AKA The Meaning of Life
“The task I’ve been given seems absurd: to wait here on earth until I no longer exist.”–Ashleigh Brilliant
DIRECTED BY: , Terry Gilliam (“The Crimson Permanent Assurance” and animated sequences)
PLOT: An introductory short appended to the main feature describes a mutiny among older workers at an accountant firm. Then the feature begins as a tank of fish with human faces ponder the meaning of life. The movie promises to explain that mystery in a series of comic sketches beginning with birth and ending with death (and the afterlife).
- The Monty Python comedy troupe began its life in 1969 in the BBC TV show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” The show lasted three seasons, ending in 1974, after which the Pythons embarked on a series of three feature films, of which Meaning of Life was the last.
- The Pythons refused to show distributor Universal Studios a script, instead providing a poem summarizing the film. Knowing the crew had a built-in audience, the studio approved the project.
- Terry Gilliam’s segment, “The Crimson Permanent Assurance,” was originally supposed to be a sketch in the film, but it grew to such length that it was eventually included as a separate short film introducing the feature.
- The Meaning of Life won the Grand Prix (a prize second only to the Palm d’Or) at Cannes.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Well, it’s obvious what the average person will remember most about this movie: that nauseating mountain of gluttony, Mr. Creosote, vomiting gallons of minestrone onto the waitstaff at a swanky French restaurant to make room for his evening meal (including one final “waffer-thin mint”). Due to our particular biases, however, we picked a shot from the “Find the Fish” sequence instead: an elephant in a tuxedo, a man with extended arms, and a punk transvestite with water faucets attached to his/her nipples.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Fishy Python chorus; nipple spout punk; Christmas in Heaven
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Monty Python were the pioneers of modern surreal comedy; without the groundwork they laid, there would be nothing to show on . Python is too important to weird culture to go unrecognized on a list like this, and The Meaning of Life is their weirdest big screen work, the equivalent of an R-rated “Flying Circus” episode with nudity, blasphemy, grossout humor, absurdity, and, of course, fish.
Original trailer for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life
COMMENTS: Their rambunctiously silly and absurd style of comedy has become so mainstream and accepted now that it’s sometimes difficult to recognize just how strange Monty Python could be. Famous sketches like the “Cheese Shop” “The Dead Parrot,” “The Spanish Inquisition,” “The Lumberjack Song,” or my personal favorite, “The Argument Clinic” (don’t contradict me) have become canonized in the halls of comedy. Even non-nerds can quote large swaths of Holy Grail or Life of Brian, or sing a few bars of “Sit on My Face,” from memory. A Python sketch even provided us with the commonly accepted name for unsolicited email. But those comedy classics are mere specks picked off of a much weirder fabric. The original TV series flowed from scene to scene in a stream-of-collective-consciousness, often blacking out before a proper punchline, with recurring inserts like a nude organist. They reveled in a childlike silliness, combined with superior British wit, frequently referencing literature and philosophy in a completely irreverent manner. Episodes were always served up with a dose of Terry Gilliam’s surreal animated collages, which took high art from the Old Masters and squished it up with clip art and Victorian postcards into a shamelessly vulgar (and hilarious) mishmash. It was a long shot that such a rambling, smart, ridiculous show was ever even allowed on the air; that it was a hit is a miracle.
After a four season run on the BBC followed by two hit films, the crew was ready to go their separate ways: Terry Gilliam had already begun a successful career as a feature film director with Time Bandits (1981), John Cleese had a solo hit with “Fawlty Towers,” and others were involved in their own personal projects. The Pythons had been together for fourteen years at this point, and they were ready for a last, irreverent hurrah/cash grab. Although the troupe are essentially all on the same sketchy page, Gilliam provides a bit of a “White Album” vibe to the proceedings by going off to do his own thing—although, to be fair, Gilliam was the most tangential member of the troupe and was always doing his own thing. His segment, “The Crimson Permanent Assurance,” grew so long and tonally distinct that it had to be split off from the main film to play as an introductory short. This piece literalizes the common metaphors of businesses as military units or sailing vessels by turning its workers it mutineers who become pirates raiding other corporations. Talk about your hostile takeovers. Gilliam’s contribution is self-indulgent, but not in an obnoxious way—it’s more that he’s just practicing his craft. His obsessions here are with repurposing props—he turns fan blades into corsair’s scimitars and embeds an anchor in a city sidewalk—and with practicing choreographing chaotic action sequences. The piece is more technically and imaginatively impressive than it is involving, however. More importantly, its low-comedy whimsicality feels almost nothing like Monty Python: you could be forgiven for thinking you put the wrong Blu-ray in the player when you pop in Meaning of Life and “Crimson Permanent Assurance” starts playing instead. The incongruity, however, is acceptable in retrospect in the context of this ramshackle revue; plus, the short film will make a cameo appearance in the main feature.
After “Assurance” ends, we’re back on track, such as it were: 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 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 stated theme is the Meaning of Life—it’s right there in the title—and the troupe’s method is to follow the stages of human life, from birth through school to old age, the appearance of the Grim Reaper (who makes for an uncouth dinner party guest), and even the afterlife.1 The sketches fans talk about most are the “Every Sperm Is Sacred” musical number (with its chorus line of high-kicking nuns, the most elaborately produced Python number ever) 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 TV 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. It also reminds us of a looser, wackier, and more self-aware version of the technique used in 1974’s The Phantom of Liberty; I was particularly struck by the connection when, in the aftermath of Mr. Creosote’s final explosion, the camera pans over to Eric Idle’s waiter, who advises us to follow him to learn his take on the Meaning of Life.
