Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Holy Grail

There was a movie theater in Louisville called the Vogue, that used to show different movies every night for just a couple of bucks. The Vogue showed classic movies, foreign movies, art-house movies, independent movies. They ran The Rocky Horror Picture Show every week for 24 consecutive years. It was the last of the old single-screen theaters. Now it is gone. I saw some great movies there back in the 70's: A Clockwork Orange, Walkabout, Easy Rider, Frenzy, Last Tango In Paris, The Wicker Man, Five Easy Pieces, Woodstock, M*A*S*H, Dirty Harry, Murder On The Orient Express, Dr. Zhivago. Many more I can't remember. But of all the amazing movies I saw at the Vogue, I think the one that made the biggest impression on me was Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Prior to seeing the movie, most of what I knew about Monty Python came from their records. I used to hang around with a posse of nerds in high school and one of them, a guy from Texas of all places, had a collection of Monty Python records. As it turns out, the PBS television station in Dallas was the first station to broadcast episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus -- so he had the jump on us in that department. I don't remember ever seeing the show in Louisville. Though I do recall seeing Eric Idle on Saturday Night Live a couple of times. And I have a vague memory of seeing the Nudge Nudge sketch on the Tonight Show.

Nevertheless, when my nerd buddies and I decided to do a comedy remake of A Man For All Seasons for our tenth grade English class (cleverly titled "A Man For All Seasonings") the Python influence was in full force.

In one pivotal scene from our movie, when Sir Thomas Moron is giving his famous "It's not that I believe it, but that I believe it..." line, the Duke of Norfuk breaks character and says "What the hell does that mean?" Moron replies "I don't know, it's in the script." He pulls a copy of the script out and points to the page in question. Norfuk grabs the script and looks at it in disbelief, saying, "it doesn't make any sense!" He then walks off camera, throwing the script down in disgust. Moron looks at the camera and pulls out a box of crackers, saying "and now for some nice Ritz Crackers!" He shoves an handful into his mouth and the scene ends.

We shot much of our movie "on location" i.e., in the woods near a babbling brook, in back of a liquor store, in the middle of a corporate office park. And since my 8mm camera had no sound, we carried a portable GE tape recorder around with us everywhere and recorded all of the dialogue on the spot. This turned out to be a big problem, since there was a lot of fumbling with the tape recorder, not to mention traffic noise, airplanes and the aforementioned babbling brook. So we had to re-record all of the dialogue in real time while watching the edited version of the movie. We gathered at the Texan's house for the recording session and spent most of the afternoon listening to Monty Python records before getting down to business. It was my first-ever looping session and it was a complete success. And I think it was the spirit of the Pythons that carried the day.

In the final scene of "Seasonings", Sir Thomas Moron wonders aloud if he has made the right choice in defying the King. He looks to the heavens and sees a vision of God (played by our bearded biology teacher) giving him a 'thumbs up' sign. The soundtrack swells with the sounds of Beethoven's Ode to Joy and the credits roll.

We considered it a masterpiece at the time -- though I'm not so sure our 10th grade English teacher appreciated it. The line "Neither food nor drink, Norfuk!" which got a big laugh in the classroom, didn't sit too well with her. My nerd crew and I went on to make other movies, including a mega-disaster flick
called "Shake n' Bake" about a huge skyscraper that catches fire during an earthquake.

But "Man For All Seasonings" was our undeniable triumph.

So when I finally got the chance to see Holy Grail at the Vogue, I was completely blown away. From the very start, with the title sequence that opens with an ultra-serious look and dramatic classical score then quickly devolves into a mish-mash of mariachi music and llama jokes, I was choking with laughter. It was all there: the absurdism, the inane philosophical prattle, the parody of genre and the self-mocking lunacy. None of these things were necessarily new. Mel Brooks had done it. My nerd pals and I had done it. But Holy Grail managed to elevate this type of irreverence to the level of the sublime. Talk about a masterpiece!

Perhaps the most brilliant aspect for me was the idea of breaking frame. The idea that the movie is constantly referring itself, like the way that Kurt Vonnegut would break out of the anonymous confines of his role as author and address the reader directly, commenting on the novel as it was being written. Holy Grail is imbued with a sense of self-awareness that draws the viewer into the joke and allows us to laugh with the movie as well as at the movie. In the very first scene, we hear the clip-clop of horses hooves and see a helmeted head bobbing up and down, expecting to see the familiar sight of a knight on horseback. Instead, the horse is revealed to be a man clapping together a pair of hollow coconut halves to simulate the sound of hoof-beats. And rather than let that joke simply lie there, more attention is drawn to it when Arthur gets caught up in a discussion of how a coconut may or may not have been carried to the shores of medieval England by a migrating swallow. All played in complete earnest.

Later, when approaching Camelot, one character points out, "it's only a model." And when Arthur and his men finally reach the Bridge of Death, they meet up with "the old man from scene 24." But the best frame-breaking joke of the movie comes when a "Very Famous Historian" is murdered by one of Arthur's knights. The police are called in to investigate and ultimately catch up with Arthur and Bedivere just before they are set to storm the Grail Castle. The knights are arrested and hauled into a police van. Then a police Inspector turns to the camera and says, "All right, put that away sonny." He puts his hand over the lens and the film abruptly ends. It's pure genius.

Of course I couldn't help noticing certain similarities between "A Man For All Seasonings" and Holy Grail. There were the obvious frame-breaking script references, the documentary-style realism, and the inane philosophical arguments. They even used our "God" cameo -- though in their case, God was a Terry Gilliam animation and not a scruffy high-school biology teacher. The fact is, Holy Grail and "Seasonings" were produced at roughly the same point in time. And though the Pythons had a slightly bigger budget and a bit more talent, we shared an attitude with them that gave us the freedom to do and say whatever we wanted in our film, so long as we thought it was funny. There were no rules, only conventions. And conventions were made to be subverted.

I recently watched a six-part documentary about Monty Python called Monty Python Almost the Truth. I was fascinated by all of the behind-the-scenes information, the history of how they all got together and the discussions of where certain sketches came from. But the most interesting segment was the one about Holy Grail. The Pythons revealed how little they knew about making a movie, how little time and money they had, how the camera broke on the first day of shooting, how they got kicked out of their locations and had to shoot most of the various "castle" scenes in the same place. And it all seemed very familiar. And it occurred to me that the lack of resources and experience and equipment contributed to the brilliance of the movie. Because when you are forced into a corner, you often come up with your best work.

I would love to go back and look at "A Man For All Seasonings" again. I'm not sure where it ended up. Or if the film and the soundtrack are even in the same place. Maybe someday I will dig it up and restore it. But the memory of that early attempt is indelible. Just like my memory of watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the Vogue theater in Louisville.

Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time!