Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) is a fictionalized account of the 17th-century Roman Catholic priest Urbain Grandier, tried and executed in Loudon, France. Questioning the authority of the Catholic Church is a controversial provocation at any time, but consider: if today, a sober movie like Spotlight (2015) is viewed as brave, then the The Devils’ depiction of the historical Church as depraved, sex-obsessed, and corrupt must have really rankled in 1971. It’s virtually impossible to imagine a company like Warner Bros. producing anything remotely like The Devils in our current climate of resurgent Christian intolerance and fundamentalism.
Hard to find in any form, Filmstruck had what was apparently the abbreviated 109-minute US release version. I think it was part of the Warner Bros. / Turner library, and considering its still-controversial aspects, it’s probably unlikely it will reappear on Warner Bros.’ forthcoming streaming service. Perhaps it could find a home with a boutique outlet like The Criterion Collection, which has been unafraid to release other hot potatoes like The Last Temptation of Christ and Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom.
If possible to set its subject matter aside, it’s also a pity The Devils has been suppressed, for it is a lavish production with truly massive outdoor sets and if not literally a cast of thousands, then at least a cast of several hundred.
Thanks to the late, lamented Filmstruck for filling another gap in my understanding of cinema history. A helpful reminder to young and old film fans approaching cinema history in non-chronological order: nothing comes out of nowhere. I had long assumed Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and The Life of Brian to be landmark satires of de-romanticized European history as crazed, filthy, ignorant, superstitious, and chaotic. But belatedly seeing The Devils now, Gilliam looks less a sudden deviation, and more part of a continuum.
I know I am not alone in Gilliam being one of the gateway drugs that sparked a love of movies — the usual suspects usually being 1970s American directors like Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, etc. I’ve since come to recognize the influences that led to so many other classics, but it’s great to know that even now, having caught up with thousands of other movies, I can still be surprised.
Like many misfit American kids of my generation, my brain was permanently rewired when I discovered the BBC series Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS in the 1980s. Monty Python, Doctor Who, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy formed a triumvirate of British pop culture that gave dorky anglophiles like us a pool of clubby shared references.
But I suppose my interest waned over the years, aside from catching Spamalot on Broadway in 2007, being happy to see Michael Palin pop up in The Death of Stalin, and of course periodic rewatches of Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil, still one of my all-time favorite movies. Even when the surviving members of Monty Python reunited in 2014 for a series of live shows at London’s O2, I wasn’t motivated to go see the global theatrical simulcast or rent the subsequent DVD. But no more excuses, now that Eric Idle and Aubrey Powell’s film Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Four to Go has appeared a click away on Netflix.
I’m not sure if I’ve grown out of Monty Python, if Monty Python has grown out of Monty Python, or if this reunion show was just rubbish. I sat through the film mostly stonefaced, when not cringing (except during Terry Jones’ befuddlement in the “Nudge Nudge” sketch, which is still funny). Part of the appeal of their earliest work was that it was done on the cheap and on the fly. But Monty Python has long since become Monty Python Inc., and these shows’ high production values come across as insincere and inauthentic — in other words, professional. It’s a nostalgia trip, like a veteran classic rock band on a yet another greatest hits tour.
At over 2 hours, it’s also somehow simultaneously too much and not enough. I realize the Pythons are all over 70, and even youngsters would need time to change costumes between sketches anyway, but I wasn’t expecting so much filler. They rely heavily on excerpts from the Flying Circus TV series and some of the movies. A large troupe of young dancers and singers often take over from the stars for big production numbers like “Penis Song (Not the Noël Coward Song)” and “The Silly Walk Song”. This preponderance of musical numbers suggests the show was Eric Idle’s baby. Notably, I don’t think there’s any material at all from Monty Python and The Holy Grail, perhaps to avoid overlap with Idle’s Spamalot musical.
Watching Monty Python’s greatest hits now, in the cold light of adulthood, the makeup of their humor seems pretty easily broken down:
5% university-educated wit (philosophy, religion, world history, etc.)
