Bored to death with dissertation work I decided to re-watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail, not only to provide some much needed respite from the turgid world of academia but to counter and undermine the endless stream of analysis imposed upon my dissertation topic. I remember watching this once as a child and revelling in the silliness of it all: the funny voices, the ridiculous imitation of horsemanship, the eccentricity of character. Yet now I see it again, bringing to bear the full weight of the Medieval literary context as well as the hackneyed traditions of action films, the humour takes on an extra dimension. Pitted against the ideas of male performativity and the Chivalric ethos that this literature promotes, The Holy Grail exposes the essential irrationality of human character. In a world of patriarchal, monarchical rule, the Feudalist political structure becomes hilariously frustrated as problems of communication, alienating systems of logic, and sheer surrealism combine to reduce the efficacy of power to a fumbling search for a non-existent order.
The interesting thing about watching this is that at times (perhaps due to the nature of cinema as an art form) you feel yourself being drawn into the world presented, accepting the absurdities and idiosyncrasies without a second thought. Yet perhaps the most rewarding way to watch this film is by switching back and forth between this hallucinating effect and regaining a critical distance towards what is being presented. Often it takes a renewed sense of perspective- the question ‘what exactly is happening in this scene?’- for the laughs to issue forth. For instance, the very silly way Arthur and his knights imitate the movement of knights on horseback. As imminently funny as it is, it only takes a comparison with other representations of horsemanship in films and literature for the underlying logic of its absurdity to emerge. What is mostly emphasised in these cases is not the basic conditions of a man being perched upon a horse, but the subsequent swagger that it involves. What makes John Wayne so impressive a figure of male bravado is the upright posture, the confident control over movement, the aural atmosphere his entrance invokes. What makes this Monty Python gag so simple yet so hilarious is the way they’ve pulled the rug out from under the feet of this convention by removing the horse element. This, combined with the unflustered deadpan of the Python team, makes every repetition of the joke replete with comedic value.
This strikes upon a more general theme running through the film: that of the fluid movement of narrative and carrying out of action being stopped dead in its tracks by human incompetence. The scene I’m referring to is where John Cleese as Sir Lancelot responds to a cry for help from within a castle by single-handedly storming it and mercilessly slaughtering all the unwitting inhabitants. As well as parodying in a general way the often unnecessarily overblown violence within action films, there is a point where the King of the castle responds to the issue while attempting to keep his son imprisoned. In the heat of the moment, the king demands of his guards to make sure he doesn’t escape. What starts off as a demand however quickly turns into a farcical performance undermining the efficacy of language where action Is the order of the day. It takes several attempts to explain what he means by ‘make sure he doesn’t get out’, with clumsy misinterpretations prolonging what should be an immediately understood order. Absurd as it is, and as unrealistically clumsy as the mistakes are, this does make a point about those films that attempt to subsume language under action. The whole nature of character involvement in these films is based upon a transparency in which bodies are intimately engaged with the twists and turns of the narrative and of the relentless movement of objective circumstances. What this presupposes is an unquestionable comprehensibility of language: language is never an obstacle, never opaque, and never drawing attention to itself. While this may sometimes be the case in life, in an action film it is a vital element forming part of the structure, the foundation of the narrative; and this has the potential to lead to some abuses. It actually seems a miracle that anyone can understand each other at all. There is a one-directional construction of dialogue in which often barely comprehensible figures of power throw orders out into the air and other characters are meant to catch them and act upon them in such a way that they correspond perfectly with the speaker’s intentions (Marlon Brando in The Godfather springs to mind). Having a king making repeated attempts to delineate his precise meaning and shaping his language to fit the warped system of logic of one of his inferiors is therefore a brilliant subversion of the norms of filmic comprehensibility.
It also undermines the nature of power itself. What is attacked is the process of agreement by which a king is recognised as absolute ruler. The lady of the lake myth that establishes King Arthurs reign is taken apart by some peasants he meets along the way. The nature of power consists of an essential compatibility of logic, in which the ruler controls the needs and wants of their inferiors. Yet when these needs and wants take radically divergent lines to what the King provides, the foundation of his power falls down completely. The knights who say ‘ni’ therefore not only cannot be linguistically reasoned with, they cannot be provided for in a way the king is best suited to. In order to cross their lands they demand a ‘shrubbery’. This intrusion of surrealism works to completely negate the basis of King Arthurs rule, and as such he is made (despite his earnestness) to appear a floundering idiot stooping to the level of those he is supposed to command. Above all however, he is made to look human.
There is no inherent meaning to life, no quest narrative we undertake, no holy grail. Yet rather than adopt the despairing philosophies of existentialism, the film revels in its playfulness, the eccentricities of character, and the sheer variety of situations for which we have no rigorous formula. It is a life affirming celebration of meaninglessness, a breath of fresh air from the suffocating fumes of scholarly research. Now back to my dissertation…