Revisiting Monty Python

In 1997, John Cleese and Michael Palin took over a segment of Saturday Night Live to reprise the most famous five minutes of British comedy of all time. First performed on a 1969 episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the Dead Parrot Sketch centres on an argument between a disgruntled customer (Cleese) and a shifty pet-shop owner (Palin) over whether or not a parrot is, in fact, dead. The absurd sketch sees Palin steadfastly denying the obvious, even after Cleese points out that the parrot was nailed to its perch, climaxing with Cleese’s verbal aria: “He’s not pinin’, he’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He’s expired and gone to meet his maker! He’s a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace…”

The sketch has been endlessly reprised in stage shows, albums, and “Best Of” specials, and was quoted by no less than Margaret Thatcher in a 1990 speech (she said of Liberal Democrats, “this is an ex-party”). Describing the SNL rehearsal in his published diaries, Palin wrote, “A small group of people … gather around the set with something uncomfortably close to reverence on their faces as they watch us work it through.”

The next day, Cleese and Palin performed the sketch to SNL’s studio audience. It bombed.

If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from this, I suppose it is a familiar one about how comedy is inseparable from context. Maybe there is also a lesson somewhere here that is specific to Monty Python, a sainted comedy brand that has nevertheless become so plundered and rehashed that the actual reasons for its sainthood can seem a little distant. There are two Monty Pythons: a team of restless innovators who sought to break down the conventions of whichever medium they tackled; and a Rolling Stones of comedy who sell and re-sell a catalog of quotable sketches. One Monty Python eschewed catchphrases and inside-jokes; the other trades on them. Both Monty Pythons are partially responsible for the group’s success, but they work at cross-purposes.

In recent years, the easiest way to see Monty Python has been chopped-up into component parts on YouTube. This month, however, most of the Python catalogue was released on Netflix (April 15 in Canada and the U.K., with the U.S. to follow shortly). The essential works are four seasons of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1975), and the films Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) (plus 1983’s Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, already available). The Netflix offerings also include two hourlong specials for German television (the first of which is performed entirely in phonetic German), various documentaries and live performances, and a bevy of compilations: Monty Python’s Personal Best, Monty Python’s Best Bits (Mostly), Parrot Sketch Not Included, and so on. If you watch everything, you’ll see “The Lumberjack Song” at least eight times, including once in German. I’m glad the people will have an opportunity to rediscover the group at its best, but I’m also sorry that they’ll also have to wade through a lot more.

When I remember Monty Python, I tend to boil it down to 20-or-so standout moments: the Spanish Inquisition, “Nudge Nudge,” the Black Knight, the Argument Clinic, the Ministry of Silly Walks, and so forth. The more Python becomes a series of catchphrases, the more it seems like a dusty relic from your Boomer dad’s youth, or something to be stuffed and mounted in some Museum of Comedy. But whenever I sit down and watch a whole episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I see something different: a stream-of-consciousness comic laboratory where sketches dissolve into each other, and where highbrow satire and dense, complicated wordplay coexist with absurdism and sheer crudity. In advance of the Netflix dump, I’ve been pulling a lot of my old Python DVDs off the shelf, and have been happy to rediscover a show that is living, breathing, and constantly surprising.

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Notes on David Letterman’s Netflix Show

This best and worst thing about My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman is that it features its host genuinely trying to be a good person. In the interview with Barack Obama that launched this monthly Netflix talk show, Letterman says, “My son in 20 years will say to me, ‘Wait a minute, you knew this was a problem and you didn’t do anything about it?’ And I apply that to all manner of circumstances in life and in the world.” Since Letterman’s departure from CBS in 2015, he has hosted an episode of the climate change documentary series Years of Living Dangerously about India’s investment in solar energy, appeared alongside Jon Stewart and Obama at a USO event, and badmouthed his former TV guest Donald Trump in a slew of interviews. Now, his first major project since The Late Show sees him mostly forgoing comedy to celebrate the good works of notable people. Continue reading “Notes on David Letterman’s Netflix Show”

Notes on revisiting OLDBOY

Am I getting softer as I get older? I asked this to myself a lot during a recent viewing of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003)—the most important South Korean movie of the 2000s, and a touchstone of my high-school-age cinephilia. Seeing it for the first time as an 11th grader, I was transfixed by what felt like a ferociously original vision. Seeing it again a few days before my 29th birthday, it still felt like a virtuosic piece of filmmaking, but I kept wondering: has it always been quite so… unpleasant?

