Looking For Meaning in "The Meaning of Life"
Why are we here? What's life all about? Is God really real, or is there some doubt? Well tonight, we're going to sort it all out...because tonight it's The Meaning of Life.
The Meaning of Life is Monty Python's third and final film of original material, and it stands apart from the other two in very obvious ways. First of all, there is no driving plot to the film, and no central character that we can follow from beginning to end. The film does not have a central location from which the events are based and it does not even unfold chronologically.
In fact, it's all too tempting to describe the film dismissively as nothing more than a collection of new sketches, linked together by some vague sort of gesturing toward a common theme. (And, to be fair, an unfamiliar member of the audience would be more than a little hard-pressed to find a common theme connecting Find the Fish to Sergeant-Major marching up and down the square.)
Yet this is a film more than a collection of sketches. It may not bother with a singular, chief narrative and there may not be an Arthur or a Brian with whom we can align ourselves for the ride, but it does open with a question ("I mean, what's it all about?"), gives us a promise that the question will be answered ("For a change it will all be made clear"), and closes with its appropriate fulfillment ("Thank you, Brigitte").
Why this essay, then? We've all seen the film. It starts with a question, moves through some great comedy, and arrives at an intentionally anti-climactic "revelation" of the meaning of life. One can accept or reject this explicit meaning as one pleases. Is there really anything to discuss?
Certainly there is, because the meaning given at The End of the Film carries no more weight than the other brief ponderances peppered throughout the movie, and it only appears to be more important because of its placement as concluding sentiment. (Which it isn't, anyway.)
Follow me, if you please, and we'll pull this film apart piece by piece, and find out whether or not there is a real meaning hidden inside.
Have you ever wanted to know what it's all about?
Skipping The Crimson Permanent Assurance (for the time being), we find ourselves gazing into an empty fish tank...or so we think. First one fish, and then another, and then another four, swim into view, greeting each other and exchanging pleasantries.
We're reminded verbally of another normal day at the office ("Morning." "Morning!") or perhaps stilted, unenthusiastic breakfast-table chatter ("What's new?" "Not much.") In essence, we are only a few seconds into the film, and already we are being asked to appraise a tankful of fish as a scaled-down approximation of human interaction. A glass-tank microcosm, if you will. And, just in case someone out there might not have understood the parallel, the film ensures that each of the fish is given a real human face.
We are meant to see the segments in the fish tank as somehow relating to the greater whole--and, perhaps, as one of the most important segments, as well, given the fact that it recurs several times throughout the film, whereas most other segments are closed off and abandoned one by one, having served their singular purpose.
But why fish? If, to restore the human-like situation to its probable origin, we opened with several employees in an office standing around the water cooler, greeting each other and eventually questioning the meaning of existence, wouldn't that be enough to get the film rolling?
The answer is yes, absolutely. But there are two reasons this would not work. Firstly, in terms of entertainment, it wouldn't be as funny, and wouldn't be nearly as striking a visual on which to open the film. And secondly, it would actually open the film on an uncommonly sombre note. The fish, after all, only begin to question the nature of existence when death is introduced among their number. They stare helplessly out from the tank as Howard, who was among them as recently as the night before, is presented to a customer, dead and grilled on a platter. It is here, at this precise moment, that the grand question is raised, that they take life outside of the tank into consideration, and that they begin to ponder the nature of a universe that could allow such a thing to cruelly (and to them mysteriously) happen in what they had thought was a safe environment.
Now let's return to the alternate opening, in which our office workers are gathered together. One of the employees mentions that Howard, a coworker, passed away the night before. This causes another to raise an important question: "Makes you think, doesn't it?" And then: "I mean, what's it all about?"
Even if the entire film to follow were played out just as we know it, there's no question that the human opening would start the film sourly, and would actually make much of what follows to appear to be in poor taste. By opening with the bathetic fish, the Pythons manage to make a morbid situation humorous without resorting to dark or bad-natured comedy, and they set the tone more accurately for what is to follow: big ideas explored in small (and often irrelevant) ways.
But there's one more thing the opening scene does: it takes us off our guard. After all, a film that intends to discuss a topic as wide and ineffable as the meaning of existence can't be taken too seriously if the question is posed by a fish with John Cleese's head on it. It makes the audience more receptive to the idea that a satisfactory answer to The Ultimate Question might not be reached after all. But more importantly, it allows the Pythons to slip a genuine stab at the meaning of life into the film without actually having it held up and dissected by viewers at all.
C'est le sens de la vie.
