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Showing posts with label Eric Idle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Eric Idle. Show all posts

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Trying too hard to be strange ?

This is a review of The Lobster (2015) (seen at Saffron Screen)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

13 November (quotation added, 26 December ; link to a new review added, 1 January)

This is a review of The Lobster (2015) (seen at Saffron Screen)

Director Yorgos Lanthimos (and his co-writer Efthymis Filippou) may tell us that they (intend to) subvert the notion of a film having a story with The Lobster (2015) – though they would hardly be the first, in the history of cinema, to set out to do so. Certainly, in the overlong first forty-five minutes¹, they may set up a situation that is relatively internally coherent², but it appears to be as a point of departure and contrast, and, until then, we could be frankly little less concerned or engaged with what is presented³.

In the original t.v. series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (with Arthur Pewty (Michael Palin) and his wife Deirdre (Carol Cleveland) visiting the marriage guidance counsellor (Eric Idle)), unexpectedly disinhibited behaviour was used to provoke both shock and laughter (partly through shock / embarrassment, partly through incongruity). However, it was never more than a sketch, to which an end – of sorts – was brought (after Pewty has challenged the counsellor and, being told to go away, just does so) : the script has the direction Arthur is then hit in the head with a chicken by a man in a suit of armour.

Fourteen years later, with The Meaning of Life (1983), one essentially has a loosely connected series of sketches (as The Pythons themselves describe it and its genesis in The Pythons' Autobiography By The Pythons (heard via the audio CDs of the interviews)). There, the topic is revisited, as a lesson on sex education to a class of boys abruptly changes gear and (again provoking hilarity, for the reasons given) becomes a practical demonstration of sexual technique⁴.

Into The Lobster, and - not for the first time - seemingly for no more than a gratuitous laugh (since the scene does not obviously have any bearing on what happens⁵), Lanthimos brings this familiar conceit, and adopts it as the inappropriate behaviour of two so-called loners (Colin Farrell (David) and Rachel Weisz (Short-sighted Woman)). In the film’s initial locale (which proves not to be unique in this regard), it dealt with, amongst other things, punishments for what the regime has decided are crimes, and retribution was both swift and Dante-esquely fitted to the offence : in all of this, a curious acquiescence, and with scant notion of rebellion or refusal. (Later on, as will be explored further, there is no sign that anything is different in another place, with other just as arbitrary prohibitions, and painful practices to secure compliance.)

If Farrell and Weisz’s [characters] bizarrely behaving in company has a meaning (beyond a laugh), it is, if not lost, almost submerged. Their trying too hard to look a couple (was Seydoux also meant to be one, with Smiley ?) has now become excessive, but we never did know the conceit behind their needing to be in the company of Seydoux’s parents and play up their status : earlier on, with his flowery speech, Farrell’s character had over-acted (more laughter), but it did not seem to have counted against him, but won him congratulation (though, one must repeat, seemingly purposelessly – what was all this pretence for (other than as a clothes-horse for gags), and to show Farrell better at it than someone else confronted in a shopping-centre).

However, if we do believe the narration (and it is open to question whether we should – please see below), the draconian prohibitions seemed never to have meant anything to Weisz and Farrell (the ‘love story’ that the poster promises ?). Indeed, beyond another joke - albeit, this time, in passing - with the idea of a coded, private language, there actually seems so much freedom (and absence of surveillance or control) that we have scant evidence of needing the elaborate communicative subterfuges of which we are told in the narration (designed, by making Semaphore sound like child’s play, to amuse : as can be seen in this video-clip, linked from the web-site of, @RottenTomatoes).

In fact, having lovers with their (actually or imagined) unseen ruses is no more unique as a subject of comedy than the Pythonesque excess (and it may actually be from another Python sketch, where the team ridicules romanticism – if not from Woody Allen (doing the same with Russian literature) in Love and Death (1975) ?). For The Telegraph (though seemingly only as an endorsement, not as any review that one can conventionally find), Robbie Collin calls the film ‘dizzyingly funny’, but one has to ask, if so, how much other humour he knows, for the first part of the film, when it is not setting out to shock (which it manages with some skill), is arguably not breaking new ground, but doing no more than stringing together largely unrelated satirical material.

