Before us today is a perfect example of this concept. Here are three films, only two of which have anything directly to do with the Monty Python's Flying Circus comedy troupe as a whole, and one of which has been offered before in the past in at least two differing versions. Somehow, they have been cobbled together (one sans an entire disc of bonus features) and placed in slim, trim digi-cases and given the glorified box set treatment. Usually reserved for some manner of courteous retrospective, collections should have some meaning or purpose to their presentation. But And Now For Something Completely Hilarious is nothing more than bottom feeder reconfiguration for the sake of a saleable item. You can almost feel the disingenuous glee of Sony/Columbia Tri-Star in placing this product on the market. They are hoping to confuse and abuse you, taking your hard earned cash and converting it into an incomplete Special Edition, the cinematic version of a Python show, and an appallingly bare bone version of one of the greatest film fantasies of all time. Sounds like a deal, huh? Or maybe it's just the typical cynical sound of the unnecessary double dip.
Some may think that Monty Python's Flying Circus was a sudden inspiration from six certified savants, genius sprung forth pure and unsullied, like some kind of virgin birth. But as with all long lasting dynasties, a lot of hard work and many tough roads were hoed to get the state of Python perfection. The six core members of the troupe - John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam - had long histories in broadcasting. Many had started as writers for one of the UK's most prominent personalities - David Frost - and with his help (and their talent) each saw their fortunes bloom into recognizable success.
It was the foresight of British Broadcasting's head of comedy, Michael Mills - along with a script editor friend of the boys, Barry Took - that saw a coming together of the divergent teams. With their parent network turning a blind eye, and the boy's desire to emulate their favorite performers (including the laughter Lord they dethroned, Spike Milligan) a new form of sketch comedy program emerged. Cleese and Chapman (the Cambridge crew) had been experimenting with "formless" bits on At Last, The 1948 Show (skits that would lack beginnings, middles or ends) while Jones, Palin and Idle (the Oxford gang) had begun to perfect a kind of stream of consciousness conceit for Do Not Adjust Your Set. Along with Gilliam's absurd animation, the Pythons prepared their unpredictable foray into funny.
Success led to film work, and included in this box set are examples both perfunctory (And Now...) and inspired (Holy Grail), as well as an illustration of what a particular Python would do once he was free of the comedic confines of the series (Gilliam's grand Baron Munchausen). Looking at each film individually will help determine whether this cracked collection is worthy of a monetary moment of wallet weakening. We begin with:
And Now For Something Completely Different (1971)
Conceived as a way to make some quick dosh and break the bawdy Python team to international (read: American) audiences, And Now for Something Completely Different is nothing more than a combination of filmed sketches from the classic television show in combination with already existing celluloid comedy created for the series. This means that you will see big screen version of timeless skits like "Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink" and "The Dead Parrot Sketch" with previous long form film pieces like "The Upperclass Twit of the Year Competition" "The Deadliest Joke in the World" and "Hell's Grannies". At first, it would seem like a natural combination. The Pythons have proven their ability to effortlessly recreate their material in many different mediums (records, stage shows) so why not in a widescreen cinematic format. The answer is rather obvious. When done in front of a studio audience, these comic gems crackled with an energy and an irreverence that was concrete and palpable. But without that interaction between audience and anarchy, the sketches tend to fall flat and nearly lifeless.
Take the hilarious "Defending Yourself Against Fresh Fruit" bit. The use of differing angles, edits, intercutting and varying degrees of camerawork (long shots, close-ups) zaps the loony life out of the material. Where once Cleese's instructor was seen as a stark raving psycho who had some kind of sick obsession with green groceries and produce, now he's just a homicidal manic who commits a single insane act. It's a poor punchline to a bit that would go on to reach dizzying heights in its televisual form. Or better yet, something as operatic and over the top as the "Dirty Fork Sketch" loses something when given a practical locale, a group of gawking extras, and the smarmy sheen of fancy filmic polish. Python was never nice and neat. The series never strove for perfection or primness. But when locked down in a nightclub, the otherwise malevolent merriment of the "Musical Mice" skit just falls apart. It's almost as if we aren't watching the original Pythons performing these bits. We aren't used to seeing Cleese's face fill the frame as he proffers a quirky quip, and the entire rhythm of sketches like "The Hungarian Phrase Book" (complete with courtroom concepts) is totally out of whack.
