July 01, 2004,
Do you remember Brian, Brian Cohen? Yes, that Brian. You know, Monty Python's Brian, Life of. Well, 25 years on, he's back back for his Second Coming. It has been a sly, mocking resurrection, a manifestation confined to a limited number of movie theaters, all timed to take advantage of (a little) this vintage comedy's quarter century and (a lot) Mel Gibson's startlingly savaged Savior. The Pythons themselves have been characteristically reticent about the timing of the film's re-release. Coyly, its director, Terry Jones, merely told the press that it was "just a piece of shameless commercial opportunism on our part. We were just hoping to make a quick buck on the back of Mel's Passion."
Well, whatever it took, in a time marked both by the rise of superstitious belief and, worse still, an explosion of religious conflict unthinkable only a few decades ago, the return of sane, gentle Brian Cohen is good news indeed, worthy of a hymn, a hallelujah, or a hosanna or two except for the fact that as that most modest of men used to say he was not the Messiah: Perhaps a round of quiet applause will suffice.
It seems strange now, but when Brian's biopic was first released in the U.K., there was furious controversy, angry debate, and (wild language for amiably agnostic Albion) even talk of "blasphemy." Vicars vented, priests prattled, bishops called for a boycott, a few politicians remounted their high horses, and, chicken-hearted EMI pulled its backing (George Harrison stepped in with replacement funding).
In the land of the Pilgrim Fathers, the reaction was, predictably, even harsher. Writing recently in the Village Voice, J. Hoberman recalled how Life of Brian "scored a perfect trifecta denounced as blasphemy by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, the Lutheran Council ('a disgraceful assault'), and the Rabbinical Alliance of America ('foul, disgusting')." The movie was picketed, banned in certain places, and, the ultimate seal of approval, condemned by Senator Strom Thurmond (a whitewashed sepulcher if ever I saw one).
The protests took their toll. On both sides of the Atlantic, cinemas hesitated over whether or not to take the film, but a decent number did the decent thing. The movie found an audience and, so far as is known, neither viewers nor projectionists nor popcorn sellers were bothered by boils, struck by lightning, or plagued by locusts, flies, frogs, or any of the other unpleasantness so often associated with annoying the Man Upstairs. Rumors that one ticket vendor was turned into a pillar of salt somewhere in the north of England can safely be discounted.
As usual, God got it right. Despite being born on the appropriate day in the appropriate town (something that briefly confused the three wise men and led to some unpleasantness over the gold, frankincense, and myrrh), Brian was, the movie makes clear, not the Messiah. He was not Him, his mother was Mandy, not Mary, and his Life was not blasphemy. Reinforcing this point, Brian is shown listening at a distance, and with some interest to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is portrayed with respect. It is only His message that gets garbled ("Blessed are the cheese makers"?) by a crowd too preoccupied by its own bickering to concentrate on what Christ had to say. Come to think of it, that scene would make a fine sermon in its own right.
This is not to claim that Life of Brian is some sort of religious tract. Far from it. If there's any type of belief that runs through the movie, it's disbelief, unbelief, a world-weary skepticism that reaches its height or its depth (take your pick) on a jam-packed Calvary with the massed ranks of the crucified singing a rousing song that, in its blend of nonchalance, nihilism, and slightly deranged Epicureanism, has few peers:
...If life seems jolly rotten There's something you've forgotten And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing. When you're feeling in the dumps Don't be silly chumps Just purse your lips and whistle that's the thing.
It has a pretty good tune too.
To be sure, Life of Brian is unlikely to make it very soon into the Vatican's video collection but, unless the Pythons' secularism is of itself "offensive," there really ought to be little in their film to annoy most people of faith so long as they have a sense of humor, that is. The real target of the movie's satire is not religion as such, but the unholy baggage that too frequently comes with it the credulity, the fanaticism, and that very human urge to persecute, well, someone.
Watch, for example, poor Brian as he flees Jerusalem pursued by his "disciples." His frantic attempts to deny that he is the Messiah are ignored by a crowd desperate for someone, anyone, anything, to worship, but also intent on proving their own righteousness in that most pleasurable of ways at the expense of others. Acolytes of Brian's gourd feud with devotees of his shoe, and all indulge in the nasty joys of schism. If Ingmar Bergman had directed Life of Brian, the rest of the movie would have been a grim depiction of an even grimmer religious war, concluding, doubtless, with a bleak finale in some northern European wasteland. But as Bergman didn't, and Terry Jones did, we get a naked hermit, the "miracle" of the juniper bushes, a Pontius Pilate who can't pronounce his "r"s, and, to end it all, that surprisingly cheerful crucifixion.
But as amusing as this movie is (and it is despite 25 years in the vaults, it stinketh not), Life of Brian is difficult to watch without a sense of sadness. At the time it was made, the Pythons' "Passion" seemed to be taking aim at a soft target. In the West, at least, centuries of superstition, intolerance, and fanaticism seemed gradually to be receding into the past, mourned by a dwindling few. The established religions appeared reconciled to a comfortable, if decreasingly prominent, niche within the secular states of the post-Enlightenment, and where the West led, the rest of the world would surely follow.
Times change. To take just a few wretched examples from the cornucopia of cant on offer on these fruited plains, the nation created by the revolution that was the Age of Reason's finest hour now finds itself lost in nonsense. It is wrapped up in the Rapture, preyed on by Gantrys, prayed at by Falwells, prayed for by Jacksons, dumbed down by creation scientists, and hectored by ranting First Amendment fundamentalists who react to a cross as if they were vampires. Oh yes, fanaticism can be secular too. Just ask the People's Front of Judea (or was it the Judean People's Front?), zealots content to leave Brian to die on the cross, a handy martyr for their cause.
And when organized religion fades, the disorganized variety rushes in. As we stumble back towards the darkness of that beckoning cave, we let ourselves be spellbound by, to take a selection, pagans, Wiccans, shamans, seers, crystal-gazers, aliens, pieces of red string, table-tappers, Gaia, suburban necromancers, sidewalk psychics, and that blend of bunkum, baloney, science fiction, and Hollywood that calls itself the "religion" of Scientology.
But above all and compared to which those tatty idiocies are nothing but trivia the return of militant Islam and its encroachment once more on the people and the territories of the West force us to face, yet again, the horrors of religious war, this time an onslaught from Arabia's seventh-century darkness, in which the promise of heaven will be used as a justification for true believers to create a hell on earth for all those who oppose them. In a time when young men fly planes into office buildings in the hope of earning themselves an eternity with 72 virgins, it's difficult to look at those parts of Life of Brian in which the movie played on the baroque cruelty of (what then seemed) ancient history without as much unease as amusement. The long and originally very funny sequence that culminates in John Cleese being stoned for blasphemy now conjures up images of the Taliban's bestial Kabul. Later on, we see the Judean People's Front planning to kidnap and then behead the wife of Pontius Pilate, and the bloodiness of the scheme only serves to underline the utter incompetence of the conspiracy. We laughed then, back in 1979. Beheading? Ridiculous. We don't laugh so easily in 2004. Not after Daniel Pearl. Not after Nick Berg. Not after Paul Marshall Johnson.
So, to break the mood, turn for some words of wisdom from sensible, doomed, hapless Brian. There's a lovely moment when, appalled by the spectacle of the faithful gathering beneath his window, he tells them that, "you don't need to follow me, you don't need to follow anybody. You've got to think for yourselves, you're all individuals." Simple stuff, but, these days, pretty good advice.
Even if it's not The Greatest Story Ever Told.