Journey Through the Past: The 1990s

Friend of the website Dave is hosting a 1990s blogfest today. He’s managed to rope quite a few great bloggers into this (complete list and his own choices here), and we’re also now selling cosmetics door to door on his behalf. The idea is to choose one thing — one anything — as your favorite thing from each year from 1990 – 1999, and write a short bit about it. He also did one for the 2000s, which was pre-Noiseless Chatter I think, but since everything released in that time period was garbage you missed nothing. (And, honestly, I’ll probably end up doing a 2000 – 2010 one just for the heck of it.) Anyway, enjoy…thanks to Dave for hosting this, and let me know what some of your own choices might have been in the comments below. Or tell me I’m wrong in a profane way…I always like that!

1990 – Vineland

I feel more than a little intellectually guilty for only including one novel in my year-by-year rundown, but I’d have to say that the 1990s weren’t particularly well served in a literary sense. Fortunately, though, the decade opens with perhaps the warmest, most welcoming book my favorite author ever wrote. Vineland takes place in 1984, but is very much a love letter to the 1960s. It introduces us to Zoyd Wheeler, a cultural isolate from that lost decade of love, sex and freedom, who’s been reduced to throwing himself through windows to keep up a stream of mental disability checks. It’s an innately comic setup, but the backward, twisting path through time, loss and inevitability is perfectly heartbreaking. Zoyd’s reliable antics, after all, began as an act of genuine desperation when his wife left him, and it’s only been the steady march of time that’s diluted them to meaningless repetitions of what once meant so much. That’s the angle Pynchon takes as he explores the effect aging has had on this world, and ours. It’s Zoyd’s daughter who pulls the narrative along — or backward — as she uncovers, thread by thread, who her mother was. And who her mother became. And, if she learns enough from what she finds, how to avoid a similar fate for herself. Pynchon’s narratives hurdle unfailingly toward doom, but Vineland is the one that reminds you that life is always worth living…regardless of where you might actually end up.

1991 – A Link to the Past

It’s a fact: the Super Nintendo is the single greatest video game console of all time. Consequently, the early to mid 1990s were a veritable goldmine for gamers. While the NES introduced us to massive numbers of endearing and enduring characters, the SNES took everything at least one step further, and managed to refine and build upon game mechanics without overcomplicating them, or losing sight of what made them work. Super Mario World, Super Metroid and Super Castlevania IV (among so many others) all represented a realization of promise, a step deeper into fantastic and complex universes that we always knew existed just below the surface. But it’s A Link to the Past that really stands out. Taking absolutely everything that worked about the first Zelda game and disposing of everything that didn’t, A Link to the Past laid the precise groundwork for every game in the series that followed, regardless of console. And while certain later entries, such as Majora’s Mask or Wind Waker, attempted to pull the series in other directions, it’s A Link to the Past that rightfully gets the credit for building the solid foundation and framework that gave those later installments the room to expand. The graphics are gorgeous, the music is great, and even if the challenge is somewhat lacking, every new secret you find on the map feels earned and satisfying. I love A Link to the Past. It’s one of perhaps two or three games in the history of the universe that does literally nothing wrong, and it’s a perfect example of what made the SNES so great.

1992 – Glengarry Glen Ross

For a movie with no action, Glengarry Glen Ross is riveting. For a movie with two locations, Glengarry Glen Ross feels enormous. And for a movie with so little at stake, Glengarry Glen Ross feels profound. It’s a story about selling real estate, and how difficult a racket that can be, but it’s also a story about despair, about self-preservation, about pride, about confidence, and about what it means to be a man. It’s all of these things, and it’s more, and the same answer is never given to the same question twice. When a nameless emissary drops by the sales office to address unsatisfactory work, he motivates the sales force by setting them at each other’s throats: the two most successful salesmen will be rewarded to varying degrees, and the other two will lose their jobs. What follows is a single, seemingly-unbroken narrative that spans the rest of that night and the next morning. To say any more than that would likely both give away too much and artificially enhance the importance of anything that happens. The magic — and the story — is all in the dialogue. Glengarry Glen Ross began as a stage play, and it shows. Its big screen adaptation does not seek to overwhelm, astonish, or impress; it seeks to focus. It seeks make you notice every shift of the eye, twitch of the finger, and speck of spittle that accompanies a profane explosion, making it feel like an even smaller and more intimate experience than the play could have ever been. It’s a film that’s terrifying, and it’s terrifying mainly because there’s nothing here to be afraid of. After all, these are just people. Highly and eternally recommended.

1993 – Mega Man X

I deliberately avoided mentioning Mega Man X when I basked in the glory of the SNES library above, simply so I could single it out here. Mega Man is unquestionably one of my favorite game series ever, and Mega Man X deviates from the classic formula just enough to justify it as a spinoff. With an increased focus on item collection, upgrades and lingering effects of defeated bosses, Mega Man X brought additional levels of non-linearity to an already legendarily non-linear experience. While the series may have gone off the rails after another four or five games (it’s debatable), the original is a stone-cold classic, with great bosses, impressive stages, and gameplay so versatile that fans, almost 20 years later, are still discovering new ways to play it. Mega Man was never about deep plot or engrossing storylines; these were action games through and through. Mega Man X wisely didn’t try to separate itself from the originals by way of an epic storyline…it simply enhanced the action, layered on new and impressive complications, and married it to a stellar soundtrack. Mega Man X is just fantastic.

1994 – Monster

So nobody likes Monster. I know that. I also know that that’s their loss. R.E.M.’s hardest rocking album might be so much of a departure from their usual sound that it’s hard to consider it a legitimate installment in their discography…but so what? It’s fantastic. When I listen to Monster — which I do for weeks at a time whenever I stumble across it again — I hear some of the best straight-up rock and roll to come out of the decade. And it’s not entirely devoid of R.E.M.’s signature songwriting, either…you just have to listen through some thrashing guitars to find it. Songs like “Strange Currencies,” “Tongue,” and “Crush With Eyeliner” are all pulled off with the band’s usual sideways insight into the human condition, with all of the disappointment and humane absurdity that implies. The band just happened to couch that insight in some brilliantly distracting, raw, unpolished instrumentation, and that brings with it a charm of its own…a little taste of R.E.M. as the up-and-coming garage band they never were. Some fans are all too eager to dismiss this brief experiment. For me it’s top shelf material, beaten only by Automatic For the People and Lifes Rich Pageant. If you’ve written it off before, it may be worth a reappraisal.

