January 13, 2005
Blockbuster video conducted one of those non-polls over the Christmas period and ascertained that the funniest scene in cinema history is Reg's "What have the Romans ever done for us?" rant from Life of Brian. Given some of the more unpleasant examples of religious craziness distilled by recent tragic events in Asia, I found it almost nostalgic to recall the comparatively benign offense taken at this film and it's allegedly blasphemous content all those years ago.
Anyone who knows the film well realises that its chief satirical targets were not the religious so much as lefties, with all our least endearing traits - sectarianism, empty gestures, endless deliberation - all deservedly lampooned. The film made fun of feminism and identity politics, and it's not too much of a stretch to take the sketch mentioned above as a swipe at anti-colonialism, not that I'd want to argue the Pythons injected that subtext deliberately (although... they were all members of a generation old enough to watch their own country lose an empire of its own - no, no, that way madness lies!) Nevertheless, the religious griping took the limelight, unsurprisingly given the film's setting, and what with what was potentially the most controversial scene wisely jettisoned, known only to those who bought the published script.
Robert Hewison's interesting little book Monty Python: the Case Against details the backlash against the film, and the attempts to suppress it. While pointing up some of the more absurd aspects of Britain's common law provisions on blasphemous libel (legal precedent suggests it's a bad idea to compare Christ to a "conjuror"), the book demonstrates that the essential problem with censorship is the subjective nature of interpretation. For example, the book reproduces an extract from a speech by Roger Fulton, pastor of the Neighbourhood Church in New York, (unfortunately only the first page) detailing what he considered objectionable about the film. The first item was always my favourite, clearly showing the Rev. Fulton understood the value of leading with your strongest gag:
The mother of Messiah (Brian) is a man in woman's clothing, in direct violation of the Holy Scriptures.I guess we couldn't expect a New York fundamentalist to be familiar in 1979 with the well-established British cultural tradition of drag, but you have to wonder how Fulton confused casting a man as a woman with the notion the character was intended to be a transvestite (which means Fulton's understanding of Terry Jones' performance in the stoning sketch was that he was a man playing a man playing a woman playing a man). But I've always liked the phrase "in direct violation of the Holy Scriptures"; it's important to dot the 'i's and cross the 't's, and who knows how many members of Fulton's audience would not have known the Biblical account makes that clear. It's just possible Fulton was referring to the Biblical prohibition on cross-dressing - OK, no, it isn't but I'm looking for a closer.
At the time these people seemed beyond the pale, with their cinema protests and their friendly suburban book-burnings; but compared to the present mob, they look like a harmless joke. I have a hideous feeling that's my only point. Aren't you glad you stopped by?