In addition to being supported by possibly the best piece of animation Terry Gilliam ever created for the group, the film's title song serves as an important overture to the film, and also a catchy sort of mission statement for the benefit of the viewer.
While it is impossible for a first-time viewer to know this so early in the film, music plays a much greater and more important role in The Meaning of Life than anywhere else in the Python universe, and here, already, it is promising us that the questions posed by the fish will not go unanswered: "Come along," it seems to say, and it's not entirely coincidental that Eric Idle performs the song with the same French accent he will later use in his portrayal of Gaston the waiter. Both the singer and the waiter (who may possibly be the same person) invite us to follow them on a journey that will eventually reveal to us life's meaning.
There are other aspects of the song that indicate the nature of the journey we are about to undertake. It's a happy-sounding song, upbeat and major key, and it undercuts its own large and challenging questions ("Is there Heaven and Hell? Do we reincarnate?") with welcome breathers of unimportant wordplay ("Are we just yolks?"). It's a decided mix of the light and heavy, and it sets the tone for the film to follow. Whatever the Meaning of Life happens to be (we are passively assured) it isn't anything to be afraid of.
Of course, we've all seen the film. We all know that at The End of the Film a female presenter appears and reads the Meaning of Life from a card inside an envelope. Isn't that enough? Judge for yourself:
Well, it's nothing special: try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.
Feeling just a little dissatisfied with life's meaning? Well, you should--it's one of the major jokes of the film, after all, so if you are somehow satisfied with what is more an impersonal, itemized list of basic social advice than any kind of real, underlying meaning of existence then you are probably a very confused individual who didn't actually realize you were watching a comedy.
But not only is this "Meaning of Life" disappointing...it isn't even the Meaning of Life that the film itself suggests! Nothing in the film suggests that being nice to people will get you anywhere, nor is reading a good book ever suggested or demonstrated to be helpful in any way (though it does get one character out of marching up and down the square). Getting some walking in and avoiding fat might make you less likely to become Mr. Creosote, and living in harmony would have avoided some otherwise pointless death in the war sequences, but, again, even if these items are good advice they don't actually add up to any kind of solution to the mystery of existence. If anything, they are only a loose gesture toward dealing with life in a world that we can't comprehend.
Also, consider the source. Is the female presenter a reliable vessel through which the Meaning of Life might be delivered? Certainly not, as, immediately following her delivery of life's meaning, she lapses into a biased tirade against cinema, censors and the movie-going public. Generally speaking it is never a good idea to take as gospel the promises of a character with an obvious agenda, and agendas don't seem to get more obvious than hers. And, as if that were not enough, we are also promised "completely gratuitous pictures of penises," which never do come. So not only is she biased, but she is completely unreliable. If she can't serve even as an authority on the contents of her own film, then how can we possibly trust her to reveal the true meaning of the infinite cosmos?
We can't. But that, then, should raise a further question: does Monty Python's The Meaning of Life actually have to include anything better than what we are given at the end?
The answer, I believe, is yes, if only because we are promised a satisfactory answer in the theme song, which itself is a sequence of promises, all of which are realized (or personified) at some point during the course of the film. It'd be a strange omission, then, if the cardinal promise of the theme song were the only one that went unfulfilled.
Philosophy for two?
Rather than shape the film in any way that implies direct movement toward one grand solution (or, to put it another way, a film that gradually narrows from confusion toward enlightenment), the Pythons give us a selection of metaphorical and indirect musings on the general nature of existence. Sometimes we seem to drift very close to an answer ("You know, Maria, I sometimes wonder whether we'll ever discover the meaning of it all working in a place like this...") and sometimes we seem to be helplessly far off course ("Tiger Brand Coffee is a real treat / even tigers prefer a cup of it to real meat!"), but it is precisely this seemingly-careless patterning that allows the film to work. After all, if the zanier, irrelevant situations were all bunched up together toward the beginning of the film and the comparatively serious, verbose musings on the strangeness of existence were strung together at the end, the film would be a plodding (and didactic) fizzle. Instead, the cycles of life are emphasized, which serves both the enjoyability and realism of the film.
Triumph and tragedy alternate throughout the film, but there is always a steady magnetic return to the middle ground of life's tedium and banality, such as when trench warfare takes a back seat to a birthday celebration, or an exploding restaurant patron gives way to an after-hours cigarette break. Whenever big ideas are actually touched upon, nearly all of the characters (except for the fish, who seem genuinely to want to find an answer more than anyone else in the film does) make a half-hearted attempt at accepting them before rejecting them and getting on with their lives. The Hendys illustrate this most vividly ("Waiter? This conversation isn't very good..."). There is always a human element to the film, even at its strangest.
