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George Harrison himself reportedly said that as the Beatles ended, the group’s spirit was caught by Monty Python. In their own way, the Pythons, too, transformed pop culture forever, taking a beloved form and exploding it in such ways that all who came afterward had to reckon with their legacy. The six-man comedy troupe accomplished this not just through its TV show (Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which ran from 1969 to 1974) but also through its film work. That spirit lives on in “The Ministry of Silly Films: Monty Python and Beyond,” the Quad Cinema’s twelve-title retrospective, which features movies the Pythons made both together and separately.
Monty Python are often credited for bringing surrealist comedy into the mainstream, but it’s hard to overstate the sheer multidimensional mind-fuckery of their particular achievement. Their first film, And Now for Something Completely Different (1971), a cinematic restaging of some of their most popular sketches from the series, gives just a hint. On one level, you have the skits themselves, which often turn on their own brand of absurdism: A man enters a pet store to return a dead parrot, while the clerk argues that the creature’s alive; another man enters a tobacconist, awkwardly looks through a phrase book, and starts to make curious sexual demands. The situations are goosed along by the performers’ bizarre accents and affectations, loads of truly weird physical humor, and occasional bits of elaborate cross-dressing.
This is all well and good, and funny, but then, on another level, you have Terry Gilliam’s bizarrely unsettling animations, often used to transition between sketches: A man walks up to a traffic light at the top of an empty hill. He turns left; the traffic light follows him. Once they leave, a series of giant hands emerge from the ground, looking like trees. They sprout little leaves. More hands, looking like birds, fly among the trees. A cowboy slowly gallops into view, riding a hand-horse. He lassos and pulls into view a giant screen. On that screen, we see a man putting shaving cream on his face. He covers his whole face in cream and — this is actually a recurring dream I have personally had — then proceeds to slice his own head off. At which point we see a “Vacancy” sign light up in a dingy motel. This would be the stuff of nightmares, were it not so ridiculous.
But then there’s the context — an oft underdiscussed aspect of the Pythons’ work. People tend to forget that the infamous “Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook” sketch (“My hovercraft is full of eels!”) kicks off with this solemn announcement: “In 1970, the British Empire lay in ruins. Foreign nationals frequented the streets — many of them Hungarians (not the streets — the foreign nationals). Anyway, many of these Hungarians went into tobacconists shops to buy cigarettes.” It begins, in other words, as a parody of xenophobia and alarmism.
The Pythons were largely apolitical. Their target was seriousness itself, and they never met an ideological stance or social more that they couldn’t mock. But there’s a political valence to that idea as well. Indeed, the word that they themselves most commonly used to describe what’s happening in their sketches — silly — comes to be weaponized in their films. All throughout And Now for Something Completely Different, Graham Chapman shows up as a military official who is attempting to shut the whole movie down for its “silliness,” exhorting the performers to behave. After all, if an Englishman can’t be serious, can he even be an Englishman?
They even refuse to be serious in their ultimate intent. Surrealism often works on dissonance, its ability to shock you out of the stupor of narrative and jar you into a renewed engagement with the world. But the Pythons do something, well, completely different — plunging us into a wild, free-flowing, and unsettling dream where we lose our bearings entirely. (That’s also why their regular gag of running the end credits at weird points is so effective — it actually reflects our utter temporal dislocation.) You’re never jarred awake by the Pythons; you’re simply tossed further into their madness.
When the group actually had to focus on a subject — as, for example, in its Arthurian parody, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974), or its Biblical satire, Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) — it sublimated the dislocation in other ways. Now, it wasn’t so much that the films followed the bizarre, stream-of-consciousness twists and turns of the sketches (though they still did, sometimes). Instead, comic elements that punctured the stories’ period mystique were built into the plot: the replacement of horses by coconuts, for example, or the constant, anachronistic references to contemporary politics. The symbols of anti-silly authority also popped up again, most notably in the form of the small army of cops who show up to arrest the cast at the end of Holy Grail.
None of that was particularly radical, though it certainly was hilarious. (Even the most fervent leftist can laugh at Holy Grail’s supremely woke peasant Dennis, who intones, while covered in filth, “Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony,” before yelling, “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!”) What was radical about these films was the effect they had on the culture: It became virtually impossible for anyone to make a movie about medieval knights or biblical times without having to deal at some point with the Monty Python Effect — without worrying about whether that badass warrior looked a bit too much like John Cleese’s delusional Black Knight, or if that dust-covered desert dweller might actually be Eric Idle in a wig. Even two of my all-time favorite films, John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) and Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ (1988) have inadvertently Pythonesque moments. Nobody is safe. The troupe took two of the most cherished texts of Western civilization and turned them into orgies of ridicule.
The Quad series also features some members’ notable later solo efforts, including Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky (1977), Time Bandits (1981), and Brazil (1985), as well as Terry Jones’s underrated directorial efforts Personal Services (1987), Erik the Viking (1989), and The Wind in the Willows (1996). (Also included: 1988’s hilarious, delirious A Fish Called Wanda, written by Cleese and co-starring himself and Michael Palin.) Separated from their mates, you can see the individual Pythons’ distinctive styles coming to the fore. Jones’s films are surprisingly sweet and humane, and enlivened by (huge surprise) a penchant for dress-up. Personal Services, a loosely based-on-fact account of a suburban London woman who ran a brothel for mildly kinky middle-aged folk, is defined not by sensationalism or scandal but by its warmth and the matter-of-fact treatment of its oddball cast of characters. His rarely seen adaptation of The Wind in the Willows takes Kenneth Grahame’s anthropomorphic allegory and invests it with an uncommon communal spirit.
But even in his good-natured way, Jones presents us with rebels who — subtly, politely, quietly — confront conformity and tradition. On this point, he shares some DNA with Gilliam, his co-director on the earlier Python features. The latter’s fascination with authority and out-of-control systems, as well as his mazelike narratives, get a full airing in the savage Orwellian dystopia of Brazil and the fantasy adventure Time Bandits, about a group of time-traveling little people on the run through time itself from their boss, who happens to be God. Gilliam’s films are often built around the sudden, capricious nature of power and fate. Look at Brazil’s portrait of how a simple typewriter error can lead to a man being disappeared by an authoritarian future-state, and the murderous bureaucratic clusterfuck that ensues. (And who’s at the end of it all? Michael Palin, in a creepy baby mask.)
For all the skits’ winding, twisting tales, and their insane transitions, there was one surefire way that Gilliam and his mates could always end something: with a giant animated foot that came out of nowhere and stomped everything to bits. The foot (which Gilliam had borrowed from a painting of Cupid by the Florentine artist Agnolo Bronzino) was funny, and absolute. It came down, usually in the show’s opening credits, you heard a fart noise, and that was it. In those early days, the foot spoke to randomness, and the sheer juvenile anarchy of the Pythons’ devil-may-care approach to comedy. But, watching Gilliam’s solo films, I always wonder if maybe there wasn’t something terrifying about that foot as well. In so many ways, the members of Monty Python, both together and on their own, spent their careers exploring — and ridiculing — the very nature of that big existential foot. Or, let me put it this way: STOMP.
‘The Ministry of Silly Films: Monty Python and Beyond’