LIST CANDIDATE: MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE (1983)

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DIRECTED BY: , Terry Gilliam

FEATURING, , , Terry Jones,

PLOT: Monty Python discusses life, from the sanctity of every sperm to the rudeness of the Grim Reaper, in a series of sketches.

Still from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Monty Python’s films, in general, present a challenge to crafting a list of weird movies. Python pioneered modern trends in surreal humor, but they were so successful at popularizing their craft that their once avant-garde style has become virtually mainstream. And, among their three original-material feature films, The Meaning of Life presents a particular challenge: it’s easily the weirdest of the trio, but also quite less impressive and consistently hilarious than either Holy Grail or Life of Brian. Should Meaning of Life make it ahead of Grail and Brian because it’s a slightly weirder entry, should we select one of the better known classics to represent the Python project, or do all the movies deserve to make it?

COMMENTS: Made nine years after the comedy troupe bid farewell to their hit television series, The Meaning of Life resembles a big-budget, R-rated reunion episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” The “search for the meaning of life” structure is almost as loose as the themes that linked their television sketches, and the show’s stream-of-consciousness style (a maternity-room sketch on “the miracle of birth” yields to a satire of Catholic birth control policy, which inspires a joke about Protestant prudishness, which segues into a Church service where the pastor prays “ooh Lord, you are so big, so absolutely huge…”) remains intact. The boys’ wit is still rapier sharp–it’s actually more focused at times, blatantly anticlerical and socially aware—and the team immediately regained their comic chemistry as if they’d never been apart. This being a revue-style construction, the results are understandably uneven, but the irreverent tone is always winning. The Python’s approach to comedy is so silly and fun-loving that even the most cutting and grotesque jokes only irritate the starchiest of stuffed shirts. If there is a clunker in the bunch it’s the opener, a fifteen minute standalone Terry Gilliam short titled “The Crimson Permanent Assurance,” about a mutiny among a group of older workers at a financial services corporation that turns into a pirate fantasy. Watching this bit, you may think you’ve accidentally put the wrong disc in your player, but stay with it; after “Assurance” ends, we’re treated to the sight of the Python faces stuck on goldfish bodies as they swim around in a restaurant tank and wonder about the meaning of life. Affecting a French accent, Eric Idle then sings the “Meaning of Life” theme song to some typically crazy Gilliam cutout animation (including a machine that stamps out nude clone families wearing Mickey Mouse ears), and we’re ready for the show to begin. The sketches fans talk about most are the “Every Sperm Is Sacred” musical number (with its chorus line of high-kicking nuns) and the unforgettably vile (and funny) “Mr. Creosote” sequence, about a projectile-vomiting glutton who gorges himself at a posh restaurant until he explodes. The movie also features some of the most unapologetically and outlandishly surreal bits in the Python canon: a pink-suited man emerges from a refrigerator to serenades an old woman with a lecture on cosmology, as a means of convincing her to become a living organ donor. Heaven is envisioned as a hotel where it’s Christmas every day, with an eternal floor show featuring sequined angels parading about in Santa suits with exposed breasts. The film’s interlude (helpfully legended “the Middle of the Film”) features three characters straight out of a Salvador Dalí painting (if Dalí had painted punk transvestites with faucets attached to their nipples) wondering “where is the fish?,” a sublimely random and irritating bit of performance art that the Python-faced goldfish cheer as “terrific!” Scenes like these, together with the mild blasphemy and uncharacteristic grossness of Mr. Creosote, make The Meaning of Life the Python’s most outrageous cinematic effort, if not their funniest. It’s as disorganized and confusing as life itself—a near masterpiece of irreverence. And, true to the film’s promise, the meaning of life is revealed at the end, so no one can claim to be cheated.

