Sunday, January 03, 2021

2020/BEST OF/END OF



A few days ago, I overheard a coworker on a Zoom call preparing to give 2020 the old heave-ho, and among his list of complaints about the year was that “There were no movies! Only Wonder Woman 1984 qualifies as a movie, and it was great, but there were no other movies this year!” That was certainly not his foremost complaint (thank God for a little perspective, I suppose), but unless your definition of “movies” is limited strictly to the sort of blockbuster fare like WW84 that has clogged theaters for the last 20 or more years, such a complaint registers as, at best, shortsighted. What is true is that the big theater chains which showcase the superhero franchises and other mega-budget action franchises are, for the most part, currently closed in many parts of the country. But if the success of the WW84 release simultaneously in those theaters that are open (including drive-ins) and on HBO Max is any indication, Hollywood will find a way to get these potential blockbusters in front of your eyeballs, even as the industry template for production, distribution and exhibition seems to be necessarily mutating on a weekly basis.

But what is certainly also true is in 2020 that mutating model, and the amplified importance of viewing/streaming at home, has opened up and spotlighted a window of access to sorts of lower-budget, character-driven films that have of late become sublimated to the pursuit of the monster theatrical hit. Documentaries, foreign language films, adult-oriented comedies, dramas and even arthouse fare have found a captive audience in pandemic-restricted home viewers, who seem to be willing to sample content like Small Axe, The Queen’s Gambit, Time, How Do You Mend a Broken Heart?, Minari and countless others at home when they would be hard-pressed to drag themselves out to a theater to see any of the same.

One of the big question marks hanging over the future of movies in America and all over the world is, of course, if and when theaters reopen, will we go back? Or will our viewing habits have been so altered by the necessity of attempting to stay alive and safe and having thousands of options available to revolve around our schedules that the relative hardship of dragging our collective asses back out to theaters for a specific film at a specified screening time will no longer seem worth it?



Well, it has been ten months since I’ve been in a movie theater. Previously, the longest I’d been away from one, at least since I began college, had been a dry stretch of a month back in 1982, and I remember at the time that that gap seemed like a year or more— I so pined for the experience of seeing a movie on the big screen that when I finally made it back I was momentarily overwhelmed and found myself near tears, even though the theater was only a typically under-designed cracker-box multiplex. Here in 2021, i
t’s still hard to accept that resuming this activity is still so far away from being an accessible reality. But I can’t let go of my optimism that one day we’ll be able to return to seeing movies the way we used to.  The undeniable truth is that, before the world changed, being in a movie theater had already become a source of stress long before the distinct possibility of losing one’s life (or at least getting extremely sick) for the chance to see the new James Bond movie. Rude, inconsiderate audiences, incompetent exhibition of the films themselves in multiplexes run by minimum-wage employees, and a host of other annoyances and booby traps have made the home viewing option seem like the far more attractive option for years, and God knows, when audiences do return to theaters, the habit of treating these auditoriums as if they were big screen TVs set up in their homes, where they don’t have to worry about decorum or talking over the picture and disturbing others, or even getting out of their pajamas, isn’t likely to improve. (It could very well get worse.) I’ve thought of theaters as a second home since I was about four years old, when I saw my first movie (Gay Purr-ee, 1964, Marius Theater, Lakeview, Oregon), and though before March 2020 I didn’t get out to one nearly as often as I used to, and though I miss the communal experience of seeing a movie—any movie—on the big screen, when they finally do reopen I know I will hesitate at the prospect of returning until I can be assured the environment has truly been made safe. But I can’t imagine not going back one day, and on that day I will try to rekindle once again the habit of an activity that has, as much as any other, framed the way I’ve lived my life for almost 60 years… unless and until those bozos sitting in front of me once again just won’t shut up and eventually drive me home for good.

With these thoughts in mind, my 12 favorite movies of 2020 were all, with the exception of two, films that I would have rushed to see in a theater but which I just happened to see at home. And without exception they were films that, while I feel sure would have been enhanced by the size of the image and enveloping sound of a really good theatrical experience, were not reduced in their impact by the relatively dinky home theater setup that graces my living room. Here’s that list, one that, given how much I have left to see from the blighted year past, might seem a little more constricted than most, followed by 13 movie viewing experiences from 2020 that, for one reason or another, I’ll never forget.