Too much, and not all that interestingly, revolves [the wisdom / content of] adages and truisms such as Alone in a crowd, Love will find a way, Birds of a feather flock together, Two’s company, three’s a crowd, and the film actually spends a lot of its extended opening doing no more than exaggerating, in the form of a rigid hierarchy, how those who are not in a couple can be ostracized (often in ways no less cutting than here, if more subtle). (Although we largely leave this setting behind, there is a foray back, but it also serves no clear purpose : it confronts selected people with the truth, but, at best, this sequence really only seems designed to challenge ourselves, with our on-screen desire for blood and retribution [as Haneke does in Funny Games (1997)], and not to move anything on in structural terms.)

The Lobster is well-acted and thought-provoking. It works as a commentary on the way that society conditions its population to pair off and the stigma which surrounds single people.

As a point of reference in Lanthimos' films, and not, of course, to say that he (or his co-writer Filippou) has to do the same again, their last feature-film Alps (Alpeis) (2011) (of which a review is, as yet, still incomplete) also gives us the arbitrary assumption and use of power, at times to violent effect, in a reality that resembles ours, but yet is of its own kind. (As one reviewer of The Lobster remarks (Nick Pinkerton – please see below), the world we are introduced to looks very much like our own in the present day—specifically Ireland, where the film was shot.)

Alps works by duration and disturbingly, by playing out a few strands, principally through one central character. What governs those strands, though not incomprehensible on the level of agreed rules (if agreed under threat), defies being accepted or assimilated because of what it demands. There, Lanthimos achieves his aim without additional elements, baffling us not as to those rules per se, but as to what it implies about this world that things are as they are – again, a world recognizably ours, and so it makes us ask, in our disquiet, why it came to be that way.

[This words displayed above are from a review by Neil White (@everyfilmdteled) who, seemingly insufficiently content with the demands of being Editor of The Derby Telegraph (!), every year sets himself a challenge (largely given by his Twitter-name) : to review it for his blog, trying to watch every film released in the UK, and clocking up hundreds in the attempt. He seems to have surprised himself by now warming to Lanthimos…]

If artistry does come into this film, it does not consist in an ill-judged and repeated failure to resist the temptation to tell a gag (even in the service of superficially giving The Lobster commercial credentials ?), or even in the ‘unconventional love story’ that the poster wants to promote : that part of the story may be, in terms of the rules that are accepted to apply to forbid it, subversive or transgressive, but one can still effectively ask So what ?, because, despite the blatant reference in the first few minutes, we are not talking of those in the position of a Winston Smith or a Julia.

[As alluded to above, there is underground activity, but scarcely in the same way (since it seems centred more on survival ?), and with no real rationale that the screenplay cares to give. At the same time, an absurdist claim could, of course, be made : to show what one will to challenge perceived notions of reality / rationality… Then one is in the territory of Holy Motors (2012), which, however much it may reference cinematic history, for some has a fairly tenuous basis for what it does, and one which also – much more extensively and explicitly – seeks to include discrete and disparate episodes by means of a very modest (undeveloped ?) linking device.]

Though maybe – just maybe – The Lobster is doing something, and much more subtle, that is to do with what it means to use an authorial voice (of, one has to suggest, doubtful reliability therefore) ? Partly on account of the bipartite nature of the film, the narrator is unplaced for a very long while : during that time, and in a cursorily fleeting way, the voice tells us what the loners, as a category, do that means that they behave indistinguishably and as a group. (It is another gag, this time oral, and at the expense of those who listen to electronic music (though headphones), but the jibe comes, and it goes : except to recur as a visual joke, with people in one place, but dancing separately to what they are listening to, it expendably seems to lack rootedness in the fabric of the whole.)

