyde Pierce, playing Sir Robin, Idle’s character in the movie, read the same lines, and he was very funny, while playing a different Robin—less the utterly spineless coward and more a bumbling, misunderstood wuss. Hank Azaria was playing both the French Taunter and Sir Lancelot, and while Lancelot is now more murderous, he’s also somewhat sexually disoriented.
While the principals read their lines, they laughed at each other, and they laughed at the readings of the actors with secondary parts, and Idle and Nichols laughed at everyone, even though they’d heard most of the lines many, many times. When the knights were faced with the peril of the Knights Who Say Ni!, suddenly “Ni!”s were coming from all over the room, and it became evident that Idle himself was providing some of the stabbing, high-pitched “Ni!”s. As Nichols, seventy-four, sat next to him, red-faced from laughing, Idle, sixty-one, was almost out of his seat, yelling “Ni! Ni! Ni!”
Meanwhile, though, a handful of the dancers were not laughing. They had scripts on their laps and were reading along, but they did not laugh once in the forty minutes of Act II. While most of the room was breaking up, these dancers read along with confused, frozen smiles. They either weren’t listening, were too tired, or weren’t getting it.
Mr. Lane has a lot to learn from the Japanese. He should be more like the waiter. If he doesn't get it, he should at least be quiet about it.