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May 2, 2004 - The Monty Python survivors speak out ...

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Eric Idle: Religion (Christ and the Pythons) 



I have sent a note to my friend in Chicago that she should keep an eye out for something at the Shubert Theatre there in December - the stage adaptation of the "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" film, in its pre-Broadway work-out-the-rough-spots run.  As it is, Eric Idle of the Monty Python troop lives near me out here in Los Angeles and wrote last weekend about his other legendary film, “The Life of Brian,” that was re-released Friday (April 30) - and of course he comments on Mel Gibson’s Jesus film, wishing Mel Brooks had made it, not the odd Gibson fellow. 

See Recalling the view, such as it was
Monty Python's messiah relives his days on the cross, as "Life of Brian" returns to the big screen.  Call it crucifixion lite. 
By Eric Idle - Special to The Los Angeles Times, April 25 2004

Idle opens with this:


I was crucified once and frankly I don't recommend it.  It's a scary experience, especially when you find John Cleese next to you, and there's that odd Graham Chapman smoking a pipe, and Terry Gilliam is complaining about the shot and Michael Palin is nattering away to everyone in particular. 


Idle goes on to explain that even though he was singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" that there was something a bit chilling about turning up first thing in the morning and finding a cross with your name on it. 

No doubt. 

Idle discusses filming "Life of Brian" in Tunisia and how it came about.  It seems George Harrison, hearing that the Monty Python group had been dumped by EMI, mortgaged his home and put up all the money because, he said, "he wanted to see the movie."  It was a whim, so to speak. 

But the movie is back. 


Now, thanks to Mel Gibson and his holy snuff film, you're going to get a chance to see the second coming of "Life of Brian," a movie that was made during the lifetime of three popes.  (Two died and two were elected during the eight weeks of location shooting.) I haven't seen Mel's film "The Passion of the Christ" — I am a lapsed anti-Catholic — but I gather that Mel doesn't handle the comedy too well, and he seems to totally ignore the singing opportunities of the crucifixion altogether. 

… Personally I think that the wrong Mel made it and that it should have been done by Mel Brooks, though I suppose if Mel Gibson had done "The Producers" we would have had to sit through 40 minutes of Nathan Lane being flayed alive.  How appropriate that Mel's long and violent film should be replaced at the box office by a horror film ("Dawn of the Dead").  Actually we were planning a rerelease long before the whole Mel thing, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the movie, for which reason Vanity Fair recently photographed us all in our coffins. 


And Idle gives more detail of how this Grail of the Pythons movie came about – which is, of course, idle detail.  (Sorry.)


Brian began life as a bad joke at the opening of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" in New York.  When asked what our next movie would be I ad-libbed glibly "Jesus Christ, Lust for Glory."  This struck a chord in the collective unconscious of the Pythons.  It was such a naughty idea to even contemplate a comedy about religion that it was virtually irresistible.  For a start there was a totally clean palette.  No one had done any biblical gags since the Medieval Mystery Plays.  Secondly we had all been dragged up in British schools with compulsory attendance in the Church of England and had been subjected to the peculiar tedium and hypocrisy of that church, founded by an adulterous king to escape a tedious wife.  This would be a wonderful way to get back at our tormentors. 


So, is Idle anti-religion? 

No.  Not really. 


Now I have nothing against Jesus Christ; what he says is actually great: forgiveness, love one another, peace on Earth, turn the other cheek — all are excellent principles, and if only more Christians would practice them the world wouldn't be in such a mess today.  Our current crusaders, with their anxiety to strike the other cheek, first seem to be closer in philosophy to Reg the Revolutionary: "What Christ fails to realize is it is the Meek that are the problem." Oddly enough, although almost all religious bodies came out and attacked the movie, thereby ensuring it was a hit, the Communists and Lefty Revolutionaries left us alone, although the French did complain a lot about our movie not being blasphemous.  But then they are Catholics. 

… I'm an Alzheimer's agnostic: I can't remember whether I don't believe in anything or not. 

However I do believe religions are the cause of most of the problems in the world today and there should be a moratorium on the use of the G-word.  I think it should be replaced by something less controversial that we can all agree on.  Like Chocolate.


Well, the whole item here is cute in this way.  Some won’t see it as cute at all. 

I suppose the Times will now get a flood of angry letters and the pious, born-again, love-Bush, love-the-war, love-Jesus, hate-the-Muslims crowd will cancel their subscriptions.  Let them.  We don’t live in a puritan theocracy just yet. 

Terry Jones: The Semantics of War



Back on November 9th of last year I reported that according to a story in Reuters - actually reported in a lot of places - my local newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, had ordered its reporters to stop describing anti-American forces in Iraq as "resistance fighters," saying the term romanticizes them and evokes World War II-era heroism. 

