Friday, 14 March 2014

Best Things Ever #19 Monty Python’s Life of Brian

In deference to its subject matter, this started out as a nice little article about Monty Python's Life of Brian, but then it got silly and went off on a tangent.

Best Things Ever

#19 Monty Python’s Life of Brian

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 your selves! You're ALL individuals! 
Crowd: Yes! We're all individuals! 
Brian: You're all different! 
Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different! 
Man in crowd: I'm not...

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the true test of great comedy is in its repeat-ability. By that measure, Monty Python’s Life of Brian is a strong candidate for greatest comedy film of all time.

There is hardly a line in Life of Brian that doesn’t bare repeating. While other films, This is Spinal Tap, Withnail & I, Airplane etc.,  can boast of dozens of one liners, most films don’t step beyond the boundaries of the one liner. As a teenager, I was part of a clique that practically communicated in comedy one liners from a dozen films and TV series. Yet the strength of Monty Python was always in their finely crafted sketches and the Life of Brain script represents the Pythons at the top of their game. Virtually every scene is comedy gold and each of our clique had two or three sketches memorised that we would real off for the amusement of each other, like singing karaoke or bashing out the chords to our favourite songs on the guitar. My specialty was always, ‘Crucifixion’s a Doddle’. That and, ‘I Want to Have Babies’.

Beyond its repeatability though, Life of Brian is as good as it is because of its ability to interchange between ribbing religion and side swipes at the mentality of certain sections of 1970s Britain. One has only to think of Michael Palin chained to the wall in Pilate’s prison, shouting ‘nail ‘em up I say’ in reference to crucifixion and see the obvious parallels, even today, to the sections of the media that still want hanging brought back in this country, not out of a sense of justice but because of a thirst, a lust for blood. Or spot the same hypocrisies in the Daily Mail’s recent headlines about unions campaigning for paedophiles in the 1970s, while at the same time carrying countless pictures of underage girls in bikinis on their website. The Daily Mail: For the Self-Hating Paedophile.

Yet Life of Brian as much ridicules the left of the 20th century. I read somewhere recently that when those on the left talk, they do so in a circle. The problem is that they stand in the same direction when they start firing. The schism between the People’s Front of Judea and the ‘fucking Judean People’s Front’, a hatred way and above the hatred felt for the Romans, perfectly parodies this situation (cf. The Spanish Civil War, where the fascists won because the leftist factions were too busy fighting each other):

Brothers, brothers! We should be struggling together!

We are! Oh!

We mustn't fight each other! Surely, we should be united against the common enemy!

The Judean People's Front?!

No, no, the Romans!

Life of Brain found itself in a lot of trouble for poking fun at religion and is still banned in a number of countries. Yet if Monty Python makes religion look silly that’s because religion kind of is silly. There is nothing in Life of Brain that shouldn’t be obvious to most people, but offense is taken in reminding the faithful that religion is silly, the elephant in the room to which most religious people don’t want attention to be drawn. Likely, it has as much to do with the fact that the one time we do see Jesus, at the beginning of the film, it’s during his Sermon on the Mount speech, which is one of the many bits of the teachings of Christ that you’re supposed to put as far from your mind as possible. If Christianity actually paid attention to the vast majority of the things Christ is purported to have said then Christianity as a for-profit organisation would be unable to function. After all, Christianity is a church dedicated to a man who said don’t go to church. Silly, see.

I’ve heard Anglican clergy that have expressed a love for Monty Python, even for certain sections of Life of Brian, but not for the end, because there’s nothing funny about crucifixion, especially when Christ was crucified. But was he? After all, Acts of the Apostles states that Christ was nailed to a tree and the Book of Galatians says he was hung and then thrown into a tree. The image of Christ crucified is a fairly recent innovation in the history of Christianity. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the fourteenth century, the pilgrims always refer to Christ as the man who was nailed to a tree. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was tied to a stake and left in the desert to die (or was it yesterdie? – an old Goon Show joke, aw thank yew).

In the original texts, the word translated as crucifix could refer to a number of different punishments meted out by the Romans. I have heard it said that no one was ever crucified using the Latin cross, but rather the Tau or T-shaped cross. The Latin cross was purely ceremonial but impractical compared to the simpler Tau cross, which required less heavy timber. The Latin Cross was a pagan symbol and hanging a cross around your neck is therefore no more appropriate than wearing a pentangle.

There’s also something very fishy about Christ’s crying out at the point of death. Aside from Matthew, Mark and John all giving different versions of what Jesus actually shouted (My God, My God, why hast though forsaken me; Father, I commend myself to your spirit; and, It is done, respectively), the cause of death in crucifixion is by asphyxiation. You suffocate to death due to the fact that all the weight of the body is placed on the chest and lungs. So how could he cry out? Did he fake his death? Did he not come to Earth as a mortal man and was just taking the piss? Or are the gospels just fairy stories, expanded and refined over a century of retelling through the oral tradition, like the tales of Odysseus and the other heroes of Greek myth?

In one sense, Jesus is just another Greek hero. The popular image of Jesus in western art bears no relation to the historical man, if indeed he existed at all. The man we see is in actuality Apollo, the Greek and Roman God of the Sun, reflected by the disc of gold seen behind his head. The Greeks portrayed their gods as having long hair in order to show them as wealthy, in opposition to the shaved heads worn by slaves. Jesus would probably have worn prayer curls at the temples (as demanded by Leviticus, something the Religious Right don’t seem as keen on enforcing as bans on homosexuality). However, the rest of the hair on the head would have been short or shaved.

The Jesus story, including his parents fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod, is very much a retelling of the story of the birth of Apollo and his sister, Artemis, whose mother, Leda, was raped by Zeus and then had to flee the jealous rage of his sister-wife, Hera (as with much of the Bible, the Jesus story is a Greek myth with all of the women excised). And even the name Jesus is a Latinisation of a Greek name Iesous. But ‘Jesus’ was Jewish, so his name would have been Joshua. Ergo, the Jesus so revered in western tradition is really the pagan Sun God, Apollo.

James George Frazer in The Golden Bough notes that in The Gospel According to Luke the soldiers who beat Jesus and place the crown of thorns on his head are described as being Herod’s men. They therefore would all have been Jewish, putting a whole new spin on their mocking of Jesus as The King of the Jews. Frazer believed that rather than being commensurate to the Jewish Passover, the crucifixion took place during the Jewish festival of Haman, a Babylonian ritual or passion play brought back from their time as slaves in Babylonia.

Frazer identified in the crucifixion elements of a Mock King ritual, where one man would be sacrificed to the corn gods, whilst another, the Barabbas (a ceremonial title), would be set free to be executed the following year. Frazer thought that rather than Jesus being special, the ritual was carried out every year during the festival of Haman and Jesus, a troublesome Rabbi who wished to reform Judaism, was brought up on trumped up charges and ritually executed. His theories have a certain ring of truth about them, but who knows how close he came.

The irony here is that Frazer also notes that the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis was never meant to be taken as a literal event that actually happened, but rather an allegory designed to stop child sacrifice amongst the Israelites, a practice which was common in the Middle East and elsewhere at that time. If Frazer’s theories have any truth to them, then it seems Judaism returned to this common practice later on.

(James Joyce puns on Frazer’s Abraham/Isaac theory in the opening page of Finnegans Wake: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac – in other words, before animal sacrifice had replaced the bland/commonplace practice of kings sacrificing their own children.)

All in all then, given the lack of a clear method of execution mentioned in the Bible, the Latin cross not used as a method of execution, the parallels to Greek mythology, the doubtfulness of the descriptions found in the Gospels, as well as James George Frazer’s speculations on the Gospel accounts, I think we’re on pretty safe ground to sing, ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ from atop a couple of dozen crucifixes. As with most cries of ‘blasphemy’, what those shouting really want is for no one to think for themselves and have the bleeding obvious pointed out to them. Without frequent recourse to the Church’s various inquisitions, Chrstianity (as I prefer to call it) wouldn’t have lasted five minutes.

Life of Brian is also a meta film, a film poking fun at other films about religion and the time of the Romans. ‘I’m Brian and so’s my wife’ is a brilliant parody of ‘I’m Spartacus’. Or the quintessentially British notion of a petty argument about noses going on in the background of one of the most important events in religious scripture (The Sermon on the Mount). If Tom Stoppard had written Life of Brian it would be considered art rather than comedy. Indeed, there is more than a little of Becket and Brecht in Life of Brian. Despite employing an alien space battle as a deus ex machina at one point, which I’ve always suspected was shoehorned in to give Terry Gilliam something to play with, Life of Brian is in many ways the Python’s most serious film as well as their funniest.

Life of Brain is a great film and a great British film exactly because it is so iconoclastic. British comedy, British life in general, has always been about poking fun at authority figures. In the same way that Londoners stood on the banks of the Thames in 1834 to watch and cheer as the Houses of Parliament burned down, so Monty Python gleefully send up religion and politics and British life.

Left to the film industry, Life of Brian would never have been made. It was considered too controversial. Thankfully, George Harrison financed the film and gave birth to Handmade Films in the process, which also came to make Withnail & I, one of the few films that gets anywhere near Life of Brain in terms of quote-ability (I’ll come back to Withnail & I in a later article). The Beatles were falling apart just as the Pythons were coming together. It’s satisfying that it was a Beatle that helped the Pythons stay together just a little longer (although they’d essentially gone their separate ways by this point). The Pythons occupy the same place in the annals of comedy that the Beatles occupy in music.

I rewatched Life of Brian before writing this piece and despite knowing just about every word from start to finish, I was still giggling to myself even as I repeated the lines like repeating the catechism at church. A love of comedy is quite like a fervour for religion. The only difference between religion and comedy is that comedy doesn’t mind admitting that it’s silly.

Get it done.

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