Today in Movie History: November 6

Terry Gilliam is a singular filmmaker, and like many singular filmmakers, some of his films are better than others. But not even the harshest critics would deny Time Bandits a spot on his Greatest Hits list. The story concerns a lonely young boy (Craig Warnock) who follows a six-pack of dwarves through a hole in space-time, sending them careening through the ages with a very irate Supreme Being on their heels. The fairy-tale aspects give Gilliam’s boundless imagination plenty of meaty concepts to develop, and the story’s episodic nature caters to his Python sketch proclivities (aided and abetted by fellow Pythons Michael Palin and John Cleese) without losing a strong central story (something his later films lack sometimes). And with the likes of Sean Connery, Shelley Duvall and David Warner adding to the fun, it serves as the perfect bridge between Gilliam’s Python years and his solo directing career.

Time Bandits opened today in 1981.

Today in Movie History: August 17

Everything’s turning up Jesus today… though not quite in the way you might expect. We’ll start with Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, the legendary comedy troupe’s follow-up to Holy Grail that ignited the expected firestorm of controversy among those least able to appreciate what it was trying to say. It remains brilliant, of course, and while time has blunted the criticism against it, its message about the foolishness of fanaticism is as pertinent as ever… to say nothing of the general Python absurdity it all comes wrapped in. The Life of Brian opened today in 1979.

Those less accustomed to the heat of religious arguments can look to Jesus Christ Superstar, another one of those Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals that really has no business working, and yet somehow does. Director Norman Jewison finds the right post-hippie vibe for the entire affair, setting modern performers to actual Israeli locations for the — yes — toe-tappingly good reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion. It opened today in 1973.

The field of non-Jesus movies opening today starts with The Time Machine, George Pal’s excellent adaptation of the famous H.G. Wells novel that remains an indelible classic of science fiction cinema. Rod Taylor makes an eminently sympathetic lead and the top-notch effects still retain their sense of wonder. The Time Machine opened today in 1960.

Amid the current bumper crop of animated films, the comparatively modest ParaNorman got left behind a little bit. It’s one of the better ones out there, however, with a great outsider’s vibe and a terrific way of reminding us not to judge a book by its cover. If you missed it, it’s well worth a look, especially with Halloween slowly creeping up on us. It opened today in 2012.

 

 

Today in Movie History: May 10

Two brilliant comedic troupes hit high points today. We’ll start with the boys in Britain who, with a successful TV show behind them and absolutely zero money to back them up, put together a comic take on the Knights of the Round Table that we’re pretty sure you’re familiar with. Monty Python and the Holy Grail opened today in 1975.

The Marx Brothers didn’t need any funding in 1946 when they produced their classic A Night in Casablanca. The brothers play managers of a hotel where an escaped Nazi war criminal has murdered the managers who came before them. The film supposedly earned controversy when Warner Bros tried to sue them for copyright infringement of their film Casablanca. Groucho always claimed that he countersued, arguing that the Marxes used the term “brothers” before Warners did. It’s likely balderdash, but the controversy didn’t stop the film from joining the ranks of Marx Brothers classics.

Finally, we have the middle entry in Sergio Leone’s famous Dollars trilogy, For a Few Dollars More. Though not quite as compulsively watchable as the two films surrounding it, it retains its spaghetti western charm thanks to the pairing of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name with Lee Van Cleef’s revenge-driven Colonel Mortimer. It opened today in 1967.

 

 

Today in Movie History: January 24

It’s a quiet day for movie releases, but I’ll go with one that deserves some love. Fierce Creatures, the follow-up to A Fish Called Wanda, reunited the same four principal cast members for a new bit of zaniness. It lacks some of the zip of its predecessor — the absence of director Charles Crichton probably played a hand — but it’s still a thoroughly amusing bit of fluff thanks to the lingering chemistry between stars John Cleese, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin and Jamie Lee Curtis. (Palin, in particular, steals the show in this one.) It opened today in 1997.

Movies for the Resistance: Monty Python’s The Life of Brian

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Sue Jones-Davies
Directed by: Terry Jones
Running time: 94 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 1979

 

So yeah. Roy Moore.

For most of the rational parts of the country, the recent eruption of sexual scandals has provoked a combination of horror and soul-searching. In Alabama, however, the defiant campaign of gibbering troglodyte Roy Moore stands out not only for its sheer ugliness, but for the way his evangelical constituents have cheerfully excused his monstrosity because reasons. We’re all accustomed to the casual hypocrisy of the religious right – going back to the televangelist scandals of the 1980s at the very least – but their lack of contrition or self-reflection in the light of objective, established human evil is shocking even for them.

