Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown, And things seem hard or tough, And people are stupid, obnoxious or daft,
And you feel that you’ve had quite eno-o-o-o-o-ough, Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving And revolving at 900 miles an hour.
The Galaxy Song
Growing up in my rather eccentric household, Monty Python was a huge part of our routine. We would always make time (usually on a Friday evening) to get together and watch their TV series The Flying Circus. And their films Holy Grail and Life of Brian, but there was one of their films which we watched over and over again… Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
Unlike Holy Grail and Life of Brian which had linear, constructed narratives while The Meaning of Life is a series of short sketches which are loosely connected by the theme of exploring just what is the meaning of life. It’s a return to their form here for the gang, who made their debut as a team with their surreal amusing sketch show, The Flying Circus.
The Meaning of Life is perhaps the most surreal and confusing film of the Monty Python collection because there’s certain sketches which are pure comedy and other scenes which just fall flat and just come across as embarrassing to watch. The film is divided into roughly eight segments – The Miracle of Birth; Growth and Learning; Fighting Each Other; Middle Age; Liver Organ Transplants; The Autumn Years; The Meaning of Life; Death – and some segments are genius which showcase the Python’s talents.
The film starts off strong with Terry Gilliam’s excellent short The Crimson Permanent Assurance, in which an office building turns into a pirate ship. It is an outstanding segment that could even stand alone on its own, and that presents Gilliam fully in form as a wild fantasy director. Having originally conceived the story as a 6-minute animated sequence in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, intended for placement at the end of Part five of The Meaning of Life, Terry Gilliam convinced the other members of Monty Python to allow him to produce and direct it as a live action piece instead.
According to Gilliam, the film’s rhythm, length, and style of cinematography made it a poor fit as a scene in the larger movie. So it was presented as a supplementary short ahead of the film. The short is about a group of elderly office clerks working in a small accounting firm. They rebel against yuppie corporate masters, transform their office into a pirate ship, and raid a large financial district. The Crimson Permanent Assurance is a great indicator of what was to come in regards to the future of Gilliam’s work and is a great start of the rest of the film.
The actual beginning of the film kicks off with a group of fish in a posh restaurant’s tank swim together casually, until they look at the customers outside of the tank and see their friend Howard being eaten. This leads them to question the meaning of life. We have a short sketch that mocks hospitals obsessions with machines (especially the ones that go ‘ping!’). In fact the idea for the hospital sketch came from Graham Chapman, himself a physician, who had noticed that hospitals were changing, with “lots and lots of machinery”. Amusingly, the Pythons discuss the social construct of ”gender roles” when the mother asks what gender her baby is, she receives the following response ”I think it’s a bit early to start imposing roles on it, don’t you?”
The Meaning of Life marks a point where comedy wasn’t afraid to cross the line, and it pokes fun at Catholicism. In fact, my favourite song from the film is ”Every Sperm is sacred” which features a Catholic working class family struggling to manage their heaving household in Yorkshire. The man ( Michael Palin) returning home from a long old day down the mines only to see the stork is dropping off another mouth for him to feed (”Oh bloody ‘ell” he exclaims watching on in horror). A baby drops out of a ”woman” (Eric Idle) who continues washing up who asks her daughter ”to get it” in a casual tone. When the father returns home, he opens the door to reveal dozens of children all in one room, he explains that he has lost his job and he has no other option but to sell his children to medical science! A discussion unfolds about how the Catholic church has done some wonderful things but if only they had allowed him to wear one of ”those rubber things” and things quickly turn into a good old sing along, with the kids all joining in about how every sperm is special, and none should ever be wasted.
The second amusing moment comes in the sequence known as “Live Organ Transplants” involves two paramedics visiting Mr. Brown, a card-carrying organ donor, forcefully removing his liver whilst he is still alive. Brown’s mother speaks with a musician who performs “Galaxy Song” while discussing man’s insignificance in the universe. According to Palin, the organ transplant scene harked back to Python’s love of bureaucracy, and sketches with lots of people coming round from the council with different bits of paper. The lyrics include a number of astronomical facts and figures, which may have accurately reflected the known values at the time the song was written while many are simply rounded for the sake of the song’s meter, for example: Idle sings that the Earth is “revolving at nine hundred miles an hour” but he is using the wrong term, since the Earth revolves around the Sun, but it rotates on its axis; but “rotating” does not rhyme with “evolving” so that’s probably why the word ”revolving” was used.
Perhaps the most memorable sketch is the The Autumn Years in which the monstrously fat diner Mr Creosote (Terry Jones) eats and eats until one last morsel – “and finally, a wafer thin mint” offers the Maitre d’ (John Cleese)– causes him to explode. The vomit, incidentally, was compressed minestrone soup, with thousands of gallons in canisters and special catapults to fling it across the room of the restaurant in splendid horrifying fashion. When asked about his proclivity toward gruesome film violence, director Quentin Tarantino said that the “Mr. Creosote” scene was the only time he had been disturbed by a graphic or gruesome film sequence which is saying something. The scene has a simple but powerful message, greed and gluttony is bad and that almost always there is some poor sod that has to clear up the mess at the end of the day.
In the end, the Pythons make several good points: birth control shouldn’t be denied to anyone, especially the lower classes. Gluttony is wrong, and eventually it will catch up with you. Hospitals waste too much money on machines that go ping. Sex education in schools is almost always far too embarrassing to deal with. But, more importantly: We only live once, so we better enjoy the ride.The film is an example of no-holds-barred madness which will have you laughing and groaning at the same time, and it’s Monty Python at their best. The Meaning of Life doesn’t have the same cult following as the other two films, but it will always have a special part in my own life and is an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. Of course, if you can’t handle gore, sex, vomiting, or surreal humour, then I recommend you steer clear of this film. And, although not as acclaimed as its predecessors, the film was still well received critically and was a minor box office success, grossing almost $15 million on a $9 million budget. It also screened at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix…yes, that seems surreal in itself.
Sadly, The Meaning of Life was the last film to feature all six Python members before Graham Chapman’s death in 1989, and I believe you can see that all the members were having fun on-screen. I would like to end this piece by saying thank you to the Monty Python team who over the years brought millions of people joy and laughter. So long, and thanks for all the laughs.