My Favorite Movie of 2020



First Cow (Kelly Reichardt) For many viewers her movies are intolerably slow, tedious and lacking in dramatic urgency, but after seeing this latest, after previous work like Certain Women, Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy (I have yet to see her 2013 Night Moves), I have to rank Kelly Reichardt as one of my favorite directors currently making movies. Reichardt’s tales of ordinary people making their way through life and sometimes history, small-scale visions that reach well past their ordinary realms into specificity which allows both rich observations linked to time and place as well as a pointed universality, are realized with the patience of a documentarian, the tranquil gaze and empathy of a poet, and the assured exhilaration of a filmmaker who is at the top of her game. (These qualities are also a hallmark of another film on my list, Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock.) In First Cow Reichardt tells a story of friendship, community, and enterprise in mid-19th century Oregon—a baker sets adrift by circumstances meets up with an entrepreneurially minded Chinese immigrant and the two of them create a sensation making fried cakes using milk they surreptitiously pilfer from the titular beast. It’s a winning formula for the fledging businessmen and their customers, until it isn’t. First Cow seduces the viewer with its apparent simplicity— it feels like a lushly photographed kinescope of a time and sensibility too far past now for anything but remotely aestheticized access. Yet the movie is also a work of deep feeling, a lovely melody in a minor-key expressing the song of an emerging America which rings of possibility, but also of dire, inevitable fate.

 

(the rest, in descending order)


Emma. (Autumn de Wilde)



American Utopia (Spike Lee)



Zappa (Alex Winter)



Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)



Minari (Lee Isaac Chung)



Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)



You Should Have Left (David Koepp)



Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George E. Wolfe)



Bill & Ted Face the Music (Dean Parisot)



The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin)



The Old Guard (Gina Prince-Blythwood)




As of January 3, 2021, I still need to see Ammonite, An American Pickle, Bacurau, Bad Hair, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?, Black Bear, Dick Johnson is Dead, Farewell Amor, Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, The Forty-Year-Old Version, Freaky, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The Jesus Rolls, John Lewis: Good Trouble, Mulan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Nomadland, One Night in Miami, Small Axe: Mangrove, Red White and Blue, Alex Wheatle and Education, Soul, Synchronic, The Trip to Greece, Wander Darkly, The Witches and Wolfwalkers.


My 13 Best Viewing Experiences of 2020

1) One of the most wonderful evenings I've yet spent since the days of quarantine were imposed was with one of my dearest friends, Katie Warrener, back in May. We cobbled together a watch party on Facebook IM, synched up our Blu-rays, pressed play and reveled in Fellini Roma  (1972), bookended with an hour of catch-up conversation before and another hour of excited chatter after. So about four hours total in communion with the only other person I know who reveres this movie as much as I do. Roma serves as a sort of bridge between the self-reflexive fantasias at the heart of 8 ½ and Giuletta Degli Spiriti and the more openly nostalgic biography of Amarcord. It's a fantastically entertaining, exuberantly congestive, inclusive and episodic celebration of Rome's ancient ties, its ghosts of culture and religious ceremony and its messy social rituals. All of these are married to the director's usual rich visual bombast and randy iconoclasm to produce a haunted vision of a city which Gore Vidal, on camera, describes (considering its history of unlikely rebirth and clashing sensibilities) as a perfect place to experience the end of the world. Three or four sequences here rank among the absolute peak of Fellini's imaginative cinema-- a long, cacophonous traffic jam leading into the city which includes among its many varieties of travelers and vehicles Fellini's crew (and the director himself) getting the whole thing down on film; an eerily gorgeous tour underneath the streets which hints at the cavernous secrets the city still holds; a hilarious staging of a vaudeville show held for a raucous, heckling audience on the eve of World War II; and probably the movie's most notorious sequence, a visionary fashion show of Catholic vestmental finery culled from the Church's history and its possible future, attended by a Vatican rogue's gallery of worshipers nostalgic for the trappings of Catholicism's influence in a more "innocent" (read more culturally dominant) age. Fellini's great movie would be exhilarating enough on its own, but seeing it with Katie, even though she’s 2,000 miles away, made it genuinely magnificent. 



2) Taking the three main people in my life, my wife Patty and my two daughters, Emma and Nonie, to see 
Gremlins  (1980) at a drive-in. We made it back out to the outdoor cinemas we’ve always loved several times over the summer, but this is the one where everything coalesced into a magical experience, one which seemed as close to the “normal” we’ve known ever since I introduced all of them to drive-ins in 2005 as we’re likely to get for the foreseeable future.



