I just watched Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life — very possibly for the first time since I saw it in the theater. I wasn’t that impressed with it at the time. The main thing I liked was the Terry Gilliam short that starts it, The Crimson Permanent Assurance. There were other things that were good — especially “Every Sperm Is Sacred” and the sex education skit and the “Galaxy Song.” But this was overwhelmed by “live organ donations” and the exploding Mr Creosote. In fact, it was the memory of this latter bit that kept me away from the film for such a long time.
In a certain way, I can say that my opinion hasn’t changed. The film’s excesses are, well, excessive. And I’ll add something else: it goes overboard with its breast obsession. This starts with the lovely Patricia Quinn (Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) as the schoolmaster’s wife; continues with the execution sketch where a man is chased over a cliff by a bunch of topless women — often shot in slow motion for maximum effect; and finishes with the stage show in heaven, which looks an awful lot like the dinner show at the MGM Grand. It all seems so adolescent. But there is a difference in my perception this time: it all strikes me as very funny, even as it is mixed with disgust. (In the Creosote skit, I swear I can smell what is going on.)
The main thing that strikes me now is that the film is beautifully produced. The acting is by far the best that the Pythons ever did. The art direction and cinematography are as good as any film. And it is directed brilliantly. Terry Jones threads the needle perfectly by creating a visually stunning film that keeps cuts to a minimum so as to highlight the humor. And the musical numbers are a thing to behold. Nothing is better than “Every Sperm Is Sacred” — which is a far more elaborate sequence than I had remembered. The whole thing breaks out into the street for a truly wondrous dance number. Much the same is true of the last number, “Christmas in Heaven.” The one musical number that isn’t terribly well staged is also the best song in the film, “Galaxy Song.” I have the feeling that they were planning to do much more with the animation, but apparently Gilliam was focused on the Crimson short.
One thing that I really liked this time, which left me flat before, was the whole sequence about the stiff upper-lipped British officers in the Zulu War. Much of it is just brilliant like Cleese’s mirror getting shot while he’s shaving — he bristles at the interruption and then picks up a broken piece and finishes. But the part that killed was when Palin and Idle were in the tiger suit. It is like the best vaudeville act ever. And Idle’s business with the tiger head and whiskers is priceless.
There is also a deleted scene that is quite brilliant. After the protestants discuss how they can use condoms and how the freedom to have sex for pleasure is what the reformation was all about, there was to be a skit featuring Martin Luther (played by Terry Jones with a Jimmy Durante accent). In it, Luther is a sex-crazed nut who has just broken out of prison. The skit revolves around a friend of his hiding his daughters. It is very funny:
I also like their ultimate statement of the meaning of life, “Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.” I’m afraid that’s about as profound a statement as there is on the matter. But as obvious as it is, it still seems to be beyond the grasp of some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian is still probably the most satisfying of their films. But The Meaning of Life contains their very best work. And it hangs together pretty well as a film. I think the biggest problem people have had with it is their own preconceptions of what it ought to be. It needs to be appreciated for what it is: probably the best sketch comedy-musical ever made.