15% bodily fluids & noises
20% naked or scantily-clad ladies
50% exaggerated regional accents
10% gay men talking and walking funny
Which brings me to the difficult subject of how so much of Python’s material struck me as offensive. The cheeky insouciance of their original BBC TV series The Flying Circus was genuinely boundary breaking in the late 60s. But a surprising percentage of the same material lands with a dull thud in 2018. The lumberjack and barrister sketches are transphobic, the “I Like Chinese” song and Mao cartoons are racist, many sketches (including Gilliam’s mincing in the Michelangelo sketch) are homophobic, and the Doctor Who “RETARDIS” gag is not only cringeworthy but also simply a really lame pun. Only “Penis Song” is substantially updated to be inclusive, now expanded to include additional genitalia.
Perhaps I am hypersensitive after living the past few years under an ascendant sexist and racist ruling class — emblematized by Trump — and how movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have further exposed the exploitation. All this has left me exhausted, making it hard to tell the difference between juvenile rudeness and expressions of greater societal ills, and predisposed to not laugh at any of this.
The ground is also shifting in popular culture, as it grapples with its depictions of gender, race, and sexuality. The world’s increasing tolerance is being abused by conservatives that would like to silence comedians (such as the recent vilification of Kathy Griffin). So I want to be careful when I try to explain how I now find some of the Python’s classic material offensive. Perhaps comedy should never be polite, and is under no obligations to be gentle to anyone. But as contemporary comedians like Sarah Silverman and Mike Birbiglia have explored, the potential of comedy to offend is one of its biggest strengths, but also its biggest a minefield. This paradox is explored at length in Birbiglia’s one-man show “Thank God for Jokes” (also available on Netflix).
Blundering right through this minefield comes Monty Python’s original material, transplanted mostly intact from the late 60s to today. Even though this show was put together years before Trump and Brexit bulldozed through the world order, the show is disappointingly apolitical, aside from a dated Mao reference and quick jabs at Putin and the Daily Mail. But I suppose its fair to note that even in their heyday, the Pythons usually steered clear of politics, instead being more eager to skewer class and religion.
Sadly, these septuagenarians come across as dinosaurs clueless as to how the world has changed while they’ve been in semi-retirement.
But maybe if a bunch of legendary comedians want to throw a farewell party for themselves, and fool around on stage one last time, I should just relax. They seemed genuine in their fond ribbing of each other, their tributes to the late Graham Chapman, and spotlighting collaborator Carol Cleveland.
Terry Gilliam is burdened with a number of unfair reputations. First, as a visual stylist more than a storyteller or director of actors — the latter, at least, obviously refuted by the fact that many high-profile stars will repeatedly work with him for pennies. He’s also known as an unpredictable hellion and spendthrift, which are, from the point of view of those that hold the pursestrings, the two least desirable characteristics in a director. He may in fact be concerned more with the integrity of the work than with the business angle, as any artist should be, but he is no wastrel. In fact, all but one of his completed movies came in on time and under budget. A better way to describe him would be as the most unlucky person in the movie business.
After the multiple calamities and misfortunes (that even an atheist might characterize as acts of god) that befell The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam made The Brothers Grimm as a commercial concession. Despite it still bearing his unmistakable imprimatur, it remains the sole Gilliam film I actively dislike. One good thing to come of it, however, was a genuine friendship with its star Heath Ledger. Interested in filmmaking himself, Ledger stuck around on the set of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus even when not needed on camera, serving as Gilliam’ apprentice and pitching in whenever possible.
Gilliam’s fabled bad luck first reared when he was hit by a bus and cracked a vertebra, as reported in Wired. Ledger died during production, followed by producer William Vince before post-production could begin. If one untimely death could possibly be said to be any more of a shame than another, Ledger’s accidental overdose at the age of 28 might be truly unfair. He was riding the crest of a wave of appreciation for his performances in Brokeback Mountain and Batman: The Dark Knight, and had just begun to stretch his muscles as a director with music videos for Ben Harper and Modest Mouse.
The production was very nearly halted, but Gilliam realized it could be salvaged and re-conceived if Ledger’s part were partially recast with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. Gilliam stuck to one simple and absolute criteria: all three actors must be personal friends of Ledger, leading him to reportedly turn down an overture by none less than Tom Cruise on the basis that he hadn’t known Ledger. Depp and Law actually do quite resemble Ledger onscreen, at least with the aid of eyeliner and costuming. However, Farrell most captures Ledger’s physical presence and mannerisms. Charmingly, the movie is credited not to Gilliam but to “A film from Heath Ledger and friends.”
