Tag Archives: monty python

Fragility and the Brittle Will

There is something about loss that makes you fragile, easily cracked, breakable. Like your skin has been spun from a thin porcelain shell, and if grips your hand or arm too hard their fingers will punch through into the hollowness — the vast and bitter void — beneath.

I went to see the movie Argo the other day, and event the trailer for Lincoln made me tear up. When we got to the voice over by President Carter at the end, I broke up. I think things like this are to be expected, but I wish I was stronger. I wish that I had the willpower to be as I was before, to hit all my goals for the day like I used to, to write and exercise and practice Chinese, but I am just not there yet.

I don’t think it’s something that can be forced, either. My writing, for instance, is much weaker right now than it is, normally. I know it; I can see it in my diary entries. I just can’t FIX it. And I’m getting better, it’s just SLOW.

I told one of my friends recently that loss is like getting hit in the brain with a hammer. You have to wait for the blood to clot and the structure to heal before you can think again. There was one point where I literally felt so stupid that I thought would start drooling on myself (I think I did, actually), but that is long past now.

Just today, I played cards at lunch and was smart and sharp and clear for the first time since Mom died. I think this is a sign of things turning the corner, of my feet being back under me. But anything, even the slightest breeze, can break me.

I will have to be careful what movies I watch for a while. Anything more serious than Wreck-It Ralph I will have to pass on.

(Python Diary) Michael Palin’s Socks

In the diary, Palin has just done a Saturday Night Live monologue with his mother. I went and watched it, feeling a manic urge to connect the words of the Diary to visual matter, and I am glad she had such a good time. Very funny, too.

I also ended up watching two other SNL monologues by him, and, man, monologues are tough. Even one which he said went very well, one where he told jokes about his mother, seemed very sparse with laughter.

And then there is the infamous “socks” Monologue (from approximately 1979), perhaps one of the least successful monologues in the history of SNL. There is only one laugh throughout the whole thing — fortunately at the end, so at least it feels like a crescendo. The diary entries about it are filled with all kinds of strange trepidation and fear, and it seems one of the more memorable and painful moments of his life. It’s probably Palin’s worst “bomb” ever, but it’s worth watching, and I’ll tell you why.

The thing about the “Socks” monologue is that it SHOULD be funny. It has truth and pain, and he is acting it (if too nervously), and it has exaggeration, and it is surreal. Like I said, it SHOULD work. But it really, really doesn’t.

I have a theory that if someone can ever figure out why Michael Palin’s socks AREN’T funny, they will learn the secret of comedy.

(Python Diary – 1984) Michael Palin’s Price: Gradual Disillusionment and Isolation

Sorry about not posting. I’ve been reading instead. Lots and lots of Michael Palin. I’m up to 1984, and all I can say is that it’s been a blur. He’s finish filming Missionary, Meaning of Life, and Brazil, and done publicity tours for the first two, and seems to be working on “Erik the Viking”.

All I can say is how amazing it is a man can be this busy and still seem to be spinning his wheels. I’m not sure why I have that impression, but I really do. I know it seems odd, but I get the feeling that none of this is what he really wants to be doing.

I don’t know why I get that impression, other than some rather bitter commentary about fame: constantly being “recognized” as Eric Idle, feeling like he is “on display to the public”, his friend George Harrison not being able to relax even in a top-end restaurant, for fear of being rushed by fans.

I know at this point he is feeling the peculiar isolative effects of fame and wealth that we all hear about. He went to a BBC Comedy gathering and Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker (of “The Two Ronnies” fame, both comedy heroes of mine), assailed him with inappropriate questions about how rich he was, if he was a millionaire, etc, with quite obvious and nasty envy.

Though there are massive doses of joy — such as the writing of Erik the Viking, where he feels at last a member of a vital creative team again — he seems, overall, progressively less happy. He talks over and over again about not having that burning urge anymore to make another film, and I think that is the beginning of a burning urge to throw away all the stardom and psuedo-Hollywood fame and do something else.

Or maybe I am just reading in what I already know is the future.