3) Watching the 1988 cheapo horror thriller 
Necromancer (1988) with my best pal Bruce during a rare get-together, with masks, and after we were both tested for COVID-19, at his house in San Diego. Bruce and I were on the set for this one, guests of the movie’s lovely leading lady, Elizabeth Kaitan (or Cayton, as she’s credited here), and Bruce can actually be seen for about .5 seconds during a party scene we were both on hand for. Hard to believe it took us this long to finally get around to seeing this one. It’s no great shakes, but it’s much better than either of us ever imagined it would be, and it was memorable fun watching it together. Well, they can’t all be Animal House, I suppose…




4) Being dazzled by the Arrow 4K Blu-ray of 
Flash Gordon (1980), and knowing that I had written an essay that was included in the booklet featured inside, a rare honor afforded to me by Arrow Films producer Neil Snowdown. Thanks so much, Neil!



5) 
Ushering out my 50s late at night on August 17 with the splendid madness of Ken Russell’s Lisztomania (1975), one of my favorite movies. When the movie was over, as Liszt ascends to heaven, reunited with all the important women of his life and all borne on a chariot-spaceship shaped like a pipe organ, I was blissed out and suddenly 60 years old.


6) Creating the subtitles for
, part of the Criterion Collection’s gorgeous Essential Fellini boxed set, released to commemorate the great filmmaker’s centennial. This one took me all night, and it was the one and only time I haven’t minded pulling a 22-hour all-nighter to get the job done.



7
Seeing, or rather being absorbed by Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli for the first time on Criterion’s newly released Blu-ray.



8
Seeing Emma. with Emma for her 20th birthday, 3/6/2020, just before the lockdown—it was the last movie we would see in a movie theater for the foreseeable future (ten months and counting…)



9) Finally seeing Alex Winter’s long-awaited documentary Zappa 
 and accessing it via the virtual screenings link at Salem Cinemas in Salem, Oregon. So, I was able to support this arthouse-in-an-unlikely-place and relax into Winter’s brilliantly assembled, anti-hagiographic story about one of my favorite musicians.


10) 
Taking in Lee Isaac Chung’s delightful and moving
Minari in an entirely unlikely environment, at the Mission Tiki Drive-in during the movie’s week-long Oscar-qualifying run. A really good Asian movie, about 60% of which features English subtitles for the Korean dialogue, running on a screen which might otherwise have been occupied by any number of loud, obnoxious cartoons or action movies I wouldn’t be even slightly interested in seeing? Yeah, I’ll drive 60 miles round trip for that.


11) Seeing American Utopia for the second time, on November 4, 2020, the day after the election, when it still looked like Trump was gonna pull it off. At that moment it seemed like the last thing I wanted to see— wouldn’t the movie’s optimism be too unbearable? But it really cheered my soul, and by the end of the week its optimism felt, if not entirely fulfilled, then at least reasonable, something like a gift, a reason to keep going.



12) Catching up with John Ford’s
Seven Women (1966) and 13) Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1971) for the first time, on TCM and on the front porch of my house on my iPad, respectively, and bemoaning the fact that I’d waited so long—too long-- for the privilege. How many more times could I have thrilled to these movies had I not been so slow on the uptake?