Still, there is no denying the basic humor tenets of most of this material. Gilliam's glorious animation is like an illogical lesson in sinister surrealism, and concepts conceived as outside the studio bits ("How Not to Be Seen", the terrific "Twit"-athon) are just as jocular here. Indeed, one can look at And Now For Something Completely Different as a kind of testing ground for the rest of the Python's film work. When they strayed back into a more sketch comedy concept for their movies (The Meaning of Life) the results were uneven and erratic. But when they found a way to work their weirdness into a longer format or consistent storyline (Brian, Grail) they ended up with some of the best motion picture comedies ever conceived. Perhaps the most telling aspect of And Now...'s designs is that it didn't make the Pythons any major amount of money, and didn't become a hit in America until college kids discovered it at on-campus film society showings. So the original intent to make the lads worldwide celebrities came up short. Thankfully, the syndication of their TV show, and their next foray into filmmaking, would secure their position as universal humor Gods.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
One of the few benchmark movies in modern comedy, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a brilliant idea, flawlessly executed by a group of undeniably gifted creative masterminds. Though it's lost a little of its edge over the decades, this hysterical historical epic is as close to cleverness perfection as one can get. Hitting each one of its hilarious humor standards - situational, conceptual, physical, intellectual, sophomoric, slapstick, character-driven and surreal - directly on their pointed little heads, it marks a major move in motion picture wit. Where tone and consistency were originally used as guidelines for successful funny business, the Pythons proved that you could mix your merriment metaphors and still come up with something sensationally silly and lovingly laughable. Add in to that the unique approach of treating the time period with a kind of dirty, dingy production value respect and the result is something that smacks of a crazy costume drama gone ditzy, an actual look at the Arthurian legend gone delightfully loopy.
It is hard to add to all the praise and protest over the film. Yes, Python plays fast and loose with many of the facts, tossing out the female aspects of the myth and introducing a definite post-modern purpose to the Grail quest. Additionally, there are those (this critic included) who find the ending painfully abrupt. Smacking of a lack of interest/money/ideas (or perhaps a combination of all three), the sudden stoppage and shift comes completely out of left field. While it is still well within Python's comedic philosophy, it still plays just as peculiar all these years later. Still, it is hard to fault a film as genre redefining as this one. Who can ever forget the Black Knight who won't give up, even after Arthur has cut off all his limbs, or the demonic sorcerer who some call...Tim. There is the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and fey French guards who goad our crusaders with taunts so sparkling that they feel downright futuristic in their attitude and approach ("Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!"). Between killer rabbits and cartoon creatures, the cowardly Sir Robin and the sex-starved nymphs of the Castle Anthrax, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a movie that screams for repeat viewings and rote memorization. Along with Life of Brian, it represents the pinnacle of the comedy troupe's trip into celluloid heroics.