And yet, despite this constant human element, the film is called The Meaning of Life, and not The Meaning of Human Life. We even have a couple of excursions into the Kingdoms Animal (the fish) and Vegetable (the dying autumn leaves). In each instance, though, a human face (quite literally, in the former case) is applied: the fish are quietly content with their lives until tragedy spurs them to question larger things, and the leaves are affected, in ever-increasing numbers, by grief at having lost somebody close to them.
In fact, taken together, these two situations demonstrate opposite possible reactions to the same stimulus: one constructive, the other destructive. Faced with the reality (and inevitability) of death, the fish begin to ponder life, and they are rewarded for this active receptiveness by a film--the film we, too, are watching--that seems to assemble itself spontaneously (and immediately) simply because the question has been asked. But the leaves, when faced with the same tragedy, fall instead into a belief that life is too cruel for them to continue, and they take their own lives in turn. The fish treat death as an excuse to explore life's mystery and the leaves treat death as an excuse to bring everything to an end. The fish bring the entire film to life; the only thing the leaves bring to life is the Grim Reaper, channelled by their negative reaction to one of existence's only assurances, who then proceeds to bring the lives of several characters (and the "life" of the film itself) to a close.
Duality of this type exists all throughout the film. We are given two different versions of the process of birth, two different live-action versions of death, two different wars, two appearances of The Crimson Permanent Assurance, two helpings of The Galaxy Song (more on that later), and so on. We seem to be invited--despite the fact that the film can so easily be mistaken for nothing more than a series of only ostensibly inter-related sketches--to compare and contrast various occurrences and choices made throughout the film.
In fact, the second of the birth segments (Birth in the Third World) also has another dichotomy for us to explore: the Protestant family unit versus the Catholic family unit. The differences between the families are strikingly obvious, but they exist in both a positive and negative sense, so that there is no clear "right" answer suggested by the film. For instance, the Catholic family lives in squalor and is on the verge of selling its children off for medical experimentation...by contrast, the Protestants appear to be well-to-do and cozy in their home life. However their interactions are impersonal and almost entirely without emotion, whereas the Catholics are full of love for one another and are liable to break into city-wide celebration at any moment.
Interestingly, the patriarch of each family demonstrates a severe sexual selfishness, though in conflicting directions. The Catholic man may indeed be guided by his religious faith when he refuses to use contraceptive devices, but the enormous (and increasing) number of his children proves that he hasn't taken any steps to keep his libido in check. Conversely (but in definite complement) the Protestant man withholds sexual intercourse from his wife, who would clearly benefit from being paid attention to in that very way. The Catholic keeps on his selfishly sexual path despite the consequences to his family, and the Protestant keeps on his selfishly non-sexual path despite the consequence to his wife. Python has managed to caution us against two very unenviable extremes, and it is suggested that the "right" answer is actually somewhere in the unaccentuated middle.
In fact, this seems to be a good rule for the film itself: we are shown extremes, but the Meaning of Life, if we are to find it at all, is going to be somewhere inside, unemphasized, perhaps, even, silent. But it is there. Just as darkness cannot exist without light, these moments of extremity cannot exist without at least the suggestion of a "right" way to do things.
Another perhaps important duality can be found by comparing the Catholic and Protestant couples at the beginning of the film to the couples who are confronted by Death toward the end. Whereas the religious couples both have an unflinching faith in something intangible that they can never see, the three couples at the end of the film refuse to believe even when they are confronted by a physical manifestation of the Spiritual World. In fact, they cling to every last vestige of the Material World that they can, taking their drinks and automobiles along with them into the afterlife.
Again, neither of these viewpoints is endorsed by the film itself; the audience is always meant to be laughing at these characters, rather than aligning themselves with them. The "right" answer must be somewhere in the middle.
Hallo! And welcome to the Middle of the Film!
Part of the reason we, as viewers, accept the "be nice to people" advice to actually serve as Python's answer to the Meaning of Life is that, thanks to the segments called The Middle of the Film and The End of the Film, the female presenter appears to be our framing device, and is therefore on some level "above" the rest of the characters. That is to say that she is speaking to us directly and could, should the need arise, summarize for us what we've just seen in any segment of the film, whereas, conversely, no other character in the film would be in any position to summarize her segments.