The ban was issued by Melissa McCoy, a Times assistant managing editor, who told the staff in an e-mail circulated the Monday before that the phrase conveyed unintended meaning - and asked them to instead use the terms "insurgents" or "guerrillas." Apparently the editors got queasy: "[Times Managing Editor] Dean Baquet and I both individually had the same reaction when we saw the term used in the newspaper," McCoy said.  "Both of us felt the phrase evoked a certain feeling, that there was a certain romanticism or heroism to the resistance."

But, of course, McCoy said she considered "resistance fighters" an accurate description of Iraqis battling American troops, but it also evoked World War II - specifically the French Resistance or Jews who fought against Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto.  "Really, it was something that just stopped us when we saw it, and it was really about the way most Americans have come to view the words."

So the term is quite accurate but - "We are loath to proscribe the use of just about any word, but sometimes certain combinations of words send an unintended signal.  You combine these two seemingly innocuous words and suddenly they have this unintended meaning."

The New York Times was following.  Allan Siegal, assistant managing editor: "We don't have a policy but when you mentioned the phrase it sounded like romanticizing to me.  I don't think it's the kind of cool, neutral language we like to see."

The Washington Post did not follow.  David Hoffman, the foreign editor of said his paper had used the phrase "resistance fighters" to describe Iraqi forces and had no objection to the term.  "They are resisting an American occupation so it's not inaccurate."

Well times have changed – and one of the old Monty Python troop speaks on this. 

See The war of the words
Terry Jones, The Guardian (UK), Friday April 30, 2004

Jones sees the problem as even bigger –


One of the chief problems with the current exciting adventure in Iraq is that no one can agree on what to call anyone else. 

In the Second World War we were fighting the Germans, and the Germans were fighting us.  Everyone agreed who was fighting who.  That's what a proper war is like. 
However, in Iraq, there isn't even any agreement on what to call the Americans.  The Iraqis insist on calling them "Americans", which seems, on the face of it, reasonable. 

The Americans, however, insist on referring to themselves as "coalition forces".  This is probably the first time in history that the United States has tried to share its military glory with someone else.


Well, we do not want to seem like we’re doing this all alone – because even if the Spanish and a few others have bailed out, the Brits are still with us, not to mention the folks from Fiji and Tonga.  It’s not just us. 
But Jones too sees a problem with what we call the Iraqis, besides calling them the Iraqis. 


Then there's the problem of what the Americans are going to call the Iraqis - especially the ones that they kill.  You can call people who are defending their own homes from rockets and missiles launched from helicopters and tanks "fanatics and terrorists" only for so long.  Eventually even newspaper readers will smell a rat. 

Similarly it's fiendishly difficult to get people to accept the label "rebels" for those Iraqis killed by American snipers when - as in Falluja - they turn out to be pregnant women, 13-year-old boys and old men standing by their front gates. 

It also sounds a bit lame to call ambulance drivers "fighters" - when they've been shot through the windscreen in the act of driving the wounded to hospital - and yet what other word can you use without making them sound like illegitimate targets?


Ah yes, well, these things happen, and have to be… packaged?  Yes, carefully. 

And Jones points out that one of the other key things here is to try to call US mercenaries "civilians" or "civilian contractors", while calling Iraqi civilians "fighters" or "insurgents". 

Yep, that works.  We do that. 

And we try out new terms all the time. 


Describing the recent attack on Najaf, the New York Times happily hit upon the word "militiamen".  This has the advantage of being a bit vague (nobody really knows what a "militiaman" looks like or does), while at the same time sounding like the sort of foreigners any responsible government ought to kill on sight. 


No.  It’s just vague.  But whatever, Jones points to even thornier semantic problems in the last few days, and coming up soon in June. 


For example, there's the "handover of power" that's due to take place on June 30.  Since no actual "power" is going to be handed over, the coalition chaps have had to find a less conclusive phrase.  They now talk about the handover of "sovereignty", which is a suitably elastic notion.  And besides, handing over a "notion" is a damn sight easier than handing over anything concrete. 

Then again, the US insists that it has been carrying out "negotiations" with the mojahedin in Falluja.  These "negotiations" consist of the US military demanding that the mojahedin hand over all their rocket-propelled grenade launchers, in return for which the US military will not blast the city to kingdom come.  Now there's a danger that this all sounds like one side "threatening" the other, rather than "negotiations" - which, after all, usually implies some give and take on both sides. 

As for the word "ceasefire", it's difficult to know what this signifies anymore.  According to reliable witness reports from Falluja, the new American usage makes generous allowance for dropping cluster bombs and flares, and deploying artillery and snipers. 


Well, call it “forceful negotiation.”  And you might click on the link to see what Jones has to say about the words used by the folks in the Oval Office. 


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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