John Cleese and Three Great Painters

John CleeseOn this day in 1744, the great painter Mary Moser was born. She is best known for her floral paintings, but I find her portraits especially compelling. In doing this birthday post, I try to highlight women and other under represented groups. But I have certainly noticed that there have been a lot of great female painters through the ages. Today I have three! Of course, the sexism is clear. There are a lot of relatively mediocre male painters who get listed in Wikipedia that I’m sure wouldn’t even have made a living had they been women. Anyway, Moser is worth checking out.

Our second great female painter, Sigrid Hjerten was born in 1885. Her painting is wonderfully fun and vibrant. Unfortunately, she also suffered from mental problems which ended in her being institutionalized for the last decade or so of her life. And then the “doctors” decided to to make mush of her brain by giving her a lobotomy, which killed her. That may have been the most humane outcome of the surgery.

And finally, we have Lee Krasner who was born in 1908. She was an abstract expressionist. That is not one of my favored art movements, but she is quite good. I actually enjoy a lot of her work which I can’t say for many others, like Franz Kline. She was also married to Jackson Pollock, who I also admire. Still, I feel for Krasner, both because she had to put up with him, but also because she was too often dismissed as “Pollock’s wife.” The truth is she is easily his equal and very likely his better.

Niccolo Paganini was born in 1782. He was perhaps the greatest violinist in all of history. He is certainly the most important one we know of because he revolutionized violin technique. Of course, we have no recordings of him, but here is the great Jascha Heifetz playing his best known composition, which is more fireworks than music, Caprice No. 24 in A minor:

Nixon chief of staff H. R. Haldeman was born in 1926. I don’t know all that much about him. But in my Nixon White House puppet plays, he’s an idiot who is forever bring his horse with him to Oval Office meetings.

Other birthdays: Theodore Roosevelt (1858); Etiquette expert Emily Post (1872); the great poet Dylan Thomas (1914); gay rights activist and author of Who’s Who in Hell, Warren Allen Smith (92); the great poet Sylvia Plath (1932); author Fran Lebowitz (63); the great comedic filmmaker Roberto Benigni (61); idiot blogger Matt Drudge who claims that he is “libertarian except for drugs and abortion,” which is to say “conservative” or simply “fascist” (47); and actor Patrick Fugit (31).

The day, however, belongs (grudgingly) to comedian John Cleese who is 74 today. I’m not that fond of his work with Monty Python, except for what I assume are his keen insights into the workings of revolutionary groups that are so brilliantly rendered in The Life of Brian. Mostly, I love Fawlty Towers, which he did with his then wife Connie Booth. There are only 12 episodes but they are each one of them a gem. I’m also very fond of his film, Fierce Creatures. I believe the reason the film is not properly appreciated is that everyone was expecting another A Fish Called Wanda. Well, it isn’t; it’s actually better. But I could do without the fart jokes. Anyway, here is a funny scene with Basil and Manuel:

Happy birthday John Cleese!

4 thoughts on “John Cleese and Three Great Painters

  1. Don’t grudge on John Cleese. Python’s TV stuff was topical, so all but the most silly bits have lost their relevance now. Their movies were, and are, outstanding. Just thinking about Cleese’s Roman soldier correcting Brian on the proper use of Latin when making graffiti makes me smile right now.

    Basil Fawlty is an unique character. Normally, when someone is utterly humiliated, we’d feel sorry for that person. But Basil doesn’t feel sorry for himself; he immediately blames everyone around him for his own fuckups. We can laugh at how Basil is ridiculed, because Basil hardly notices it (he just gets annoyed, but then, he’s always annoyed.) Steve Coogan’s "I’m Alan Partridge" series owes a lot to "Fawlty Towers."

    Every person I known cherished the half-hour, after their parents went to bed, of turning on the TV quietly on Saturday night and watching Python. And Python’s riffs of logic-into-incredulity made them atheists. ("Grail" and "Brian" helped push us all over the edge. I got into so much trouble for watching "Grail" as a kid at a friend’s house, it was crazy.)

    No grudging a single member of Python as long as I’m not banned from Internet sites. No way, no how. They’ve made more people question the logic of totalitarian religious systems, through absurdist humor, than all the polemicists combined. If John Cleese or any of the other Pythons came out tomorrow in support of drone warfare (and that’s the great thing about them; you know they wouldn’t), I’d still give them a pass for these lines: "that must be the king." "How do you know?" "He ain’t got shit all over him."

    Re-watching scenes from Python movies is one of the few things I can do which reminds me there’s some hope for the human race. (That, and listening to Steve Goodman songs.) "And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space, ’cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth."

