Monty Python and the Holy Grail (review)

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Bark Like a Geek

Geek touchstones are a dime a dozen, and my fellow geeky Xers are making ’em faster than we can consume ’em — before you’ve even heard of All Your Base, someone has registered, has slapped up a Web site, and is getting 500,000 hits a month. But it’s the enduring touchstones that, well, endure, that continue to reach deep within the media-addled depths of our geeky little psyches and, like the Pavlovian pop-culture dogs that we are, supply ready-made quips for every occasion.

And they don’t come much geekier or more touchstony than 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, not only damn near one of the funniest movies ever made but certainly one of the most quotable… at least for us endlessly self-referential types for whom all of life is but a never ceasing trail of opportunities to show off the ridiculous capability we have for retaining movie, computer, and science fiction trivia. I mean, we geeks have among us, all false modesty aside, some quite prodigious brain power. Do we use it to ponder the meaning of life? No. (Monty Python already did it for us, actually.) Do we use it to figure out ways to feed starving millions? Do we use it to bring literacy to Third World countries? Do we use it even to build a better mousetrap? No. We’re too busy nurturing our Sims, memorizing The Matrix, rereading Lord of the Rings for the 27th time in preparation for the films, and ferreting out who killed Evan Chan.

Come on, admit it: If you’re reading this, you’ve almost certainly had to stifle the urge to reply, when some stranger asks your name, “There are some who call me… Tim.” Right? You can’t not snicker to yourself while watching even a deadly earnest movie like Saving Private Ryan, can you, because during a big retreat scene, you hear the voice of Graham Chapman in your head screaming “Run away!”? And if I start to comment that Pamela Lee Anderson has huuuuge… you’re gonna finish that sentence with “tracts of land,” aren’t you?

If this is you, don’t try to fight it — there is no cure. Just go and watch Holy Grail again right now, because I know you have to. I understand. I’ll be here when you get back.

The intellectual anarchy that characterizes everything Monty Python produced is either one of those things you get, or one of those things that you don’t. If these five Brits and one ex-pat American don’t make you scowl and say “I don’t get it” (or worse, “That’s stupid!”), then you’re probably either laughing your head off or, more likely, you’re giggling from that lightheadedness that comes from feeling as if your head is going to explode as you take that mental journery through the layers of highbrow arcania Monty Python require. If you don’t know quite a bit about medieval British history, modern foreign films, and Karl Marx, then you might as well give up on Holy Grail right now and go back to the TV Guide crossword.

For this flick is like a roller coaster for your brain, taking a tale shrouded in the mists of literature and myth and treating it with not a jot of reverence for history, religion, culture, or even the conventions of filmmaking. Graham Chapman as King Arthur and John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam (the Yank) as numerous characters — from knights to peasants to priests — fracture the tale of Arthur’s tenth-century crusade to find the Holy Grail of Christ, time-slipping the story with a present-day subplot that converges fiction with “fact,” constantly reminding us of the pure artifice of film. The dialogue (the film is written by the whole gang, and directed by Jones and Gilliam) is nought but a series of tangents — this is a film of tangents taken to extreme. Not only is it hilarious on its face when Arthur’s request for assistance from a castle devolves into a debate over African and European swallows, but it tickles because it replicates the kind of discussions that happen when well-read, big-brained types get together, the kind that bewilder the participants eventually as they wonder “How the hell did we get here?” It even, in another time-slipping way, seems to satirize the conversation of the very geeky culture that now idolizes this film.

And that seems appropriate, for Monty Python and the Holy Grail on the whole seems to satirize films that hadn’t yet been made when it was released — the silly gore of the battle with Black Knight could be a commentary on the obscene depths that movie violence wouldn’t reach till years later, and it’s simply impossible to watch any movie set in the Middle Ages today and not think of Holy Grail.

Which is why you can’t help but see Mel Gibson in Braveheart yelling at Patrick McGoohan, “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!” Come on, admit it. Right?

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