1995 – “Knowing Me Knowing Yule With Alan Partridge”

I love Alan Partridge. He ranks easily among my five favorite comic creations throughout all of human history, and that’s due in large part to the way that Steve Coogan slips — seemingly effortlessly — into Alan’s skin and becomes him. Though he started behind a sports desk and then moved into the chat-show format, there was always something more to him. He was never a “type,” and the humor was not situational; Alan was a human being, free to be himself wherever — and with whomever — he was. He was a person, a person with insecurities, interests, and a uniquely slanted perspective. “Knowing Me Knowing Yule” is a one-off special that bridges the gap between Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge and I’m Alan Partridge…two very different, but perfectly complementary, insights into this fascinating man. It’s presented as a needlessly expensive and woefully inessential yuletide installment of Alan’s chat show, and it’s what seals the casket on his broadcasting career forever. Considering that the last proper episode of Alan’s chat show saw him shooting a guest through the heart live on air, that gives you an idea of just how poorly this festive outing manages to go. It’s a great and always welcome entry into the Christmas special canon, and worth a watch at least once per year. Alan getting threatened by a transvestite, failing to properly lip-synch “The 12 Days of Christmas” and struggling desperately to halt an in-process bit of product placement never gets old. Watch it during a family gathering. Believe me, it will make you feel better about everyone you’re related to.

1996 – “22 Short Films About Springfield”

Coming at a time when The Simpsons could genuinely do no wrong, “22 Short Films About Springfield” reads like a time-capsule today. It’s a relic — and a loving, fascinating, and clever one — of a time when Springfield was more than just a sea of caricatures and types; it was a place, fully functional in and of itself. One operating under its own logic and impossible to mistake for the real world, but real in its own way all the same. It’s a half hour without plot, without intention, and without a moral…just a simple, and undoubtedly well-earned, chance to take a deep breath and survey the incredible playground the show had built up for itself by that point. The characters were so well established and the dynamics between them so fruitful that all you needed to do was let Apu take some time off, bring Reverend Lovejoy and his dog to Flanders’ front lawn, or give a stranger the chance to turn the tables on Nelson, and comedy would flow. Effortless, wonderful, eternal comedy. “22 Short Films About Springfield” floats by like a whisper, as it should. While any other show on television could work harder and harder every week to make even a fraction of the impact on the cultural landscape that The Simpsons made, The Simpsons itself didn’t seem to need to work at all. It could just step back and see what the characters were doing…and, here, that’s what it did. The Skinner / Chalmers segment will go down in history as an all-time best sequence no matter how long the show runs, but even if that clear highlight were to be somehow excised from the episode, “22 Short Films About Springfield” would still be a perfect gem. With so many forgettable seasons behind us now, the episode is almost like footage of a great civilization long gone: those of us that were there will always have this souvenir, and those who missed it will be eternally grateful for this brief — and brilliant — window into the past.

1997 – Time Out of Mind

I’ve talked a bit about Dylan’s lost years here, but I didn’t say much about what brought him back to life. Time Out of Mind is what brought him back to life. For me, it was released at the perfect time; just as I started to explore Dylan myself, this came out. Suddenly the warnings to avoid “the recent stuff” went quiet…and I do mean suddenly. Time Out of Mind is a bullet of an album…a shot through the brain that lingers and haunts and does not let go, and critics and fans alike flocked to it immediately. Time Out of Mind doesn’t feel like a comeback album…it feels like he never left. Though his youthful, nasal prophesying is replaced here by a gravelly howl, it’s Dylan to the core, providing one of his best love songs (“Make You Feel My Love”), some chillingly vague danger (“Cold Irons Bound”), and a classic meandering tale of introspection, playing Neil Young at high volumes, and ordering hard-boiled eggs at a restaurant (“Highlands”)…it’s a gloriously meandering shaggy-dog story that caps off an aimless-by-design rediscovery of who Dylan is. It would be quicker to list the things I don’t like about this album, because there really aren’t any. Songs like “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” and the bluntly desolate “Not Dark Yet” triggered suspicions that this was Dylan’s final statement…that the man had pulled it together one last time, to end his career on a high note. He’s released four more albums of new material since then. Dylan’s going out on a high note alright…he’s just making sure to sustain it this time. On his next album, Dylan would sing “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” That would have made more sense before Time Out of Mind, which disproves it conclusively.

1998 – Rushmore

There may not be much more I can say about Rushmore than what I’ve already said here, but that by no means dampens my excitement for talking about it yet again. Rushmore is, by many accounts, Wes Anderson’s best film. Anyone who says that to you, however, is lying. What it is, however, is Wes Anderson’s mission statement, and it’s a solid, fantastic, indelible one. Coming off of Bottle Rocket, Rushmore represents an almost unprecedented stylistic and qualitative step forward. It’s not a film in which Anderson finds his voice…it’s a film in which we find Anderson’s voice. The soundtrack, the costumes, the visual design, the character dynamics, the relentless attention to detail…everything here established what it meant to be “classic Anderson,” and it both defined a career and forever cemented a fanbase. It also introduced the world to Jason Schwartzman, and reintroduced the world to a penitent Bill Murray…a gift to humanity that Anderson should always be praised for. It’s one of those movies packed so densely that no two viewings have to feel the same, and there’s literally always something new to notice, tucked away in the corner of a quick shot, or hiding in plain sight while the camera dwells and your eyes wander. Rushmore is a great film, and while I enjoy it most for what it allowed Anderson to do down the line, I can never watch this one without coming away impressed all over again. And crying when Max introduces Mr. Blume to his father. Because that part’s fucking gold.

1999 – “Space Pilot 3000”

When Futurama debuted, it seemed like it was just going to be the less-deserving little brother of The Simpsons. But arriving, as it did, just at the time the elder show was losing steam, it established itself immediately as a more than worthy successor. While The Simpsons took a few seasons to establish a flow and sustainable gag-rate for itself, Futurama burgled some writers and hijacked that momentum, allowing it to fire on all cylinders right from the get-go. The result is an almost impossibly strong first season, kicked off by one of the most confident and well-handled pilots I’ve ever seen. Space Pilot 3000 has barely aged at all. While the voice actors may have still been getting a handle on things, the writing is sharp and solid, and the groundwork for countless fantastic episodes of smart science-fiction, piercing comedy and genuine emotion is laid here. There’s a long love letter to Futurama that I’d like to write, but as the years go by it keeps getting longer…eventually I’d just end up with too much to say. After all, what can I say to a show that gave me “Jurassic Bark,” “Time Keeps On Slipping,” “The Luck of the Fryrish,” “Godfellas,” “Lethal Inspection,” and so many others I love beyond words? Futurama is by no means a perfect show, but for some silly cartoon knockoff of another silly cartoon, it sure managed to exceed expectations quickly. It brought an end to the 90s, but ushered in a whole new expanse of grand adventures and brainy plotwork. Philip J Fry inadvertently froze himself, and woke up in a far stronger television landscape. Welcome to the world of tomorrow.

