I first saw Monty Python's The Meaning of Life when I was a freshman in college. At that point of my life, I saw profundities everywhere: in pretentious conversations over late-night nachos, in the garish merchandise of the local Wal-Mart, in endless, debauched theme parties, in the Saturday morning cartoons of my childhood, viewed through the nostalgic haze of grainy VHS. I roamed the campus in a bowling shirt with the word "COCKTAILS" emblazoned on the back in neon letters, waving one finger in the air, spouting revelations. I wore sunglasses always, even at night, as though the brilliance of the world was too much for me. I was insufferable. I was studying philosophy for the first time, and its lunatic sheen was all over everything; the big questions were not only apparent but urgent, and I looked for answers wherever I could. It comes as no surprise, then, that I found some of them in a musical sketch comedy from the 1980's featuring, among other things, a singing man in a pink tuxedo who lives in a refrigerator.
What did come as a surprise was that, when I watched this movie the other night for the first time in several years, it still resonated. The Meaning of Life may be a comedy, but its title is no lie. It really is about the meaning of life.
In his 1983 New York Times review of the film, Vincent Canby writes, "The Meaning of Life is a monumental revue, the 'Ben Hur' of sketch films, which is to say that it's a tiny bit out of proportion, something like a Brooklyn Bridge constructed to span a bathtub." The New York Times is usually wrong, but this is worse than usual, and I don't care if I am a lifetime too late in saying so. The Meaning of Life is a comedy, true, but its scope is exactly equal to its ambition, which is as vast and monumental as the stone tablet upon which its title initially appears. The silliness of The Meaning of Life does not undercut the points it makes; the silliness is the point. The film's view of human existence is that it is inherently, unrelentingly absurd. The only meaning to be found is subjective, and pitiably small when seen in any larger context.
The film centers on one of life's central contradictions: the schism between our desire for abstract, timeless wisdom and truth, and the nasty reality of our physical bodies – the things that are, after all, actually alive. The film is a virtual catalogue of bodily absurdity: messy afterbirth, sperm, vaginal fluids, dismemberment, slippery organs, menses, and vomit, lots and lots of vomit. Fortunately for us in the audience, the scatological is only hinted at (by a phalanx of men in lavatories during the musical number "Every Sperm is Sacred"), but the point is clear: the meaning of life is inseparable from the stuff of it, the embarrassing "lowbrow" details that are, in fact, the essential facts of every living thing. When Eric Idle sings, "Isn't It Awfully Nice to Have a Penis?" or a horde of topless women chase Graham Chapman off a cliff, their breasts swinging in slo-mo, it seems incongruous with the film's ostensible subject, but it isn't at all. Sex, actual, sleazy, real sex, with all its awkward physicality, neurosis, and fantasy, is the source of everything here; during the galaxy song, even the universe forms the shape of a naked pregnant woman and spreads her legs. Much more incongruous with the "meaning of life" in the film is in fact religion, whose empty platitudes at their best bear not at all on reality ("Oh Lord, you are so big, so absolutely huge...") and at their worst deny it (as with the Roman Catholics' teachings on contraception). Patriotism and the military don't fare much better here – everyone has something better to do than "marching up and down the square" – nor do any dogmas that allow us to avert our gaze from life in the flesh, and all its grotesque complications.
I also take exception to Canby's claim that this is a "loose collection of sketches." Although this certainly isn't a narrative in any traditional sense, it's connected by much more than a "theme of sorts." Images recur, develop, and, at times, take on an almost nightmarish significance, as in the films of auteurs like Bunuel and David Lynch. On this viewing, I was struck in particular by the fish and the way their story is woven throughout. In the beginning, we witness the death of one fish (who's served up for dinner in a restaurant), and the philosophical musing that this incites in his mourning companions. In the end, we meet Mr. Death himself when a dinner party is poisoned by salmon mousse. The connection isn't linear, but it's also not accidental. And perhaps the weirdest moment in this movie – the "Middle of the Film," when a man with Dr. Seuss arms and his tranvestite companion taunt us with riddles – seems to be understood by these fish viewers, though certainly not by us.
If one's ideas are funny, are they somehow less true or important? I don't think so. Serious thought and humor are far from opposites; in fact, sometimes the latter is the only way to express the former in a work of art. It's too bad that laughs are so often an excuse for not paying attention to what's really happening onscreen. At this rate, we'll never find the fish.