FIRST TIME SEEN IN 2020


Hearts of the West (Howard Zieff; 1975)
The Wrath of God (Ralph Nelson; 1972)
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Roger Corman; 1967)
Pete Kelly’s Blues (Jack Webb; 1955)
Murder She Said (George Pollock; 1961)
I Wake Up Screaming (H. Bruce Humberstone; 1941)
The Skull (Freddie Francis; 1965)
The Uncanny (Denis Heroux; 1977)
Bullets or Ballots (William Keighley; 1936)
The 13th Chair (George B. Seitz; 1937)
Farewell, My Lovely (Dick Richards; 1975)
The Stalking Moon (Robert Mulligan; 1968)
Cover Me, Babe (Noel Black; 1970)
The Big Doll House (Jack Hill; 1971)
Smarty (Robert Florey; 1934)
Town Bloody Hall (Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker; 1979)
History is Made at Night (Frank Borzage; 1937)
Sapphire (Basil Dearden; 1959)
Nightfall (Jacques Tourneur; 1956)
Ulysse (Agnès Varda; 1983)
Salut Les Cubains (Agnès Varda; 1964)
Wicked Woman (Russell Rouse; 1953)
Mur Murs (Agnès Varda; 1981)
Uncle Yanco (Agnès Varda; 1967)
Suddenly (Lewis Allen; 1954)
Black Panthers (Agnès Varda; 1968)
Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger; 1945)
After the Curfew (Lewat Djam Malam) (Usmar Ismail; 1954)
Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman; 1957)
The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler; 1946)
The Return of Doctor X (Vincent Sherman; 1939)
Murmur of the Heart (Louis Malle; 1971)
Phantom of Chinatown (Phil Rosen; 1940)
Victim (Basil Dearden; 1961)
Attack of the Mushroom People (Mantango) (Ishirô Honda; 1963)
A Slight Case of Murder (Lloyd Bacon; 1938)
4D Man (Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.; 1959)
Whirlpool (Roy William Neill; 1934)
Hamilton (Thomas Kail; 2020)
No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz; 1950)
Vigilante (William Lustig; 1982)
Il Bidone (Federico Fellini; 1955)
Aloha Bobby and Rose (Floyd Mutrux; 1975)
The White Sheik (Federico Fellini; 1952)
Sex Kittens Go to College (Albert Zugsmith; 1960)
The Giant Claw (Fred F. Sears; 1957)
I Knew Her Well (Antonio Pietrangeli; 1965)
Crime of Passion (Gerd Oswald; 1956)
6-Day Bike Rider (Lloyd Bacon; 1934)
Sam Whiskey (Arnold Laven; 1969)
The Devil’s Rain (Robert Fuest; 1975)
Gone to Earth (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger; 1950)
Man Bait (Terence Fisher; 1952)
The Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller; 1959)
The Boston Strangler (Richard Fleischer; 1968)
Loan Shark (Seymour Friedman; 1952)
Race Street (Edwin L. Marin; 1948)
Manpower (Raoul Walsh; 1941)
Chosen Survivors (Sutton Roley; 1974)
Werewolves on Wheels (Michel Levesque; 1971)
Alien Vs. Predator (Paul W.S. Anderson; 2004)
Seven Women (John Ford; 1966)
Danger Signal (Robert Florey; 1945)
Scorpio (Michael Winner; 1973)
Have I the Right to Kill? (The Unvanquished) (Alain Cavalier; 1964)
The Nightcomers (Michael Winner; 1971)
Dr. Who and the Daleks (Gordon Flemyng; 1965)
The Ghoul (T. Hayes Hunter; 1933)
The League of Gentlemen (Basil Dearden; 1960)
Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani; 2007)
The Werewolf (Fred F. Sears; 1956)
The Black Sleep (Reginald Le Borg; 1956)
Christ Stopped at Eboli (Francesco Rosi; 1979)
Berserk (Jim O’Connolly; 1967)
The Hill (Sidney Lumet; 1965)
Daughter of Shanghai (Robert Florey; 1937)
Tomorrow is Another Day (Felix Feist; 1951)
Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise; 1959)
Macao (Josef Von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray, Mel Ferrer, Robert Stevenson; 1952)
Variety Lights (Federico Fellini; 1950)
Fellini: I’m a Born Liar (Damian Pettigrew; 2002)

Directors with multiple entries on this “First Seen” list:
Agnès Varda (5)
Basil Dearden (3)
Federico Fellini (3)
Robert Florey (3)
Lloyd Bacon (2)
Fred F. Sears (2)
Michael Winner (2)


PERFORMANCES I LIKED IN 2020

Michelle Dockery (The Gentlemen), Nicolas Cage (Color Out of Space), Julia Garner (The Assistant), Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ewan McGregor (Birds of Prey…), Riley Keough (The Lodge), Jim Carrey (Sonic the Hedgehog), Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy, Gemma Whelan, Miranda Hart (Emma.), Elizabeth Debicki, Donald Sutherland, Mick Jagger, Claes Bang (The Burnt Orange Heresy), John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Rene Auberjoinois, Evie (First Cow), Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman (Da 5 Bloods), Bill Burr (The King of Staten Island), Kevin Bacon, Amanda Seyfried, Avery Tiiu Essex (You Should Have Left), Rose Byrne, Steve Carell, Natasha Lyonne, Chris Cooper (Irresistible), Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chitewel Ejiofor (The Old Guard), John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki (Tenet), Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Samara Weaving (Bill and Ted Face the Music), Steven Yuen, Yeri Han, Youn Yuh-jung, Alan S. Kim, Will Patton (Minari), Joel Kinnaman (The Secrets We Keep), Sunita Mani, John Reynolds (Save Yourselves!), Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton (The Trial of the Chicago 7), Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan), Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Booboo Stewart (Let Him Go), Amanda Seyfried, Arliss Howard (Mank), Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Micheal Ward (Lovers Rock), Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci (Sound of Metal), Dearbhla Molloy (Wild Mountain Thyme), Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Viola Davis, Colman Domingo (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha (Sylvie’s Love)

