Terry Jones & Terry Gilliam
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Midway through Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life a woman, a host of sorts, sits, to her right a title card that reads: The Middle of the Film. At this point the filmmakers have abandoned their film’s reality (suspended barely in a film replete with philosophic musings in the form of sing-a-longs) and in turn acknowledged the futility of their attempt to decipher life’s mystery.
The film is the final, least pleasantry and most ambitious effort from the British comedy troupe. Their previous outings tackled Arthurian myth (Holy Grail) and the more controversial birth of Christ (Life of Brian).
In description The Meaning of Life is a film dissected into different “Parts,” each an isolated, separate skit dealing in some way with the film’s binding theme. The question of life itself (perhaps because of its encompassing nature, involving here topics from “Growth and Learning” to “Live Organ Transplants”) functions to cohere these separated vignettes.
The narrative commences, fittingly, with birth. The ensuing scene is ironically distinguished for its lack of sentiment. In “The Miracle of Birth,” a woman in labor is wheeled into an operation room, followed by a slew of useless machinery — one goes bing, another is the most valuable machine in the hospital, neither has any operative function. The baby is delivered, isolated, and the room empties. This event is robbed of its inherent value; it is most valuable to the mother, who is left alone and ignored. This scene, as with most every other in the film, employs humor as its function, yet retains the offshoot depth associated with its philosophic ambition.
The antithesis of this commentary on birth is delivered in the scene that follows. “The Miracle of Birth Part 2” covers this miracle in the third world, where a father fathers a hous literally full of children. As the scene opens a fetus drops beneath a woman, who responds with an unexcited sigh. The father contends that no sperm should be wasted, aligning this claim to his religious beliefs. His neighbors, witnessing the sing-a-long that proceeds, respond by stating that Protestantism sanctions contraception. “That’s what being Protestant’s all about,” the neighbor says, “That’s the Church to me.” Monty Python made their courage to satire religion famous in Life of Brian; here it is as apparent. In the following scene, a prayer at a preparatory school (opening Part II: “Growth and Learning”) humorously emphasizes the size of God (“Ooh, Ye are so big”).
A classroom houses the aforesaid prep students; their topic for the day is sex. Their teacher depicts the act, literally, with his wife in front of the students. The scene is humorous for its unexpected frankness (the act is explained in great detail: imagine sex that is pornographic without being erotic). At the same time this action exploits the hypocrisy of sexual education — that adolescents are taught something that is by nature instinctive.
If sex is the most intimate life experience, then war, logically, is its diametric opposite. Part III follows, “Fighting Each Other.” Life’s meanderings are more apparent, at this point, than its narrative consistency. The film has no anchoring setting, no main characters and no central narrative. Its subject is its hallmark quality — this is rare in film, and sparks redeeming interest in this effort, particularly, by Monty Python.
“Fighting Each Other” commences off a segue — the image of a dissatisfied rugby player to the countenance of a soldier displaying similar emotion (this cinematic gesture suggests, appropriately, that the bookended actions are related). It is World War I. An outfit, realizing the imminent potentiality of their death, decide to share their remaining moments in peace with their leading captain. They offer him lavish gifts, and the troupe, diminishing in number as the scene progresses, eat cake in the middle of the battle field. The Captain sends one to fetch six plates. He is shot. “Better make it five.”
In the ensuing “Middle Age” tourists in unique restaurant order, from a menu, a conversation. The couple is given a fairly philosophic topic — that of the film’s title — and their many questions overwhelm their ability to enjoy their time. For them (and others, as it is suggested) time is a precious commodity, one that must have some intrinsic value. Otherwise, what purpose does life bear? At the point the couple claims, “this conversation isn’t very good,” the film employs a similarly figurative gesture: its objective becomes obscured by its comedic association. Ironic, being that this concept seems absent of any derivative humor.
The most controversial claim in The Meaning of Life is made in its most dissociated segment: Part V: “Live Organ Transplants.” Two doctors arrive at a man’s apartment at random, proceed to hold him down and extract his liver (this action is depicted in a harrowing point-of-view, as the frame catches the patient’s [or victim’s] nervous hands in between large, rhythmic spurts of blood). At the same time the two exclaim the importance of organ donation. The catch, here, is that a donor must be dead for donation; a donor will be dead after operation. A second doctor explains to the man’s wife the importance of donating organs. This conversation cues yet another sing-a-long. The song is essentially a rumination of different ecological phenomena. The song culminates in citing earth’s growing population, which de-emphasizes one’s individuality. The woman is convinced of her insignificance on this planet and without hesitation agrees to donate her liver.
At this point the film’s approach is its most apparent: it involves the philosophy of its topic, the humor of its cast, and the dramatic gravity if its legitimacy. Ultimately, the impact is felt that this may actually be a passable attempt to comprehend existence.
The film’s more humorous moments occur in its thematically weakest scenes: Death is invited to a bourgeois dinner party (each is impressed with the uniqueness of the experience, and asks annoying questions); in “Death” a man, who has chosen the manner of his own expiration, is chased by a horde of bouncing, topless women; the final number depicts a heaven that resembles a Las Vegas act. Even in these scenes, distinguished for their humor, a transcendent ideology persists: there is an inherent, collective fascination with death.
Ultimately some merit should be allotted to this film. Though any answers may be entirely unintended by its makers, the film functions, secondary to its attempt to conjure laughter, to advance discussion. Furthermore, the film is so persistent in its philosophic offerings that one is prompted to seek further meaning. In the end, the answer is frustratingly simple.
As expected the answer for life is provided: “Well that’s the end of the film,” says the aforesaid female host, “Here’s the meaning of life.” This action, obviously, is intended to be ridiculous, though, again, its philosophic merit may be discerned. Bullocks? Sure, though Life’s answer is no more or less epiphanic because of its delivery: enclosed neatly within a sealed envelope and read with deadpan nonchalance by the film’s host.