"Nasty big pointy teeth"

Does the comedy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1975; last seen: 12 years ago) resist theorization?  It feels too spontaneous, too tossed off and evanescent to think about critically.  It’s one of those endlessly watchable comedies in which every joke feels simply, effortlessly perfect.  It’s a film that I watched repeatedly as a teenager, almost to the point of memorization, but hadn’t seen since; it feels even funnier and more perfect now than it did then, somehow.  It’s not that I didn’t “get” the jokes before—they just seem weirder, more absurd, more right.  They operate in a filmic universe not governed by logic, not even the logic of the medieval adventure genre, a universe whose laws are always being (hilariously) broken.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail’s loose, free-wheeling structure is not anomalous: it is firmly in the tradition of comedies that operate under a principle of anarchy, of radical formlessness (as distinct, say, from satire, or from romantic comedy, to name only two other comedic subgenres).  The Marx Brothers perfected this, of course, and Steven Tifft has written about Alfred Jarry’s absurdist play Ubu Roi in these terms, as a comedy of interruptions—of action continually disrupted, broken up, intruded upon.  What is Monty Python and the Holy Grail if not a string of interrupted sequences?  We’re not even through the opening credits and we’ve already been subject to three interruptions (due to mischievous Swedes interfering with the subtitles).  The DVD edition of the film adds even another “false start” by having the film proper intrude upon another film—some forgotten British comedy called Dentist on the Job. 

The form of this film is in a state of constant violation; scenes don’t so much finish as get hi-jacked.  Sir Galahad is pulled away from Castle Anthrax just at the moment when things are getting interesting (“you must give us all a good spanking!”).  Sir Robin silences his minstrel just as his song threatens to go too far (“And his bowels unplugged / And his nostrils raped / And his bottom burned off / And his penis—”).  The knights are saved from the beast in the cave by the sudden keeling-over of the animator, which leaves the chase unresolved.  And the final battle, of course, is interrupted by police cars and the angry wife of the “Famous Historian,” come to avenge his murder earlier in the film.  The film doesn’t end so much as get cut off. 

Monty Python is, of course, a delightful parody, and its dialogue is almost continuously funny.  But it’s up to something even more interesting in its constant puncturing of the action—its cheeky, anarchic, almost willful tendency to sweep whole scenes or plot threads aside and to suddenly plunk us down in the middle of something else, or even to deny us the pleasure of a proper ending altogether.  In its form, the film embodies the very idea that comedy is about having our bearings pleasantly unsettled.  Original rating: ***½  New rating: ****      

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