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Haven’t Said Much About the Meaning of Life So Far

January 10th, 2011 · 2 Comments

“Portmanteau” is French for “coat rack”. Lewis Carroll appropriated the word in 1871 for Through The Looking Glass to explain two words merged into one; “chortle” is a portmanteau Carroll invented, while “Internet”, “blog” and “sexploitation” are three he did not. In the month of January, I’ll take a look at portmanteau films, where we find different coats hanging in the same closet, whether tailored by one filmmaker or the collaborative effort of several.

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)
Directed by Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam (segment: The Crimson Permanent Assurance)
Written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin
Produced by John Goldstone
106 minutes

Proving that a glimmer from Monty Python is a supernova compared to what constitutes comedy in other galaxies, The Meaning of Life is a greater portmanteau film, even if it ranks as lesser Python. The group was born in the undergraduate revues of Cambridge, where Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Eric Idle were students, and Oxford, where Terry Jones and Michael Palin met. While touring New York, Cleese met an American illustrator named Terry Gilliam. Through writing and performing satirical sketches on British stage, radio and television in the late 1960s, the six formed a comedy troupe. After four hugely influential TV series and two ridiculously profitable feature films, the group ventured to Jamaica — where they’d written Life of Brian (1979) — unable to agree on their next movie. Python hit on the idea of stitching together material by using the meaning of life as glue.

As with Life of Brian, Terry Jones would direct and Terry Gilliam would provide the animation, as well as a fantastic short film titled The Crimson Permanent Assurance that grew into a 16-minute segment. Awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, The Meaning of Life would be the last time all six members of Python worked together, with Graham Chapman dying of cancer in 1989. Gilliam’s whimsical short, with rousing music by John Du Prez and delightful model work, is the #1 reason to see the film, which peaks at the 1-hour mark with a sketch so flagrant it transcends flagrance. Even with longer pauses between the belly laughs, the hand craftsmanship and relentless social satire of Python is all here, cutting down performers they’ve influenced — namely veterans of Saturday Night Live who’ve given the movies a try — with a thousand arrows.

In a “short feature presentation”, aging accountants in London mutiny against their corporate masters, raising anchor on the Crimson Permanent Assurance and sailing the building to pillage the financial world. As the feature presentation begins, six goldfish (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin) in a restaurant aquarium ponder what life is all about. In the first of twelve sketches, surgeons (Chapman, Cleese) get to the business of delivering a baby. The patriarch (Palin) of a Roman Catholic family in the slums of Yorkshire explains the predicament of contraception to his several dozen of children in a song titled “Every Sperm Is Sacred”. A public schoolteacher (Cleese) instructs a class on sex education with the help of his wife. Sent to fight in the Great War, a sergeant (Jones) is distracted from a mission when his men insist on showering him with presents.

Examining middle age, an American couple (Palin, Idle) vacation in a resort with an authentic medieval dungeon, ordering “conversation” about the meaning of life from their waiter (Cleese), who suggests “Live Organ Transplants” as a topic. Two paramedics (Chapman, Cleese) perform a liver removal before the donor is dead; they convince his wife (Jones) to volunteer her liver as well by introducing her to a man (Idle) whose song about the galaxy demonstrates how futile human existence is. Death is explored when the grossly obese Mr. Creosote (Jones) arrives at a French restaurant but is unable to hold down his meal. The Grim Reaper pays a visit to a dinner party, where the guests mistake him for “one of the men from the village”. Wrapping up the sketches, a TV host (Palin) delivers viewers the meaning of life, interjecting her own commentary.

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 22,708 users: 83% for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available

What do you say?

Tags: Animation · Black comedy · Cult favorite · Dreams and visions · Military · Music · No opening credits · Supernatural

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Sebastian // Jan 12, 2011 at 3:56 am

    Aw, one wonders what they got in their coffee in the morning… this was so good back then, it´s embarassing to see what the contemporary comedy-scene has to offer… thanks for putting this up!
    Pay me a visit on the blog I´m writing for if you like.
    Best,
    Sebastian

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jan 12, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    Sebastian: I wish I knew what these blokes put in their cups back then. Everyone has their own definition of “satire” I guess, but for me, a Star Wars reference does not qualify as satire. I think it’s worth pointing out that Python was doing true satire, not spoofs. Thanks for commenting!

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