Thursday, June 07, 2007

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

Fun stuff--not just the movie itself (arguably the best of the Pythons' screen efforts), but also the extras, and even the menu instructions. When clicking on the "extras" option, for example, instructions appear asking you to "insert Disc 2;" after listening to the grotesque noise of a man in pain, you're admonished "I mean in a DVD player!"

If you choose to play the monks' Latin Chorus number, instructions appear asking you to take the DVD cover, hold it parallel to the forehead, and give yourself a sharp rap; if said rap isn't painful, "you aren't hitting hard enough." The instructions then proceed to advise you to use the side of the disc, preferably a sharp corner...

I remember hearing the Pythoners discussing the Japanese version of the film, and how the Japanese translation was thoughtfully translated back into English via subtitles--and two scenes with the said dub/subtitles are included. You haven't seen anything till you see Chapman and Cleese discuss the "Holy Sake Cup," or the Knights of "Ni!" demand that Arthur and his knights produce a bonsai ("not too expensive!") by way of ransom.

Maybe one of the oddest features is a subtitle option allowing that not everyone will enjoy the Pythoner's written dialogue; in which case, the filmmakers have thoughtfully included dialogue from William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2, carefully tailored to fit the film. And it's a surprisingly good fit; when Carol Cleveland informs Michael Palin (playing Galahad the Chaste) that she and all the girls need a good spanking followed by oral sex, the titles read "satisfy the woman!" For the running gag where people yell "Get on with it!" (in response to any and all diversions), Shakespeare has them repeatedly yell "To the point!" At the Bridge of Death, when the Bridgemaster (Gilliam) asks Galahad his second question ("What's your quest?"), he asks "What say you to my water?"

Maybe my favorite tidbit is when Terry Jones and Michael Palin revisit all the film's shooting locations, 25 years later. Jones in particular is a pleasure to listen to, as he's quite well-versed in Medieval history--he notes, for example, that the squalor depicted in the film is worse than it really was; records show that Medieval teeth were actually in better condition than modern teeth, mainly because they haven't invented a lot of sugary snacks back then.

They also tell the story of how at the last minute the Scottish Department of the Environment withdrew permission to use any of the publically owned castles, out of fear that the script's tone would be "incompatible with the history and fabric" of the castles (to which Palin wondered: incompatible with what? The boiling tar and eviscerations and killings that are part of the castles' histories?). So most of the film's castle scenes, set in several different locations, mostly had to be shot in the privately owned Doune Castle, with various rooms doubling for a French fortress, a wedding party, a prince's bedroom, a girl's dormitory (well, what else would you call it?), Camelot, so on and so forth. What castles you see in the distance (save the first, which is the real Doune Castle) are mostly plywood models, roughly twelve feet high, and likely as not to fall down from high winds during a take.

Jones and Palin arrive and point out the parking lot, and the modern houses surrounding the castle; they enter and find a gift shop, complete with copies of the film's script being sold on the shelves. Then the shop clerk reaches under the counter to present the piece de resistance--a pair of coconuts! Apparently people come all the time, wanting to re-enact scenes from the film, and the clerk has thoughtfully put away a pair of the tropical fruit shells in case they haven't brought any of their own ("they can borrow it so long as they return it"). Few do, I imagine; the clerk tells stories of visitors coming dressed in full armor, or of a tourist dragging luggage having driven straight from the airport, completely sensible-looking save for a pair of coconut shells.

Eric Idle, Palin, and John Cleese take up the fifth commentary track (what, they still can't get along with each other?), while the two Terrys occupy the fourth. Highlight of track five (actually, Eric, Michael and John talk more about the acting and writing--valuable information there too--while the two Terrys talk more about the directing) include Cleese noting that the one-legged man who substitutes for him during the Black Knight episode was named Richard Burton, and believes that Burton was more agile on one leg than he ever was on two.

Cleese also tells the story that inspired the Black Knight episode--a tale of two Roman wrestlers who fought for hours, ending up in a complete tangle. One wrestler eventually broke his leg, and gave in because he couldn't stand the pain; the referee pats the other man on the shoulder, telling him that he won. When men untangled the two, however, they found out that the other man was dead.

The man who told Cleese the story didn't think the opponent lost, however; he believes that as long as a man doesn't give in, he's the winner. Cleese expressed doubts about the validity of that philosophy.

Palin talked about hot water--how there wasn't enough for the entire cast and crew, so after a long day in the cold and damp and shooting was finished, they made a mad scramble for the cars and raced back to the hotel for the remaining hot water. Palin and Cleese ended up doing a little research and found another hotel with hot water, and moved in there, a lonely proposition until one night they found themselves sitting with two dozen pretty girls at dinner--the Glasgow extras hired to play the lonely young virgins at Castle Anthrax.

Giliam dominates the latter part of the Track Four commentary, and makes some interesting points. English humor is the way it is, he muses, because England used to be the world's dominating power, later dwindling down to a little island with only a minor role to play in world affairs. He thinks the source of their silliness is their confidence, a legacy of that long-ago imperial culture--it's hard to be silly, he asserts, if you have self-doubts.

He tries to defend his filmmaking, conscious that Terry Jones had to take over at some points because he wasn't handling his fellow Pythoners too well. Interesting to listen to him stutter and defend himself; actually, I think he comes off fairly well--admits it could all be his fault (doesn't sound like much, but for a filmmaker that's a big-time admission of responsibility), though he couldn't help doing a little good-natured sniping ("in theory they were concerned (with the film's look); in practice the armor's really heavy"). He opines that one's belief in or love of a subject (religion, the Middle Ages) is strong if it can stand up to satire--if one's faith in or affection actually grows stronger despite, or rather because of, having stood up to ridicule. That comedy both tests and strengthens its target at the same time.

During the film's final moments, he had this to say: it's amazing that he got away with what he did; if he had to make the film again using the same budget and resources, he very probably couldn't do it. In fact, the rest of his career is based on trying not to go through all that again.

He loved the first screening they did in New York, how the audience responded to the film and its humor. Ten years later he remembers screening The Meaning of Life for college students, who found the film's ugliness and violence upsetting. "The difference ten years makes is amazing," he said. "Back then, people wanted to upset things, they wanted to change the world. Students these days, all they want to know is that after four years of college there's a job waiting for them." Or words to that effect.

Postscript: about Doune Castle visitors and coconuts, apparently I spoke too soon. I'd love to have gone to this thing--do they still hold it (maybe not, I can't google a more recent article), and will I ever be able to scrape together the money to fly there?


Anonymous said...

hI! I too have the extraodinary deluxe edition of MP Holy Grail and am enjoying it so much having only discovered monty python flying circus episodes on you tube.

Would you know if Monty Python the series was actually shown in Philippine TV?

or Were any monty python movies ever shown here as well?


Noel Vera said...

Yes, I remember Monty Python being shown a few times in Philippine TV. And the movies and TV shows were on laserdisc.

Anonymous said...

wow, when was it shown? what channel? was it a hit? i was born 1976.

Noel Vera said...

Don't have details, and I only have dim memories to tell me (which could be wrong, by the way), sorry. Late night, I think. I remember an episode of Graham Chapman almost totally naked visiting a couple, then shooting them and continuing the party. I was, uh, ten I think, and it upset me. Not screaming hysterics, just "what the fuck was that?!"

Anonymous said...