As elsewhere – in a distinctively brittle, almost dry, manner – we were told this so matter-of-factly, so unemotionally, that we might have started wondering why any of this is being told at all (and whether whoever the narrator is pictures it to herself as a story that, maybe unwillingly, she believes). Indeed, just after the brief initial scene, and the shot of Farrell over his right shoulder (which very gently telescopes in on him), we hear this voice, telling us what ‘he’ did, and how he chose his brown shoes : only was there the suggestion, right from the off, that this was an adapted short story or novella ?

The Lobster uses that form, and sometimes the voice-over is very present – and not always adding, but, by over-interpreting or even unnecessarily stating what can be seen, it acts to interpose itself between us and the on-screen world, i.e. an alienation technique (Verfremdungseffekt). (Other reviewers have commented on the stiltedness of the characters' speech. [So, for example, Nick Pinkerton (please also see below) writes all of them deliver dialogue in much the same mannered, tin-eared cadence : unvaryingly measured, stilted in tone, unnervingly to-the-point, and devoid of any softening niceties.] However, if one regards those who are speaking as created by, or creatures of, the narrator, that quality is put in another context : it remains, as it ever is, meaningless to talk about 'what really happened', but here the film is well nigh brought into existence by the voice that tells it.)

At other times, though, it is quite absent, and it seems possible that the device may have been abandoned, yet not, for example, with what happened in The Transformation Room : let alone how what, in general terms, is supposed to have happened there took place, we are kept outside the door that we see Farrell go through. The voice's ignorance (of what went on), that of the unknown 'she', becomes ours – but, in the first place, we only know any of this by placing credence in what the voice tells us, and we might wish to reflect on the silence and the lapse of time with which the film concludes…

Of course, the deliberate allusion to Room 101 put one in mind of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but, along with thinking that we are in the dystopian genre³, it is probably a misdirection to see Orwell here any more than to make a connection that, in a way, is just as much there with Animal Farm.

For those in search of other thoughts :

* This review (from Nick Pinkerton, of Reverse Shot), from which there have been quotations above, may tell too much for those who have not yet seen the film, but is interesting...

* Peter Bradshaw, for The Guardian, has some good points to make, but lapses - in the third to the fifth paragraphs of his review - into telling us what happens, rather than why we should be watching. (As, for example, he did with a review of The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) (2013)).

* Finally, with the review by Demetrios Matheou (The Arts Desk), we have to bear with his worryingly getting his facts wrong (such as calling Farrell’s character John (not David), and saying that he has been widowed), but it is worth a read.


¹ Except on the level that the film creates a desire, for this scenario in the screenplay not to continue as it is, which is then sated – even if we scarcely welcome what takes its place, or how that resolves…

² By contrast, those who have read in David Eagleman’s small collection Sum : Tales from the Afterlives will know the superlative concision and exactness with which he conceives of numerous different futures.

³ People who only choose to look at the world within the film as dystopian are thereby easily failing to credit that elements of it, at least, operate not only on the level of satire, but also of allegory : does calling this filmed world a dystopia, by imagining it as a possible future, thereby miss its applicability, as a deliberate distortion, to our present social norms, practices and trends (such as our expectations of couples, or of single people, and how they may tend to stay with their own kind) ?

⁴ Other examples surely abound, but Hale and Pace (not a little obsessed with a stereotypically sexual portrayal of Sweden) could not resist confronting a British couple with a Swedish one, being unnecessarily frank.

⁵ * Contains spoilers * If it is what did change anything (and not what, nearer the relevant time, we hear read aloud), we never have any idea, in all honesty, whether there is an ultimate and licensed aim that their Leader (Léa Seydoux), at whose instigation they are acting, when she, they and one other loner (Michael Smiley) make it The City for short periods, pretending that they belong there.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Sheffield - God's own City ~ Michael Palin at The Crucible

This is a review of Monty Python : The Meaning of Live (2014)

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

17 June

This is a review of a special screening of Monty Python : The Meaning of Live (2014) at Sheffield Documentary Festival, at The Crucible Theatre (@crucibletheatre), on Wednesday 10 June at 6.30 p.m., followed by a Q&A (hosted by Josie Long (@JosieLong)) with Holly Gilliam, James Rogan and Michael Palin