WORST OF 2020 (besides the year itself, of course) from worst to least-worst



The Personal History of David Copperfield (Armando Ianucci)

Greenland (Ric Roman Waugh)

Dreamland (Miles Joris-Peyrafitte)

Wild Mountain Thyme (John Patrick Shanley)

Tenet (Christopher Nolan)


It ain’t all gonna suddenly get better now that the calendar has changed, but nonetheless I wish you all health and safety and sanity and justice and many more good movies in 2021, until such delights once again become the norm.

************************************

Saturday, November 28, 2020

HEROES: CLEESE, GILLIAM, IDLE, JONES, PALIN and THE MEANING OF MONTY PYTHON (2013); plus THOUGHTS ON ZAPPA (2020)

 

As reunions of great collaborators go, it must be one of the least hyperbolic in pop culture history. In 2013, the five surviving members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus—John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin—gathered together in a little flat in London’s Sloane Square, near Knightsbride and Chelsea, for a one-hour sit-down discussion for British television, and they got an unassuming, hour-long documentary out of the process. (Well, four of them were gathered together, anyway. Idle, foreshadowing the current worldwide necessity for the Zoom conference call, appears via satellite feed on a big TV monitor in the center of the room— a Los Angeles resident at the time, he claims to be suffering from having to being awake for the conference at 3:00 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, while showing none of the ill effects of sleep deprivation.) The Meaning of Monty Python, now available streaming on Netflix, is the Monty Python reunion true fans will have hoped for, recognizing that the time is past for on-stage recreations of the comedic trailblazers’ favorite and/or most famous bits and instead opening up an avenue for the five men to spend ostensibly relaxed time together, reminiscing, analyzing, philosophizing, for the most part avoiding argument, and even, if only tacitly, acknowledging the onset of twilight.

Nobody looks especially comfortable, I suppose, but neither do they look especially uncomfortable—the flat appears intimate and cozy, not unlike some of the only-slightly-skewed domestic environs that could occasionally been seen on some of the Pythons’ more domestically oriented TV sketches. Jones and Palin occupy the left side of the frame, Idle’s monitor, absent the crowning presence of a penguin, both in the center and occupying the camera position for the wide master shot (the better to be seen and interacted with by the other members), and Cleese and Gilliam on the right. There are cuts to unvarying medium shots of the individual men in their chairs as they speak, and to a close-up of Idle shoved tight against the camera on his monitor, alternating with the occasional pull-back to that wide shot. And that’s it for a visual scheme to The Meaning of Monty Python, all the better to focus intently on what’s being said.



After a thoroughly enjoyable and often hilarious warm-up in which the five joke around and settle into the congeniality of the situation—it’s fun to see them all sitting around, referencing their own material as if they were Python fans like the rest of us (“Lemon curry?!” “Luxury!”), a chapter heading designed to recall the dividing sections of their 1983 film announces the shift of the conversation-- “Part I: The Meaning of The Meaning of Life”-- and off we go into a discussion of the Python’s final, Cannes prize-winning feature. Cleese, Idle and Palin are the prime movers of the hour, and they kick things off here with discussion of how the six original members hurriedly (perhaps too hurriedly?) approached the production of the film in the shadow of Life of Brian’s tumultuous reception, as a sketch grab-bag, essentially, and had a lot of difficulty trying to land on a unifying principle and theme. Idle and Palin both confirm that there was about 300% more material written for the film than actually appeared in it, and Idle even mentions one script, entitled Monty Python’s Fish Film (a work Cleese doesn’t even recall), which, while sharing much of that bounty of would-be Meaning of Life material, apparently had even more stuff in it that was ultimately set aside. (The Blu-ray and DVD for The Meaning of Life features new and quite hilarious sketch material used as bonus features, and I wonder if some of that might be among the original rejects.)

