Monday, February 25, 2019
Reeling Backward: "Life of Brian" (1979)
Is there more to Monty Python movies than a pastiche of loony sketches? "Life of Brian" seemed to be their most ambitious attempt to make a movie with a coherent story and theme -- in this case, ridiculing the notion of organized religion.
The setup is that a fictional Jew, Brian Cohen, is born in the manger next to Jesus' and ends up living a parallel life in which he is mistaken for the messiah, vexed by a horde of worshipers and eventually strung up by the Romans for his trouble. Many people believe it to by the comedy troupe's best film, though I consider it their weakest.
I should add I still haven't caught up with their first, "And Now for Something Completely Different," though that was just a remake of sketches already aired on British television.
For that matter, defining exactly what belongs in and out of the Python filmography is not as easy as it sounds. If you exclude "Now," their 1982 concert movie and 2014 stage show, there's really only three feature films: this, "The Meaning of Life" and their (imho) apotheosis, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
If you want to open up the definition, much of troupe member Terry Gilliam's early solo directorial efforts had a very distinct Python flavor and often featured fellow players, notably "Time Bandits," "Brazil" and "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen." Gilliam's one of my absolute favorite directors, so for me the humor of Python has no clear demarcation from his darkly absurdist fantasies.
And then there is "The Crimson Permanent Assurance," the 17-minute short film directed by Gilliam that opens "Meaning of Life," which for my money packs in the most Monty Python hilarity frame-for-frame.
There's a lot of good stuff in "Brian," though it works more as satire than as out-and-out comedy. The Romans are sent up with the easiest jokes: Pontius Pilate talks like Elmer Fudd, and his visiting friend, Biggus Dickus, sprays sibilant s's all over the place. The Jewish crowd, responding to Pilate's offer to release one prisoner from crucifixion as a gesture of goodwill, continually names starting with R or S to keep the party going.
It's interesting how times change. I also remember one of the biggest laughs in "The Princess Bride" is when the bishop opens the wedding scene: "Maiwwage is what bwings us togethaw today." I'm guessing it's only a matter of time before funny-sounding speech impediments go into the rapidly expanding chest of PC no-go zones for comedy.
The Jewish rebels are portrayed as penny-ante bureaucrats more concerned with activity than action. Calling themselves the People's Front of Judea, they throw about anarchist talk while never actually doing anything besides holding meetings and taking votes. In addition to the Romans they're also at odds with the various other factions, including the Judean People's Front, who eventually turn up and are equally unhelpful.
You know the Python shtick: the six members, who all co-write their material -- Gilliam, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones (who also directs) -- each play multiple parts, without even bothering to try to hide the fact. They use chirpy voices, various accents of the British isles and even changes of gender to swap things up. The most notable drag player is Jones, who uses a signature screeching caterwaul to play matronly figures, in this case mother of Brian (Chapman).
One female character, a rebel named Judith, is played by an actual woman, Sue Jones-Davies. I suspect this is because of her frontal nude scene after bedding Brian (who also flashes his front naughty bits) and confronting his mother. I don't think even the Python fellows thought they could fake that.
Speaking of blurring gender lines, one member of the PFJ suddenly announces that he wants to be known as a woman from now on, and after some initial confusion, the others accept this openly. It may be the very first positive portrayal of a transgender person in mainstream film.
For me the best part of "Life of Brian" is when he first gains followers -- which he does after running from the Romans by hiding in a lineup of street prophets spouting off their various philosophies to the masses. Brian repeats some stuff he heard Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount. Soon his newfound apostles are following him everywhere, mistaking his every word or action for heaven-sent wisdom and/or miracles, including when he loses a sandal. They pick up the smelly relic and declare it an artifact. One enterprising woman advocates for using a gourd as their holy symbol instead.
As Brian, Chapman is a nervous, kvetching would-be messiah, constantly wondering why people are so mad for their faith, or to crush another's. He spends much of the movie with his eyes bugged out and mouth set in a rictus of anguish.
Chapman was an interesting figure who died very young at age 48. He was openly gay in the early 1970s, which was unheard of for a public figure, let alone a private one. Chapman had a long struggle with alcohol but, worried that he couldn't play the lead in "Brian" while drinking, gave it up shortly before production began. He never imbibed again.
"The Life of Brian" seems to argue not just against religion in general, but on the vagaries of morality. People who do ill are rewarded, and those who behave nobly befall horrid fates.
For example, during the march to crucifixion with Brian and other convicts, one spectator bravely steps forward to help one of them as he stumbles under the weight of his cross. The condemned man immediately skedaddles off to freedom, while the helper is forced back into line with the rest and ultimately crucified.
In typical English stiff-upper-lip form, he barely complains.
Similarly, when Brian's name is read after (eventually) being pardoned by Pilate, another fellow pretends to be Brian as a joke, which leads to all the other crucified men proclaiming that "I'm Brian!" in a send-up of the end of "Spartacus." Still, the jokester is the one freed, even after revealing the gag, while the real Brian remains.
"Life of Brian" is a classic example of a better idea for a movie than the one they actually made. In general I'm a Python fan, but here I'm their cinematic Judas.