Noiseless Chatter Spotlight: “Roll On John,” Bob Dylan (2012)

You burned so bright…

Neither Bob Dylan nor John Lennon survived 1980. And yet, they’re both still with us. Transformed…echoes of the past. One solid, one ethereal…but both of them spokesmen for a time long gone. The major difference, of course, is that only Dylan’s career was buried. It was Lennon’s body.

Tragedy is relative. In somebody’s mind, John Lennon deserved to die. His death, for reasons neither you nor I nor anybody will ever understand, was necessary. We may not have the right as individuals to decide who should live and who should die, but we all have the ability. One finger, one firearm, one bullet. It’s all anybody needs. It happens all the time. It’s usually somebody we don’t know. It’s sometimes a man who changed the world.

That early December gunshot can still be heard, if you listen hard enough. If you concentrate. If you take a moment to think about how the entire world shifted from one state of being to another, from one bright future to an uncertain, poorer, infinitely more frightening one. It’s easy to hear it, when you think like that. It’s easy to hear it still pounding against your eardrums…a violent swing into another time and place…an audible reduction of hope and optimism. A tragedy in New York City that left the world lost and confused. It’s not that hard to imagine now.

John Lennon was a cultural icon…one of very few people — and even fewer musicians — who shaped the planet on which he lived. He was also — and this is a bit harder to imagine — a human being. He’s dead now, though there’s no reason he has to be. He’s dead now because that’s what somebody decided he’d be.

That was almost thirty-two years ago, as of this writing. I’m thirty-one. I never shared the world that John Lennon helped shape. By the time I was born he was already gone. I inherited a world that was already missing him. I can still hear the echo.

Bob Dylan shared a world with John Lennon. And a friendship. And a history. John Lennon and The Beatles changed history, but Bob Dylan changed The Beatles. He broadened their horizons…an intellectual and experimental emissary from America. They became close. They even wrote a song together, though it was never recorded. Dylan spent most of his time with George Harrison, with whom he wrote songs that actually were recorded. For years John and Bob traded barbs in their separate recordings. They were friendly adversaries. They were troubadours pulling us toward a brighter future. They redefined music, and it was up to everybody else to follow along, and behind.

We all, to some extent, lost John Lennon, but a few people lost him in a more substantial way than they can ever articulate.

Now, thirty-two years and fifteen albums later, Dylan closes Tempest with a paean to his lost friend, the circling, haunting “Roll On John.”

I had never wondered before what Bob Dylan must have thought on the night of December 20, 1980. Why would I have? Yet also…why wouldn’t I have?

It’s all too easy to see celebrities as superhuman. The larger they loom, the further detached they are from the world we inhabit. Particularly in the case of figures so massive as John Lennon and Bob Dylan. They don’t appear to us as people, but as presences. As messengers from magical kingdoms we would not be fit to enter. They aren’t real…they are forces beyond our understanding.

And yet…

And yet.

They can be killed. They can be revealed as mortals after all. At which point…it’s too late.

Bob Dylan lost his friend. We may have lost an idol, a hero, a figurehead, but somewhere out there…somewhere, on a cold winter’s night, a confused artist lost a man he loved.

“Roll On John” swims in survivor’s guilt. Bob Dylan is an old man…something John Lennon was fated never to be.

On the last night of his life, though, if anyone would have expected one of them to be around in 2012, it would have been Lennon. Earlier that year, Lennon released Double Fantasy. It met with a fairly universal critical shrug, but went on to win the Grammy for album of the year, and has received retroactive reappraisal elevating some of its tracks to Lennon’s canon of all-time best, such as “(Just Like) Starting Over,” “Woman,” and the disarmingly poignant “Watching the Wheels.” Whether he was recording the best music of his career is, was, and must always be up for debate, but there’s no question that he had a great deal left to say, and a still-powerful voice with which to say it.

By contrast, Dylan was a universal joke. An aimless and meandering has-been who was currently in the depths of an embarrassingly public conversion to Christianity. The dangerous Jewish folk-singer who once led millions to challenge the status quo was now unironically and uncreatively singing the praises of Jesus on albums that couldn’t be forgotten soon enough. He had just released Saved, his second disposable album of love songs to Christ (of three). It featured songs such as “Solid Rock,” “Covenant Woman” and “Saving Grace,” all of which were used as ammunition against him by critics and fans alike. He was unquestionably recording the worst music of his career, and it was taken as gospel — ahem — that had nothing left to say, and a failing voice that wouldn’t stop saying it.

It was a stumble Dylan wouldn’t recover from for at least nine years (if your personal resurgence point is Oh! Mercy) and maybe as long as seventeen years (if you’d prefer to go with Time Out of Mind). In 1980, there was no coming back. Dylan was written off. He was dead.

Before the year ended, Lennon joined him. He was dead, too.

Lennon, with a rich and unknowable future before him, was gone. Is gone. Dylan, lost within himself and fumbling to recapture his lost talent, was still alive. Is still alive. I’m not sure that anyone’s pondered the justice of that. Anyone apart from Dylan, that is. Of course.

“I read the news today, oh boy,” Dylan sings in “Roll On John.” Just one of many Lennon lyrics and references that take on a bone-chilling resonance in this new context. This new context of an old man who outlived his usefulness mourning the loss of a young man who never got the chance to fulfill his.

Dylan howls and growls with a voice from beyond the grave…a tormented spirit raging to unburden himself of earthly woe, but to no avail. Bob Dylan started his career by impersonating Woody Guthrie, but seems sometimes to be auditioning now for the part of Jacob Marley.

Lennon’s death was a chance for Dylan — like everybody else — to look inward. If his musical output that followed is any indication, it’s not an opportunity he took seriously. But now, with so many decades separating him from the tragedy, he has the chance to look backward. In fact, “Roll On John” is adapted from a song of the same title Dylan was performing as far back as 1961. As an old man Dylan reflects on a decades-old tragedy, and sees in that reflection himself as a young man, singing a song that wouldn’t yet have meaning for him…wouldn’t yet have meaning until one of his contemporaries, a gentle, love-preaching genius, was shot in the back just before Christmas, and left for dead.

Dylan’s been through his share of tragedies since then, and it’s unlikely that the release of Tempest on September 11 was coincidental. His lovingly tormented remembrance of Lennon is one flavor of New York tragedy…and Dylan knows there are others. In fact, “Roll On John” follows the title track, which is about the sinking of the RMS Titanic. There’s a third flavor. The link is deliberate.

Tragedy is always a term decided by scope, and scope is always personal. The world can change on December 20 or September 11 or April 14 or any other combination of month and day that the calendar will allow. It can change for the better, or it can change for the worst. Waking up one morning does not suggest that you will wake up the next, and it only takes one person to make that decision for you.