The Meaning of Life (the movie, not the abstract concept) also features the most unapologetically and outlandishly surreal bit in the Python canon: a little intermissory lark called “Find the Fish.” It stars 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 gleefully irritating bit of performance art that the Python-faced goldfish cheer as “terrific!” There are plenty of other weird moments as the Pythons clean out their personal comedy cellars. A black man unzips his skin and a white man steps out. Hawaiian cuisine is served in a medieval-themed dungeon. 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 (fake) exposed breasts. And there are a number of tiny, bizarre details you might miss on a first pass, such as the “Papal Discount House,” the Rastafarian Jew ‘s Hitler mustache, or the fact that Michael Palin’s mid- and end-film hostess has a vase on her table with a hand sticking out of it. The little Easter eggs of casual surrealism scattered throughout the broader absurd comedy keep dedicated weirdos coming back to the Pythons despite their wider acceptance by the mainstream.
But what about the Meaning of Life (the abstract concept, not the movie)? The more I think about it over the years, the less sense that phrase makes. “The Meaning of Life” seems like it’s a question for a dictionary, not a philosopher, and much less for a movie. I can’t even find the “meaning” in a 90 minute film—at least, not in a good one—which is far less complicated than human life. The Meaning of Life promises to “sort it all out,” but it only depicts a banal human existence that’s full of vanity, senseless obedience to authority, craven cowering (“forgive us, oh Lord, for this, our dreadful toadying…”), bullying, infighting, lying, missing fish, absurd bureaucracy, gluttony, lust, and the amazingly dumb answers people come up with to try to find meaning in life, all capped off, in the best case scenario, by an unimaginative afterlife of bourgeois boredom in a tropical hotel lounge. True, the movie does supply a concise “meaning of life” at the end—delivered in a gold envelope, no less, but as the host proclaims, “it’s nothing very special.” The last line of the movie’s theme song proudly proclaims “This is the Meaning of Life,” and that sly tautology may be the best answer we’ll get. Uneven, occasionally startling, vulgar, clever, bizarre, pointless, and frequently hilarious… that is The Meaning of Life (both the movie, and the abstract concept).
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“‘Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life’ recalls the format of ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus,’ those wonderfully irreverent television shows – collections of mad sketches, surreal graphics and interruptions within interruptions – with which they made their initial reputation… funny but, being unreasonable, I wish it were funny from start to finish.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“…given the weakness of movie critics for discussing what ‘level’ a movie ‘works’ on, I find myself almost compelled to ask myself, ‘At what ‘level’ does the projectile vomiting ‘work’?’ And I think the Python One-Up reply would be, dear fellow, that it rises above vulgarity and stakes out territory in the surrealistic. Anyone who takes the vomiting literally has missed the joke; the scene isn’t about vomiting, but about the lengths to which Python will go for a laugh.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) – Films – Stills, synopsis and production notes from the Python’s official site
IMDB LINK: The Meaning of Life (1983)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
How we made Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – Palin and Jones recall tales from the set in this 2013 remembrance for The Guardian
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – YouTube clips from the movie, from the official Monty Python account
15 Fun Facts About Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – Interesting trivia from Mental Floss
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (Philosophical Films) – (Serious) questions for class discussion
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (Comparison: Theatrical Version – Director’s Cut) – Detailed description of the deleted and extended scenes in the director’s cut
PALIN and CLEESE on THE MEANING OF LIFE – A contemporaneous interview with Palin and Clesse for BBC’s “Film 82” show; no special insight, but the Pythons are funny as always
LIST CANDIDATE: MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE (1983) – This site’s original List Candidate review
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – The illustrated screenplay also includes a forward, a deleted scene, and John Cleese’s correspondence about the movie with the “Sun”
HOME VIDEO INFO: As is usual with Python discs, The Meaning of Life 30th Anniversary Blu-ray (buy) is packed with extras and gewgaws. It features a commentary by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones and a second “commentary,” “Soundtrack for the Lonely,” which is just the sound of a guy (Palin) settling into a chair, pouring a drink, sniffing, and occasionally muttering to himself (but keep listening, in case something else happens). There’s also a short introduction by Eric Idle, who recites the poem used to pitch the film to Universal; the deleted scenes (mostly extended versions, but there are two completely new sketches including the absurd “Adventures of Martin Luther”); a 49-minute “making of” featurette; “Education Tips,” a six-minute comic short starring Cleese and Palin; “Un Film de John Cleese,” Cleese’s re-cut of the trailer; “Remastering the Masterpiece,” a tongue-in-cheek description of the restoration process from Gilliam and Jones; “Song and Dance,” a featurette on the musical numbers; “Songs Unsung,” with alternate versions of the showstoppers; various trailers and promos; a 3-minute “Virtual Reunion”; and “What Fish Think,” a 16-minute shot of an aquarium with the surviving Pythons describing their aquatic thoughts. Finally, if all that’s not enough, there’s an hour-long reunion of the cast (sans the late Graham Chapman and with busy Eric Idle chiming in via Skype). And the Terry Gilliam-style animated menus are a treat to watch in themselves.
The 2005 DVD (buy) includes only the two commentary tracks, deleted scenes, and Idle prologue.
Meaning of Life has been reissued many times, and you may find another release with slightly different features. For example, Universal released it in a DVD “Iconic Comedy” three-pack (buy) with The Big Lebowski (yay!) and American Pie (eh).
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life is also available for purchase or rental on-demand (rent or buy). Personally, given how cheap the Blu-ray is (ten bucks at the time of this writing) I’d spring for the disc in this case, but you can live your own life in your own way if you want to.
- The seven stages of life they explore loosely follow those outlined in Shakespeare’s “All the World’s a Stage” monologue, although the Bard did not include a stage of life called “Live Organ Transplants,” and for obvious reasons didn’t include an intermission called “The Middle of the Film.”