This is reinforced by the fact that Christmas in Heaven is cut short when the television we are "watching" is switched off, and it's revealed to be the presenter's television, with the suggestion that she was watching it along with us.
All of which lends her a passive sort of authority on the film (and, presumably, its themes and meaning), yet we have already disproven her trustworthiness, based on her strong personal bias against the film industry and also on her inability to predict what happens next in the film that she should ostensibly be in charge of.
But why? What good did it do Python to set such an unreliable character up to serve as our personified framing device? Well, the Middle / End of the Film segments are an illusory framing device at best. It is only suggested that these segments exist on some level above the rest of the film...it is not confirmed. In fact, I would argue that the opposite is confirmed, and that these segments should not be ascribed any more importance than the others.
After all, the film itself seems to have been generated spontaneously (the cinematic equivalent of a "Big Bang") simply because the fish raised an interesting question. The film itself is serving as a sort of elaborate and indirect answer to that question, with the Middle / End of the Film woman having a broader vantage point of its content than any other character in the film. But, in reality, she appears only twice, and serves as a red herring (natch) each time.
In the Middle of the Film we play a game of Find the Fish. Where is the fish? Well...it's probably nowhere, but the most fair thing we can say about it is that we don't know where it is. We are given cryptic clues as to its whereabouts, bizarre characters strut around either in order to distract us from the search or lead us closer to success, and various possibilities are shouted out from the film's "audience." An interestingly complicated (and most likely unwinnable) arrangement for such a pointless action as locating a fish. Yet at the End of the Film the supposed ultimate solution to life's true meaning is found...in an envelope that is conveniently handed to her from off camera.
Does anybody else see a sort of criminal unbalance here? The search for the fish is more elaborate and difficult than the search for the Meaning of Life. One requires, it seems, an impossible amount of effort and mind-power (considering that the answer will never be explicitly revealed, no matter how many times you may watch it) and the other is just produced on demand. Something isn't right here. Something is--forgive me this--fishy.
I believe it's important that we keep the Middle of the Film in mind when we watch the End of the Film. Why? Because it should remind us that nothing so important in this film should be located and explained so easily. In fact, the game of Find the Fish should serve as a sort of explanation of the film on a much smaller scale. Humorous wordplay, bizarre characters, an impossible search--isn't this practically the Monty Python mission statement? Find the Fish is a cautionary tale to the viewer, and one should keep it in mind as he or she watches the film. If there is a fish to be found, its location (and identity) is not to be revealed. You are provided with your clues and a little show in the process, and then you are shoved politely along to the next segment.
So, too, is the search for the Meaning of Life in The Meaning of Life. It's in there somewhere, but taken metaphorically, Find the Fish assures us that it will not be made explicit. It will not be read to us from a card inside of an envelope. It's there...somewhere...but it's up to us to find it.
What, then, is the film's framing device? If the Middle / End of the Film segments are just short distractions rather than any kind of helpful indications of what we need to know, is there any section of the film that truly stands above the others in terms of authority?
The answer is yes...kind of. The fish. The fish in the tank not only start off the film, but they appear to be "above" the Middle of the Film as well, as they are able to watch and comment on it when it's over. Which is somewhat problematic, because it shuffles our levels of authority around a bit. To wit:
We have a lowest level of the film, in which the characters do not know they're characters and do not realize they are in a film, or even that there is a film to be in. Above them is the Middle / End of the Film lady, who is aware that there is a film and that she is presenting segments of it. Above her are the fish, as they are able to watch and comment on what she says and does. This means that the fish are at least two levels above the main action of the film itself, yet when Mr. Creosote enters the restaurant the fish all panic and scatter, meaning that, somehow, the film had managed to overlap itself. We no longer have three parallel levels of reality within the film--somewhere, unpredictably, the lines have managed to converge, and the fish, who were previously in some authoritative position, are now potentially in danger from action on the lowest fictional plane of events. And, considering the fact that the fish never reappear in the film after that point, the danger may have been very real indeed.
In fact, it's more than a little likely that Creosote ate them all. Originally the character was meant to have a half-eaten fish hanging out of his mouth toward the end of the restaurant scene, but because the scene was taking too long to film the fish went bad and they used a pineapple top instead. But that's behind-the-scenes stuff and really not of interest to someone looking to dissect the actual content of the film, so let's put that aside and present some more pressing evidence: for all they wanted to know about the Meaning of Life, and as many times as they interrupted the film prior to that point to wonder when we'd finally get to hear something about it, the fish make no interruption whatsoever when we actually encounter a segment entitled The Meaning of Life.