Josie Long and Michael Palin

Holly Gilliam’s (Terry Gilliam’s daughter’s) impulse to get a camera into the script-reading for Monty Python (Almost) Live was absolutely right, and, as we heard, that was the impetus for this film itself documenting a show that was largely and pragmatically put on to meet the legal costs of the members of Monty Python being sued over some rights issue* (it sounded as though they might have been badly advised about defending the court action, maybe by Cleese’s classic barrister Archie Leach, from A Fish Called Wanda (1988) ?).

The approach gave us all that we wanted, including :

* A sense, as the title turned out to imply, of Python on stage, ranging from the celebrated Amnesty International gigs to Monty Python Live at The Hollywood Bowl (1982) (a title that, we learnt, was meant to stir feelings of the incongruous)

* The related interactions and tensions in and between those tallied both by One Down, Five to Go, and in Graham Chapman’s lifetime (to which Python’s memory the film was dedicated)

* The thrills and spills of the ten-night run at that venue that was allegedly so worthless, as The Millennium Dome, that HM Government disposed of it for a pound

* Thoughts about what comedy is and how it works, from Eric Idle seeing it as algebra (not an art), and needing to change one of the terms to get a laugh, to John Cleese’s having had to fight back, over decades, what sounded like rage that people laughed before he had done anything that he thought merited it**

* Michael Palin, dressed as a smart Sheffield woman of his mother’s generation for the ad hoc purpose of a filler (to comply with the limitations of ‘the watershed’ in public-service broadcasting, which it then proceeded to ridicule) : Eric Idle’s script, as interpreted by Palin and creatively imagined by improvisation, clarifying that when she said that she did not have one, she meant a television (not a cunt), or vice versa

* Confirmation that it had been, as it always seemed, Eric Idle’s creation (though directed by Terry Gilliam)

* Laughter again, deep and liberating, at the excerpts from Monty Python (Almost) Live and its staging :

** The candour before, after and during the O2 show (including feigned and real irritation at being filmed)

** The archive material from the show, from live performance and elsewhere : good choice, well placed

** The best of what was recorded during the 10-night show and its rehearsal, including seeing it change, and hearing in the film, and in the Q&A about corpsing / timing and their place in creating something fresh

** On this latter point, the very real pleasure of seeing Palin and Cleese in operation together

Holly Gilliam, James Rogan, Josie Long, and Michael Palin

As to the Q&A, one enthusiast closed the proceedings by declaring The Fish-Slapping Dance, which Palin said had been submitted for a comedy version of Eurovision (never repeated ?), the best thing that the Pythons had done : a few seconds, and the fifteen-foot fall into the dock below, had been worth it ! (Yes, it always brings a laugh, but hardly the best thing that they did ?) This enthusiast asked about Palin’s not only knowing his own part, but everyone else’s : yes, he had learnt it early on to feel comfortable with it, and then able to elaborate variations on it.

To that impulse to get a camera to document what happened, much is owed, in this skilful snapshot of the surviving Pythons by Roger Graef (who, sadly, did not attend, because he felt unwell) and James Rogan :

Seen at Sheffield : Doc/Fest films with full reviews


* Having established the point, by comment from a Python or three, the film wisely moved on : we did not feel that we needed to know more.

** Cleese also thought that sketches such as The Dead Parrot had not always been appreciated in the t.v. series, but had acquired a popularity through (recordings of) the live versions / iterations :

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Almost Monty Python (Almost) Live

This is a review of Monty Python (Almost) Live

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

17 August

This is a review of Monty Python (Almost) Live

As Spamalot may have been (the writer does not know), another Eric-Idle-engineered piece, centred on big musical numbers (which, in the case of Monty Python (Almost) Live, were very impressive - with a talented cast of singer / dancers), this show was, for all that it offered, uneven.

