Tag Archives: Terry Gilliam

The Meaning of Life (1983, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones)

Terry Jones’s The Meaning of Life is a seven-part rumination on The Meaning of Life. At least the title cards for each part suggest its a seven-part rumination on the Meaning of Life. Not to spoil anything, but if the film does get around to addressing said meaning… well, it acknowledges you don’t need to be a philosopher with an S in your name to figure certain things out.

Instead, The Meaning of Life is some very controlled lunacy from the Monty Python troupe. Terrys Jones and Gilliam direct (Jones the feature, Gilliam a prologuing short), everyone writes, everyone actings (though barely Gilliam). There aren’t many standouts in the cast. Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, and sort of Jones do the best. But no one’s got a great part. Eric Idle’s problem is he just has bad parts, time and again. Except one waiter bit and it’s just a scene. And he does headline a nice musical number. His acting roles are always competently done… they’re just slight.

John Cleese has an entirely different, though at first seemingly opposite, problem. Cleese has all these big parts–(British) public school teacher, British empire officer, extremely American waiter–and none of them are great. Even when Cleese is good, the parts are thin. As the films progress, things even out–Cleese’s performance and the parts get to an equal thinness.

Some of it could be Jones’s direction. He’s far more interested in the filmmaking of Meaning of Life than the humor of it. There’s a lot of special effects, there’s a lot of narrative devices in moving from sketch-to-sketch, moving around in sketches. He loves the theatricality of the film, dropping a big musical number in, but he’s not particularly invested in the sketches themselves. Sometimes the writing is just poorly timed, sometimes the punchline isn’t enough. Director Jones, cinematographer Peter Hannan, and editor Julian Doyle do some rather cool stuff in Meaning of Life; one minute it feels like a British crime cheapie, then French New Wave, then Bergman. Jones throws a lot of spaghetti on the wall and most of it sticks.

Except not really when it comes to the “narrative.” The sketches aren’t good enough for the MacGuffin not to function. It’s a bumpy almost too hours. It moves well, but it’s really bumpy. Right after a gross-out sequence Jones highlights as an effective, if icky segue into the third act, it becomes obvious Life’s never smoothing out. It’s not all building up to a grand finale. In fact, Jones cuts away from the grand finale, which might actually be the better move.

That Gilliam-directed prologue is a weird bit of early eighties yuppie bashing and old British men wearing Road Warrior outfits. It’s dramatically inert and the joke isn’t funny enough, but it’s a beautifully executed piece of work. Great Roger Pratt photography on it.


Meaning of Life has enough laughs to leave a positive impression; Jones’s decision not to get ambitious with the material seems to be a correct one. It’s a shame Idle and Cleese–who should be standouts–aren’t.



Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones; written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Gilliam, Eric Idle, Jones, and Michael Palin; directors of photography, Roger Pratt and Peter Hannan; edited by Julian Doyle; music by John Du Prez; production designer, Harry Lange; produced by John Goldstone; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Graham Chapman (Tony Bennett), John Cleese (Death), Terry Gilliam (Howard Katzenberg), Eric Idle (Angela), Terry Jones (Mrs. Brown), and Michael Palin (Lady Presenter).



Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is an excellent collection of very funny sketches on a theme. It’s really funny. It’s often exceptionally well performed–acted is a bit of a stretch–and it’s got a wonderful tone. It also lacks narrative momentum, which is kind of extraordinary since it’s about the quest for the Holy Grail. The Pythons sort of drain any epical structure. It’s a fine approach. It leads to some great sketches, but it just doesn’t connect all its pieces.

Did I say “it” enough? We needed to get past some things.

There’s a certain meta thing the film does–from the opening titles and the end credits–but it’s just filler between the sketches. The meta element is conceptually amusing, never funny, while the sketches are always funny without having much conceptual amusement. I think one of the transitory cartoons has more depth in a pun than anything in the film proper.

