On M*A*S*H, Monty Python, Animal House and smart humor

Juxtaposed in my daily newsletter from The Guardian yesterday:

  1. Monty Python’s Terry Jones has passed away.
  2. Now that the movie M*A*S*H is 50 years old, can we talk about what a misogynist piece of crap it was?

M*A*S*H and Monty Python were both products of the turn of the decade into the 70s. Conventional wisdom would say M*A*S*H is the More Serious Work of Meaningful Art. It was released during the Vietnam War, and it had an irreverent attitude toward war. It has been deemed “culturally significant” by the people who deem things as such. So it must be brilliant, right?

In snippets, it was. Robert Duvall’s Maj. Frank Burns is a prototypical hypocritical Christian soldier who snaps when confronted about his dalliance with Maj. Houlihan, leading to one of the better lines in the film — “Now, Colonel, fair’s fair — if I nail Hot Lips and punch Hawkeye can I go home?” The best remark on the military was one of those moments that goes quickly, and it’s delivered by another person who left us recently — René Auberjonois, whose harried Father Mulcahy provided, as William Christopher’s version did in the TV series, a much-needed dose of kindness:

But too much of it is, well, crap. Yes, it’s sexist crap. Nurses, including Sally Kellerman’s Major Houlihan, are objects. This was Kellerman’s only Oscar nomination, which may be as powerful a statement on the rampant sexism in the Academy than the inability to nominate a female director. Kellerman’s is too good a comic actress to be totally lost here, and she rescues an otherwise cringe-worthy football scene with a perfectly delivered line, but this character’s one-dimensional sex-object status is confirmed when she’s later found sleeping with Duke, one of her tormenters. (All that said, I frequently quote “Yay, we got a flag!” when I see a penalty in a football game.)

It’s also selfish crap. In a rather pointless digression from the activity at camp, the doctors are called to Tokyo to operate on a congressman’s son. They take full advantage of their status as hotshots, demanding steak and demeaning nurses.

The Guardian piece above blames M*A*S*H for sexist films to follow, such as Animal House, Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds. There’s no defending Revenge of the Nerds and its mistaken-identity sex scene, and I can’t speak to Porky’s. But let’s talk about Animal House, coincidentally featuring M*A*S*H star and ubiquitous actor Donald Sutherland …

The case against, as laid out in a USA TODAY story that gives the film a thumbs-up with a few caveats: Bluto is a Peeping Tom, Larry sleeps with a 13-year-old, and the end credits have a joke about Greg being raped in prison. The story doesn’t mention Neidermayer being killed in Vietnam by his own troops, which was actually so serious a problem that Colin Powell felt threatened while he was there.

The case for: First of all, it has so many indelible lines and scenes. Bluto’s “was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” motivational speech is a staple of sports fandom. I frequently use Kevin Bacon’s “REMAIN CALM! ALL IS WELL!” GIF in response to people who think there’s nothing wrong with the current sociopolitical state. “Seven years of college down the drain” is something I hope not to be hearing. The rigged trial. The parade, from the marbles to Stork redirecting the band.

So Animal House, like M*A*S*H has been deemed culturally significant. So was Amadeus, giving Tom Hulce at least two films on the list. And NYT columnist Elvis Mitchell said Animal House followed the M*A*S*H legacy not in sexism but in bringing us the “arrogance of the counterculture.”

Animal House borrows more good than bad from M*A*S*H. And the women aren’t as one-dimensional as in previous films. Mandy is in full control of her sex life — “agency,” we’d call it today. Katy is justifiably frustrated with Boon. I’d love to see an edit, but I’m not going to dismiss it. It punctures the hypocrisy of authority — to me, more effectively than M*A*S*H. (Of course, the M*A*S*H TV series did a bit better than the Animal House series. A bit.)

Romani Ite Domum. People's Front of Judea. Join Today!

Monty Python may not seem to be such a powerful comedic voice. The troupe dwelled in the absurd — an incongruous argument about the air speed of a swallow, a cheese shop with no cheese, a soccer match between philosophers (for the record, Marx was right — Socrates was offside), etc.

But Python was driven by legitimate intellectual heavyweights, which certainly explains its appeal to nerds like me. The importance of philosophy is evident today only in The Good Place, which I’ll have to binge-watch at some point. Monty Python and the Holy Grail was inspired by a solid grounding in medieval life.

And that’s where we’ll start with Terry Jones.

