MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE (1983) – Food for thought

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The following is my entry in the Food in Film Blogathon, being co-hosted by the blogs Speakeasy and Silver Screenings from Nov. 3-5, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on edibles as presented in movies!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Despite its lofty title, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life never gets around to an exact definition of life’s purpose. However, based on the evidence presented here by the famed British comedy troupe, much of life’s meaning can be extracted from food, which certainly makes numerous appearances in the movie.

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After “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” (Terry Gilliam’s elaborate short-subject opening), the movie-proper begins with a sextet of fish (the Pythons, of course) exchanging morning pleasantries while ensconced in a restaurant-based aquarium. One of the fish looks out and shrilly notes that Howard, one of their former fishmates, is now being served to a customer. On that note, the fish get all philosophical: “Makes you think, dunnit?” – “Yeah, I mean what’s it all about?” On cue, the movie’s opening titles and theme promise that they’ll provide us with an answer. Don’t hold your gills.

A later sketch, “Fighting Each Other,” centers on a World War I officer named Biggs (Terry Jones) quietly but firmly ordering his troops to find cover during an attack. Sentimental group that they are, soldier Blackitt (Eric Idle), on behalf of the troops, gives Biggs a goodbye speech, a card, and parting gifts of a grandfather clock, a Swiss watch, and a monetary check.

When Biggs finally tells the troops that enough is enough and they need to run for cover, they all get quiet and turn to Blackitt. “You shouldn’t have said that, sir,” says soldier Spadger (Michael Palin) to Biggs. “You’ve hurt his feelings now.” The rest of the men grumble, and one of them declares, “Let’s not give him the cake!”

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Biggs says he doesn’t need a cake, but Spadger elaborates on how much effort Blackitt put into the cake — “I mean, you try to get butter to melt at fifteen below zero!” With that, Biggs agrees that he should honor Blackitt’s work, cheerily offering slices to his ever-diminishing (due to assassination) troops.

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Fish make their next appearance in the film’s mid-section, appropriately titled “The Middle of the Film.” A stately matron (Michael Palin!) invites the movie’s audience to join in the next segment, “Find the Fish.” A couple of indescribably strange characters (Graham Chapman and Terry Jones) recite a poem about a loyal fish — “…and it went wherever I did go!” — as Dr. Seuss-like creatures — the fish presumably among them — cross the screen, and audience members shout their guesses as to where the fish is hiding.

The fishy sextet from the film’s intro return to applaud this loopy sketch, then go quiet as one of them declares, “They still haven’t said much about the meaning of life, have they?” I thought fish were smarter than this.

The film’s penultimate segment, “Death,” shows the black-hooded title character (John Cleese) interrupting a dinner at an isolated country house where friends have gathered. It takes them a while, but the friends slowly realize that Death has come to claim them for good. Finally, a member of the group named Debbie (Michael Palin again!)  smugly asks, “How can we all have died at the same time?” Death points his, er, finger of death at the meal’s offending main dish:

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“The salmon mousse!”

The hostess (Eric Idle) then offers her apologies at having prepared the dish with cheap canned salmon. As the group are being escorted by Death to their final fate, Debbie comes to a too-late realization: “Hey, I didn’t even eat the mousse!”

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But undoubtedly, the movie’s most memorable and controversial ode to edibles is “The Autumn Years,” wherein a beyond-morbidly-obese man, Mr. Creosote (Terry Jones), enters a restaurant for a gazillion-course meal, offered by Mr. C.’s regular waiter, an obsequious maitre d’ (John Cleese). Mr. C. gulps down countless courses of food, punctuated every so often by his vomiting as a matter of habit, which does little for the appetites of the surrounding customers.

At meal’s end, the maitre d’ dares to offer Mr. Creosote “a wafer-thin mint.” At first, Mr. C. declares he’s full, but eventually he is talked into consuming the mint — lovingly served by the maitre d’, who then vaults behind a restaurant display, knowing the apocalypse to come.

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Beyond his control, Mr. Creosote’s already huge stomach expands, and then it explodes all over the restaurant’s guests, causing them to lose their meals as well. As pandemonium ensues, the maitre d’ returns to nonchalantly hand Mr. Creosote his check for the evening.

