Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Life of Brian: what makes it a classic?

It's 30 years this year since Brian's mother's declared "He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy".

Three decades since The Life of Brian hit cinema screens, sparking controversy and almost instantly becoming a cult classic.

The story of Brian, an ordinary man mistaken by a group of religious zealots as the Messiah, is now (or soon to be) available in a new DVD package, The Life of Brian: The Immaculate Edition.

The Life of Brian is a film that regularly ranks in the top three of "greatest comedies of all time" lists.

Monty Python fans, of course, revere it with almost religious fervour. Most - my husband included - can pretty much quote the entire film line by line. But it also has plenty of fans who don't necessarily "get" the Python style of humour in other contexts, and yet love this film.

John Cleese (co-writer and co-star as a number of characters) himself admits it's the best and most coherent of all the comedy troupe's film efforts.

The reason it works so well is because all five Pythons (Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle) had extensive knowledge of biblical and Roman history, and they combined that knowledge with a wonderful sense of the ridiculous.

Like all good comedies, the humour works on a number of levels. On the surface, it's a funny story about mistaken identity; on a deeper level it's a sharp satire about the nature of religion.

The attention to historical and theological detail is such that, the more you know about Roman history and religion (early church history in particular), the funnier the film gets.

In a recent interview by Michael Bodey in The Weekend Australian Review, Cleese says that, after the troupe's first film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the team wanted their follow-up effort to spoof religious epics. The initial idea was to lampoon Jesus Christ the way they had lampooned King Arthur in the earlier film.

But, as Bodey notes in his article, they quickly realised they couldn't touch Christ because "there was nothing funny about him".

Cleese says: "Essentially humour is about rigidity and the failure to adapt to circumstances. And the point of Christ's behaviour was of a very enlightened person. It would be like making fun of the Dali Lama; you couldn't do it because there's nothing ridiculous about him".

Instead, the troupe took aim at religion itself, and the herd mentality it has the potential to create.

As such, Jesus' only appears in the periphery of the story, and his appearances are quietly respectful; it's his followers who misunderstand and misrepresent his teachings:
"What was that?"
"I think it was 'Blessed are the cheese-makers'."
"What's so special about the cheese-makers?"
"Well, it's not meant to be taken literally. But it refers to any manufacturer of dairy products."

Naturally, any humour that targets religion walks a very fine line, and there were plenty of critics when the film first appeared (and many since), who believed The Life of Brian crossed the line repeatedly.

For me, it's an exercise in good storytelling; how intellectuals with an offbeat sense of humour and something interesting to say, created a story that still has people laughing, quoting it and talking about it 30 years on.

Even Cleese is still looking for answers the film raises about religion and Christianity: "It's (religion) nothing to do with what the founder of Christianity was talking about. I think what Christ was talking about is so much more difficult and demanding than anything you find in any organised version of his religion."

How many other comedies provoke that sort of thinking? (I mean, I know Scary Movie 4 comes close, but still…)


Bec said...

Paula, I love this post. Entertaining, insightful, and as always, so well written. I think that The Life of Brian, like all the best comedies, turns a spotlight onto reality, and shows it for the ridiculousness that it is. And herd mentality is rarely anything BUT ridiculous. Both the Simpsons and South Park use this truth as part of their comedies to good effect too (although I'm sure likening Monty Python to South Park or the Simpsons is somehow blasphemous in itself :P).

But of course, nothing gets you thinking about the meaning of life and creation like Scary Movie 4....

the ink-stained toe-poker said...

You lucky, lucky bastard...

I don't know anybody that doesn't like the Life of Brian, in fact I don't think I know anybody who can't quote from it. I don't think it's a coincidence. I don't know if I'd want to be friends with someone who didn't like it.

Hey I could maybe use it as some kind of detector you know? Friend or foe or just plain auld wanker - "What's yer favourute line in the life of Brian?"
- "What d'you mean ye don't like it?"
- "I've no got time for this. I'm leavin'..."
or something to that effect. Ye get the picture anyway.

Quality blog as usual Westie. (Can I call you Westie?)

Paula Weston said...

Seeing as you've let me get away with shortening your moniker to "Poker", I can hardly complain...

And yes, I agree the ability to quote from Life of Brian is a good measuring stick in most social situations!

No surprise the two of you who have commented so far on this post are Python fans. I would've expected nothing less.