Is this really likely? These same fish who were rude enough to interrupt the Hendys' conversation simply because somebody mentioned the phrase "the meaning of life?" All of a sudden they've lost interest?
No. More likely they were destroyed by the fictional plane of events that should have been safely two levels below them. Somewhere along the way the film got itself tangled and the planes started to cross and intersect--and the film (quite literally) consumed its own framing device.
Some more glaring evidence of this self-consumptive tangle occurs when The Crimson Permanent Assurance escapes the confines of its "supporting feature" status and attacks the main picture, only to have its setting and characters destroyed in a contrary manner to the destruction we've already witnessed earlier in the film.
And, finally, instead of the gratuitous pictures of penises we are promised by the woman at the End of the Film, we have, instead, a lonesome television set floating through space, playing (of all the metaphorical possibilities) the opening animation to Monty Python's Flying Circus. The film, at this point, has escaped all possible boundaries. It has destroyed the fish who set up the film in the first place, it has overturned the authority of the woman in its framing devices, and it has crushed its supporting feature. It has become an entity unto itself, with nobody to answer to, and our control over the film is also symbolically pulled away from us by having the television set drift endlessly into the distance of limitless space.
But why? For what purpose? Well, because the film has one last thing it would like to say to us, and it doesn't want there to be any distractions, any pesky framing devices, any allegiance to other characters to get in the way.
It has one final thing to say, one concluding thought to leave us with--and it's a thought that begins with the sage words "Just remember..."
Makes you feel sort of...insignificant, doesn't it?
The Galaxy Song closes the film, but before we discuss why that might be significant, it's important to wind back a bit and take a look at its first appearance in the film, during the Live Organ Transplants segment.
The song is an atypical one for Python, as there aren't really any jokes in it. Neither does it make use of any clever phrasing or poke fun at a certain musical genre or attitude. And, furthermore, the song says practically nothing about the character who is singing it, as we've never seen him before and will never see him again. The song exists outside of the film's other music numbers, outside of the character who is performing it, and very possibly outside of the film itself...a larger, vast statement that halts the progress of the film for three minutes or so and then sends it spinning off in another direction.
The Galaxy Song is a strange creature, and every effort seems to be made to get us to pay attention to it. The action of the live organ transplant comes to a halt and the set collapses around the characters. Our vocalist in pink escorts us into an uneventful starfield and...that's it. There is now nothing at all to distract us from the song and its lyrics. There is a brilliant piece of Gilliam animation in this sequence, but it is confined entirely to the instrumental verse, and is given no chance to divert our attention from the content of the song itself.
All of which, as I mentioned a moment ago, is very strange, as there aren't really any jokes in the song. In fact, if you make allowances for rounding up or down, the facts about the universe as presented in the song are actually pretty accurate (as far as facts like that can be said to be accurate). So what happened here? We're watching a comedy film, after all, but nothing particularly funny is happening...yes, the song is lovely, but there aren't any jokes, nor will there be until the song is over. We do get a slight barb in the closing line ("Pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space / because there's bugger all down here on Earth") but that line is sung after the vocalist and Mrs. Brown return to the set. In other words, we've been physically relocated away from the comedy for the duration of the song, and this lone humorous sentiment at the end is a lyrical way of easing us into the return.
But why the detour in the first place? Well, it's because Mrs. Brown has a decision to make: does she give her liver to the two non-doctors who are asking for it? Bear in mind (as if you could forget) that such an action would result in her being destroyed in the most hideous, painful way. It seems like an easy choice to make, and, actually, it is. She declines. John Cleese's kind-of-doctorish character then introduces her to the vocalist in pink as a sort of last ditch argument, and, after hearing the song and being confronted with the facts and figures of such an enormous, complicated, unfathomable, expanding universe, Mrs. Brown converts to nihilism, and agrees to have her liver taken out.
Yet the song itself is not inherently nihilistic, is it? It does--as we see--present its listeners with a sort of a choice to become nihilistic, but that isn't particularly the viewpoint that the song itself endorses. In fact, it seems to endorse almost nothing at all except for its opening and closing sentiments:
Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown
And things seem hard or tough
And people are stupid, obnoxious or daft
And you feel that you've had quite enough
It's that "just remember" that's key, because this is advice that the vocalist in pink is about to give. He introduces his song by saying that he understands that the world sometimes seems cruel and unforgiving, and, in fact, he doesn't disagree with that evaluation. But "just remember" that the universe itself is so much bigger, and that whatever we might encounter during this course of this painful, irritating lifetime, it amounts to precisely nothing when gauged against the enormities of the universe.