Jones was, as many obituaries have noted, a Renaissance man. His work on Holy Grail was intertwined with his research on Geoffrey Chaucer, about whom he wrote two books. He produced documentary series on the Crusades (a must-watch) and other medieval phenomena, bringing the sins of the past into a modern context with strong commentary leavened with outrageous humor.

Much of Jones’ commentary was direct. He wrote frequently against the burgeoning war industry. But he also was a master of satire, most obviously as the director of Life of Brian, which satirized Christianity and cult behavior but not Christ. The people who complain about the film never realized they, not Jesus, were the ones we were laughing at.

I’ve often lamented the decline in comedy in an era in which humor in film seems consigned to quips from Marvel characters as they dispatch the bad guys. The 2015 Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical went to The Martian, which I’m guessing is funny in places but isn’t exactly Caddyshack, a glorious anti-authoritarian mess of a movie. The last comedy to have any sort of pop-culture impact was probably The Hangover — a decade ago.

The idea that political correctness is to blame is simply ridiculous. Listen to any Pandora comedy station, and you’ll hear the same misogynist crap we heard from bad standups in decades past.

We do have a lot of great comedies on TV, at least, and Saturday Night Live is in a golden era. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert ushered in a new era of sharp satire just when we needed it most.

But wouldn’t we love to see another Terry Jones?

Sex on the big screen — no, not Game of Thrones on your 65-inch HD in the basement

Murder! Guns! Graphic war scenes! A man tenderly running his hand …

Whoa, whoa! We can’t let our kids see that!

Our sensibilities about sex and violence have always been a bit hypocritical. Jamie Lee Curtis taking off her top in Trading Places? That’s an R rating. A film strewn with death? Today, PG-13. In the old days, just PG. Even the original Star Wars had a high death toll, though it was just rebel pilots vaporizing or stormtroopers doing the Wilhelm scream.

Obi-Wan: “Only Imperial stormtroopers are so precise.” Family Guy: “I hit a bird once.”

Meanwhile, on cable, language restrictions are completely out the window, and some people even have s-e-x. As someone who jumped on the Game of Thrones very late in the show’s run, I started to wonder if part of the appeal was that people got naked. Very naked.

From Saturday Night Live:

Emilia Clarke: Remember when we had sex in Season 6?

Kit Harington: Yes, I do.

Clarke: Did you know they filmed that?

Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday is wondering when moviemakers will catch up.

To be sure, there’s precious little to mourn in the death of the kind of ogling soft-core wish-fulfillment fantasies that male directors foisted on viewers for nearly a century. But is abstinence really our only option? With young filmmakers being co-opted by the Disney-Marvel complex, and with millennials and Generation Z reportedly having less sex than their predecessors, the new chastity on screen feels like a prudent but not entirely welcome new normal.

And it’s better than having kids learn about sex from porn.

(Yes, this clip is very explicit.)

The “Life of Brian” debate, nearly 40 years later

Having spent a day on the soccer fields and being ready to think about anything other than soccer, I watched something I’ve been meaning to watch for years — a legendary BBC program in which John Cleese and Michael Palin of Monty Python defend the film Life of Brian in a debate with satirist and Christian convert Malcolm Muggeridge and Anglican bishop Mervyn Stockwood.

I watched it in four parts, then found that someone else posted the whole hour intact:

It’s equal parts fascinating and irritating.

Fascinating in the sense that it’s the sort of the discussion we simply can’t imagine having today. The participants are given plenty of time to speak. For the most part, it’s a genteel discussion that seems utterly foreign to anyone who has watched modern cable “news” for five minutes.

Irritating in the sense that the “Christian” guys are virtually caricatures. They make smug comments about the “10th-rate” film, and they insist on a rather narrow interpretation of the film. When Palin insists that they are not ridiculing Christ, their idea of a response is “humbug.”

 

What I love about Life of Brian is the same thing I love about a lot of my favorite comedies, including most of my favorite Simpsons episodes. It’s about the absurdity of the mob. It’s about groups that yell, “Yes, we are all individuals!” It’s about the splintering between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea.

It’s about us. Not Jesus.

Star Wars NEVER made sense. Get over it.

Oh no! The Last Jedi ruins our sense of canon! Why would Luke act that way?