(Python Diary) The Great Personality Switchback of 1982-and-a-half; The Meaning of the Meaning of Life

Well, as with all reversals in life, the great personality switch of 1982 seems to have reversed itself back again, although permanent gains seem to have been made by Eric Idle.

John Cleese is back to his old, demanding, ways, arguing for greater artistic merit in the writing of “The Meaning of Life”, and Eric Idle, while struggling very hard to maintain quality on “Live at the Hollywood Bowl”, seems more concerned that “The Meaning of Life” is dominated by his version of songs, rather than by Terry Jones’s, and TJ’s version of “Every Sperm is Sacred” is only saved by the miraculous and unexpected support of his arch-enemy, Cleese.

The politics in the group are as strong as ever. The Oxford vs. Cambridge competition on the script is intense, and egos are large as hot air balloons, and, sadly, filled with Hydrogen — a room full of Hindenburgs about to flame up at any second.

And then, suddenly, the script is done and the horses are off!

The race to shoot “The Meaning of Life” has begun, and the final cut on “The Missionary” is not even out of the door. Our hero, Michael Palin, has a couple of disastrous showings of “The Missionary” in America. Test audiences came expecting “Porky’s”, not a sensitive, if humorous, portrait of turn-of-the-century Englishman. Soon the film distributor, Columbia, is back pedaling, trying to get out of the contract. When they can’t do that, they start reducing the number of prints from 1000 to 800 to 600 to, at last, “three to four hundred”.

I wondered why I had never heard of “The Missionary”, and now I know.

The shooting of “The Meaning of Life” is full of classic THE SHOW MUST GO ON moments. Cleese is so sick from food poising (due to a batch of bad crayfish the night before) during the Zulu attack scene that he is constantly farting and burping and, at one point, vomits for a long period of time right up against the battlements. Also, when the black actors hired in Glasgow find out they are portraying Zulus, and wearing loin-cloths and not suits. no amount of argument about a historical setting can convince them that this is not racist. There is a full walk-out.

This, I fear, was a mistake — I think the scene would have been wonderful with three hundred Zulus in war paint and pinstriped suits, a wonderful callback to the accountant/pirate segment at the beginning. It would have even been better if the British army were in pith helmets and loincloths, a clever send-up of their supposed “civilization”.

Anyway, the 100 black Glaswegians are replaced with 100 white Glaswegians in blackface makeup the next day, which is probably the biggest racefail in Python history, but, it being 1982, this only increased the notoriety of the film.

(Python Diary) The Tunnel: Filming “The Missionary” and “The Meaning of Life”, Back to Back

Last night I plowed through 10 weeks of Michael Palin’s 1980-88 diary, the entire filming of "The Missionary" (which I still have not seen). He had lined up two movies, back to back, "The Missionary" and "The Meaning of Life", and said, just before filming started that he felt like he was entering a tunnel, and that wouldn’t come out the other side until October.

Well, he was right. I’m not even to October yet, and it’s amazing how his life fell away for the entire period of shooting. He was even working close to home, living in his own house, for 5 of those weeks, and still all trace of family life disappeared. It was like he suddenly ha a day job that required overtime at the office every day, and lots of travel.

He comes home one day, and he’s stepped in dog poop somewhere and has tracked it across his house. He goes to clean it up, but there are no supplies, and he has a screaming fit. A melt down, right there in his house.

I’ve been in a similar situation. Have you?

It’s what happens to us all, in a way, when we get sucked too far into the stress of our careers and other endeavors, and they don’t seem to be going anywhere. We get trapped in that tunnel, looking for the light at the end, and, for some of us, there is no coming out of the tunnel, no day we can point to except retirement or death when "filming" ends. Palin knows when the movie will conclude, and it’s still tough on him. For many us, though, this tunnel only has a way out on weekends, our brief glimpse of the sun, and those are just way stations along the journey.

I had one of those yesterday — a sweet little break — a picnic at the park with my family. It was strange to lay on a blanket and be still. I am never still these days. I have too much to do. But I sat there, and the grass was green, and the air smelled good, and my daughter watched with me the other children playing in the park.

