Friday, July 20, 2012

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

We’re all wise to the tricks the media is trying to play on us by now, but that kind of self-awareness was still pretty new when Monty Python started deconstructing every medium they worked in, weaving spoofs of TV or movie conventions into the fabric of almost every scene and transition.

Those spoofs were just part of a grab bag of gags in their first theatrical feature, And Now for Something Completely Different, an often hilarious but jerkily disjunct collection of skits that plays like a longer than usual episode of their TV show, with a few nods to the new medium tossed in here and there. But with their second feature, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Pythons took a great leap forward, creating a jokily self-aware narrative that keeps interrupting itself yet somehow manages to feel seamless.

In Life of Brian, the feature that followed this one and probably their masterpiece (though Holy Grail is a close second), the Pythons took on nothing less than the story of Jesus. But tackling the sacrosanct, sanctimonious legend of England’s King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table may have felt almost as daringly irreverent to the British Pythons.

Released in 1975, the film is firmly planted in the distrust of authority that ran rampant at the time, as reflected in the total lack of respect Arthur meets with wherever he goes. That impudent regard is often expressed in the plainspoken yet stealthily erudite language the Pythons excelled at (“Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government” scoffs a farmer, after Arthur brags about the Lady in the Lake who appointed him king). The movie never stops running variations on that theme, but they never get old, in part because Arthur meets every one with the same shocked disbelief, his imperious sense of entitlement as unshakeable as it is unearned.

Like Buster Keaton in The General, the Pythons stick close to historical fact, recreating the settings, costumes, and dubious mores of the day with deadpan near-fidelity. Realistic, if comically exaggerated, settings and activities like the high-walled enemy castle from which chamberpots are dumped onto Arthur’s knights’ heads, the persecution of a suspected witch, and the cart piled high with corpses (including one that’s not dead yet) that trundles down a filthy street to collect the deceased make the over-the-top absurdity of bits like Arthur’s fight with the invincible Black Knight, who won’t stop fighting even when all his limbs have been lopped off, shine that much brighter. Meanwhile, the Pythons’ genius for puncturing pomposity and debunking myths recasts the glamorized knights and their deeds in a distinctly unheroic light.

By the time they made this movie, the Pythons had years of practice at competing to get their best bits into their TV show. Maybe that’s why almost every scene and piece of dialogue is a classic. And just when you think you’ve finally hit a slow part, in the soft-core porn spoof of the Story of Sir Galahad that just keeps repeating variations on the same lame dialogue, the actress turns to the camera and says: “Do you think this scene should be cut? We were so worried when the boys were writing it, but now we’re glad! It’s going to be one of the preview scenes, I think!”

As in their classic TV show, the bumpers between scenes occasionally seem to exist just to move us from one idea to the next, so the boys can cut the moment things stop being funny. But they also create a whole new level of surrealism, commenting and expanding on the action in the rest of the film. One of these brief interludes, which starts when a “famous historian” in modern dress pops up to offer a little faux-historical perspective on the story only to have his throat cut by a passing knight, plays out at intervals throughout the film and winds up supplying its ending.

All this and the killer rabbit, the knights who say Ni, The Bridge of Death, and deliciously silly twists on familiar Round Table tropes, like the mewling prince Lancelot rescues from an unwanted marriage after receiving his written cry for help and assuming that he is a damsel in distress.

As filtered through the Pythons' pragmatic but never serious lens, the situation makes perfect sense: The prince, who grew up pampered and privileged, just can’t appreciate his hard-driving father’s ambitions for him, which includes a marriage to a rich man's daughter that would seal his economic fate. “One day, lad, all this will be yours,” papa tries to explain, gesturing at the view from the window.

“Wot? The CUR-tains?!” whines the prince.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is playing at 7 on Wednesday, July 25, at the County Theater in Doylestown. The screening, which is part of the theater’s third annual Monty Python fest, will be preceded by a screening of some of the troupe’s classic TV sketches. Trivia questions, prizes, and “gourmet-style” spam will also be featured.

Written for TimeOff

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