And, just in case she might have forgotten, he ends the song by bringing it right back to a personal perspective:
So remember when you're feeling very small and insecure
How amazingly unlikely is your birth.
So far from nihilism is this particular phrase that it actually reinforces Mrs. Brown's value as an individual in a world populated entirely by unique personalities. He stresses Mrs. Brown's own cosmic near-impossibility, and yet, simply because she's there to hear the song, he makes it clear that she has, by sheer virtue of her own existence, beaten the unfathomable odds: she is alive. In a universe that is not interested in her existence and against infinite conditions that could have (and should have) aligned to keep her from even being born, she has triumphed. She has beaten greater odds than she herself can ever know.
And yet when faced with the awareness of the hugeness of the universe around her, she becomes nihilistic, loses her faith in the importance of life, and sacrifices herself to the cause of live organ transplants. And why? Because she suddenly feels insignificant, which, itself, is also the unspoken anti-moral of the song.
The Galaxy Song can be read in either of two ways: it is either a life-affirming promise that every one of us is valuable merely because we shouldn't even mathematically have ever existed to begin with, or it is an assurance that nothing we accomplish can ever amount to anything on a universal scale. Mrs. Brown has fallen into the latter camp. And just as she has been escorted by the vocalist away from the film and into a starfield where she can ponder the meaning of his words without distraction, so are we at the end of the film. We are left alone with his song in the vast emptiness of space, and now the decision is ours to make. Do we come away from the film feeling insignificant, or proud to be an individual? Does the weight of the facts drag us down or buoy us up? Do we resign ourselves to death's inevitability, as Mrs. Brown does, or do we use this knowledge as an excuse to live life to its fullest? The first time we encounter the song, the decision is Mrs. Brown's to make. The second time, the decision is ours.
Mr. Brown sacrificed himself because he was too full of good intentions to realize that he'd have to be dead for them to collect his liver. Mrs. Brown sacrifices herself because she no longer has any intentions left, despite the fact that she'd be leaving an orphaned teenage son behind. Again, it's a case of dueling extremes. Somewhere, we are quietly assured, down the middle, is the "right" answer.
Oh, shit. It's Mr. Creosote.
One thing about The Meaning of Life is certain: after you've seen it, whether you've enjoyed the film or vowed never to watch it again, you will never forget Mr. Creosote.
The segment only continues to escalate in terms of disgustingness, and never really offers any form of relief; instead, it builds to one enormous (and only partially cathartic) explosion at the end, which is bigger than what we've already seen but isn't necessarily any more disgusting. In fact, it's hard to produce anything shocking after such a vile, protracted scene as that, and so, rather than try to top it in terms of bigness or surprise, the Pythons make a wise decision by segueing into a secondary segment called The Meaning of Life, which sees three of the characters from the Creosote sketch cleaning up the restaurant, idly pontificating over the nature of life and existence. It's a quiet segment and strikingly dry in its execution, considering the infamously over-the-top scene that preceded it.
In terms of pacing the film, however, this is necessary, and also a clever artistic move. Instead of trying to trump the manic energy of Creosote's visit, we reset the energy level to zero. People are sitting on chairs, discussing the meaning of life just above a conversational whisper. The only thing shocking about the scene is that it manages to follow such insanity without seeming out of place.
But what does the Creosote sequence actually accomplish? What purpose does it serve in the greater film? Well, for starters, it somehow manages to seem like one of the bigger and more important events we'll see anywhere else in the movie. The first World War, for example, is actually just the backdrop for a sketch about an inopportune birthday party. The birth sequence is trivialized first by the doctors and then later by the Protestant couple, and even the arrival of Death turns out to be more about gradual acceptance than it does about sudden change.
And yet this event--this one solitary evening out for a very overweight man--seems to be more important than them all. Why? Because it contains, at its heart, the most significant exploration of social themes in the entire film. And, yes, it goes a long way toward helping us figure out the Meaning of Life.
The Mr. Creosote scene illustrates very clearly a hierarchal social structure and pecking order, which, during the course of the sketch, is overturned by the second-highest ranking individual on the ladder.
