Sunday, March 21, 2010

Soundpolitic Sundays: Don't Tread On Python Edition

After blogging for the past two weeks’ editions about the Tea Party and the Coffee Party, I decided the other day that I really needed to take a break from politics.  It was time to stop talking at the TV, making phone calls, and speaking at political organizations, and use my vocals chords for personal healing.

They say laughter is the best medicine.  But I still yearned for some political stimulation.  So I popped into the videocassette player my favorite silly film, which also happens to be one of the best political satires that still has relevance today. 

An obvious clip:

So in this edition of Soundpolitic Sundays, I’m inspired to examine some less-obvious clips from this masterpiece of cinema as they relate to our current political situation.  There’s something completely different below the fold…

Now the “Bloody Peasant” sequence of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the most obvious reference to politics.  It’s pretty much self-explanatory and I’m wasting words synopsizing it.  You can see for yourself (if your connection is good enough!) that we have a very obvious and very comical treatise on the powers of self-government, the ridiculousness of monarchy, and the sometimes silliness of class-war rhetoric.

But the whole film is filled with political references.  If you haven’t seen it, then first of all where have you been?  Hiding under a shrubbery all these years?  But if you haven’t seen the 1975 film, then very briefly:  the film was produced by the revolutionary British sketch comedy troupe Monty Python, and Wikipedia’s description of the genius and influence is most appropriate:

The group's influence on comedy has been compared to The Beatles’ influence on music.

Monty Python influenced everything, from Saturday Night Live to South Park, from George Carlin to Larry the Cable Guy.  If you refuse to recognize this, than I’ll have no choice but to condemn you as knowing absolutely nothing about comedy and tell you that you probably aren’t very funny yourself.

In any case, a brief synopsis of the film is an order for you poor unadulterated souls who have yet to experience it:

In 1974, between production on the third and fourth series, the group decided to embark on their first "proper" feature film, containing entirely new material. Monty Python and the Holy Grail was based on Arthurian Legend and was directed by Jones and Gilliam. Again, the latter also contributed linking animations (and put together the opening credits). Along with the rest of the Pythons, Jones and Gilliam performed several roles in the film, but it was Chapman, considered by far the best "straight" actor of the group, who took the lead as King Arthur. Holy Grail was filmed on location, in picturesque rural areas of Scotland, with a budget of only £229,000; the money was raised in part with investments from rock groups such as Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin—and UK music industry entrepreneur Tony Stratton-Smith (founder/owner of the Charisma Records label, for which the Pythons recorded their comedy albums).

John Cleese noted in an interview with Jian Ghomeshi (host of the cultural radio program Q on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) that the backers of the film wanted to cut the famous Black Knight scene (in which the Black Knight loses his limbs in a duel), which arguably ended up being the funniest and the most quoted scene in the film by cult followers.

The synopsis proves itself an excellent segue!

And now we get down to the business of finding political allegory for the present political situation of Tea Party conservative obstructionism versus reality-based Coffee Party progressivism.  Here, the Black Knight himself is the metaphor for the Tea Party and conservative mentality and King Arthur represents reasoned questioning.

The Black Knight’s first response when asked to join in common cause with King Arthur is to not respond at all.  This is the first step of conservative obstructionism: non-participation and silence on the issues.  Then, Arthur simply makes his discontent known as informs the Black Knight that he’ll have to move on without him.

Great….now the Black Knight speaks up.  He makes his obstructionist intent expressly known (“None shall pass!  I move for no man!”).  King Arthur then makes an attempt to reason with the Black Knight (“I have no quarrel with you, but I must cross this bridge.”)  The Black Knight’s response is to initiate a fight to the death rather than compromise.

The fight that ensues is, of course, slapstick comedic genius.  But it’s also a fantastic example of the fight that conservatives have been fighting since the dawn of time.  While they appear to be evenly matched with progressives, it’s the same thing that occurs in the fight scene that always ends up happening in real life: 

The conservatives inevitably lose, but then keep on fighting, refusing to acknowledge defeat (“’Tis but a scratch!”).  The progressives then inform them that they’ve lost the battle, but now conservative denial takes hold.  (Arthur:  “A scratch?  Your arms off!”  The Black Knight: “No it isn’t.”)  Then progressive truth is reiterated (Arthur: “Well, what’s that then?”).  The conservative reaction is cite an imagined history, brushing off the current situation by say that they’ve won even tougher battles (“I’ve had worse.”).  This is seen in the very name of the Tea Party and the historical event they take their name from.  They would have us believe that fighting back the oppressors of today will be a piece of cake because our ancestors were able to fight off British colonial rule.