The eerie synchronicity between Ledger’s death and the film’s themes of mortality are, remarkably, coincidental. Gilliam co-wrote the script with Charles McKeown (also of Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which this movie most closely resembles). According to Collider, the story is based on Gilliam’s own feelings of artistic frustration, particularly after the reception of his controversial film Tideland, which many found not just difficult but even offensive.
As its title makes plain, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is set literally in a world of imagination, a place we have visited before in nearly every single Gilliam film. Most famously, Brazil riffs on James Thurber’s 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The few exceptions include Jabberwocky and The Brothers Grimm, in which fairy tales exist matter of factly in the real world. In 12 Monkeys, it remains ambiguous if James Cole’s (Bruce Willis) future (his present) or the present (his past) might be real or delusions.
It would be a huge mistake to expect any Terry Gilliam film to make total logical sense. Such pedestrian expectations would weigh down an artist we love for his unique, vivid flights of fancy. But perhaps even the wildest Gilliam fancy ought to be internally consistent to a degree. If something doesn’t make sense, is it a tantalizing conundrum left open for the viewer to mull over, or is it evidence of sloppiness? The central question left unanswered for me has to do with the core conceit of the film itself: people are drawn into the mind of Dr. Parnassus through his magical mirror. In his mindscape, they must choose between entering a building maintained by the Devil (Tom Waits), or… what, exactly? Of those few that reject the Devil, we see their blissful, unencumbered state upon leaving Dr. Parnassus’ mind. What exactly happens to them that makes them happy? Also, there’s the side effect of them shedding their possessions. They may have been freed of their own earthly materialism, but that doesn’t stop Parnassus from conveniently enriching his own troupe’s coffers, giving the whole process an air of a scammy confidence game instead of spiritual awakening. Reflecting the theme of insincerity is the cornball tune “We Are the Children of the World” which appears as a ringtone in the film, and at the end of the closing credits.
The apparent protagonist turns out to be an unredeemable villain, unlike virtually all of Gilliam’s previous heroes, in particular Kevin in Time Bandits, Jack Lucas in The Fisher King, Sam Lowry in Brazil, James Cole in 12 Monkeys, and Jeliza-Rose in Tideland. Which leaves us with Dr. Parnassus, who ends up a little bit like Parry (Robin Williams) as we meet him at the beginning of The Fisher King: homeless and seemingly permanently locked in a position of want. Both are hobos, rendered apart and invisible from a world of beauty and wealth. Parnassus’ longings are embodied by the beautiful Valentina (Lily Cole), whom may or may not be his daughter, now seen ensconced in an enviously blissful nuclear family. Parnassus remains forever tempted by the Devil.
Terry Gilliam’s mad, brilliant yarn The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a strongly anti-war fable to which every kid (and adult!) ought to be exposed. Like the best of its kind (including Ratatouille and Gilliam’s own Time Bandits) The Adventures of Baron Munchausen works on multiple levels and is accessible to all ages. It is, however, a Gilliam film, as as such possessed of a certain degree of darkness and naughtiness. But depictions of tobacco, decapitation, and brief nudity (of the young Uma Thurman variety… thank you, Terry!) were evidently A-OK for kiddies in its era, and merited a mere PG rating. Special mention must also be paid to the spirited performance by a very young, adorable (but in a non-cloying way) Sarah Polley.
What must be the most ironic caption in cinema history, “The Late 18th Century: The Age of Reason,” is followed immediately by harrowing imagery of warfare that wouldn’t be out of place in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Further driving the point home for the slower members of the audience, a trip to Hades finds Vulcan (Oliver Reed) forging ICBMs out of hellfire. In a theme straight out of Noam Chomsky, the military industrial complex (personified by Jonathan Pryce’s hilariously accented bureaucrat) imprisons the people within the walls of their own city with a sham state of perpetual war. In the end, the Baron (John Neville) defeats these villains not with more violence, but by inspiring the people to throw open their doors and thus their minds.
Must read: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen fun facts from Dreams, the Terry Gilliam Fanzine