Let's take a look at it: at the top of the ladder we have Mr. Creosote, whose every whim, however selfish, disgusting or bizarre, is catered to by those beneath him. Immediately below is the Maitre D, played by John Cleese. Below him are the other patrons of the restaurant, who presumably command service from the rest of the restaurant staff but are certainly beneath the Maitre D's wish to cater to Mr. Creosote. Beneath the other patrons would be Gaston, played by Eric Idle, who is essentially at everybody's beck and call, and beneath him is Maria, the cleaning woman, because even though Gaston is passively abused, he is never humiliated nearly as badly as she is. And beneath her, we have the fish, who have absolutely no say in anything, including their own fates, and are very likely consumed at some point during the course of the sketch.
All throughout the Creosote scene we witness the results of this particular structure play out and become evident. Each character plays his or her part in the hierarchy without complaint, and it isn't until the sketch draws to a close that we realize that the Maitre D might have something underhanded in mind after all.
And finally, monsieur, a wafer-thin mint...
When Creosote refuses, the Maitre D refuses to let up, and resorts to inserting it forcibly into Creosote's mouth. Knowingly, the Maitre D dives behind a low wall to protect himself from the resultant explosion. It was an intentional act of gastronomical terrorism, and, as a result, the Maitre D has installed himself as the new head of the social order, which is reflected by his demeanor during the following scene, in which he smokes a self-congratulatory cigarette and converses with members of his staff.
He has managed to seize command of his own destiny, however temporarily, by incapacitating the man above him. There is a definite change in the character of the Maitre D from one scene to the next. He is more at ease with himself, he allows himself a more relaxed posture. He has succeeded. He is, for once, his own man, in control of his life and, for the time being at least, in command of the film.
He uses this newfound authority to steer the film more closely toward its central theme than it had ever come before, and it's an opportunity for both Terry Jones, as the cleaning woman, and Eric Idle, as Gaston, to shine. Each of them are invited to share their philosophies, and each character (as well as actor) takes this opportunity to its fullest potential.
With Creosote removed from the top of the social structure and the fish removed from the bottom, the Maitre D and the cleaning woman represent the highest and lowest social orders coming together. And, when they do, we learn that there's more to the cleaning woman than appearances might have suggested:
I've worked in worse places, philosophically speaking. [...] I used to work in the Academie Francaise, but it didn't do me any good at all. And I once worked in the library in the Prado in Madrid, but it didn't teach me nothing, I recall. And the Library of Congress...you'd have thought would hold some key. But it didn't. And neither did the Bodlein Library. In the British Museum I hoped to find some clue. I worked there from nine 'til six, read every volume through, but it didn't teach me nothing about life's mystery. I just kept getting older, and it got more difficult to see, until eventually my eyes went and my arthritis got bad. And so now I'm cleaning up in here.
All of which should lead us to feel sorry for her. After all, she made every intellectual attempt she could to better herself, and to come to some sort of grand enlightenment about the nature of the world and the universe around her, only to run out of time in the course of her explorations, to feel her body running down. She took a job cleaning up after people like Mr. Creosote because she had nothing to show for her intellectual pursuits. And, yes, she may follow up her story with an anti-Semitic comment, but from a Meaning of Life standpoint, the real criticism we should have with her is the following:
I feel that life is a game. You sometimes win or lose.
And there is the reason she is a cleaning woman. She has allowed herself to accept failure as an inevitable part of life, and therefore, when it happens, presumably, she does not fight against it. She accepts failure, which, in this particular social structure, is tantamount to welcoming it. The very fact that she expects to lose as often as she wins is what keeps her on the bottom of the social order while the Maitre D and Mr. Creosote, both self-assured men in their own right, find it so easy to stay on top.
Gaston reveals a similar fact about himself a little while later on, when he takes us on a walk to the house in which he was born:
You know, one day, my mother...she took me on her knee and she said to me, "Gaston, my son...the world is a beautiful place. You must go into it, and love everyone. Try to make everyone happy, and bring peace and contentment everywhere you go." And so...I became a waiter.
Whereas the cleaning woman has resigned herself to the fact that she will sometimes lose, Gaston has resigned himself to the fact that he must always lose if it means he can make somebody else happier in the process. He may or may not hold resentment toward his mother for outfitting him with an outlook that will keep him out of the privileged classes, but he certainly does become defensive after sharing his philosophy with us, suggesting that it's more a desire to follow his mother's teachings than any kind of innate tendency within himself. In this case, nurture has indeed triumphed over nature, and Gaston storms off toward the home (a symbol of his mother and her teachings) when he begins to feel that we might not agree with his philosophy.
Something else has happened in this scene, though. Have you spotted it? It revealed to us the central character of the movie. You are the central character. Throughout this entire scene the camera is operating from a first-person perspective. Characters address you, apologize to you, invite you to follow them, and become frustrated with you. It is for your benefit that they are having these discussions, and they sincerely want you to benefit from them, becoming upset when you walk out of the restaurant, or frustrated when you don't seem to have learned anything from their own personal philosophies.