No doubt some of the unevenness could have been levelled out by the editing of the Live show to be (Almost) Live, which seemed a marked advantage (as it does for, say, NT Live broadcasts, though others see these things differently).

From the start, we had the dubious benefit of a kangaroo (with an obviously human face) on stage, which eventually found its place later on (please see below). In the meantime, its locomotive human bobbed around, in an irritatingly jolly fashion, which seemed to sound the inappropriate note that the show was going to be cuddly, which, in places, it flatly contradicted, e.g. with the penis, vagina, arse* group of songs (can one seriously write that in a review ? yes, as this is Python…)
It was the same Idle with Michelangelo's Last Supper, where John Cleese was too strong, as when he is allowed to be (such as with that whack with the mammoth fish on the edge of the quay, The Fish-Slapping Dance, and one of Cleese or Idle robbed Idle of the strength of the lines about the 28 disciples, and the 3 Christs – along with Idle’s outclassed cheery quattordicicento painter guise, they plummeted, unable to compete with Cleese, as The Pope, blithely saying fucking.

In this early part of the show, some of the humour – in what seemed to be new material – just did not work, and, by definition, was not the best of Python (e.g. the tame misunderstanding of Oz Arena for the O2 Arena, dutifully delivered by Michael Palin), as one might expect the show to aim to be. ‘Every sperm is sacred’ (from The Meaning of Life (1983)) was a huge production number, with a great dance routine, although not quite to rival the energy and scope of the film, and it also had new lyrics (in places). Another big set-piece, ‘I like Chinese’, was similarly impressive, but – if it was Python – taxed this writer’s familiarity. It started seeming marginally racially offensive, only to turn out not to be*.
Wherever the philosophers’ song came from (with the Bruces as philosophy professors**), Palin seemed, as observed, the only one who had obviously learnt his lines (such as they were) : Eddie Izzard was probably brought on stage at this part, but he just seemed star struck, and contributed nothing other than his awe. Linked with footage of the German and Greek Philosophers’ Football-Match, and sensationally going back to the match as Socrates scores in the final seconds, it worked well as a combination, because of the sheer shared incongruity : when parts of original Python shows were given oxygen to thrive by a suitable setting, both were enhanced.

A re-enactment of the Crunchy Frog Sketch at the premises of the Whizzo Chocolate company had the visually and aurally coarse element of Terry Gilliam, as Superintendent Parrot, farting and retching, as his senior officer (Cleese as Inspector Praline) recalled what he had eaten from the assortment. By the time that sweetmeats such as the crunchy frog were reached, Terry Jones was reading impassively from the card, and, cracking up with Cleese, swallowed and lost losing the impact of Ah - now, that's our speciality (Spring Surprise) - covered with darkest creamy chocolate. When you pop it in your mouth steel bolts spring out and plunge straight through both cheeks.

Up until the interval, the show had been pretty good, and the choice of archive Python had been well made : The Fish-Slapping Dance is always a killer (however many times one has seen it), because of Cleese’s all-too-adept bludgeoning, and included amongst Gilliam’s wizardry were the teasingly postponed / interposed full frontal nudity, the pram that swallows people, and the Rodin ocarina.

However, one strange note sounded was by a caption flashed up that said ‘Munich 1972’ – the year of the Olympic massacre, most notably ?

* * * * *

Palin in Blackmail was smarmy, but the sketch did not have the bite and impetus of that in the t.v. series, and just felt a bit weak. Another piece of shrapnel on stage was what looked like Mike Meyers : no doubt that he was pleased to be there, but he had nothing to do, and added nothing.

