Sunday, August 30, 2009

Monty Python's Life of Brian

I’m going to do that thing people hate it when you do, which is to think seriously about a comedy.

We just watched Monty Python’s Life of Brian the other night. Brilliant stuff, of course; we especially enjoyed watch/listening to the initial script read-through they included on the bonus disc. It reveals that originally the Pythons were thinking of a Brian whose career much more closely mirrored Jesus’s; and also a Brian who was much more active and motivated than the one in the final film.

This is interesting to me because I think the character of Brian in the final film is the secret to its success. He’s a naif. He’s not an idiot, but he is something of an innocent, and this not only lends his few pearls of wisdom (“you’ve got to work it out for yourselves”) the authority of God-given common sense (irony intended), it makes him a much more sympathetic character in the end. By the end of the film you care about Brian, and you really don’t want to see him crucified.

Graham Chapman perfectly captured this innocence and purity in the Brian character, and he often did it physically, as well as verbally. I’m thinking of one moment in particular that I submit really makes the movie.

Famously, the Pythons included in the film one instance each of full frontal male and female nudity. They’re in connection with sex, but not in a sex scene: the seduction and the consummation are not depicted. Rather, we see Brian and Judith wake up in bed the morning after.

My point in noting this is that the eliding of the sex act from the film makes the nudity completely gratuitous. There’s not even the excuse of a sex scene. There’s no reason to show them nude – except to wave a red cape in front of the Mary Whitehouse-type bulls in the public ring (a worthy motive, to be sure).

And except for the fact that, well, it’s perfectly natural to think that these characters would be nude, given the circumstances. And in fact, if you look at the way its handled, the nudity isn’t titillating at all. It’s not cheap. It’s funny, certainly: Brian throwing open the window to discover a multitude staring up at his altogetherness; Judith jumping out of bed naked to argue with Brian’s mother. Comical stuff.

But not randy stuff. Not jiggly. In fact I’d argue that in the case of Brian, the moment is quite meaningful. Look at the way Chapman stands. It’s a natural posture, for someone throwing open a window, but at the same time, isn’t there something classical about his pose here? Look at his hips, how they’re not square, but slightly off-center. Look at the relaxed yet defined contours of his abdomen, his chest. What we’ve got here on film is the real-life equivalent of one of those classical male nude sculptures that show up so often in Terry Gilliam’s Python animations.

Again, it’s about the most un-titillating nude you’ll see in film. It’s beautiful. And it fits the character – it reveals something about the character, his innocence, his guilelessness, and his fundamental goodness. It’s a totally unguarded moment: he’s feeling tremendously good about the world and his place in it, for a change, and he throws open the window to greet it – and then it’s all crushed, and he spends the rest of the scene hunched over and cowering. This was maybe Brian’s only real moment of happiness. I don’t think any of this is accidental.

Judith’s nudity is not quite as central to the film’s theme, but it’s equally carefully placed, I think. First of all, I think it’s there to balance Brian’s. But it also reveals (pun admitted) her character as much as his nude moment reveals his character. He allows himself to be seen nude only in a moment of innocence and peace; but by the time she steps forth naked, conflict has already entered the scene. She comes out to argue with Brian’s mother, and she doesn’t bother to wrap a sheet around herself to do it. This is fitting for Judith, a revolutionary, someone for whom petty bourgeois modesty would be a waste of time or worse. Brian nude is an innocent; Judith nude is a fighter.

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