The movies – and indeed art of any kind – always made an easy target for the religious right. Fundamentalism thrives on blind acceptance, and creativity of any sort involves questions, challenging conventions, and looking at the world in new ways. Hollywood’s decadence and moral failings provide an easy straw man to distract from their own horrific failings, and every few years some new movie draws their ire for increasingly ridiculous reasons. (Disney’s recent live-action Beauty and the Beast, with its not-so-subtle homosexual subtext, is only the most recent example.)

Monty Python’s The Life of Brian is an archetypical example of their misplaced piety and refusal to acknowledge objective facts. The film produced an uproar when it was first released in 1979 – with the now-familiar pattern of boycotts and pious finger-pointing – and more than any other target of fundamentalist ire, it lays bare the self-serving double standard of Moore and his ilk.

Most cinematic targets of the Christian right either evince some kind of “amoral” subject matter such as sex or violence, or else treat religious topics in a manner that they disapprove of (The Last Temptation of Christ comes immediately to mind). The Life of Brian dabbles in that – in the typically irreverent Python style – but its target largely lies elsewhere. It very clearly and carefully separates Jesus Christ from the equation. The film opens with Christ preaching on the Mount and our hapless hero Brian (Graham Chapman) asking his mother to attend. They make it exceedingly clear that they are NOT attacking or mocking Christ, and that their narrative has nothing to do with his teachings. As Eric Idle said at the time, you can’t mock Christ’s philosophy. It’s good moral philosophy.

Their targets are his followers, or more strictly, the ones who let their fanaticism get in the way of adhering to that philosophy. Funny how that ticks off actual fanatics something fierce.

The movie really kicks into high gear when Brian finds himself the most reluctant of messiahs: thrust more or less against his will into a position of moral authority and haltingly attempting to guide his creepily eager followers in some kind of positive direction. He fails, miserably, but his efforts form the core of the movie’s humor and some of its funniest sequences.

Brian draws inspiration from Jesus, but he’s not especially good at implementing it, less because of his own good intentions than because those listening aren’t really interested. They have their own agenda, and are wrapped up in their own needs, which comes into conflict with the message being delivered.

That, the film assures us, is an all-too-human failing. Fanaticism certainly predates Christ, and the savagery that accompanies it remains a core part of our condition. The notion of moral wrongdoing – of perceived transgression against The Good – ironically becomes a means of committing great evil. Here, too, the Pythons’ instincts strike home, not only in Brian’s miserable failure to imbue his followers with some basic decency, but in the self-apparent barbarism that he’s fighting against. (Witness the execution scene, in which a bloodthirsty crowd really really REALLY wants to stone a man to death, but needs some flimsy excuse in order to make it acceptable.)

Religion isn’t the only sacred cow the Pythons skewer here, of course. Political power – always an easy target – receives a thorough savaging, from Michael Palin’s hysterically inept Pontius Pilate to the People’s Front of Judea (seemingly evoked every time the left starts squabbling amongst themselves).

During these sequences, the film moves to more traditional comedy, pointing out how inept the people in charge are and why we really can’t depend on them when we need them. But they’d targeted such figures before without engendering much controversy (well, no more than normal).

It was the addition of religion that set the fundies off: the perception that Python was mocking something sacred and therefore deserved public lambasting. They missed the obvious truth that they were engaging in the same bloodlust as the film’s bearded women at the stoning, but were they capable of such insight, they never would have spoken up at all. In truth, it’s the Pythons themselves that they disapprove of, and possibly the very notion of comedy: the iconoclasm, the need to punch upward, the general mocking of authority figures, and our own human proclivity for foolishness. An overt religious satire simply gave them the barest precepts of moral justification to cling to, and from that oyster they simmered a stew that they continue to greedily devour.

They’ve long since abandoned any pretext that they need to do more. They simply aren’t capable of looking the Gorgon in the face. They require a fig leaf, any fig leaf, to prevent themselves from acknowledging their own monstrosity, and now even that flimsy justification has begun to fray. So the Roy Moores of the world become the REAL victims in their minds, and the targets of his monstrous appetites suffer as a result. Christ’s teachings are actively abandoned in the name of Christ, and thus do his most vocal followers actively embody the evil they claim to decry.

Somewhere, Brian Cohen is shaking his head and wondering how it got so far.

The Pythons are smart enough to realize that there’s no easy solution to such idiocy, of course. Pointing out the hypocrisy of the religious right convinces them of nothing, save perhaps to double down and insist that, oh say, a child molesting monster is actually a righteous follower of Christ. Their only real answer is a gentle admonishment to look at our own hypocrisies and try to do better.

The film closes with Idle’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” conducted as Brian and a gaggle of fellows await death on the cross. It’s a lovely bit of absurdism, but also a reminder – quite serious – to take joy when and where you can. Especially if it means laughing at those who hate you, or who claim some flimsy moral superiority over you. “At least you’re not one of them,” it tells us. If that’s not a reason to keep punching, nothing is.