But Cleese almost immediately addresses his dissatisfaction with The Meaning of Life, assessing that while, because of its haphazard history at the writing stage, there are some very good things in it, much of it he considers quite bad, unsuccessful in terms of comedic structure or basic laughs. As you might expect, given their anecdotally documented personal history, Gilliam, with Jones one of the film’s two credited directors, bristles at Cleese’s criticism and brings up director Henry Jaglom’s observation (Gilliam: “Remember Henry Jaglom?” Cleese: “Mmm, vaguely.”) that its sketch-oriented nature allows the  stronger material to by default amplify the level of the stuff that might not work so well. It’s to Cleese’s diplomatic credit that he offers his belief that the liver donor section of the film—“The Meaning of Life Part V: Live Organ Transplants”-- to be some of the best work in the film, perhaps of their careers. (In the sketch, he and Graham Chapman, who died in 1989, arrive at the house of an orthodox Jew, played by Gilliam, and, after objections from the expected donor-- “But I’m still using it!”-- forcibly extract, with much grunting and screaming and arterial spray, the vital organ from its soon-to-be-deceased owner.) Eventually pressed by Jones to be more specific as to what he considers “bad” in the film, Cleese eventually admits that he found the sketch in which the soldiers bring gifts to their sergeant on the battlefield before being picked off by enemy fire to be not up to snuff. Cleese also appears baffled by the “nonsense” of the giddily surreal “Find the Fish” segment, which Gilliam happily defends as one of the film’s more enduring and repeatable bits.

As the discussion returns to the difficulty of reining in the material with a thematic through line, Palin and Idle argue that while the quest of King Arthur and the burgeoning political awareness of a defiantly anti-religious figure in, respectively, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, provided a necessary narrative structure, perhaps the lack of an obvious narrative thread is something that weakens The Meaning of Life. Perhaps, as Idle speculates, if they’d been able to follow one character throughout the progression of his life, applying the various chapters to their scabrously satirical approach to the human condition, the movie might have been perceived as more successful. He also reminds his colleagues that in its very fragmented stylistic form, The Meaning of Life is essentially a musical—eight numbers in all, including the justly revered “Every Sperm is Sacred,” which, as Palin delights in recounting to the troupe, lost the BAFTA award for best song that year to “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman, to the great consternation of the assembled audience of the awards.



It is here that I found myself arguing with these great comedic minds. Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life did win the Grand Jury Prize at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, after all, a singular achievement and one that no other widely beloved comedy film has ever managed to pull off, before or since. It seems to me that rather than Meaning of Life, it is instead Life of Brian which is probably the spottiest of the Python films in terms of consistent laffs, even if its satirical targets, politics and religion (and the point at which the two meet on the graph of human folly), still stick the landing, and I think that might be because it’s the only one of their features that is built around an obvious narrative progression—how does Brian get from point A to point B to point C(ross)?-- even if, in sequences like Brian’s interstellar joyride, you can still feel the troupe pushing against traditional structure. Of course, there are plenty of moments of isolated brilliance in Life of Brian—Palin’s lisping Pilate (“Incontinentia Buttocks!”) and Jones’s vicious mother of Brian (“That’s Capricorn, is it?”) among my favorites—even if the whole seems unduly weighted with narrative obligations.

But I believe The Meaning of Life is a success in large part because of the absence of a tether to conventional questions of plot and structure, and no matter who’s mounting the argument it seems rather perverse to suggest that a troupe so grounded in fertilizing and harvesting ideas in surreal blackout comedy would be unduly hobbled by that very approach simply due to an extended running time. My own estimation of The Meaning of Life has only grown in 37 years since I first saw it—it’s a formally daring movie, and it cuts, for real, into just about every established institution or idea or inescapable condition that has poisoned history since the onset of human sentience. If anything, the quest for the meaning of life, however facetiously the Pythons may have approached it, does provide more than a blank wall onto which these geniuses might fling their shit in order to see what sticks, and that overriding theme is addressed in unexpected ways, making tangential connections to seemingly inorganically related subjects seem richly germane to that theme.

In other words, The Meaning of Life often stubbornly refuses to do all the work for an audience, and if that is perhaps has been an alienating concept for some viewers, it’s also a quality that the film shares with a lot of great art, one which keeps a viewer like myself returning to it long after having memorized most of the great bits in order to see how the synapses of the structure and the subject still fire, and how that electrical process, in me more than the film, might have changed over time. Cleese, who admits moving to A Fish Called Wanda after The Meaning of Life because the idea of having 40% control as opposed to one creative voice out of six appealed to him, might be accurately describing the haphazard manner in which the movie came together to give shape to his perception of it as a not entirely successful piece of work, but I don’t think that’s an apt way to describe the movie itself.