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Rotten Apples

Imagine a world where you could consume art and culture without corrupting influence of bad people. Folks, the future is now, thanks to the new online movie/TV database The Rotten Apples. Never again will you have to fear accidental exposure to the creative output of a Casey Affleck, a Brett Ratner, or a Jeffrey Tambor. This searchable database makes no judgments about the severity of the abuse, and draws no distinction between abusers who are alive or dead, or whether it stars Dustin Hoffman or Kevin Spacey, or is directed by Roman Polanski or Woody Allen or the late Alfred Hitchcock. It simply provides a list of the creative talent who have been accused of sexual misconduct, a link to an article outlining the allegations, and a “Fresh Apples”/”Rotten Apples” seal of dis/approval.

Even on its own dubious terms, the site is useless. Hitchcock’s harassment of Tippi Hedren renders his films “rotten,” but the films of Charlie Chaplin—whose marriage to 16-year-old Lita Grey could easily be described as abusive—have “no known affiliation to anyone with allegations of sexual misconduct against them.” The same goes for Errol Flynn, another Golden Age star who serially preyed on teenagers, and Klaus Kinski, accused of rape by his daughter. Don Juan DeMarco is dinged for starring the “rotten apple” Marlon Brando (cited for improvising an assault in Last Tango in Paris without co-star Maria Schneider’s consent), but not for co-starring Johnny Depp, whose spousal abuse apparently doesn’t fall under the purview of “sexual misconduct.” Speaking of Depp, Ed Wood is “fresh” despite featuring convicted sex offender Jeffrey Jones, while Pirates of the Caribbean is “rotten” only because of co-star Geoffrey Rush’s inappropriate touching. Mel Gibson, another poster child for abusive men and unearned second-chances, does not fall under Rotten Apples’ sexual misconduct umbrella. Nor does director Bernardo Bertolucci, who conspired with Brando on Last Tango’s assault scene but apparently shares none of the blame. If you saw Salma Hayek’s New York Times op-ed about Harvey Weinstein’s monstrous behaviour during the making of Frida, you might be interested to know that the film is “rotten”… because of Geoffrey Rush. Pulp Fiction is “rotten” for John Travolta and executive producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, but Clerks—an acquisition that helped define the Weinsteins’ identity, and that Kevin Smith now pledges he will donate all royalties from as penance—is “fresh.” As long as we’re punishing films for the executives that financed them, why not anything made at Columbia Pictures during the reign of Harry Cohn, who used his stable of female stars as a virtual harem? Or Wonder Woman, produced by Brett Ratner’s RatPac Entertainment and executive produced by Steven Mnuchin, now Donald Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury? Continue reading “Rotten Apples”

Notes On Two Problematic Celebs

With the understanding that Louis C.K.’s career and legacy pale in importance to the suffering of his victims, I’ve found that conversations about him these days inevitably lead to a familiar question: is he really finished? Can he find a way back into the public’s good graces through one of his Brutally Honest™ stand-up specials? If a man as toxic as Mel Gibson can stage a comeback, why not Louis? Surely he’ll be the next example of how a rich, powerful man will skirt the consequences of his actions, right?

I’ve been wrong before, but I doubt he can recover. For one thing, unlike Mel Gibson, Louis C.K. plays himself. For another, C.K.’s brand was built on his supposed honesty: he was the Comedian Who Told Truths About Himself That Most Would Be Too Afraid To Admit™. In revealing these things, and asking his audience to identify with them, he built an unusually intimate relationship with his audience. He promised to guide you by the hand into taboo territory—often involving issues of sex and consent—and help you confront the bad ideas and impulses in the dark corners of your mind, with the tacit understanding that illuminating darkness is not the same as endorsement. A joke like “How do women still go out with guys, when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men?” depends on both a shock of recognition, and our faith in C.K. that he has successfully recognized and tamed his worst impulses. His comedy ventured into dangerous and potentially painful territory, which is why C.K.’s betrayal of his audience feels like such a betrayal. Now that the trust has been broken, I don’t see how it can ever be regained. Continue reading “Notes On Two Problematic Celebs”