One final thing: it is interesting to note that no one, in recent years, has really attempted to recreate this kind of comedic classicism. Python's approach - using the historical past as a pretense for post-modern amusement and delirium deconstruction - is all but forgotten by current comedy filmmakers. The last legitimate example that this critic can think of is Mel Brook's brazen History of the World, Part 1, and even that seems stiflingly stupid compared to Python. Maybe it's the realization that such an approach requires an attention to comedic as well as epochal detail. Perhaps modern comedians and/or comedy acts don't know how to make their brand of wit fit within anything other than a present day parameter. Or it could be that Python broke the mold when they were done defying it. It could explain why, after 30 years, Holy Grail is still the fascinating freak occurrence it plays out as. No one has tried to recreate its success because it's non-recreateable, like the songs in The Beatles' catalog or the paintings of Picasso.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
Often considered director Gilliam's only full out flop (that is, until this 2005's The Brothers Grimm), this misunderstood masterpiece is actually the filmmaker's finest cinematic hour. Far ballsier than Brazil, more lyrical and lithe than Time Bandits, this third "act" in the ex-Python's "Ageism" trilogy is like the culmination of one man's entire creative output. Within its old-fashioned fairytale elements are debates between logic and magic, how adventure is ageless, the determined defiance of death and the endless struggle against surrender, both physical and spiritual. But Gilliam is not simply trying to make a statement about maturity and the menace of responsibility and rhetoric. He is out to see how opulent and ornate he can make his sense of visual flair, how close he can come to putting animated art on the screen and still make it a sound filmic foundation for his amazing and imaginative motion picture ideals. The result is something so beyond the scope of normative moviemaking, so ahead of the breadth and bravado of the work he's created before that it becomes both a stunningly picturesque self-portrait and an undeniable albatross from which he barely ever recovered.
The reason why most film fans at the time (and many still today) don't cotton to Gilliam's creative grandstanding zeitgeist is because it tries to do so much without any attempted boundaries or barriers. As a result, it boggles the mind instead of instantly satisfying the cinematic sensibilities. As he does with almost every film he makes, Gilliam invents a world both tactile and imaginary, a universe where everything seems familiar but one that is also completely capable of taking off into unreal flights of divine fantasy. But in Munchausen more than anyplace else in his oeuvre, the director defies convention, and makes the infinite possibilities insular as well. In the story, Baron Munchausen is a shape shifting old coot who can die and still tell his own story, surviving a thunderous Turkish horde or a sea monster attack, and yet be felled by a single stray bullet. He woos goddesses, defies gods, and still can't earn the respect of a little girl who wants nothing more than the help he so readily promises. It's this internal instability, along with the everchanging face of the film's magnificent designs, that give this movie its perpetual cinematic shelf life. Where other examples of high-flying fantasy eventually land with a dated, dimensionless thud, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen continues to climb higher and higher, out of the clouds of convention and into the realm of sublimity.
When taken with its other two parts (Time Bandits representing "youth" while Brazil is the conflict of "middle age"), Munchausen's elderly attributes are even more powerful and potent. Gilliam is making a clear statement here - there is a value in maturity, a wisdom and a knowledge that should not be cast off to some manner of assisted living facility. Instead, like the Baron's boastful claims, they should be embraced and explored. Not everything our cagey old codger says has a real importance and weight, but he does see through the gauze of juvenilia and the mess of early adulthood to offer something prepared and profound. The Baron's message is almost as simple as that tired old tenet "you're only as old as you feel" and yet Gilliam undermines this point by having the individuals surrounding the timeless hero constantly reminding him of his age and infirmaries. When the Baron finally decides to give up and "rest" inside the belly of the sea creature, realizing there is nothing wrong with finally "retiring", it is the young girl at his side, Sally, who yells at him to continue on and contribute. If she can recognize his intrinsic human worth, then there must be something worth salvaging. Indeed, the same can be said for Gilliam's film. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen may not be his most popular or praised work, but it is his most dense and deceptive work. Given a chance, it will become the ageless classic is appears to be.
The most incredibly stupid thing here though is the Holy Grail DVD. Believe it or not, it is the exact same version as the two disc special edition that came out a while back, including two commentaries, a Matrix-like spoof entitled "Killer Rabbit" (a featurette within the film facet that allows you to see some Behind the Scenes storyboards from the movie)...and a menu item for "extras" that asks you to insert Disc 2 into the DVD player for more features. Only problem is - THIS IS A SINGLE DISC PRESENTATION. YOU DON'T GET THE SECOND DVD. There are reviews of the original Special Edition (and its previous double dip) elsewhere on this site (you can find them HERE and HERE), so it's not important to go into too much detail over the bonus features. Suffice it to say that the commentaries are classic, the rabbit feature is fun, and the lack of the additional disc is a laughable look at Sony's consumer crassness. Way to go.