Unfortunately for Holy Grail, the comedic intensity of the sketches is unsteady. The finale is nowhere near funny enough to finish the film. There’s spectacle to it–extremely well done spectacle, probably directors Jones and Gilliam’s best work in the film–but there’s not the right kind of humor. Is everything before it great? No, especially not some of the stuff in the second half of the film when the quest gets more underway. But the first half is pretty spectacular and there’s still some strong material in the second half, just not as much as in the first. And there are some pacing issues with the sketches.

Holy Grail’s other problem is it’s too well-produced. Terry Bedford’s photography is exceptional, John Hackney’s editing is better. The fine production design is part of the joke–these six jackasses are funnier in a realistic tenth century than they’d be in a stagy one–but the editing almost gets distracting at times. It’s too good.

As far as the aforementioned jackasses go–and Holy Grail is jackass humor more than anything else; the idea being you act like a jackass long enough, eventually it’s funny. And Grail waits. Directors Jones and Gilliam take their sweet time waiting for the pay-off. They even joke about it after a while. Because jackasses make you wait to laugh.

Anyway, Graham Chapman’s a fine King Arthur. He’s the straightest man in the picture. John Cleese’s good. Eric Idle’s good. Terry Jones is kind of annoying. Michael Palin’s great, of course. Terry Gilliam’s actually not annoying. I always assume I’ll find him annoying but I don’t.

Connie Booth’s got a nice part in one of the sketches.

Holy Grail is a funny effort. It’s not quite successful–if only because it’s disinterested in trying to be anything but funny, even if it’s smart funny. But not always. Smart, I mean. It’s always funny. Even when it’s annoying.



Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones; written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Gilliam, Jones, and Michael Palin; director of photography, Terry Bedford; edited by John Hackney; production designer, Roy Forge Smith; produced by Mark Forstater and Michael White; released by EMI Films.

Starring Graham Chapman (King Arthur), John Cleese (Sir Lancelot the Brave), Eric Idle (Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir Launcelot), Terry Gilliam (Patsy), Terry Jones (Sir Bedevere), Michael Palin (Sir Galahad the Pure), and Connie Booth (The Witch).


Life of Brian (1979, Terry Jones)

Life of Brian operates most significantly on two levels. The first level is the intellectual one, where the audience is invited to anticipate if and how the film will juxtapose Graham Chapman (he’s the Brian whose life the film concerns) against Jesus. Brian is the kid down the block who just never impressed quite so much.

How Life of Brian negotiates Jewish humor is a different level entirely and not one I’m knowledgable enough about to discuss.

So there are those two levels, but then there’s the third salient level of interaction for Brian. The one with the dumb jokes. The easy gags. Monty Python knows how to pace those jokes out, where to place them not as the final punchline (though occasionally penultimate) but to propel the scenes. Even though Brian is slow, it’s frantically moving at all times. Julian Doyle’s editing is a big deal. This pace, the gorgeous location shooting, the Monty Python guys playing multiple roles each–Doyle has to do everything just right. He never lets the film be in on the joke. He carries through the film’s visual agreements.

Because Brian is a filmed on location Bible epic. The production values are amazing. Director Jones manages to be enthusiastic about the sets but never showy. Peter Biziou’s photography is phenomenal. Brian’s a technical marvel.

It’s also hilarious. The script, the performances, just great. I’m a John Cleese fan so I’m always hoping he’ll give the best performance of a Python, but he doesn’t in Brian. Chapman’s awesome in the lead. He’s not exactly a calm in the center of the comedic storm, he’s just blissfully unaware. Chapman sells that bliss.

Jones–as an actor–is great. Michael Palin’s got a good bit as Pilate. But my favorite is Eric Idle. He gets a lot of the dumb jokes and he makes them work.

There’s excellent supporting performances from everyone, with Sue Jones-Davies (as Judas’s sister and Chapman’s love interest) standing out. Spike Milligan’s hilarious too.