(For the record, Mark Hamill has walked back some of his misgivings:)

But the Star Wars saga has always been embedded in our culture despite its flaws. I don’t just mean the things that make less sense as more movies are made, such as Kenobi’s failure to recognize R2 or the one that recently popped into my head — why did the Hidden Chosen One, The Son of Anakin Skywalker, hide out on Anakin’s home planet with the last name “Skywalker”? Why isn’t he “Luke Lars” (Uncle Owen’s last name) or “Luke Smith” or “Luke Totally Not a Fallen Jedi’s Son”?

We had those problems in the original trilogy as well. Mostly the “OMG, if Leia always knew Luke was her brother, then why …” problem.

But even in the first film, we have a few issues.

Selective empathy. I think Robot Chicken put it best.

But it’s not just that. In the attack on the Death Star, we see Porkins losing his battle with gravity and joining many other longtime rebels in the great beyond. All of these deaths pass as routine. But when the hillbilly kid who just turned up at the base flies through something hot, everyone’s all, “Luke! Are you OK?”

And speaking of expendable rebels, why does Wedge get a free pass? X-Wing fighters don’t have any rear weapons, so the wingmen in the Death Star trenches aren’t really doing anything other than flying around as human shields to make it slightly more difficult for TIE fighters to take out the dude with the targeting computer switched on. But when Wedge takes a glancing blow to his ship, he gets a doctor’s note excusing him from the rest of the battle.

Stormtrooper shooting. Yes, it’s a big joke — the stormtroopers can’t hit anything.

bird.jpg

Which would be somewhat understandable if not for:

A. Scenes in which the targets (Luke, Han, an occasional droid) are just standing right there.

B. Say it with me now: “These blast points, far too accurate for Sand People. Only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise.” That’s a bit like a Delta in Animal House saying Bluto is the champion of dieting and sobriety.

“They let us go.” Oh really, Leia? That’s your conclusion, even after you just hugged a Wookiee to celebrate Han and Luke’s victory over the TIE fighters (and, given the massive explosions that TIE fighters apparently have when blasted, somehow managing to do so at sufficient range to the Millennium Falcon wasn’t melted)?

Did no one on the Death Star think to inform the TIE fighter pilots that they needed to back off? Or did they just receive a mission briefing like this:

“OK, folks, our prisoners are escaping.”

“No problem, sir! We’ll blast them out of the sky, er, space or whatever.”

“Actually, no. Go out and pretend that you’re doing that. Land a few shots on the ship’s shield and do that funky side-to-side thing that makes you really difficult to hit. But then just stop and let them shoot you.”

(silence)

“Why the hell would we do that?”

“Look, this whole thing is about to be blown up in … well, it apparently takes less than a day to get to the rebel base … so you’re just saving yourself some aggravation.”

So fret all you want about Luke’s grumpiness in The Last Jedi or Rey picking up light saber skills as quickly as … well, as quickly as Luke did. The fact is we fell in love with a flawed mythic saga because of the imaginative, immersive universe (or galaxy) with John Williams music and classic characters. The light side outweighs the dark side.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get to work. My next story is due in three parsecs.

 

Real-life Spinal Tap moments

I recently read one of Rick Wakeman’s books, and he tells the story of Alan White inspiring the “stuck in the pod” moment. In a Yes concert, White was indeed stuck in a pod.

That’s No. 1 on this list of Spinal Tap-related commandments, and it overlaps a bit with this list of 11 real-life Spinal Tap moments. (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers getting lost backstage and wandering onto a tennis court may be the highlight.)

Also, this Rob Reiner video explains why a couple of band members had cold sores. All part of a lost subplot.

 

Left Behind – way, way behind

I’ve always held a deep distrust of the Left Behind phenomenon. It seems to preach to the “I’m saved and you’re not” school of arrogant Christianity.

So I got a kick out of this review of the Nicolas Cage “reboot” of the series on film:

They want churches to book whole theaters and take their congregations, want it to be a Youth Group event, want magazines like this one to publish Discussion Questions at the end of their reviews—want the system to churn churn away, all the while netting them cash, without ever having to have cared a shred about actual Christian belief.

They want to trick you into caring about the movie. Don’t.

(We tried to give the film zero stars, but our tech system won’t allow it.)

Yes, that review is from Christianity Today.

Also good, from Rotten Tomatoes (and I think I know the writer): “Yea verily, like unto a plague of locusts, Left Behind hath begat a further scourge of devastation upon Nicolas Cage’s once-proud filmography.”