Dylan survived, and Dylan survives. His career has been buried and exhumed so many times that keeping the critics satisfied has become exhausting. Instead, Dylan just does what Dylan does…and, sure enough, the critics came around, and are glad he survives.

But Dylan wonders.

If he could have traded places…

…he wonders. How the world would be different. How much he’d be missed, if he was the one gunned down in the street that night instead, at that phase in his career.

What would it mean to people? What could it mean to people? Is it better to die in your prime, loved and beloved, or to age fast and gracelessly, shedding relevance and ticket sales, as the world deteriorates around you?

Which is tragic? What really matters? A sinking ship, a falling tower, a silenced activist. An old man dying alone. A cynical world that can only be shocked back to reality by a major and devastating change. What is tragic? What really matters?

We’re all human, and yet we’re all different. We all hear the same words, and yet process different meanings. We all see the same man, and yet are flooded with different emotions.

Tragedy is what tragedy is. It’s a lesson Dylan waited a long time to learn, apparently. He might still be learning it. We all should be. After all, we’re in this together.

Roll on, Bob.

Everyone knows rock attained perfection in 1974. It’s a scientific fact.

The post title here is an observation made by Homer Simpson in “Homerpalooza.” It’s stuck with me because so many times I’ve enjoyed an album, only to notice it was indeed released in 1974. So I figured I’d do a little bit of digging and put together an abbreviated list of truly great stuff released in that ostensibly magical year, and, sure enough, it looks like Homer has a legitimate argument here. I omitted anything that can’t be classified as rock, and a few others that were hugely well-received but with which I have no personal experience, and…well…it’s still a hell of a list.

Diamond Dogs, David Bowie
David Live, David Bowie
Okie, J.J. Cale
Planet Waves, Bob Dylan
Before the Flood, Bob Dylan & The Band
Here Come the Warm Jets, Brian Eno
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Genesis
Dark Horse, George Harrison
Walls and Bridges, John Lennon
Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, Little Feat
Sundown, Gordon Lightfoot
Son of Dracula, Harry Nilsson
Grievous Angel, Graham Parsons
Queen II, Queen
Rock N Roll Animal, Lou Reed
It’s Only Rock N Roll, The Rolling Stones
Country Life, Roxy Music
Live Rhymin’, Paul Simon
Pretzel Logic, Steely Dan
Walking Man, James Taylor
The Heart of Saturday Night, Tom Waits
We Had It All, Scott Walker
Odds & Sods, The Who
On the Beach, Neil Young
Apostrophe, Frank Zappa
Roxy & Elsewhere, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention

No wonder the Simpsons are always in financial trouble. I’d be broke too if I lived through a year that had even a fraction of those records worth buying. Homer, you indeed win this round. If only my adolescence were as culturally rich as yours.

Pigs, They Tend to Wiggle When They Walk: My Life As A Teenaged Pavement Fan

Noiseless Chatter Advisory: Ben, of Ben Likes Music, likes music. He also wrote this, and hopefully more in the future. Please give a big welcome to our latest guest author. Or call him obscene things. It’s really up to you.

It only occurred to me relatively recently that the word fan was just a shortened version of fanatic. I’m 34 years old. Understandably, a lot of you reading this may have just snorted your Starbucks out of your nose at my incredible naivety, but so be it. When it comes to Pavement however, I do believe that I am indeed more of a fanatic than a fan. A fan – in my short-sighted eyes that are well into their fourth decade – is someone who has a passing interest in something; someone who will wave from the touchlines and not really care too much what is going on. A fanatic however, is someone like me. Someone who scours record stores and internet auction sites for an EP from 1989 and pays way over the odds for a record that has a B-side that has a slightly different mix to what was on the re-release 20 years later. That, my friends, is a fanatic.

Firstly, I must thank my good friend Mat Hurley. Not exactly the most inflated of name checks I’m sure you’ll agree, but one of my best friends who I have known for over thirty years is the person who is to blame/thank for my love of this band. In 1992, when a Sony Walkman was still considered the height of technology, he passed me over a tape (a tape!) of a band called Pavement. This tape was called Slanted and Enchanted which he had recently purchased from the only independent record store within a 30 mile radius of our homes. I had learned to trust him simply due to the fact that a week before, he had passed me an album by a band called Pixies entitled Doolittle which I had pretty much been playing non-stop on my walk home from school that entire week. I’ve never known what became of them.

To me, Slanted… was a grower. I listened to the first few tracks and thought “Meh…” (and this, ladies and gentlemen was a good 10 years before ‘meh’ was even invented). “Summer Babe” left me intrigued, but not inspired but I listened on. I finally got to track five, which was called “Conduit For Sale.” Never before had I heard anything so raw, so energised and it had me hooked immediately. I must have pressed rewind a dozen times before even getting to “Zurich Is Stained,” which was a mistake in itself given its obvious greatness in comparison. Twenty years on, and I realise that “Conduit…” is an obvious rip-off *ahem* I mean, homage to a song by The Fall – namely “New Face In Hell” should you wish to check my credentials as a music analyst – go ahead and compare and contrast. But still, a grower is a grower and now almost 20 years to the day since my ears were introduced to this lo-fi racket straight outta California it still sits there, proudly awaiting a further outing into my eardrums and it has certainly stood the test of time.

Little did I know when Slanted… was released, that only a month before, Pavement had released an album of bits and bobbins from their prior EPs; at least they had in the UK. It was called Westing (By Musket and Sextant) and was choc-full of ridiculous oddities – many under two minutes long – consisting of 90% feedback and 10% melody and all played in a ludicrous fashion. It might not sound particularly attractive to an outsider, but I lapped it up. Given that for the previous few years I had been listening to the relatively polished production of albums by bands such as The Stone Roses and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, this was a breath of fresh, lackadaisical air. On Westing… Pavement stumble and fumble their way through tracks that wouldn’t even be considered a D-sides by other bands and yet I and their now considerable fan base wouldn’t have it any other way. Listening to these songs now, it is obvious that they could be better rendered in a decent studio but they would lose all of their lustre and excitement if that were the case. I still challenge anyone to give me a complete set of lyrics to “Forklift” and even if they did I challenge them further to make any sense of them. I offer my brother in return; he’s very friendly and makes a mean Chicken Tikka Massala.

Then I have a little confession to make, Faith No More released Angel Dust and I was under their spell for quite some time. Even when the next Pavement record – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain came out in February 1994, I was still wandering around the halls of my school murmuring the guttural lyrics to “Mid-Life Crisis” and although I purchased it the second it came out, it barely came out of its plastic sleeve until Messrs Patton, Bordin, Gould, Martin and (tee-hee) Bottum descended into obscurity and started sacking and hiring guitarists willy-nilly.

