It was the fall of 1979. I was in my senior year at LaRue County High School, in Hodgenville, Kentucky (trivia note: the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln!). I was coming off a fantastic year on the school debate team, in which my team partner Mark Shelton and I had taken the state championship and placed 38th in the national competition. That year, the last year before college, the last year before Ronald Reagan, the last year of the seventies, one of my biggest obsessions was Monty Python.
Have you seen High School Musical? You know the musical number in the lunch room, where all the different cliques in school sit at their own table, each with their own way of dressing, communicating, etc? My high school was exactly like that… although, regrettably, none of us were anywhere near that good-lucking, and we never broke out into song and dance. Anyway, my lunch table was The Smart Sarcastic Kids.
We were the college-bound psuedo-intellectuals (some of whom ended up becoming genuine intellectuals) who considered ourselves a bit above the rest of the school. And Monty Python was one of the things that bound us together. Back in 1979, Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired at midnight on PBS, right after Saturday Night Live finished a minute or two earlier on NBC. This schedule ensured that Monday’s lunchtime conversation was sure to be filled with quotes from the weekend Python episode. For my younger readers, try to conceive of a time before VCRs or Tivos: you saw a show once, when it aired, and that was it.
Now, Monty Python was considered very risque in 1979, especially in backwoods Kentucky. Thankfully, our television actually came from Louisville, 60 miles away. I really have to give credit to PBS back then – they aired the episodes uncut, complete with the odd bit of nudity here and there and hysterical British swear words intact. My god, you cannot imagine how much my friends and I ate it up.
The best of the best was one weekend when they aired Monty Python and the Holy Grail instead of Flying Circus. To me and my friends, this movie was a Revelation. I just can’t state it any more plainly than that. For weeks, months afterwards, my friends and I quoted that movie. We bought the record of the soundtrack. We bought the book with the complete script. We acted out bits for each other and for the benefit of those who had missed the one-time showing.
And then, a miracle: A new Monty Python movie was coming out! Something called Monty Python’s Life of Brian. But not just another movie – this one was controversial! It takes place in “olden bible times”, and Jesus is even mentioned in the movie! People were protesting it, claiming it was blasphemous! Talk about pouring gasoline on a fire. I mean, we wanted to see the movie just because it was Monty Python. But when we read that people were protesting it, there was nothing on earth that would keep us away.
One Friday night, when all our classmates were going out on awkward dates to Senior Prom or Homecoming or something like that, we ditched the entire affair and drove up to Louisville to see Monty Python’s Life of Brian. As I recall, we took two cars – my tiny, electrically challenged Chevy Chevette, and Tim Well’s rusted-out Chevy Nova. We crammed six people into the Chevette, which was so badly wired that the whole electrical system would constantly shut off, throwing us into complete darkness while rocketing down the freeway at 60 miles an hour. Only violent shaking motions from all passengers, or everyone jumping up and down at the same time, would force the lights to come back on. As you can imagine, this made for a very entertaining ride.
The movie did not let us down. We saw a 7pm showing, and then all went to a local Pizza Hut afterwards. We talked about the film over many pizzas until we were grazing against our collective curfews. We corrected each other over exact lines; one of our members, Kris Prather, had a near photographic memory, which helped greatly in this regard. We drove back in the pitch black, hopping up and down every few minutes to keep the headlights on in the Chevette, singing the movie’s concluding song.
The following week at school, no one else could understand why we had collectively skipped out on Homecoming or Prom or Whatever. But when we told them what we had seen, they were in awe. Monty Python’s Life of Brian never made it out of Louisville to the local theaters, at least not that year. Nowadays I suppose you’d call what we had “geek cred”; back then we just thought we were the coolest kids on earth.
Last week, I got the new Blu-Ray high definition disc of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Over the weekend, I sat down to watch it. First I had to sit through a very annoying and lengthy disc load time and menu, and then I was finally able to watch the movie. (Side note: I want a switch on my Blu-Ray player called “movie only”, then when pressed, skips the loading of all the damn menus, “BD-Live” sign in garbage, previews, advertisements, legal warnings, embellishments, and everything else and just plays the damn movie already. On some of these discs it takes more than five minutes to get to the point where you can actually watch the movie that you paid for!).
The Blu-Ray version is amazing. I promise you, this movie did not look this good in the theater in 1979. The film looks like it was shot now, not 30 years ago. Everything looks so crisp and clean. The colors are sharp and clear, and the amount of detail is astonishing. This is one of the best transfers of an older film to high definition that I have yet seen. No scratches, no splices, no artifacts of any kind.
Since Monty Python’s Life of Brian is now an established classic, I won’t bother to recount the biblical-era plot: that and more can be found in this excellent Wikipedia article about the film. Like all Python projects, the dialog is what makes it so special. And the Blu-Ray’s wonderful 5.1 remix in TrueHD means that you can hear every single line of dialog as clear as a bell. The entire conversation between John Cleese’s latin lecturing Roman Centurion and a recalcitrant graffiti-painting Brian. The lisping Biggus Dickus on stage with his equally speech impaired old friend Pontius Pilate. And of course, the closing song by Eric Idle as the surviving cast are all crucified, singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life“.
Also on the disc is an hour-long documentary, “The Story of Brian”. This includes interviews with all of the surviving members of Monty Python (Graham Chapman, who played Brian, died in 1989) and the film’s producers. The documentary covers the making of the film, its release, and the controversy that followed it. The highlight of the documentary is clips from a live debate between two clergymen and two Python members (John Cleese and Michael Palin), where they debate whether the film is blasphemous or not. Not surprisingly, the clergymen come off looking like fools.
At the end of the documentary, the question is asked: Could this film be made today? The answers vary, but the consensus, expressed by Terry Gilliam, is “Well, I certainly hope so”.
Personally, I doubt it. Watching the movie again, it seems much edgier now than it did to me in 1979. Back then, it seems, you could poke fun of a lot more things than you can now. Back then, satire was challenging and eye-opening. Back then, the world was our oyster and anything and everything could be made into a joke. That’s just not true anymore.
Nowadays we have Muslim fundamentalists who will kill you if you draw a cartoon, Christian fundamentalists who would burn you at the stake for suggesting that Christ ever had doubts, and Jewish fundamentalists who take even the slightest criticism of Israel as a sign that you would gladly invoke a second holocaust. Making jokes at the expense of organized religion is not going to fly here in America 2008.
Nothing yet has surpassed Monty Python’s Life of Brian in that regard, and I doubt anything ever will. And though the film treats Jesus himself with respect and deference, the same cannot be said for the implications it makes about his followers.
If you have a Blu-Ray player, get this disc now and give it a spin. If you have a DVD player, get the DVD version made from the same remaster and watch that. Enjoy the 20th century’s greatest comedy troupe at the height of their creative powers.
I leave you with this bit of dialog from the film. This bit is near the end, when Brian is trying to convince the crowd outside his window that he is not the messiah, and does not, in fact, have anything at all to tell them whatsoever. I used to quote this bit over and over, and this scene actually helped to form one of my life’s mottos: Think for Yourself.
Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t need to follow me, you don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!
The Crowd (in unison): Yes! We’re all individuals!
Brian: You’re all different!
The Crowd (in unison): Yes, we are all different!
Man in Crowd: I’m not…