Universal Studio’s “30th Anniversary” Blu-ray/DVD combo release of The Meaning of Life includes all the features from the 2003 DVD (including the Jones/Gilliam commentary track) and adds a new bonus feature in a one-hour reunion roundtable by the surviving Pythons (minus the deceased Graham Chapman, obviously, and with busy Eric Idle chiming in via Skype).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a weird kind of fun.”–Paul Chambers, “Movie Chambers” (Blu-ray)

6 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE (1983)”

  1. well here are my 2 cents :

    I agreed at first that it was slightly less funny than the other 2 Monty python’s big offerings, but this one grows on you. Holy Grail and (mostly) Life of Brian became tiresome after multiple viewings. Meaning of life, on the other hand, became funnier and weirder, for some reason. It’s now my favorite one.

    So on a weirdness level AND on a comedy level, this one belongs to the list. At least i know which movie will have my vote on the next poll.

    1. Thanks for the input, it’s important to me to get other perspectives. I can certainly see how Meaning of Life might grow on you, and as you say it is the weirdest of the three.

      There are a number of movie series/styles that give me some pause. Besides the Monty Python movies, John Waters’ Trash Trilogy troubles me. They are all similar, but does that imply we should put them all on the List, or just select one movie to represent them all? And if I select one, do I go with the obvious/most popular one, or the one I find the weirdest?

    2. yeah i guess it’s the same problem with David Lynch or Guy Maddin movies. Those two filmmakers have weirdness in their DNA, and their films share a lot of similarities with each other. so what to do ? Flood the list with all their respective filmographies ? Pick the weirder ? Or the best ? or the most representative ?

      Tough…

  2. While I do love Monty Python (though, like you, I do find this film less impressive than their other stuff), I’m not sure I agree with idea of listing it as one of the best examples of a weird film. See, from what I’ve seen, most of the films on the list have some sort of deeper reason behind their weirdness (not always the most profound reason, perhaps, but a REASON nonetheless). The Meaning of Life, by contrast, is – like much of MP’s other weird stuff – clearly weird simply for the sake of being weird. I mean, it’s heavy-handedly weird, to the degree that the weirdness loses some of its impact, at least for me. I don’t know, perhaps it’s just me, but I generally prefer weird films to have a reason for being weird other than simply, well, being weird.

  3. My humble thoughts: Holy Grail should take the vote. It’s the funniest and weirdest for sure. ‘Brian’ just isn’t that weird, and ‘Meaning’ is pretty forgettable (albeit stranger than the others), I think.

  4. It’s really a tough choice between the three Python movies, “Meaning of Life” is certainly the weirdest for being the most incoherent and episodic (while having better photography and lighting than “And now for something completely different”), “Life of Brian” is the most coherent as a narrative structure and has a comparably dull Terry Jones photography (which both make it rather un-weird beyond the funny dialogues), and “Holy Grail” is sort of the middle ground (not too episodic, nor too coherent) and I think also has the best photography, Terry Gilliam’s weird ultra-wide angle lensing.

    But personally, I’d go with “Holy Grail” and *MAYBE* “And now for something completely different”, even if “Meaning of Life” has better photography than the latter. I don’t know what it is, but “Meaning of Life” just doesn’t sit well with many people, including me. Visually, it looks like the missing link between “Time Bandits” and “Brazil”, while not even being as coherent in the quality of the imagery and image compositions as either, like they weren’t really trying anymore. In any case, it’s fascinating to compare its cold, dark colors and lighting with the warmth of “And now for something completely different” and see why the early 80s weren’t the early 70s anymore also in style.

    But in a way, it does feel like the “Contractual Obligation Movie” and you can already see them all branching off each in their own direction and going solo, even within the film itself. It’s not necessarily the writing, I think it’s more their fading chemistry on-screen and how it’s all pulled off to unintentionally reach at that overall feeling that they’re on the verge of breaking apart, pretty much like The Beatles in the “Let It Be” film. I’ve known all four Python films for roughly 20 years now, and my initial reaction to them never really changed over time.

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