So once I gave it a listen, I was horrified. What was this seemingly well produced bunch of songs from the kings of lo-fi? Granted it was never going to challenge Vangelis or Mike Oldfield for over-production but this was such a departure from Slanted… – how was this going to work? Essentially, it didn’t. To this day, I have never been able to get into their sophomore record proper. The songs, had they been recorded in the style of Slanted… or Westing… or somewhere in between would no doubt have been world-beaters, but there was something that didn’t feel quite right. Even though I’d been unfaithful to them by ploughing through three copies of Angel Dust in the intervening 18 months, I still felt no guilt or remorse. Are they the same things? Feel free to clear that up by emailing me and hurling abuse at me.

So that was that? No, of course not; silly me; Pavement was just about to unleash their greatest record on the listening public. As I had grown out of receiving chocolate eggs with a jigsaw puzzle inside for Easter, I had asked my mother to accompany me to my local record shop and purchase Wowee Zowee instead. I looked at the track listing and the first thing that occurred to me was the number of short songs on there. Over half of the songs were under two and a half minutes and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I literally pushed my mother back towards the car and because this was 1995 hadn’t quite hit me that our Ford Escort wasn’t equipped with the CD player that was required for me to listen to it as soon as I’d hoped. Forty-five minutes later however, I was reunited with my Sony Discman, popped the CD in and listened intently. Expecting unrelenting, dirty guitar noise, ‘We Dance’ came as a bit of a surprise as an opening track but not an unpleasant one.

“There is no…cas-tra-tion fear…”

Well, thank heavens I couldn’t play it to my mother in car, otherwise that would already have raised a whole lot of questions. She was still recovering from the time when she insisted that I played Carter USM’s Post Historic Monsters at my brother’s 7th birthday party because “…he might like the dinosaur on the cover.”

Wowee Zowee became, and still remains my favorite album by the band so I was of course ecstatic when I found out they were playing the Reading Festival that summer. Finally I would get a chance to see my favorite band perform my favorite album. I’d see Spiral (Scott to his mother) rip through the awesome guitar solo in “Rattled By The Rush” and Bob scream his way through “Serpentine Pad” – oh how awesome this was going to be. But on that balmy summer’s night in Berkshire, things didn’t go according to plan. Pavement had a shocker – sound problems and power cuts meant that despite being fairly close to the front, I barely heard a thing. The band didn’t seem too put off and still hurtled around the stage hitting whatever they could with sticks to make as much noise as possible but my first and sadly only time I would see Pavement turned out to be a bit of a damp squib.

In 1997, some eighteen months after the festival debacle, I was still playing Wowee Zowee pretty much every day. I had entered the world of work and could be found late at night stacking shelves at my local supermarket, air-guitarring and drumming around the aisles after finding an elastic band, wrapping it around the PA system so it was permanently stuck in the broadcast position and playing the CD to an empty shop aside from a few other shelf monkeys such as myself. Great, if not slightly strange times; there’s only so much pleasure you can get from belting out “Flux = Rad” with an armful of tinned sweetcorn.

“If the signatures are checked (you’ll just have to wait!)” heralded the entrance of 1997’s Brighten The Corners. It also heralded the time where I had taken to looking as much like Steve Malkmus as was possible; whether it was on purpose I really can’t remember but my hair was now at its floppiest and my clothes had attained a thrift store vibe. Pavement videos were now being shown on MTV2 – this of course being in the days that MTV2 and MTV in general used to actually be quite good. That all seemed to change when Korn, Limp Bizkit and that godawful band with a man called Chester Bennington started to infiltrate the alternative scene. Swines.

Brighten The Corners seemed to straddle the stripped-down production of Wowee Zowee and the slightly too glossy Crooked Rain… but it seemed to work. The fact that the length of the album was close to that of its predecessor and yet contained half a dozen fewer tracks didn’t bode too well for me. Where were the killer 2 minute songs? Certainly not here – only one song under 3 minutes in fact!

On first listen, it was Spiral Stairs’ two offerings that were the stand out for me. “Date with IKEA” was pure Pavement; slightly out-of-tune harmonising, dirty bass and guitar sounds and this was definitely a tune that only Stairs could carry off. You know when I said that Slanted and Enchanted was a “grower” about 5 minutes ago? Well disregard that completely. If there ever was a Pavement album that could be classed as a “grower” then it is Brighten The Corners. The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing. I would play it occasionally, but would still be playing the older albums more readily; so much so in fact that I only really deemed it as a great album just before its follow up – Pavement’s final album – Terror Twilight was released.

Given that the title of this article (oh, who am I kidding? Essay) proclaims that I was a teenager at the time all this was happening means I should really stop now. “YES! PLEASE!!!” I hear you say. But just hear me out. Pavement’s last was released shortly after my 21st Birthday in June 1999. By this time I had moved away from the South Wales Valleys and was now living with my soon-to-be fiancée in a flat on an estate in London. I had a job making price lists for perfume counters in department stores. I had shaved off my Malkmus hair due to the fact that it had started falling out of its own accord. In short, I had changed. I had discovered a new record label that seemed to be able to do no wrong. Polyvinyl Records was home to Mates of State, Aloha and Rainer Maria amongst many other amazing bands. Pavement had taken a back seat and Terror Twilight didn’t get the recognition at the time that it truly deserves today.

It’s not exactly a sad end to the story. I still love Pavement and I always will, but during my teenage years there was nothing that could touch them. If they hadn’t had recorded and released Crooked Rain in the way that they did and at the time that they did then it could only be described as a faultless discography. The special re-packaged, unseen material style re-releases have all been bought, MP3d and added to an iPod that is now 32,000 songs strong; 300 of which are by Pavement.

There you go – that’s 10 years of my life being obsessed with a band from Stockton, CA summed up in one handy bite-sized (2000 word) essay. I’ll leave you with my favorite lyric by Malkmus and Co.

“Show me a word that rhymes with Pavement and I won’t kill your parents and roast them on a spit.”


Noiseless Chatter Spotlight: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)

Or, perhaps, we’re just one of God’s little jokes.

When it comes to sincere and affecting meditations on the human condition, Monty Python will probably not be the first thing that comes to mind. And yet the globally-popular sketch comedy troupe made a name for themselves with material about God, about philosophy, about death, about inner conflict, about melancholy, about fear, about desperation, about alienation, and about pretty much anything else you could imagine.

Those skits, produced mainly for their television program Monty Python’s Flying Circus (though also performed in other media, such as comedy albums and live performances), are more popularly remembered for their clever wordplay and unrivaled physical comedy than they are as any profound explorations of their subjects, but there’s something intrinsically human about the Monty Python canon. After all, that wordplay wouldn’t be as funny if society wasn’t already so confusing, and that physical comedy wouldn’t resonate if we weren’t already conditioned to accept the absurdity of our own daily interactions.

