Monday, July 16, 2012

Pie Jesu Domine

Film: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

There was a time when I would have been happy to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail at any time just because. But it’s this movie that really taught me what maturity means. I can, as someone who has seen this film in the multiple dozens of times, quote virtually the entire thing. I can watch the movie and go right along with the dialogue. However, I don’t. That, friends and neighbors, is maturity.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m a Python-head from the old school. I had a dog named Monty Python and another named Basil Fawlty. I own all of the shows on DVD as well as the bound versions of the show scripts. Tonight was the first time in years I’ve seen this, and, well, it’s still just as funny as it ever was. In many ways, classic comedies like Airplane! are modeled on Python in the sense that every possible joke is tossed against the wall to see what sticks (something Airplane! did in spades). The thing about Holy Grail is that a surprising amount of it does stick. Ridiculous things like the opening credits, the gorilla hand turning script pages, the coconut horses work as do the more highbrow pieces like Dennis and his mother discussing their anarcho-syndicalist commune.

In fact, it’s difficult to go into a great deal of detail with this film without getting into the details of the jokes, which ultimately destroys them. On its face, this is the King Arthur story. Arthur collects his Knights of the Round Table and they go out to seek the Holy Grail, which they have decided must be in England somewhere. They travel together, then travel separately, each one getting into ridiculous situations. Throughout, the members of Monty Python play multiple roles, with the exception of Graham Chapman, who plays only King Arthur and a couple of small roles. John Cleese (Lancelot), Michael Palin (Galahad), Terry Jones (Bedevere), and Eric Idle (Sir Robin) take most of the roles. Terry Gilliam handles the animation pieces and tends to play smaller roles, many of which have only a single line, or no lines except for the Old Man from Scene 24. Also appearing are Python regulars Carol Cleveland, Connie Booth, and Neil Innes.

It’s tempting to go through all of the tremendous bits here, and the film is loaded with them. I’d rather not, though, simply because I wouldn’t know where to start, and once started, I wouldn’t know where to stop. It’s more interesting to talk about exactly why this film has remained a staple of comedy for nearly 40 years.

The reason is actually pretty simple—the Pythons were smart enough to not do much that is specifically topical. The jokes are essentially timeless, so they are as funny now as they were when they were written.

It is, though, difficult to find something to say about this film that hasn’t already been said a couple of dozen times. It is one of the most beloved comedies in film history, and, I suspect, a film that many people simple don’t get. There isn’t a great deal of middle ground on this film. It’s either a film that you understand on a deep level precisely what makes it so entertaining, or you just don’t get it and can’t figure out why people like it so much. Naturally, I imagine this means that most of the comments this post generates will be from people who are completely neutral on this film. Still, I think those people are in the minority.

Anyway, it goes without saying that I love this film. Of all the films I have seen in my lifetime, I have probably seen this one more than almost any other, and it never fails to entertain me completely. If I have a complaint, it’s that the end doesn’t work for me as well as I would like. The last few minutes of the film always feel like a letdown to me, like there should be some better resolution. I get why it goes where it does—I understand the entire meta-humor of the scene, but I still have always wished for an actual resolution to the quest better than the relative non-sequitur we get.

Why to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Because it’s brilliant in a way that few things are.
Why not to watch: The ending works as meta-humor, but feels unsatisfying.

14 comments:

  1. A SHRUBBERY!

    Not mature, I realize.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think I just broke my neck because I was nodding so vigorously as I read this. Yes, yes, and yes, and a huge YES to the ending. When I was in middle school, I forcefully drafted my friends to perform Python sketches with me in the school's variety show. I would go around quoting Fawlty Towers to anyone who would listen.

    The moose stuff at the beginning is so funny.

    I'm starting to feel the temptation to run through my favorite gags in movie... I better cut this short.

    "Let me have just a little bit of the peril?"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The curse of this film is that it's almost impossible to talk about by those who love it without jumping into the various bits ("It's just a flesh wound," "Wicked, bad, naughty, evil Zoot!"). It's also the sort of thing that is easily over-hyped for those who haven't seen it.

      I look at what I wrote above and see that it's a good 2-300 words shorter than what I normally do. That's as much as I could do without writing things like, "Quick! Get the sword out! I want to cut 'is head off!"

      So, ultimately, not mature here, either.

      Delete
    2. I thought your review was very good; this is a movie I'm not looking forward to writing about for the very reasons you stated. What on earth do you say about it? Other than, of course, it's wickedly funny. So I respect your decision to simply take the "mature route" and avoid listing all the great gags.

      Which is probably what I will resort to when i get around to this one.

      Just last week, I threw out a "very small rocks!" during a meeting with some colleagues. No one laughed. I was sad.

      Delete
    3. And every time we have a graduation ceremony (twice yearly), I pull up my graduate hood and chant "Pie Jesu dominae, dona eis requiem [slam!]" Almost no one I work with gets it.

      The problem with listing all the great gags is that instead of being short, I'd still be writing. They're all great gags.

      Delete
  3. Love this movie. Agree, that it's timeless and hilarious. Wow, what writing.

    I also agree about the ending. Always leaves me unsatisfied; the only joke I really don't like.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm genuinely looking forward to seeing this movie again, but I'm absolutely dreading trying to write anything about it. I've been putting off my review of The Shining for the same reason, everything has been said before. Great review though.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The joke is that I watched it last night because I wanted something easy. Turns out that this was one of the most difficult reviews to write so far because I couldn't think of much more than, "It's funny! I love it!"

    ReplyDelete
  6. Love this movie! I didn't the first time I watched it, but then I watched it with a crowd that knew and loved it and I then I got it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think that's an unusual path to getting it. Most people either do or don't and form that opinion right away. I'm happy you gave it a second chance--most people who don't get this film on a first viewing don't watch it again, at least from my experience.

      Delete
  7. The movie is great, Monty Python's best. I agree that the ending is sort of a letdown and too meta but, really, how would it have ended?

    Also, I awarded you a blog award, go pick it up:
    http://jowskireviews.geekjuicemedia.com/2012/07/i-won-award.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a perfectly legitimate question. I'm not sure how I would have ended it, either.

      Delete
  8. I watched Monty Python's Flying Circus on PBS when I was a kid and I liked it. I never saw any of their movies until I was well into adulthood, though. As a result I am one of the few people who doesn't find The Holy Grail that funny. In fact, I can still name the two things I laughed at - the Frenchman yelling insults, and a scene where a retreat is ordered and one man sprints for the castle, hits the stone wall once with his sword, then runs away as fast as he can.

    I actually liked And Now For Something Completely Different more than The Holy Grail because it was more like their original show.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like that one, too. But this one is my favorite, and it is because it was also my first of theirs. But I love them all--so much of what made the show so great comes through in this--everything but the end just works for me.

      Delete