Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Film hit: Monty Python's The Meaning of Life

Replaying on one of the cable channels. I remember when this flick came out, and our anticipation was riding incredibly high after the coincidental genius of Holy Grail and the flat-out storytelling ( comic, but great storytelling) of Life of Brian, and we--or I, anyway--felt shock at the seeming random, grab-bag structure of Meaning of Life, not to mention the several brutally graphic scenes that almost made me hurl. At the time, I thought it was a huge comedown from Brian, and not even in he same universe as Grail--which I think is still, along with Name of the Rose, the best film ever made about the Middle Ages. But, when it came out in '83, and for years after, both the critics and the Pythons themselves, if they didn't pan the film, certainly thought it was a step down from the earlier films shot while the group was still active.

But revisiting Meaning all these years later, with all those years' additional cynicism, and knowledge of history, and most especially knowledge of British social class, I see this film differently--and as much greater than I thought. Now I see it as a last valedictory blast of the rage that fueled the Angry Young Men like Joe Orton, John Lennon's "just rattle their fuckin' jewelry" comment at the Royal Command Performance, and--eventually--the Sex Pistols and the Clash. In all those cases, young people (mostly young men) who had been born during or after World War II were reacting to the system of accent, education, and class that had kept poor people down ever since the Georgians. No one born in the 1940s or early '50s in England, or raised in either public or private education in that period, could be blind to the way that the systems of education and economic opportunity were stacked to maintain the privileges of old wealth. If you went to the wrong school; if you had the wrong accent; if you came from the wrong part of the country; if you chose the wrong parents: the system would carefully and subtley make sure that you never got out of the servant class--so that you would always be available to hew the wood and draw the water and chauffeur the limos and dig the building sites and fight the wars of the rich. Joe Orton knew it--and fought to create a theatrical style that would simultaneously give him an avenue out and cock a snook at the Old Vic establishment. Lennon knew it--and took a decade to figure out how to "break out of the palace"; to his lasting credit, he succeeded. Lydon/Rotton and Strummer knew it, but because they were just a few years younger, they had some 1960s radical models they could draw from--and because Lydon knew enough about Irish colonial history, and Strummer about Third World radicalism.

But the Pythons knew it too--from the other side of the class divide. They were all Oxford/Cambridge types, and so might be thought to have the power of class, accent, and education behind them. But they were all intimately aware of their origins: Palin commented, "none of us were Londoners, we were all from the provinces"--which meant they themselves had had the experience of fighting their way up the rungs of the ladder of class. And, I think it's also a valediction for that generation and that generation's experience: because the Pythons, all six of them born between 1939 and 1943), were the last generation to have gone through a childhood and adolescence being educated by teachers from the pre-War period. Which meant they were the last generation taught under the Dear Old School, "Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton," keep-a-stiff-upper-lip, model of education.

Which played well in Tom Brown's Schooldays, or innumerable British films of the period, or in the pages of the Times of London, but in fact was just another abusive system for keeping the poor and the powerless in their place--and which institutionalized paternalistic racism, brutality, child abuse, toxic snobbery, and a life of cauterized emotions. By the 1960s, when working-class yobbos like Lydon/Rotten and Strummer--or, for that matter, Daltrey, Entwhistle, and Moon--were being sent off to trade school and apprenticeships, that Old-Boy ethos had pretty much died out with the last wave of pre-War dons' retirements. So the Pythons, educated in the '50s and very early '60s, were the last to experience it, and the rage that such abuse elicits.

And, more than the other, earlier films--and maybe because they all knew that this was a swan song--in this film they let out the anger, in both set pieces and premises, and most of all in the raging caricatures of unctuous priests, politicians, and public-school masters of precisely the sort the Pythons would have had to endure in their maturation. And they knew they had been lied to: about duty, and about sex, and about "sportsmanship" and "patriotism" and noblesse oblige and death and God Itself.

They end (after the credits actually roll) with Palin in drag reading out what is, if not the meaning of life, then certainly the purpose:

"Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."
But they know goddamned well that we won't.

There's a lot of rage in this movie. And it's righteous.

No comments: