Monday, May 25, 2015

We May Not Die Hideous Deaths

When a group of artists breaks up, be they musicians or, I don't know, let's say comedians, what the individual members of that group go on to do or not do in their creative lives is often the subject of much fascination and debate. Sometimes even mockery, if you can imagine that for one second, and eventually, usually, down the road, a reassessment of some kind. I get the feeling, for example, that currently the solo albums of Paul McCartney are broadly regarded with more warmth than the solo albums of John Lennon. It wasn't always thus, by any stretch, and this could just be a byproduct of McCartney having so much more post-Beatles work than Lennon (obviously), but anyway, there it is. What's interesting about that example, though, is that the way people talk about solo Lennon and McCartney indicates that both men are or were still in The Beatles and they never were not in The Beatles. The albums they recorded outside of their work with The Beatles was just another way they went about being in The Beatles.

Much the same thing could be said about the various members of Monty Python after that groundbreaking British comedy team broke up, as they've done more than once over the years. Their TV sketch show Monty Python's Flying Circus ran from 1969 to 1974, and from 1971 to 1983 they wrote, directed, produced, and starred in several films, at least two of which, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian, have survived and will continue to survive as classics (The Meaning of Life is pretty underrated, incidentally). But Monty Python as we know it pretty much ceased to exist in 1983, yet of this most influential of all sketch comedy groups' six members -- John Cleese, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, and Graham Chapman -- only two of them, Cleese and Gilliam, could be said to have enjoyed a level of fame and artistic success that would seem appropriate, given their previous cultural impact (for those thinking "But Eric Idle has done very well for himself," yes indeed he has, but that success could hardly be said to have been independent of Monty Python). It would not be difficult to argue that comedically speaking, the true masterpiece to come from the group is Fawlty Towers, the sitcom Cleese co-created, wrote, and starred in with Connie Booth in the mid-to-late '70s, while the film department of Python was really chugging along. Beyond that, Cleese also has the hugely successful film A Fish Called Wanda that he wrote and starred in, and he's appeared in dozens and dozens of films, including parts of the James Bond and Harry Potter franchises. For his part, Terry Gilliam has had one of the more unusual careers as a film director I can think of. It's been a struggle, famously so, but when at the very least you get Brazil and Time Bandits out of the struggle you can rest assured that you've left your mark.

That the other four haven't left the same kind of mark post-Python is not a criticism. Leaving aside Idle (please), Michael Palin's many series of travel documentaries is hardly negligible, for one thing, plus he's a published novelist and so forth. Palin, and Idle too come to think of it, has shown scant interest in making films, other than as an actor, and even then with a steadily decreasing frequency. All of this despite the fact that film seemed to be the future of Python, or the Pythons -- as a group or individually. I'd bet good money that more people have seen Monty Python and The Holy Grail than have seen more that a handful of their television sketches. But really only Gilliam has shown any passion in that arena, his stylistic idiosyncrasies showing through even in The Holy Grail, which he co-directed with Terry Jones, his devotion to depicting the Dark Ages as filthily as possible seeming on paper to be at odds with the comedy, but instead helped to create something truly unique. When he had full rein to indulge in this way, he produced Jabberwocky, his first non-Python film as a writer and director; the results are a bit iffy, so it was perhaps Jones (and to some degree Cleese, who during the making of Holy Grail butted heads with both directors because he believed their artistic fiddling about had nothing to do with comedy) keeping his head screwed on straight, and having maybe a more classical/traditionalist approach to filmmaking, who kept the tone of that film right where it needed to be.

Terry Jones would go on to direct Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life without Gilliam. They don't feel like the work of the same director, though this could be a result of settings and the stories being told -- Life of Brian is naturally sunny and dusty, The Meaning of Life is largely indoors or set in the English countryside, etc., but one might sense that Jones is trying to find his way to a degree that Gilliam, as much of a mess as Jabberwocky is, never had to worry about. He imbued The Holy Grail with his style, it became a part of the Python style, and he carried it back out again into his own films. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may have nothing to do with Monty Python, but it still feels like there's a connection that is more than just superficial. As a filmmaker, Jones never established that same strong personality (I might argue that as a performer he certainly did, however, and while Cleese is my own personal favorite of the Python group -- really going out on a limb on that one, I know -- Jones may have been the most idiosyncratic). His biggest shot at doing so came in 1989 with Erik the Viking, a comedy-fantasy that he wrote, directed, and has a small (fittingly ridiculous) part in, and which will be released tomorrow on DVD and Blu-ray by Olive Films.

You should know, if you don't already, that this will not be the first home video release of Erik the Viking. Perhaps I'm jumping the gun here, I can't tell anymore, but for a DVD release in 2006, Jones delegated to his son the opportunity that had been provided to him by the studio to re-edit the film. Bill Jones, the son, ended up delivering a cut of the film that was 75 minutes long. That's down about half an hour from what made it to theaters in 1989. I don't think it's going too far to infer that this suggests a certain dissatisfaction with the film, on the part of both Terry and Bill (who'd been involved with the project before the re-edit), but I've never seen that cut, or heard the Terry Jones commentary track that accompanies that disc, so what do I know? I do know the theatrical cut, I saw this film in the theaters and more than once on home video during my teenage years, and now again the other day on Blu-ray. The movie was a flop, Jones's career as a director basically stalled out (he does have a new one, fairly big, coming up though), and even when I was thirteen or fourteen years old I think I knew that whether Jones was conscious of it or not, Erik the Viking played out like someone was hoping people would mistake it for a Gilliam film (whose career was more robust then than it is now) and thereby elevate it in whatever way one elevates Gilliam's films (pardon the confusion here, but like him or not -- I do both -- it's never easy to know where to place Gilliam).

Erik the Viking is a comedy about Norse mythology that stars Tim Robbins as the titular character, a man who, though a Viking, finds less satisfaction in raping and plundering than many of his friends and fellow villagers do, including his father played with no small amount of commitment by Mickey Rooney (because might as well cast Mickey Rooney as an elderly Viking). That basic premise, which is just a starting point, is a classic Python reversal; it's really a classic reversal as a premise for sketch comedy, period (it also would have felt right at home in a novel by Terry Pratchett). What's less usual is what it's used to set up. As the film opens, Erik and his fellow Vikings are raiding a village. Erik hacks into a tent occupied by a woman named Helga (Samantha Bond). Erik is planning to rape her, not because he wants to but because he's a Viking; however due to this reticence Helga is able to talk to him, with some anger, about the evil he and his people are doing. So Erik backs off, but as he does so two of his comrades burst in. They're about to rape Helga and Erik fights them. He kills one, and then runs the other through with his sword, yet in doing so the sword also pierces Helga, and she dies. Now what?

He visits the local witch named Freya (Eartha Kitt) because the war-like nature of the Vikings doesn't feel natural to him. Over the course of the subsequent conversation, Erik learns that Ragnarok, the Norse word for the end of the world (essentially) is upon them. There's one way to stop Ragnarok, involving the blowing of the Horn Resounding, so Erik goes back to his village and recruits a team of Vikings to go on a quest to find the Horn Resounding and stop Ragnarok.

Sounds pretty funny, right? Well it kind of is. Erik the Viking isn't a deathless comedy classic, but there's a lot of fun to be had watching a film that draws as reference and inspiration for its jokes not something contemporary, but actual ancient ideas and ways of thinking. Of course the contemporary enters into things, unavoidably so, because why else are we laughing at the casual reactions to death and violence and things like that if not because we're so very much not Vikings ourselves? Going on the quest with Erik are a father (regular Gilliam actor and co-writer Charles McKeown) and his son Sven (Tim McInnerny, from Black Adder). The son has never been able to successfully enter the "berserk" state during battle, a state for which Vikings are known and feared. And so comedy (and an emotional payoff) is mined from an ancient Norse conception of of the concept of bloodlust. This isn't to say that Erik the Viking is tiresomely high minded or proud of itself, but I don't think a film comedy with a frame of reference broader than Judd Apatow could ever imagine should be dismissed. I also think it's worth mentioning that with a film like this, you can compare its approach to comedy with that of Apatow, and think that in its approach to Vikings the film, whatever its faults, which are numerous and real, feels somehow more honest than Nicolas Winding Refn's ostensibly more "authentic" Valhalla Rising. This is the sort of thing that can come out of the world of Monty Python, and pretty much nowhere else.

I mean, here's a comedy that also deals with rape and makes jokes about murder but uses both as a catalyst for various characters to become better people within the framework of the world they actually live in, not the one the viewers live in. It has elements of Mel Brooksian parody without ever actually being that. It has monsters and other practical effects, which set a very appealing mood like in early Gilliam films; it uses John Cleese as the villainous flip on his Robin Hood in Gilliam's Time Bandits (in which Cleese wasn't villainous, just deeply, hilariously cynical; otherwise, look at Robin Hood's scene and Cleese's main Halfdan the Black scene in Erik the Viking side-by-side -- they're pretty much the same); it even eventually becomes ethereally serious, in a way that both evokes the last third of Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and sort of refutes it, being somewhat more sunny in its philosophy than Gilliam's bit. But while watching Erik the Viking you can't avoid Gilliam, and in this way you can't avoid Python. Not that you should have to, or even want to -- I originally wanted to see Erik the Viking in 1989 because of the strong Python connection. And if that long serious bit late in Erik the Viking doesn't work, and is in fact pretty tedious, and in fact ultimately rolls back certain things in the story that I really wish it hadn't, well, that similar bit in Baron Munchausen can be faulted for all the same things.

I realize that it seems as though my point is that Terry Jones is merely ripping off Terry Gilliam. I don't think that. I do think that Gilliam's success had to be on his mind when making Erik the Viking, but as Paul McCartney's Ram and John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band are in cultural/historical terms thought of as merely extensions of The Beatles, Gilliam's early films and certainly Erik the Viking are both steps away from and to Python. An obvious point, maybe, but everything goes out of fashion eventually, and Python was going out of fashion by the time Erik the Viking came along. "Had already gone out of fashion," you'd almost have to argue. Cleese's A Fish Called Wanda came out just one year before, but if you think about it, that film is not especially Pythonesque. It's a romantic comedy caper, but darker and R-rated enough to give it all an appealingly grown-up edge. Compared to Erik the Viking (and I'm not foolish enough to think that Erik the Viking is better than A Fish Called Wanda), Cleese's hit film takes place in the everyday world we all live in. But of course the tragedy of Erik the Viking isn't that it's not funny (I think it's funny) or that it has flaws (A Fish Called Wanda has flaws), it's that it's weird. Flops that are weird aren't given any credit for being weird. People simply say "What were they thinking!?" They don't then go on and try to understand what they were thinking. So Erik the Viking was a flop because it was strange in a way that had just recently gone out of style. It's as simple as that.

Contrast this, if you will, with Yellowbeard, a film from 1983 directed by Mel Damski and co-written by and starring (sort of) Graham Chapman. Chapman had such a strange place within Monty Python -- never mind that he was one of the funniest (my second favorite, for the record), but by all accounts some of the most ridiculous and surreal non sequiturs were his (the famous, defining, hilarious, and sudden ejaculation "Burma!" in one Python sketch was Chapman's, for example); yet when the films were being made it somehow fell to Chapman, and not Michael Palin, who now perhaps seems like a more obvious choice, to play the straight man/protagonist/everyman. Chapman wasn't necessarily playing all of these at once (in Life of Brian he was, though), but he was chosen to be the center of these absurdist films. This despite the fact that on a personal level his life was the most chaotic. Chapman was an open homosexual, which caused a fair amount of controversy but against which the other Pythons were ready, willing, and able to stand with Chapman; he was also an alcoholic, and this caused a great deal more upheaval in the group. It was dealt with, one way or the other, and I for one have never seen the effects of his addiction on screen (he really was a natural comic genius, whose frequent pairings with Cleese -- they were also writing partners -- stand in my mind as one of the great comic pairings in history); the point of course is that Chapman could do all of that, and he could also be ridiculous and silly at the drop of a hat. He was, perhaps, the quintessential Python.

It's not impossible that the reverence in which I and many others hold Graham Chapman is goosed by the fact that he died (he's the "dead one" of the group; most groups of a certain vintage have at least one) in 1989 (to give you some idea of myself, I still remember the day) at the infuriating age of 48. So yes, perhaps that's it, but I'm not dissuaded from that reverence by watching Chapman's work. I'm not even dissuaded from that reverence by watching Yellowbeard, another flop, a not beloved film, a film best known at this stage probably because co-star Marty Feldman died suddenly of a heart attack while making it (because his diet was rich in dairy and eggs, Mel Brooks has postulated). Also in the cast are Peter Cook, Madeline Kahn, James Mason, John Cleese, Tommy Chong, Cheech Marin, Peter Boyle, Eric Idle, Kenneth Mars, David Bowie (in one of the more pointless cameos I've ever seen), and Spike Milligan. Plus others. Yellowbeard tells the story, and I might as well get this out of the way quickly, of a viciously ridiculous or ridiculously vicious pirate named Yellowbeard (Chapman) who escapes from prison and goes in search of the treasure he hid, while the English government, represented mainly by Idle, follow in hopes to be led to that treasure, and also while an old enemy (Boyle) pursues him for not just wealth but also revenge, plus there's stuff about a map and Yellowbeard's son, and so on and so on. The plot doesn't matter, of course. The jokes do, and though there's no particular style brought to the material by director Mel Damski, in terms of comedy it's more aggressively Pythonesque than Erik the Viking. It's quite offensive, in fact. I don't remember any rape jokes in Erik the Viking even though that crime comes up a lot in the film, but Yellowbeard has a ton of rape jokes. At one point, Yellowbeard denies that he has a son with Betty (Kahn) because, he says, the last woman he raped he also killed. Hoo boy. But listen, I wouldn't hesitate to argue that that's actually funny, because the period being depicted in this film, and the kind of person Yellowbeard is meant to be, would have regarded rape as nothing to get worked up about. So that's the joke. That's what we're mocking by laughing at it. I know, that's not the thing to do now, but maybe...well, whatever. Yellowbeard would never be made today. "It wouldn't be the first head I ever ate!" Yellowbeard says at one point, and you can take that quote literally. It's funny.

Yellowbeard was also a flop. That doesn't bother me. What does bother me is that the film finally kind of backs away from the heedlessly offensive material referenced above. How could someone like Yellowbeard who thinks nothing of rape and murder go out of his way to save a bum from being caught in an explosion he, Yellowbeard, had orchestrated? There's a fair chunk of that in the last half hour of the film, and it strikes me as wildly disingenuous, or would do if I didn't strongly suspect those bits were forced upon the film by the studio. A commentary track on this disc would have been very welcome, but apparently nobody much cares about it now. It's considered bad and unfunny, but I don't think it's either one of those. It's a product of an era that's gone, of a sensibility that's gone, of a type of humor that we still claim to worship but which is also gone. Flying in the face of what I said earlier, it's less Pythonesque than Erik the Viking because Mel Damski could not have been more of an outsider, but there's still John Cleese in there, and Chapman. More than anything, there's Chapman, who didn't do much outside of Python that we can easily see now. Yellowbeard is one of the few films he made, and damn it, it's not a great film, but it's funny.


JaS said...

What's interesting for me is that Erik the Viking is based on a children's book Jones wrote and which I loved back in the day. I remember it as being much less jokey, much less Pythonesque and much more of a Norse myth adventure than the film was. I found rather the film disappointing in comparison the first time I saw it, like it had been Hollywoodised (although by the director himself)

Looking back it does have it's charms although I still prefer the book. I think a lot of the added humor was because Jones had such trouble getting finance. Even Handmade Films run by Python fans refused it (Dennis O'Brien believed films with large boats never made money)
The point you make about Cleese's performance is true, but it's interesting because, he was a very late replacement for Jack Lemmon. Maybe if Cleese had had more time to prepare, but it's odd how the part feels written for him.

Comparing Gilliam career and Jones's one of the differences that sticks out for me is how Jones was much more willing to work with Hollywood in the 80s, but with much less rewarding results. Gilliam turned down projects like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and wrecked his chances of doing Harry Potter. But Jones worked with Henson and Lucas on Labyrith (although he was rewritten by Elaine May) and talked to Starlog about doing Gremlins 2:The Forgotten Rule.

Another key difference with Gilliam is that Jones made one 'straight' film', with no fantasy elements,"Personal Services" (1987) and it's probably his finest. It's also the only one not to involve the Pythons (which is probably why it gets forgotten) It does share one key element with Jones's other work, along with Life of Brian and Meaning of Life it was banned in Ireland

John Magwitch said...

Yellowbeard would never be made today.

And that's what I'm mocking by laughing at it, true as it no doubt is. No, I never saw either of these, but from what I've read here only Yellowbeard sounds in any way potentially amusing to me.