As with most of the Monty Python oeuvre, The Meaning of Life gives you a lot to sink your teeth into — and some of it is sure to haunt you later, in one form or another.

 

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MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS – Episode 34, “The Cycling Tour,” orig. broadcast on 7/12/1972

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The following is my contribution to the “Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon,” being held March 27 through 29 at the blog A Shroud of Thoughts. Click on the above banner, and read interesting insights into bloggers’ favorite single episodes of TV series!

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

“My name is Pither…as in ‘brotherhood’, but with P-I instead of BRO and no HOOD.”

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Broadcast for a total of 45 episodes — first on the BBC from 1969 to 1974, followed a year later by its American premiere on PBS — Monty Python’s Flying Circus changed the face of television comedy. Its sextet of writer-performers (Britons Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin; and American expatriate Terry Gilliam) delighted in offering sketches that had no punchline finale and often commented on each other. Generations of comedy fans have delighted in this TV surrealism.

However, as Humpty Dumpty proved, sometimes it’s just as meaningful to put something back together again as it is to break it. After 33 episodes of TV deconstruction, the “Flying Circus” actually went the traditional route for one episode. “The Cycling Tour,” a third-season outing from 1972, actually carries a linear storyline from start to finish.

However, even most Python fans are not likely to cite this as their favorite “Flying Circus” episode. Even though it has a “traditional” plotline, it careens all over the map even more than their Etch-a-Sketch-style episodes. It has references that will be lost on the average American viewer. (Previously, I was unaware of the Eurovision Song Contest, which plays a major role in many of this episode’s gags.) And one scene contains Chinese stereotypes that are as jaw-dropping as anything you’ll find in old Charlie Chan movies.

Perhaps it’s for all of these reasons that ‘The Cycling Tour” is my all-time favorite “Flying Circus” episode. It’s as though the Pythons are saying to their detractors, “You don’t like our unique comedy style? Right, then, we’ll do a sitcom-style plot and screw up that tradition for you!” For that reason, I find this episode as adventurous and wondrous as anything in the Python pantheon.

(Actually, the only reason that this is a more “traditional” “Circus” episode is that Michael Palin and Terry Jones, who are the main stars of this outing, had written this script for another venue, only to see it unused. The Pythons snapped it up to fill out an episode when they found themselves running short of material during their third season.)

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The episode follows the adventures of Reg Pither (played by Palin, who seems to have gloriously channeled Stan Laurel for his character’s likable imbecility). Mr. Pither is on a bicycling tour of Cornwall, and every few yards (or so it seems), his bicycle overturns because, as he informs us in off-screen narration, “the pump got caught in my trouser leg.”

Mr. Pither recounts this mundane fact (and the contents of his lunch pack) to any number of people who couldn’t care less. He blathers on about it to a woman who tends to her gardening without ever acknowledging him; then to an equally disinterested restaurant cashier; and finally to an arguing couple whose relationship’s demise is aided by uncomprehending Mr. Pither.

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My favorite such encounter is when Mr. Pither goes to a doctor (Eric Idle) after one of his pump/trouser catastrophes. The doctor tries to uncover Mr. Pither’s malady, but he has none. Pither went to the doctor simply because he needed proper directions and didn’t want to trust “the possibly confused testimony of some passer-by.” Irritated, the doctor provides the necessary directions — in prescription form. The doctor scribbles some Latin on a piece of paper and says, “Here, take this to a chemist [pharmacist]!”

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Eventually, Mr. Pither has one too many trouser-based accidents and winds up in the backseat of a car driven by Mr. Gulliver (Terry Jones). At last, Pither has found his equal in pedantry. It seems that Gulliver is an inventor making breakthroughs in self-protected lunch items. He has even perfected a tomato that ejects itself from an automobile just seconds before an accident occurs. Sure enough, a Gulliver-laced tomato pops out of the car, followed by crash sound-effects and a screen blackout.

When the scenario resumes, Pither is transporting Gulliver to a hospital via his bicycle. Gulliver lost his memory in the car crash and now thinks he is Clodagh Rogers, the then-recent winner of the Eurovision Song Contest for her pop smash “Jack in the Box.”