When Terry Jones fails to get medical assistance from Dr. Graham Chapman because he’s bleeding out too quickly to fill out the patient admission forms, there’s a recognizable undercurrent. It’s exaggerated, certainly, but it’s recognizable. When John Cleese performs all manner of silly walks it’s funny…but also forces us to wonder why they are funny, when — we’re led to believe — our own walks, and gestures, and handshakes, and ladder climbing, and dancing, and anything else we do with our bodies are not. Are we just conditioned to accept certain kinds of absurdities as given? Why are Cleese’s silly walks any different? Again, they’re exaggerated, but how much do they need to be exaggerated before we find them funny? Where’s the line between what we do and what we laugh at other people for doing?

The Pythons were always capable of injecting genuine insight into their work, even if they rarely or never chose to openly explore it. Life of Brian would certainly qualify as one of their baldest statements, and it’s also one of their most powerful and best. But what of The Meaning of Life? Comparatively less loved — but no less brilliant — The Meaning of Life seems to arrive with a huge announcement of cosmic philosophizing, putters around in circles for a bit, and then completely runs out of steam.

At least, that’s what it does in one sense. Its aimlessness and lack of drive are part of the joke in a film called The Meaning of Life, but is that all there is to it? Or is there some real, deeper message disguised by its carefully calculated sense of chaos?

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. To further the sense of narrative disorientation, it does not even unfold chronologically.

In fact, it’s all too tempting to dismiss the film as being nothing more than a collection of sketches, linked together by some sort of vague insinuation of a common theme. And, to be fair, that’s an understandable perspective for somebody to have. It’s not, however, the final word, because The Meaning of Life does manage to blossom into something more than a string of barely-related comedy skits. 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?”), offers a promise that the question will be answered (“For a change, it will all be made clear”), and closes with appropriate fulfillment of that promise (“Thank you, Brigitte”).

The question of The Meaning of Life, posed in the film’s first scene, is resolved just before the film ends. And yet the meaning given at The End of the Film carries no more weight than the other brief ponderances peppered throughout the script, and it only appears to be more important because of its structural placement as concluding sentiment. Here it is in its entirety:

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 a little dissatisfied with life’s ultimate meaning? You should be. It’s one of the major jokes of the film, after all, and 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, well, then the Pythons probably can’t help you.

But let’s not get bogged down in that, because not only is this “Meaning of Life” disappointing…it’s not even the Meaning of Life that the film itself suggests! Nothing in The Meaning of Life suggests that being nice to people will get you anywhere, nor is reading a good book ever suggested to do you much good (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 qualify as good advice they don’t actually clarify the mystery of existence. The Meaning of Life explicitly stated by The Meaning of Life therefore isn’t likely to be The Meaning of Life that The Meaning of Life actually believes to be true.

Also, consider the source. Is the female presenter a reliable vessel through which the answers to the grandest of grand questions might be delivered? Certainly not, as, immediately following her delivery of life’s meaning, she lapses into a self-righteous tirade against cinema, censors and the movie-going public in general. (That’s you.) Generally speaking it is never a good idea to take as gospel the proclamations of a character with an obvious agenda, and agendas don’t get any more obvious than hers. As if that were not enough, she then promises “completely gratuitous pictures of penises,” which never do come. (Ahem.) So not only is she biased, but she is also unreliable. If she is not even an authority on the contents of her own film, how could we expect her to understand the workings of the infinite cosmos?

We can’t. So, fine, that much is clear, and the film’s stated Meaning is bunk.

But that, then, should raise a further question: does Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life actually have an answer better than what we are given at the end?

Personally, I believe it does…it’s simply a question — like the fish in the middle of the film — of where.

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 bland pleasantries.

We should be reminded here of a far more human interaction, such as arriving at the office for another day of work, or perhaps stilted, unenthusiastic talk over breakfast. We are only a few seconds into the film, and already we are presented with a tankful of fish in 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, each fish has a real, human face.

We are meant to see the fish tank segments as one of the most important segments in the film, based on the important fact that it recurs several times, whereas nearly every other segment is closed off and abandoned one by one, having served its singular purpose.

But why fish? If, to backtrack for a moment, we opened with several adult males in an office, standing around the water cooler, greeting each other and eventually pondering 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 it wouldn’t be as funny, and it wouldn’t be nearly as striking a visual upon which to open the film. And, secondly, it would actually start our journey on an uncomfortably sombre note. These fish, after all, only begin to question the nature of existence when death is introduced among their number: they stare helplessly through the glass as Howard — who was among them as recently as the night before — is presented by a waiter, dead and grilled on a platter. It is here, at this precise moment, that the meaing of life itself is raised…that they take the world outside of their small tank into consideration…and that they begin to question the nature of a universe that could allow such a thing to cruelly — and, to them, mysteriously — happen in what they had once believed to be a safe environment.

Even if the entire film to follow were played out just as we know it, there’s no question that the human equivalent of the same opening would start the film sourly, and could actually make much of what follows appear to be in poor taste. By opening with the bathetic fish, the Pythons manage to construct a morbid comic conceit that managed not to feel particularly dark, and that’s what sets the tone for what is to follow: enormous ideas explored in small — and resonatingly irrelevant — ways.

Consider the film’s opening theme song that follows. In addition to being supported by possibly the best piece of animation Terry Gilliam ever created for the group, the title song serves as an important overture to the film, and also a catchy sort of mission statement on behalf of the troupe.

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, we are being promised through song 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 be the same person) invite us to follow them on a journey that will eventually reveal to us the meaning of existence.

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), though, 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 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-carefree 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 Meaning of LifE would be a plodding (and didactic) fizzle. Instead, the cycles of life are emphasized, which serves both the pacing and relatability of the film.

Triumph and tragedy alternate throughout the film, yet 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 touched upon, all of the characters — except for the fish, who seem to genuinely crave an answer more than anyone else in the film does — tend to blithely shrug them off in favor of getting on with their lives. The elderly Hendys illustrate this most vividly (“Waiter? This conversation isn’t very good…”), but examples of this very human tendency to shy away from dangerous questions can be found everywhere. As silly as The Meaning of Life gets, and it certainly does get silly, there is always a deliberate element of human befuddlement that keeps it grounded.

The film, however, is called The Meaning of Life, not The Meaning of Human Life, and the Pythons have fun with this. We take several forays into the Kingdoms Animal (the fish) and Vegetable (the dying autumn leaves). In each instance, though, and interestingly enough a human veneer 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 number — by the grief of having lost somebody close to them.