In fact, if we take this to heart along with the Middle / End of the film lady, and the fish in the tank at the beginning (who make it a point to face us head-on, all six of them, when they pose the question that starts the entire film off) we realize that this is all for our benefit. From beginning to end, we are the ones that are supposed to be learning from the events in this film...not the characters. Suddenly the film has transformed into a series of brief parables, and it is up to us to interpret them. Chronology and consistency no longer seem lacking, because the film is a series of ordered vignettes with a common agenda. It doesn't succeed or fail based on its narrative thrust, it succeeds or fails based on what reaction it manages to get from us.
We are the central character, and we have been all along. The journey through the film is a personal one, and it is up to us what we take from it, how we develop based on what we've learned, and, as we are left alone in space with The Galaxy Song, what we decide to do next. Mrs. Brown chose nihilism and self-destruction. Is that choice necessarily the same one we will make? All throughout the film there are elements of dualism...but this is one for us to create ourselves.
But didn't Mrs. Brown have a point? Why bother? Aren't we all going to die anyway?
The answer: yes.
Mr. Death is a reaper.
Without question the film endorses the notion that there is some sort of afterlife. The question is whether or not what we see of it is metaphorical, but we can deal with that in a moment.
The immediate question we have to answer is what the point of anything is in a world in which death is inevitable. Well, that's a question that is--and will always be--open to personal interpretation and debate, but I think the film does address it in an oblique way.
Is death inevitable? Sadly, yes. The Meaning of Life may make many concessions toward fantasy, but absolving us of death and dying is not one of them. In fact, the Death segment features two illustrations of death's inevitability. The first is Arthur Jarrett, who illustrates, philosophically speaking, that we are all hurtling toward death--no matter how young we might be or how desirable it might be to turn around and cling to life. There is no escape. Jarrett is dead, and the horde of topless women go unloved. The second promise of death's inevitability is the fact that all six dinner guests are taken by the Grim Reaper, despite the fact that one of them didn't even eat the salmon mousse that was meant to have killed them. No matter what decisions one might make, or how they compare to the decisions made by others, we are all taken in the end.
So we can't escape death. Yes, yes, we know that. The question is what, then, is to keep us from falling into Mrs. Brown's nihilism and just...well...giving up?
That is answered by the destination we are led to at the end of the film: an afterlife. In this scene it is suggested that we retain our personalities and appearances, and so whatever accomplishments we might have made in life are not for naught. We will all meet up together in some spiritual night club somewhere and find ourselves in a state of eternal entertainment.
But, then, doesn't that mean that Earthly labor is pointless? Well, you can make up your own idea about that. But I would say no, because there is one more thing that the film suggests, and this is it: we are building toward one final, complex singularity.
The fact that all of the characters from the film (and, presumably, all throughout human history) converge in one location suggests that they are being kept there for a reason. And what is that reason? It could be the entire resetting of the universe, which, as proponents of the Big Crunch theory will tell you, is not entirely fictional. The souls may be kept here for however long until the singularity is achieved and all of time and space is redistributed again from the start.
Even the lyrics to Christmas in Heaven seem to suggest that the narrowing toward the singularity is already underway. Consider how many opposing forces are brought together for the sake of one song: it is snowing, but it is warm. Everyone dresses in their best suits, but still go swimming. The Sound of Music and the Jaws films converge as opposing--but presumably complementary--examples of great films (the former film happens to run twice an hour, suggesting that time is indeed undergoing some sort of cosmic restructuring). Christmas in Heaven manages to be both about the spiritual and the material, and the song itself seems to absorb several genres--it begins as a simple Christmas song, but it becomes a heavy-handed lounge number, closing out with aspects of hymn, pop, funk, and salsa. All in one short little musical number. Oh, yes, and, the angels have Santa suits and gratuitously exposed breasts--that's the spiritual, the material and the sexual becoming one.
Life is an assortment of themes and ideas, many of which are touched upon by the film--though certainly not all of them. The Meaning of Life doesn't intend to provide one final satisfactory answer, but it does provide the viewer with a lot of material for launching a philosophical search on his or her own.
Was that the intention of the Pythons? No. Certainly not. But it says an awful lot about the kinds of people they must be if they can set out to create an hour and a half of comedy sketches and just happen to offer their audience to chance for a complete reappraisal of their direction in life.