The Pythons do move on to other subjects, including the origins of comedy (much attention paid here to post-WWII creative forces such as Beyond the Fringe and The Goon Show); the politics of creativity (Gilliam: “Satirizing the modern world is a difficult proposition because it’s so diffuse… It was easier when the class system was core clearly delineated”); why fish are inherently the funniest creatures in the animal kingdom; the television bureaucracy that both hampered and encouraged their artistic freedom at the BBC; and, of course, death and the possibility of an afterlife, a possibility vigorously defended by, of all people, Cleese, who dismisses organized religion outright while reserving credulity for reports of out-of-body experiences in near-death moments. (And speaking of death, the reminiscences of the absent Chapman never rise to the brilliance of having an urn of his ashes parked next to the rest of the surviving members, as happened during one of their previous Python summit conferences, but are instead restricted largely to warmhearted remembrances of Chapman’s prickly brilliance and apparent inability to arrive at the set even close to on time.)

All the while, Cleese and Idle, and perhaps to a lesser extent Gilliam, are the main engines of the conversation that ensues over the brisk and too-short hour of The Meaning of Monty Python, while Palin delivers less frequent but no less hilarious and pointed contributions to the general discourse. But its hard to watch The Meaning of Monty Python without being constantly reminded of the fate that befell Terry Jones, who died in January of this year after living for several years with a degenerative aphasia and eventually succumbing to the mounting effects of frontotemporal dementia. At the time which this documentary was filmed in 2013, Jones was still two years away from an official diagnosis of aphasia, which impairs the ability to speak and communicate, and according to an article in the British publication The Guardian published in 2017, it became apparent midway through 2014, during a performance of Monty Python Live (mostly), a reunion performance held in London, that all was not well in terms of Jones’s health:

“’Terry was always very good at remembering lines,’ (recalls Palin in the Guardian article). ‘But this time he had real problems, and in the end he had to use a teleprompter. That was a first for him. I realised then that something more serious than memory lapses was affecting him.’

Jones… later passed standard tests designed to pinpoint people who have Alzheimer’s disease. His speech continued to deteriorate nevertheless. ‘He said less and less at dinner parties, when he used to love to lead conversations,’ said his daughter Sally.”

Jones is certainly the least vocal participant in The Meaning of Monty Python, seemingly content to sit in his presumably comfy chair and listen to his friends jabber on in their very entertaining way, offering only the occasional comparatively generic contribution to the conversation (“I remember being very frustrated by the exclusion of Life of Brian from year-end critical roundups”), the sort of comments which the other members regard with respect but which spark little in the way of reciprocal engagement. After a few minutes of observing this pattern of Jones’s participation, the sadness begins to settle on his very countenance, and the viewer is left to speculate if the awful disease, such a bitterly ironic ailment to have descended upon such an obviously gregarious and brilliant man, hadn’t already begun to manifest itself even earlier than when Palin noted for The Guardian.


Near the end of the documentary, however, something occurs that might, for any viewer watching in 2013, have seemed oddly humorous in a Python vein, or at the worst inexplicable, but which, judging by the reaction of the other members, might also have been a portent of things to come for Terry Jones. In the midst of one of Gilliam’s comments during the discussion of afterlife options, Jones rises from his chair. He’s the only one to do this during the entire hour, so it certainly counts as a violation of the project’s modest mise-en-scène, one which a director like Jones might well have been coyly aware. Jones begins a slow move toward the camera, which is placed facing the arrangement of chairs on which the rest of the Pythons remain—it is presumably in the same position as a second monitor on which the others can see the Idle feed, which we see placed center among them on the primary monitor. As he does so, and while we viewers are waiting for the reveal of a possible joke, there is a cut to a closeup of Idle’s monitor. He is the only one we see visibly reacting to Jones’s sudden displacement, and that reaction is an obvious mixture of befuddlement and concern. We then see, in the wide shot we’ve seen throughout, Jones approaches the camera, bends down, murmuring and making an unknown adjustment of some sort, before returning silently to his seat, where he resumes listening to Gilliam and Cleese’s conversation which has continued throughout the movement without missing a beat. At one point, Gilliam even looks over his shoulder away from Cleese to glance at Jones, whom he regards without comment while continuing the point he was making. The others, apart from Idle’s initial look of concern, react not at all. It’s The Meaning of Monty Python’s one unsettling moment, not only for the contrast it provides to Jones’s familiar sharpness and its reminder of the unfortunate fate of this most engaging comic artist, but also for its dovetailing into the troupe’s discussion of the inevitable procession toward death (“I’m against it!” chirps Idle), a subject tapped into here but more successfully brushed up against in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