In fact, taken together, these two situations demonstrate opposite reactions to an identical stimulus: one constructive, the other destructive. Faced with the reality — and inevitability — of death, the fish choose to ponder life, and they are rewarded for this philosophizing by a film that promises an answer to their questions. The leaves, on the other hand, when faced with the same tragedy, turn instead to the conclusion that life is inescapably cruel, and the cynicism leads quite directly to suicide. The fish see death as an excuse to explore life’s mystery, and the leaves treat death as a reason to stop trying. The fish bring the entire film to life, and the only thing the leaves bring to life is the Grim Reaper — channeled by their negative reaction to existence’s only real assurance — who then brings the lives of several more 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 scenes 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 are invited, routinely, to compare and contrast the various choices made throughout the film.

In fact, the second of the birth segments (Birth in the Third World) also has another, internal dichotomy for us to explore: the Protestant family unit versus the Catholic family unit. The differences between the families are strikingly obvious, but they each 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 must sell its children for medical experimentation in order to make ends meet…by contrast, the Protestants appear to be well-to-do and cozy in their home life, yet their interactions are impersonal and entirely without emotion.

Additionally, the patriarch of each family demonstrates severe sexual selfishness, though in opposite 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 receiving attention in that very way. The Catholic keeps on his selfishly sexual path without regard to the consequences his family will face, and the Protestant keeps on his selfishly non-sexual path despite the consequenced hiw wife will face. Python has managed to caution us against two very unenviable extremes, and it is suggested that the “right” answer is actually somewhere in the unspoken middle ground.

In fact, this seems to be a good rule for interpreting 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 clear wrongness cannot exist without at least a suggestion of the “right” way to do things.

Another perhaps important duality can be found by comparing the Catholic and Protestant couples discussing birth at the beginning of the film to the couples confronted by Death at the end. Whereas the religious couples each have an unflinching faith in something larger, the three couples at the end of the film refuse to believe in anything larger than themselves, even when they are confronted by a physical manifestation of the Spiritual World. In fact, they cling to every last material vestige that they can, even as they’re dragged into the afterlife, taking their drinks and automobiles along with them.

Again, neither of these viewpoints is explicitly endorsed by the film itself; the audience is always meant to be laughing at these characters, whatever opposing things they believe, rather than aligning themselves with them. The “right” answer, again, must be somewhere in the middle. All of which, of course, is at odds with the fact that the female presenter claims to have a concise and inarguable moral for all of us to accept without question.

Part of the reason we, as viewers, might be tempted to accept her moral is that, thanks to The Middle of the Film and The End of the Film, this female presenter appears to be our framing device, and therefore exists on some narrative level “above” the rest of the characters. That is to say that she is speaking to us watching the film directly and could — should such a need arise — summarize the action of any other segment of them, while conversely no other character in the film would be in a 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 the camera turns to reintroduce the presenter, along with the suggestion that she has been watching along with us.

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 form a flimsy frame 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 viewed as having any more importance than the others.

After all, The Meaning of Life seems to have been generated spontaneously — the cinematic equivalent of a Big Bang, if you will — 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 female presenter appearing to have a broader vantage point than any other character in the film. In reality, however, 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 to help us along, and various possibilities are shouted out from the film’s “audience.” An interestingly complicated — and ultimately unwinnable — arrangement for such a trifling question…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 the presenter from off camera.

The unbalance seems almost criminal; 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 meditation, and the other is simple produced on command. Something isn’t right here. Something is — forgive this — fishy.

It’s important that we keep the Middle of the Film in mind when we watch the End of the Film, as it reminds us that nothing important in this film could be located and explained so easily. In fact, the game of Find the Fish should serve as a thematic explanation of the film on a much smaller scale: humorous wordplay, bizarre characters, an impossible search — isn’t this practically the Monty Python mantra? Find the Fish is a cautionary tale to the viewer, you should keep it in mind as you watch the film. If there is a fish to be found, its location (and identity) will not be explicitly revealed. You are provided with your clues and a little entertainment in the process, and then you are shoved politely along to the next segment, never knowing if it was right under your nose…and you missed it.

So what is the film’s framing device? If the Middle / End of the Film segments are just unhelpful distractions rather than any kind of useful guidance, is there any segment of the film that stands above the others in terms of authority?

The answer is yes. 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, but it’s not wholly unresolvable.

For starters, 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. Above them is the Middle / End of the Film lady, who is aware that she is in a film and that she is presenting segments of it. Above her are the fish, as they are able to watch and comment upon 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 overtake itself. We no longer have three parallel levels of reality within the film — instead, somehow, unpredictably, the lines have converged, and the fish, previously in some authoritative position, are now potentially in danger from the action on the lowest fictional plane of events.

In fact, it’s more than a little likely that Creosote ate them all. 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 hear something about it, the fish make no interruption whatsoever when we actually encounter a segment entitled The Meaning of Life, simply because they are no longer around to comment.

They were destroyed by events that should have been two levels safely below them. Somewhere along the way the film got tangled and the planes began to cross and intersect. The film — quite literally — consumed its own framing device. Oh, look. Howard’s been eaten.

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’d witnessed earlier in the film. And, finally, instead of the gratuitous pictures of penises we are promised by the presenter, 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 every one of its boundaries. It has destroyed the fish who set it into motion 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, drifting alone through the inhuman coldness of space, with nobody to answer to, and our control over our experience of the film is also symbolically pulled away, as the television drifts further and further from reach.

The film wrests control from us because it has one final thing to say, one concluding thought with which to leave us, and it begins that thought that begins with two sage words: “Just remember…”

“The Galaxy Song” closes the film, but before we discuss why that might be significant, we should wind back the clock a bit and consider its first appearance in the film, during the segment on Live Organ Transplants.

The song is an atypical one for Python, as there aren’t really any jokes in it, nor does it make use of clever phrasing or poke fun at a certain musical genre or social attitude. 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, vaster statement that halts the progress of the comedy sketch within which it’s embedded for three minutes or so, and then sends it spinning off in another direction.

Every effort seems to be made to get us to pay attention to this song. 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 empty 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 makes no effort to divert our attention from the content of the song itself.

If you make allowances for estimation, the facts about the universe as presented in “The Galaxy 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 it doesn’t contain any jokes. We do get stung by a slight barb in the closing line, but that line is sung after the vocalist and Mrs. Brown return to the set. In other words, we’ve been physically relocated for the duration of the song, and the lone humorous sentiment at the end is a lyrical way of easing us into our return.

