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PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: existentialism, philosophy of religion, ethics

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTORS TERRY GILLIAM AND TERRY JONES: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam and Jones, 1975), Monty Python's Life of Brian (Jones, 1979), Twelve Monkeys (Gilliam, 1995), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Gilliam, 1998)

SYNOPSIS: In a series of loosely connected skits, comedy troupe Monty Python explores some of the facets of that age-old question: "What's it all about?" The film is broken into several parts, including The Miracle of Birth, Growth and Learning, Middle Age, The Autumn Years, and Death. At the film's conclusion, characters from each segment of the film join each other in a Pythonian heaven as the audience of a Vegas-style song-and-dance routine.


Part One: The Miracle of Birth

1. The entire hospital scene offers a rather negative portrayal of the health care industry. The two doctors think of technology first and the patient last, the husband isn't allowed to witness his child's birth, and the administrator has no clue what a birth is. Is this a fair portrayal of today's health care industry?

2. Is the health care industry the only thing under attack, or can this scene be interpreted as a more universal critique of modern society?

The Miracle Of Birth Part Two: The Third World

3. During the dialogue before and after the rousing number "Every Sperm is Sacred," the father makes it perfectly clear that he wanted to use protection to prevent his wife from bearing quite so many children. Even as the children themselves offer other ways to keep the breeding under control, the father continues to appeal to the disapproval of either the Roman Catholic Church or God Himself. How much responsibility can the Church really claim for the overpopulation of the "third world" of Yorkshire?

4. When one of the sons asks "Couldn't you have your balls cut off?" the father appeals to God's omniscience: "It's not that simple, Nigel. God knows all. He'd see through such a cheap trick." Is the father genuinely acting out of his beliefs, or is he simply using tenets of his religion to rationalize avoiding a course of action he would choose to avoid anyway?

5. After the "Sperm" scene, the Blackitt couple discusses their Protestantism. For Mr. Blackitt, the right to use contraception is the ultimate end of the Reformation: "When Martin Luther nailed his protest up to the church door in 1517, he may not have realized the full significance of what he was doing, but 400 years later, thanks to him, my dear, I can wear whatever I want on my John Thomas." Though Mrs. Blackitt is clearly turned on by the thought of intercourse without reproduction, Mr. Blackitt seems to have no drive to make it actually happen. Does the freedom offered by their denomination matter at all if they never make any use of it?

Part Two: Growth and Learning

6. The chapel scene involves an extremely hyperbolic view of modern worship services. The sermon is dreadfully boring and without any real message, and both the prayer and hymn are extended devaluations of human worth: "O Lord, ooh, You are so big, so absolutely huge. Gosh, we're all really impressed down here, I can tell you. Forgive us, O Lord, for this, our dreadful toadying and bare-faced flattery, but You are so strong, and, well, just so super fantastic. Amen." Is there any truth behind this exaggerated portrayal?

7. Before the teacher enters the classroom in the sex-ed scene, the students all sit quietly and write in their notebooks. One student watches the door and informs the others that he sees the teacher coming. Upon hearing this, the students all begin to yell and throw paper at each other. Is it common for the desire to rebel against authority – especially in adolescents – to drive one to act in ways so thoroughly against one's usual nature?

8. What significance, if any, is there in the rugby scene in which all the teachers take great joy in watching the more athletic team violently attack the younger, weaker children?

Part Three: Fighting Each Other

9. After the odd war film is screened, the British General elaborates on the relation between military power and value systems: "…when one considers the meaning of life, it is a struggle between alternative viewpoints of life itself, and without the ability to defend one's own viewpoint against other, perhaps more aggressive ideologies, then reasonableness and moderation could quite simply disappear. That is why we'll always need an army, and may God strike me down were it to be otherwise." Though God proceeds to promptly strike him with lightning, might there be any truth behind the General's views?

10. In the First Zulu War scene, the officer class is lauded for its "calm leadership," and it is made clear that even the infantrymen themselves value the officers above themselves. The officers, however, continually display a detached, desensitized lack of concern for both the regular soldiers and the officer whose leg has been carried off by a tiger. Might the officers still be as effective – or perhaps more effective – in their leadership if they displayed more concern for others' wellbeing, as a feminist ethicist might suggest?

11. In a second criticism of health care, the military doctor tells his one-legged patient that the cause is "probably a virus," and goes on to inform him that reassurance is "what I'm here for," and asks if there are "any other problems I can reassure you about." When might a doctor be justified in lying to his or her patients to give them reassurance?

Part Four: Middle Age

12. In the dungeon restaurant scene, the waiter informs the middle-age couple that philosophy is "an attempt to construct a viable hypothesis to explain the meaning of life." How accurate is his definition of philosophy?

13. The couple is obviously clueless about philosophy. The wife asks whether philosophy is a sport. When asked whether he's "ever wanted to know what it's all about," the husband replies "Nope!" Finally, the couple discusses whether all philosophers' names contain the letter S. Is this an accurate portrayal of the masses' attitudes toward and knowledge of philosophy?

Part Five: Live Organ Transplants

14. Eric Idle's "Galaxy Song" describes human life in relation to the sheer size of the universe: "Our galaxy is only one of millions of billions…" Is the stark contrast between humanity and the university, and/or the meaninglessness implied thereby, a good enough reason to resign from life and commit suicide (or in the case of the film, to allow one's liver to be removed)?

15. Is there any redemption to be found in the lines near the song's conclusion, "So remember when you're feeling very small and insecure, how amazingly unlikely is your birth!" or is this not enough to outweigh just how tiny and insignificant we humans seem?

Part Six-A: The Autumn Years

16. Is the scene in which the frighteningly restaurant patron Mr. Creosote gorges himself until he explodes just for laughs, or can one interpret it in a symbolic and meaningful way? If so, how might this be done?

Part Six-B: The Meaning Of Life

17. Maria, the restaurant's cleaning women, claims that she has "worked in worse places, philosophically speaking… I used to work in the Académie Française, 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 would have though would hold some key, but it didn't, and neither did the Bodlean Library. In the British Museum I hoped to find some clue. I worked there from nine till six, read every volume through, but it didn't teach me nothing about life's mystery." Is it possible that academic philosophy might be leading us all further away from a meaningful view of life?

18. Gaston, the waiter, leads the audience out to the house of his birth, and exposes the simple do-good sort of philosophy he learned from his mother. Sensing a condescending reaction from the audience he admits "it's not a great philosophy," but quickly becomes offended and exclaims, "Well, f*** you! I can live my life in my own way if I want to!" Should Gaston have to be able to justify his personal meaning of life to anyone?

Part Seven: Death

19. In the brief animated interlude, autumn is presented as the suicide of tree leaves. One leaps off the tree, and the others follow, overwhelmed by the grief of their loss. When one is considering suicide, should one consider the potentially fatal consequences one's death might have on others?

20. In the scene in which Death visits the British couple and their American guests, it takes the recently deceased quite a while to realize what is readily apparent to the audience. Even then, they are quite reluctant to believe it, and demand from Death an explanation of how they all died at the same time. Is there some universal about this refusal to accept one's mortality?

21. At the End of the Film, the presenter finally offers the meaning of life: "Well, it's nothing very special. Uh, try and be nice to people. Avoid eating fat. Read a good book every now and then. Get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations." This is a seemingly trivial treatment of the problem, but could one take comfort in accepting this advice as all there really is to life?

Author: Adam Francis

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