For those whose comic sensibilities, whose very receptivity to comedy, was irreversibly shaped by the work of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a banner which went beyond these six to include the participation of folks like Carol Cleveland, Neil Innes, Connie Booth, producers John Goldstone and Ian MacNaughton, and many, many others, the at-least-partial answer to the query “What gives meaning to life?” (not that there necessarily is any meaning to life, as Gilliam cheerfully reminds us) must include the artistic achievements of these brilliant comic writers and actors. And for those who revere the work of Terry Jones, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman and Terry Gilliam when they were known by the shorthand moniker Monty Python, the hour-long summit meeting that comprises The Meaning of Monty Python is a lovely, challenging, hilarious reminder of the meaning they themselves have brought to lives and life ever since their emergence as the Beatles of comedy in the early ‘70s. In the absence of Jones and Chapman, and in the presence of such a marvelous and influential body of work which continues to resonate and delight, which can likely never be topped, which will illustrate the value of fish slapping contests until the light finally winks out for all of us, well, that work is enough. And therein lies the meaning. Or as Gilliam wonders over the end credits, as the five are heard taking off their mics, “What is this (the documentary) for again?” Ever the optimist, Idle, the author of Life of Brian’s cheerfully nihilistic “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” quickly responds, “For posterity!”

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And speaking of posterity, if you have any interest in music whatsoever, regardless of how you feel about the man or his own compositions, I would think that Alex Winter’s epic documentary Zappa would be a must-see. (The film is now streaming on various outlets, including Amazon, Vudu and through various virtual arthouse cinemas, like the Salem Cinema in Oregon's capital city,
 where you can view it at home and supporting struggling independently-owned theaters across the country.) I may have more to say about the film once I’ve let it sink in a bit, but right now I can say that for this giant FZ fan Zappa was, in total, a bit overwhelming, especially emotionally, yet at the same time it wouldn’t have hurt my feelings one bit if it had gone on another three hours. Maybe that fantasy longer version would have had more time to focus on the bands from the ‘70s through Zappa’s last tour in 1988 (The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life) that I loved the most. But as it is, getting a deep dive into Mothers of Invention/Mother’s history, and the avant-garde/classical composition that dominated his interest while he was writing “strictly commercial” stuff, and then the last few years of his life, is thrilling, and the movie has an audio-visual dexterity that is sometimes the talking heads/doc equivalent of Bruce Bickford’s perversely funny animations, or of something like Zappa’s own most playful, pitch-black creations— dense, free-associative, welcomingly weird.

The movie also caused me to remember that Zappa, in the midst of and in the aftermath of the whole PMRC controversy, claimed that he was floating feasibility studies to run against George H.W. Bush for the presidency of the United States. That run never materialized, but I remember saying to more than one person at the time that I would have seriously considered voting for him, and as I sit here considering all the things Zappa stirred up in me and made me think about, one of those things would be that I might still be inclined to cast him my vote again, were he around to make a run. And if he was, what might he have made of the national nightmare which began in 2016 and is now about to close to almost universal scorn and a collective sigh of relief? (Now, there’s the seed for some fascinating speculative fiction, huh?)

I had just returned from my honeymoon in 1993 when I heard that Frank Zappa had died. It was no surprise—his battle with prostate cancer had been raging for a couple of years-- yet it was devastating news. After Zappa had finished, I tried to remember, through fresh tears, if I’d ever cried at the news of a death of a celebrity, either before or since, and I couldn’t think of an instance. Yet even though I knew he was sick and that the outcome was inevitable, I still sobbed when I found out that Frank Zappa was gone. One of the most complimentary things I can think of to say about Alex Winter’s film, beyond its visual dexterity, humor and curiosity, is that, while never sidestepping the man’s aloofness, his contradictions, and all the qualities that one might find to justify the description “difficult,” ZAPPA is a film filled with reasons, musical and otherwise, that might cause one to weep at his sudden absence from the world.

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