But why this detour in the first place? Well, it’s because Mrs. Brown has a decision to make: does she give her liver to the two not-doctors who are asking for it? Bear in mind that such a choice would unquestionably result in here death, and it seems like an easy choice to make. She declines. John Cleese’s kind-of-doctor then introduces her to the vocalist in pink as a sort of final flail in his argument, and, after hearing the song and being confronted with the facts and figures of such an enormous, complicated, expanding universe, Mrs. Brown agrees to have her liver taken out, and to be killed in the process.

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 explicitly 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
Just remember…

It’s that “just remember” that’s key, because this is the advice that the vocalist in pink was sent here to give. He introduces his song by saying that he knows that you sometimes see life as cruel and unforgiving, and, in fact, he doesn’t disagree with you. But just remember that the universe itself is so much bigger, and that whatever we might encounter during the course of this painful, incomprehensible scramble we call life, it amounts to precisely nothing when gauged against the incomprehensible enormities around us.

And, just in case she might have forgotten, he ends by bringing the song 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 sentiment that it actually declares Mrs. Brown’s value as an individual. He stresses her own cosmic impossibility, and yet, by sheer virtue of her existence, she 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.

Yet when faced with the hugeness of the universe around her, she becomes nihilistic, loses her faith in her own significance, and sacrifices herself to the cause of live organ transplants.

“The Galaxy Song” can be read in either of two ways: it is either a life-affirming promise that every life is miraculous simply because, mathematically, we shouldn’t have ever existed to begin with, or it is an assurance that nothing we accomplish can amount to anything on a universal scale. Mrs. Brown has chosen to fall into the latter camp. She was faced with both morals, and she made her choice.

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, or do we choose to live life to its fullest? The first time we encounter the song, the decision is Mrs. Brown’s to make. The second time, it’s ours.

Mr. Brown sacrificed himself because he was too full of good intentions to realize that he was signing his own life away. 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. Somewhere in the middle, we are silently assured, is the “right” answer.

There is one sequence in the film, however, that does hew closely to providing explicit human guidance. Surprisingly enough, that sequence is Mr. Creosote’s.

The Mr. Creosote sequence seems at first to exist only for the purpose of sheer, vile repulsion, and it never really offers any form of relief; instead, it builds to one enormous (and only partially cathartic) explosion, 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 a scene as that, and so the Pythons make a wise decision to segue into a secondary segment called…The Meaning of Life. This segment sees three of the characters from the Mr. Creosote sketch cleaning up the restaurant, and idly pontificating over the nature of life and existence. It’s a quiet segment and is 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 deft artistic move. Instead of trying to trump the manic energy of Creosote’s visit, they reset the energy level to zero. Characters pass the time on chairs in a quiet room, discussing the meaning of life barely above a conversational whisper. The only thing shocking about the scene is that it manages to follow the insanity of Mr. Creosote without seeming out of place.

We really shouldn’t move on, however, without discussing the significant of the Mr. Creosote scene itself. What purpose does it serve in the greater film? For starters, it somehow manages to feel like one of the bigger and more important events in the movie. The first World War, for example, is actually just the backdrop for a sketch about an inopportune birthday party. The birth sequences are trivialized first by the doctors and then later by the Protestant couple, and even the arrival of Death turns out to say more about gradual acceptance than it does about sudden change.

The big things are made small, and, in the case of Mr. Creosote, the small things are made big. This one solitary evening out for a very overweight man seems to be of paramount importance. Why? Because it contains, at its heart, the most explicit 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 hierarchical social structure and pecking order, which, during the course of the sketch, is shaken up by the second-highest ranking individual on the ladder.

Let’s break it down: 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. 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 see the results of this particular power structure play out, and eventually become strained. 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, as he plies his insufferable customer with a wafer-thin mint. When Creosote refuses, the Maitre D 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 confidently with members of his staff.

He has managed to seize command of his own destiny, however temporarily, by incapacitating the man above him, and 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, and allows himself a more relaxed posture. 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 stated central theme, 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) embraces this opportunity fully.

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 took every opportunity to better herself, and to come to some sort of grander enlightenment about the nature of the world around her, only to run out of life in the process, to feel her body running down. She took a job cleaning up after people like Mr. Creosote with nothing to show for her intellectual pursuits. And, yes, she may follow up her story with an ignorant comment, but from a Meaning of Life standpoint, the real criticism we should have with her is the fore-runner to that anti-Semitic rhyme:

I feel that life is a game. You sometimes win or lose.

And there is the reason that she is a cleaning woman. She allowed herself to accept failure as possibility in her life, and, therefore, she did not fight against it. She accepted failure, which, in this particular social structure, is tantamount to inviting 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, seek opportunities to make it to the top.

Gaston reveals a similar fact about himself as well when he takes us on a pilgrimage 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 providing him with an outlook destined to 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 belief 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 find fault with his philosophy.

Something else is revealed in this scene, however: you are the central character. Throughout this entire sequence the camera operates 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 the philosophies they share.

In fact, if we take this 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 gets the whole machine running — we realize that this is all for our benefit. From beginning to end, we are the ones meant to learn from this film.

There is no central character that we can following along on this journey, because the journey is ours.

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 the 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 apply what we’ve learned, and, as we are left to drift ponderously along through space with “The Galaxy Song,” what we decide to do next, even if we can’t be sure where it will take us.

The Meaning of Life has tremendous fun with the choices we might make along the way, but it never wavers from the fact that death remains inevitable. We may go somewhere, and we may not…but we sure as Hell can’t stay here. The film 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 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. Regardless of the decisions one might make along the way, we all get taken in the end.

We can’t escape death. We know that. The question is what, then, is to keep us from falling into Mrs. Brown’s nihilism and just…giving up?

That is answered by the destination that the characters all reach at the end of the film: the afterlife. Here it is revealed that, in death, we retain our personalities and appearances, so whatever accomplishments we might have made in life are not for naught. We all meet up together in some spiritual night club and find ourselves on the receiving end of eternal entertainments. It’s a comically metaphorical illustration of one unfunny, very real universal claim: 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. That reason could be the gradual resetting of the entire universe, which, as proponents of the Big Crunch theory will tell you, is not an entirely fictional concept. The souls may be kept here for however long until the singularity is achieved, and all of time, space and matter is redistributed again from the start.

Even the lyrics to “Christmas in Heaven” seem to suggest that the narrowing toward 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, with the former running twice an hour, suggesting that time is indeed undergoing some sort of cosmic compression as well.

“Christmas in Heaven” manages to be both about the spiritual and the material, and the song itself spans several genres — it begins as a simple Christmas song, but soon becomes a heavy-handed lounge number, closing out with aspects of hymn, pop, funk, and salsa, all in one brief singalong. And, of course, the angels wear Santa suits and gratuitously expose their breasts, so 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 legitimate philosophical search of 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 so happen to provide their audience with the fuel for a lifelong quest of spiritual examination.

They just don’t write like that anymore.

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