  2. @JMF – I don’t grudge him because I don’t like him. It is just that I don’t think he is quite up to any of the artists I talked about.

    I have taken to deconstructing Python. I may be wrong, but I assume that the Latin lesson is the work of Palin and Jones. It is very much their kind of writing. I don’t think I would go so far as you have about their films. [i]Brian[/i] is the most fulfilling, but its third act is weak. All of their films have their moments but are ultimately disappointing. The series is fairly good but it’s repetitive. And then they started to parody themselves. (Those are some of their best things, "I’m arresting the whole show for Offenses Against Getting Out of a Sketch Without a Proper Punchline Act"!)

    As awful as he is, I think that Basil Fawlty is a sympathetic character. He is a prisoner of his own idiocy and elitism. But he has passion. The problem is that his ideals are phantoms. Although he was smart enough to have married Sybil, without whom he probably would have died much earlier.

    There is a similar thing going on with Manuel, who is sweet but ultimately trapped by his language. But he too never gives up. As in the world, nothing would get done without the steady reasonableness of the women.

    But most of all, the scripts are perfect farces. There just isn’t anything better.

    I note you said nothing about [i]Fierce Creatures[/i]…

  3. I never saw "Fierce Creatures." I should. Fred Schepisi, whom I completely admire ("Roxanne," "Six Degrees Of Separation"), co-directed it.

    (As a very, very young person, I went with a friend to see Mike Leigh’s "Naked" in the theater, as it was well-reviewed. After 15 minutes, I talked my friend into sneaking out of that turdburger and into the auditorium showing "Six Degrees" instead. That might be the best decision I’ve ever made. Mike Leigh=overrated annoying preachy self-satisfied asshole. "Six Degrees"=modern masterpiece.)

    I read somewhere that the Pythons divided into the Cambridge guys and the Oxford guys. One group was more into the surrealist humor, the other into logical fallacies. I don’t recall which school was which, but that makes sense; there’s definitely a balance between the two going on. When one or the other predominated, the material often suffered. When they meshed ("and what else floats in water?"), the results were priceless.

    Yes, the Python films were goofy, low-budget, dramatically unsatisfying. And so what? Nobody cares that the end of "War And Peace" is a weird creepy religious postscript, because what came before was awesome. In the movies, more than the TV series (because they didn’t have to be topical in the movies), Python created at least 10-20 sequences that will never be forgotten by anyone who’s seen them. Individually, they could be self-indulgently pleased with their own cleverness (think Terry Gilliam!), but, as a group, they bitched and fought and threw things at each other and created pure magic when in the top of their form.

    I was writing about Ricky Gervais’s movie "The Invention Of Lying" recently. It’s an ungodly mess, but about halfway through there’s a sequence where Gervais (in a world where nobody has ever lied) tells his dying mother, "don’t be afraid of death, there’s a man in the sky that will make you happy forever." This cascades, hilariously, and when we watched it my SO said, "this bit is as good as Python." As it is, and in our crazed, magical-thinking time, there’s scarcely higher praise than to be compared to the minds that brought us "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life."

  4. @JMF – That’s a nice thing about sketch comedy: it doesn’t all have to work. However, I am more of a classicist and I do really like sketches that end. This is an art form that has been totally lost in America. SNL doesn’t seem to know what a punch line is. The Python argument sketch I referenced above is a brilliant bit because it makes fun of their lack of punch lines with a brilliant infinite series of cops showing up to arrest them for not ending the skit with a proper punch line.

    It’s not that I don’t think they are good. I am just much more interested in Fry & Laurie and Mitchell & Web. I’m also more generally fond of Palin & Jones. Have you seen [i]Ripping Yarns[/i]? That’s great. In fact, I think almost all of the Python folk did better work outside. It may just have been that there was too much talent colliding.

    I though [i]The Invention of Lying[/i] worked really well. But I don’t remember it that well. As I recall, it had a rushed third act–SOP. [i]Ghost Town[/i] is a very sweet romantic comedy. About as good a one as you will find. Of course he only acted in it as I recall.

    I don’t much enjoy Mike Leigh’s films, but I do admire him. I remember one of his films causing me to have an anxiety attack.

    I think we should have something akin to Godwin’s law. Call it JMF’s Law: any discussion of Monty Python that goes on too long will inevitably end with comparisons to Tolstoy. [i]War and Peace[/i]! Really?!

    You should watch [i]Fierce Creatures[/i]. Then we’ll talk.

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