So, Life of Brian. It’s great. I wish I’d seen it sooner. And now I need to go because I’m trying to come up with a painful pun to exit on.



Directed by Terry Jones; starring and written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Jones and Michael Palin; director of photography, Peter Biziou; edited by Julian Doyle; music by Geoffrey Burgon; production designer, Gilliam; produced by John Goldstone; released by Orion Pictures.

Also starring Kenneth Colley (Jesus), Sue Jones-Davies (Judith), Terence Bayler (Gregory), Carol Cleveland (Mrs. Gregory) and Spike Milligan (Spike).


Twelve Monkeys (1995, Terry Gilliam)

Twelve Monkeys is one of the more unhappy films. Unhappy films are difficult to pull off–The Godfather Part II is the finest example–but Monkeys does it. When I say unhappy, I don’t mean a sad ending or an unpleasing one or an unrewarding one. Not even a cynical or downbeat one. An unhappy film, if it does its job, sucks the empathy from the viewer and chucks it in an incinerator. The unhappy film leaves the viewer spent and unwilling to try again. They’re tragedies in the truest form and films, being the most commercial form of fiction–in a reasonable sense, I’m not counting television (with some notable exceptions, of course)–tend not to go too far in to real tragedy. A person wouldn’t want to see it again or, more modernly, double-dip on the DVD releases. To do it right is to make an experience worth the draining effect. These films are not infrequent (at least not during the period Monkeys was made), but they are somewhat occasional.

Monkeys has something else to make it a rarity, anyway. It has a script from David Webb Peoples, who hasn’t had a new script produced since Monkeys came out in 1995. While Gilliam might bring the mood of the film, the sets, the warped technology (and, according to IMDb, Willis and Pitt’s excellent performances), the Peoples (and Peoples, written with his wife) script brings the perfect plot structure–including a fantastic, three-act structured forty minute first act–and the romance.

If Gilliam is responsible for getting Willis’s great performance out of him, the Peoples got the stunning work out of Madeleine Stowe. I’m a big Stowe fan, lamenting her absence from cinema on a weekly basis, but I’d forgotten her performance in this film. It’s easily one of the finest performances in the 1990s, but probably since then too. Stowe’s function in the film is to convince the audience and she takes it to a level beyond, the one where it’s possible for Twelve Monkeys to be so depressing, but also so rewarding.

The film moves through time and frequent settings–whether the future or mental hospitals–the first act definitely establishes some common grounds. Then Stowe and Willis go on the road–the only defect has got to be some of the blue-screened driving composites, I was hoping they were some homage to Hitchcock, but I don’t think so–even though the settings still repeat and become the familiar, the terrain the film crosses in to is new. There’s a scene in the woods with Stowe and Willis fighting–she’s kicking him–and I realized I was watching a wholly unique moment of cinema. The best moment in the film, direction-wise, is that scene in the woods (as well as the scene returning to the woods). Gilliam is showing the viewer something he or she cannot see anywhere else; more, it’s impossible to incapsulate–to get the most from that scene, one has to watch what comes before and what comes after, regardless of how it turns out–which is what makes Twelve Monkeys one of those films. The rewards are in appreciating it.

Sometimes I think I’m remembering wrong and the 1990s wasn’t such a superior decade for filmmaking. Then I watch a film like Twelve Monkeys.



Directed by Terry Gilliam; written by David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples, based on the film La Jetée by Chris Marker; director of photography, Roger Pratt; edited by Mick Audsley; music by Paul Buckmaster; production designer, Jeffrey Beecroft; produced by Charles Roven; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bruce Willis (James Cole), Madeleine Stowe (Kathryn Railly), Brad Pitt (Jeffrey Goines), Christopher Plummer (Dr. Goines), David Morse (Dr. Peters), Frank Gorshin (Dr. Fletcher), Jon Seda (Jose) and Joseph Melito (Young James).