Great moments of the second half (as far as they can be recalled) were :

* The Exploding Blue Danube, which (although it probably was not as clever as it looked) was very entertaining

* The Spanish Inquisition, kept together, again, by Palin – with his not inestimable, dogmatically precise zealot prelate (to give the Pythons their full complement, lines on introduction, such as One on't cross beams gone owt askew on't treddle, had been given to members of the cast)

* Moving into Idle opening a fridge, and doing his pink-suited number, ‘The Universe song’ (alias ‘The Galaxy song’)

* One Professor (Brian Cox) being rammed by another (in Stephen Hawking) and accused of being pedantic (for correcting the detail of the preceding song)

* The Dead Parrot Sketch linked up with The Cheese Shop Sketch and finishing with Do you fancy coming back to my place ? (from a little t.v. moment when Cleese, as a Police Inspector, meets another Python in the street) : Palin and Cleese on top form, trying to make each other corpse with ad libs, but Palin getting the upper hand by recalling where they are and telling Cleese 'Your next line is...' - very funny, and in the spirit of Pythons' four re-enactments for Amnesty International (The Secret Policeman's Ball) between 1976 and 1981, although, perhaps notably, Idle was never involved in them***

* Inevitably, ending with a lively, shimmering version of ‘Always look on the bright side of life’

A good way of spending a couple of hours, and an encouragement to dig out that huge boxed set of the t.v. series – and Just the Words, the nicely curated scripts in two volumes (which has provided information of the episodes above)…


* Just how much it was Idle’s patent show and with his songs, when it could have celebrated Python more widely, than promoting purchase of the films on the flier, by incorporating clips from them (or were their copyright limitations ?)

* Would everyone have known who Carol Cleveland was ? She may have substituted for the original Connie Booth to Palin’s lumberjack, but she was never introduced. Although she did an admirable few other turns, she had always been the token glamour in the t.v. series (when the pepperpots, etc. could not be suitable sirens), so it was a shame that the team did not put the record straight by officially acknowledging who she was.

Reference material :

Blackmail - Episode Eighteen (recorded 10/9/1970, transmitted 27/10/70)

The Bruces - Episode Twenty-Two (recorded 25/9/1970, transmitted 24/11/1970)

The Cheese Shop Sketch - Episode Thirty-Three (recorded 7/1/1972, transmitted 30/11/72)

The Crunchy Frog Sketch - Episode Six (recorded 5/11/1969, transmitted 23/11/1969)

The Dead Parrot Sketch - Episode Nine (recorded 7/12/1969, transmitted 14/12/1969)

Exploding Blue Danube - Episode Twenty-Six (recorded 16/10/70, transmitted 22/12/1970)

The Fish-Slapping Dance - Episode Twenty-Eight (recorded 28/1/1972, transmitted 26/10/72)

I’m a Lumberjack - (Episode Nine (recorded 7/12/1969, transmitted 14/12/1969)

The Philosophers’ Football-Match - From Monty Pythons Fliegender Zirkus (made for German t.v.)

The Spanish Inquisition - Episode Fifteen (recorded 2/7/1970, transmitted 22/9/1070)


* Is that taken from The Meaning of Life (1983) and – as only Idle could – ‘updated’ ? (It was an irritation that the text of this, and of the philosophers’ song, were not kept in front of the camera for long enough – perhaps a last-minute bid to protect the innocent ?) If it was, as other pieces / songs were not straight renditions (unlike those that were – insofar as those performing them could manage it – meant to be straight renditions), but had been modernized (one was not always sure why) :

After all, I’m a Lumberjack is just as offensive to the trans audience as it has ever been, but no changes had been introduced to the sacred text (except the tease, in the preceding Lion-Tamer sketch, that Mr Anchovy really wants to be a Systems Analyst). Palin was jeered as ‘disgusting’ by one in the choir (uncelestial), whereas another song (‘I like Chinese’) was cute in pretending to be, but not actually being, racist. In fact, the interjection that followed the sketch on t.v., from Cleese voicing over a letter from Brigadier Sir Charles Arthur Strong (Mrs), had said Many of my best friends are lumberjacks and only a few of them are transvestites

** Which was the only connection with The Bruces, an insignificant piece, made no more or less significant.
*** It is understood that only Jones and Cleese took some role (of whatever kind) in all four shows, with Palin registering three, Chapman two, and Gilliam one. Apart from a brief cameo in the 1989 show by Palin and Cleese, there has been no engagement with any later Amnesty shows.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)