Bruce Lee as Postmodern Text

Every superhero needs an origin story, and Bruce Lee’s came in 1964 when, as a 24-year-old martial arts instructor in Oakland, California, he accepted a challenge to fight a rival sifu, Wong Jack Man. Lee had just opened his second Wing Chun school, but according to legend, Wong and the other local masters were offended that he taught the ancient Chinese arts to non-Chinese. Wong is said to have delivered Lee a scroll, signed by the top dogs of the San Francisco martial arts community, demanding that if he lost the fight, he must close his school and stop teaching Caucasians.

In the 2012 documentary I Am Bruce Lee, Linda Lee Caldwell (Lee’s widow and one of the fight’s few witnesses) remembers that “these elders arrived from San Francisco led by Wong Jack Man” at Lee’s school. She claims that Wong spent most of the fight running around the room to escape his opponent, and “it took three minutes for Bruce to get him down on the ground and say, ‘Do you give up? Do you give up?’” After the find, Caldwell found her husband sitting on the steps outside his studio, head in hands, lamenting that the fight took so long. That was the moment that Lee moved away from the “rehearsed routines” of classical martial arts and began developing Jeet Kun Do—a more fluid style often cited as a precursor to Mixed Martial Arts.

This is a great story, because it encapsulates everything that makes Lee an icon: his skill, his self-confidence, his iconoclastic approach to martial arts, his impossible perfectionism, his transcendence of national and racial barriers. It’s also one of those famous stories that begins to fall apart if you think about it for even half a second. Would Lee really have bet his livelihood on a fight? How many martial arts instructors in Chinatown would actually sign such an ultimatum? How much moral or legal authority would they have had? Was Lee really the only person teaching martial arts to non-Asians in San Francisco? Were the martial arts really such closely-guarded secrets in 1964? If the fight only took three minutes, why did it so deeply rattle Lee? For his part, Wong Jack Man (retired from teaching and still alive) claims that Lee simply offered an open challenge at a Chinatown movie theatre, and Wong decided to take him up on the offer. He also claims that he won the fight—or, if not “won,” then at least kept Lee going for 20 or 25 minutes. Continue reading “Bruce Lee as Postmodern Text”

Summer 2007 at the Fairway Theatre

In summer 2007, between my high-school graduation and my enrolment at the University of Toronto, my parents relocated from the Etobicoke to Kitchener, about 90 minutes from downtown Toronto. The move had been a long time coming: Dad changed careers when I was in the tenth grade, and commuted an hour to Kitchener every day to avoid the trauma of making me switch schools. Once high school was over, however, nothing was tying them to the Toronto suburbs. In retrospect, the move was a no-brainer: Dad is now a five-minute drive from the office, and my parents spared themselves the possible indignity of clinging to an old home out of sentimental reasons. Even so, I spent a lot of summer 2007 mourning the loss of the house where I spent most of my life; disdaining a city that I knee-jerk dismissed as a poor-man’s Toronto; and moping through the four whole weeks I had to wait before I could again self-identify as a Torontonian.

One way I passed the time in August 2007 was by riding my bike to the nearest multiplex—the now-defunct Fairway Theatre—and seeing whatever garbage was playing during the late-summer dumping period. The Fairway Theatre was demolished a few years later and a Cineplex megaplex was erected a few blocks away, but I miss the Fairway for its five-dollar Tuesdays and its dumpy, pinball-machine-in-the-lobby vibe. As luck would have it, the films of August 2007 combined mediocrity with nostalgia in a way that seemed tailor-made for me in this emotionally vulnerable month of my life. The next summer, Iron Man would usher in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and The Dark Knight would become the quintessential “Smart Blockbuster™”, so I daresay that the late-summer 2007 slate even has a certain wistful end-of-an-era quality if you squint hard enough. Continue reading “Summer 2007 at the Fairway Theatre”