THE MEANING OF LIFE, 1983
For their final feature-length movie, the Monty Python troupe spoofs the philosophy of mankind in a progressive series of sketches, beginning with birth and ending with the afterlife.
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Likening the lack of ethics of 1980’s corporate business to the barbarian lifestyle of bloodthirsty pirates, Terry Gilliam kicks off Monty Python’s final feature film, “The Meaning of Life”, with an artistic and comical short feature called “The Crimson Permanent Assurance”.
“I was getting very frustrated having now directed a couple of my own films and enjoyed that freedom,” says Mr. Gilliam, who co-directed “The Meaning of Life” with Terry Jones. “And so I had an idea that had been originally an animation idea which was about a group of old accountants who set off on the high seas of finance and become pirates. It was a cartoon idea and out of my frustration of being trapped as an animator, I said, ‘Why don’t you let me make this thing as a live-action piece?’”
Using his own crew, soundstage, and non-Python cast members (with the exception of Michael Palin), Gilliam intended to include his idea as part of the main feature.
“My rhythms had become different than the group’s rhythms and the expectations of laugh, laugh, laugh,” continues Gilliam. “This thing didn’t work that way. It worked on a different level. And we kept cutting it shorter and shorter.”
Therefore the segment was pulled from the main film and entered as a sixteen-minute featurette before the proper movie. But in traditional Monty Python anarchistic style, “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” literally attacks the main feature about two-thirds into the actual movie, which had never been done before.
In terms of production value, the action scenes are unlike anything the Pythons have achieved in the past. The violence is as graphic as the irony of elderly accountants tearing the American necktie to shreds. Keep a keen eye out for Max Headroom’s Matt Frewer jumping out of the window in the final action frame.
This short feature is perhaps the closest any Monty Python live-action sequence has ever come to the impressive artwork animated by Mr. Gilliam. It is bold, absurd, and absolutely vibrant in its cinematic brilliance.
Once the main feature begins, the Pythons are introduced as a collection of doomed fish carelessly swimming in a restaurant aquarium with proper English courtesy. Seemingly oblivious to their inevitable deaths, the fish evoke a somewhat indifferent philosophy to life and death themselves, perhaps suggesting that humans ought to do the same. If there is any perspective to be sought in this epic comedy, it belongs to them.
“Hey look, Howard’s being eaten!” exclaims the Eric Idle fish.
“Makes you think, doesn’t it?” counters the John Cleese fish.
Any fan of Monty Python will tell you that this entry is far from their best work. There are some wonderful and grotesque elements that champion this film as one worth remembering. Admittingly, there are also some scenes that run way too long. Gilliam himself would be the first one to agree on this point.
“The Meaning of Life’ was almost a tired attempt to try to keep the group together because we stopped doing television and we still wanted to work together in some ways,” Gilliam says.
Since the film is structured as a series of sketches and detracts from a singular and coherent format, “The Meaning of Life” resembles their work from the initial televised show, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, more so than “The Holy Grail” or “The Life of Brian”. Since the sketch formula was applied as the format and the theme was left undecided, the movie underwent several different forms engaging all manners of content before it realized its own thematic meaning.
“We all went off and wrote something called ‘Monty Python’s World War III’. And then we re-wrote it and it became ‘Monty Python’s Meaning of Life’,” Gilliam says. “We’d all gone our separate ways and our work habits were different. So that film ended up being much more about sketches and a series of independently written things. And I think it’s an uneven film, but I think the good bits are as good if not better than anything we’ve done.”
As evident by the lopsided depictions of its subject matter, the film’s humor quality is regrettably jilted. Whereas the chapter of “Middle Age” waxes philosophy with American stupidity , “The Miracle of Birth” is hysterically shocking and surprisingly accurate in its portrayal of mindless by-the-numbers surgerical procedure.
One of my personal favorite sequences is the bizarre “Middle of the Film”, which explores the surreal phenomena of the subconscious dream state. Recognize the green-faced elephant waiter in “Find the Fish”? It’s a leftover costume from Gilliam’s previous picture, “Time Bandits”. Gilliam himself has acknowledged dismay that this portion of the film was not allowed deeper explanation. Even for Monty Python, it is definitely the strangest part of the movie.
And then comes “The Autumn Years”.
Anyone who has seen this picture knows what I am talking about. At the time of its release, the Pythons stated that their intention was to offend absolutely everyone. If Monty Python failed to achieve this with the classroom sex scene, or the army of Catholic children singing, “Every Sperm is Sacred”, or the Grim Reaper insulting American and English behavior, then I guarantee you will drop your popcorn once Mr. Creosote enters the restaurant.
The chapter’s content is beyond vile and absolutely the funniest part of the entire movie. To give you an idea of the sketch’s vulgarity: an extra can be seen vomiting in the background at the scene’s conclusion. Only that was not in the script. The guy is actually throwing up.
In typical Python rebellion, Graham Chapman had protested to play God in this movie. Due to his open homosexuality, the Church of England the opportunity to marry his partner, David Sherlock, refused the actor, who had previously played King Arthur and Brian Christ. However, like many episodes in this blackest of Python comedies, the scene was cut.
Fans of this movie would be wise to check out the director’s cut available on DVD in order to see the R-rated “The Adventures of Martin Luther”, and an extended version of “The Middle Ages”, where Michael Palin and Eric Idle discuss the existence and significance of tampons and menstruation. And if you are a true Pythonian, you will also listen to the DVD’s “Soundtrack for the Lonely”, which features Michael Palin’s commentary as he drinks, farts, and grunts to himself in typical British undertone.