If you have a family, or even if you just want what we have come to call "a life", remember to take a pit stop in the middle of racing along on those cold, nighted tracks, because, for us non-superstars, sometimes those are the only times we get to be outside the tunnel.

(Python Diary) The Art of Letting Go and the Art of Holding On

At this point of my read-thru of Michael Palin’s Diary, after many struggles and turndowns from almost every major American movie distributor, "Time Bandits" has been released to the English cinemas. The money made is only moderate, and critical reception (like my own opinion of the movie) is mixed. It seems the movie will sink away into obscurity., and Palin goes to a viewing and thinks perhaps they have created a turkey of a movie that doesn’t fit in anywhere, and he is sad for Gilliam, the director, and feels a little guilty since he was the primary writer.

But at last a distribution deal comes through. The movie opens in the States and takes in 3 million the first weekend. It becomes number one, overwhelming several major, legendary pictures, like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Mel Brook’s History of the World, Part 1". Unexpected, blazing success, right out of nowhere.

Simultaneously, Palin is revising his script for "The Missionary" (NOTE TO READERS: This is NOT "The Mission", staring Robert DeNiro — though I would love to see Palin do a send up of THAT movie!), and getting mixed responses from the Director and Producer on it. His confidence in the film comes and goes quite a bit, but he presses on.

Essentially, he is holding on for dear life as the minecars of life go crashing down the tracks, barely in control, but he is also having to let go, too. He’s letting go of the final cuts for "Time Bandits" and the scripts for "The Missionary", and he knows they’re not perfect, but he has to let them into the world, and this, my friends, reflects strongly on me, because I am infamous for not letting a story go until it is perfect, and I need to learn how to.

But the letting-go and holding-on doesn’t end there, it also applies to his family life. Tom and William, his children, are getting older, just entering their teens, and they are moving more and more into their own private worlds, but his youngest child, his daughter, is still 7. He goes to the park with her and realizes that he hasn’t been there for months because the other children are grown, and he recriminates himself for forgetting that she is still small and still needs him, needs time like this. So he has to let the boys go, but still find a way to hold onto time with her.

My daughter is three, and I wonder if I, too, forget she is small. I will make an effort to go to the park with her more, and I do play games with her every night, but I’m sure it’s not enough, that she would be happy to play with me for hours, and that I should enjoy it while it lasts, before she’s tired of me. But life is so hard to balance, and I am so short of sleep already.

I don’t think there is a good answer, but I don’t want to glance up one day and realize I haven’t been to the park with her for a whole year, when she so much wants to go. I think I would feel like the worst kind of failure if that happened. I, like Palin, need to learn how to hang onto these moments while they last.

(Python Diary) The Great Personalty Switch of 1981

I have gotten to the point in Michael Palin‘s 1980-1988 diary, in the vast, viking-riddled, uncivilized wasteland of 1981 England, where John Cleese (the doing-it-for-the-art guy who briefly disbanded the group in 1972) and Eric Idle (the loner musician who always seemed to be doing it for the money and who was often out for a fast buck) switch roles.

Cleese wants to push forward with the script for “The Meaning of Life”, despite artistic concerns and a lack of direction, because he needs the cash quickly, and Idle is throwing up red flags, saying he doesn’t want to move forward unless they keep their artistic integrity.

It’s like a great stop-motion space ship full of clay aliens has come down and switched their brains. The entire world has reversed itself! Gravity now pulls up, and you better get off the toilet, and quickly!

This is the most novel-like element to the the Diaries, where we get to watch two characters grow, change, and, eventually, come to embrace positions they previously found abhorrent (for a couple of minutes, anyway). The best part is that this IS a a diary, not a biography, so it’s mostly devoid of the “sense” people tend to make of their lives, the “story” they spin. To quote Palin himself, “It is a narrative in only its most basic sense,” meaning that events happen in an order, but there is no meaning. You see real, day-by-day change, as close to the real thing as possible. Really fascinating.
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