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The hospital scene is a slapstick delight involving Palin, Jones, and Chapman and Cleese as hospital personnel. One Python biographer reports that the scene actually bombed when performed live for the show, but Jones and “Circus” director Ian MacNaughton turned it into a comedy miracle via some judicious editing.

In any case, Gulliver gets booked in a nightclub to sing as Clodagh Rogers. But once he gets on stage, he suffers another lapse of memory and starts spouting Communist propaganda in the mistaken belief that he’s now Leon Trotsky.

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Pither checks Gulliver into a hotel for safety and goes to the British Embassy, not realizing that his bicycling has taken him all the way to Communist China. As previously mentioned, there follows the episode’s most unforgivable scene, with Chapman and Cleese cavorting as outrageous Chinese stereotypes that put even Jerry Lewis’ foreign mimicry to shame. (However, it is funny, in the Pythons’ usual non-sequitor way, that the embassy duo are singularly obsessed with bingo.)

When Pither returns to the hotel, he finds that Gulliver/Trotsky has headed for Moscow. The Russian secret police are tailing Pither, and they take Pither to Moscow “to be present as an honored guest when Trotsky is reunited with the Central Committee.” But they tell Pither — who is too dim to figure out the international mess he’s in — that they’re taking him to a clambake.

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When Gulliver/Trotsky is “reunited” with his comrades at a huge meeting, he starts out by giving a pro-party speech, but the speech then turns into a seductive nightclub number complete with feather boa. Gulliver has suffered yet another memory bash; he now thinks he’s Eartha Kitt. The Russians arrest Pither for misleading them, but they decide to let Gulliver continue his number since “He’s going down well.”

Pither is then thrown into prison, and shortly thereafter, he finds himself in front of a firing squad. Again, Pither is completely oblivious to this ominous threat until the guns are actually aimed at him. Luckily, everyone in the firing squad misses their intended target. Pither is thrown back into prison while the firing squad practice their shooting skills.

There follows one of Python’s greatest-ever gags. I am a long-time opponent of the old “It was only a dream” cop-out; it was used in countless Chaplin and Keaton silent comedies, as well as many TV sitcoms to follow. Instead, in this extremely satisfying scene, Pither falls asleep in his cell and wakes up to find his mother serving him tea in their backyard. There follows this exchange:

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Sure enough, Pither is woken up so that the firing squad can have another go at executing him.

Meanwhile, Gulliver/Kitt has snagged yet another nightclub engagement. But as luck would have it, when he gets up to perform, he slogs his memory one more time and now becomes Edward Heath, the then-Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (who was a frequent butt of Python jokes). When “Heath” starts spouting capitalist rhetoric, an Eartha Kitt fan in the audience smacks him with a turnip.

The turnip finally brings Gulliver to his senses, and he runs out of the nightclub and through town (while in a gown, high heels, and blackface) screaming for Pither, as the out-for-blood audience trails him. Gulliver hears Pither’s voice and climbs over a wall to get to him.

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“Pither!” an elated Gulliver cries. “What a stroke of luck!” “Well, yes and no,” dithers Pither, as he points to an oncoming firing squad armed with bayonets.

How are the duo going to get out of this one? We’ll never know. A “Caption – Scene Missing” title flashes on the screen, followed by Pither and Gulliver on the outskirts of town, recounting their luck at their “amazing escape.” The duo say goodbye and go their separate ways, as the title “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” finally graces the screen. (The episode had no opening title sequence, probably to try to confuse viewers into thinking they’d switched on the wrong TV show.)

Oh, did I mention Terry Gilliam’s animation? Two strange-looking monsters named Maurice and Kevin rear their ugly heads every so often during the episode, before coming on after the credits to provide a rousing final laugh.

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Despite its being a traditionally-based episode, I find “The Cycling Tour” as endearing as any episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” It has every element that made the series a comedy stand-out: Completely insane actions performed by nonchalant people who act like it’s just another day at the office; hysterical verbal wordplay and sight gags; Gilliam’s wacko animation; and definitely a smattering of bad taste. I might not recommend it as an introduction to the Python style, but the episode wouldn’t have been out of place at the end of the team’s movie debut, the sketch-laden And Now for Something Completely Different. Kudos all around!

The real Clodagh Rogers. Click on her photo to hear her award-winning song.

The real Clodagh Rogers. Click on her photo to hear her award-winning song.