And this is as hilarious in the film as it is in real life.  The Black Knight continues to fight despite the loss of one limb…and then insists he’s still winning the greater war after losing the next.  King Arthur tries his best at first to be nice while stating the obvious (“You are indeed brave, Sir Knight, but the fight is mine.”)  The conservative reaction is to immediately make childish taunting a part of the continued futility (“Oh, had enough, eh? Chicken! Chicken!”).

So the progressive has no choice but to continue wasting his time on this silliness and take off another limb, this time going after the very principles upon which the conservative stands (In other words, “I’ll have you leg.”).  The process continues, the progressive chops an even more vital piece of the argument off the body politic.  And incredibly, the conservative become even more desperate!  He vows to fight on in a shaken voice and declares that victory is still imminent by their very nature (“I’m invincible! The Black Knight always triumphs!”).

Arthur gives the only appropriate response (“You’re a loony,” he scoffs) and then takes the final swing.  Just think of the number of calories he’s wasted and the amount of blood his adversary has lost when you see the incapacitated Black Knight reduced to only a torso….

….and you have no choice but to laugh at his warped assessment of the situation.  He thinks he’s actually broke even! (“All right, we’ll call it a draw.”) And as the bridge is finally crossed, even this offer to be friends is thrown out the window.  Having been discredited completely and incapacitated entirely, the name calling and empty threats of vengeance continue to be shouted (“Running away!  You yellow bastards!  Come back here and get what’s coming to you!  I’ll bite your legs off!”).

My friends, this is exactly the way it’s always happened when progressive principles are pitted against conservative ones.  First, they stand in our way and refuse to even start a conversation.  Then, they insist that we’ll never get anywhere.  Then they fight until they’re beaten.  And then they keep on fighting until they’re beaten even more.  Finally, they fight until they don’t even have the ability to fight.  And in the end, we’re left with nothing but noise, but at least they can’t do much damage with that.

Or can they?  They next clip from “Holy Grail” indicates the present-day problem we have with the damage that can still be done with the right-wing noise machine.


This portion of “Holy Grail” is a fantastic allegory for several elements of the Tea Party.  First, we have a mass of common folk, all riled up that a threat to their way of life is living amongst them.  They run out of their homes yelling and screaming that there’s trouble afoot (“A witch!  We found a witch!”) without having first taken care of their own business – see the guy who’s still got shaving cream on? 

Then they present tampered evidence to an authority figure (here, the village Alchemist, Sir Bedevere) who they are certain will confirm their suspicions.  This authority figure then even seems to challenge the view of the mob:  After a bit of investigation, the authority figure points out that perhaps the evidence has been tampered with or entirely created (“Did you dress her up like this?”) by the very mass of commoners now pointing out the threat.  The mob even acknowledges that they did so, but only after vehemently denying it (“Well we did do the nose…and the hat…”) yet still they insist that there is still a threat (“She has got a wort!”) and, in the end, despite the evidence, they still want to the same desired outcome (“Burn her anyway!”).

Then the authority figure informs them that there really is a methodology for confirming the viewpoint that will lead to this outcome.  He asks questions of the mob in order to give the illusion of reasoned debate built upon constituent interaction (“What do you burn apart from witches?  So, why do witches burn?”).  Then, the masses display their genuine lack of intelligence with both their answers and the time it takes for them to reach them (The long pause before one member finally guesses “Because…they’re…made of wood?”).

Now, having created the illusion of logical reasoning and informed debate, the audience still cannot reach the next step. (“What else floats in water?” asks Bedevere, and the mob’s answers include cider, gravy, churches, and very small rocks!)  It’s up to another authority figure (here, King Arthur) to inject the right answer  (“A Duck!”) which provides the first authority figure with all the corroboration he needs to guide the audience along the twisted logic: If the witch weighs the same as a duck, she will also float if thrown into a pond, which means she made of wood, and therefore, she’s a witch.

That sounds an awful lot like those of right-wing authority figures on the talk radio circuit these days:  In the morning there’s Glenn Beck saying that health care reform is going to take away every freedom we have; in the very next time slot, Rush Limbaugh is telling us that the bill is being rammed down our throats instead of actually voted on; coming up next we have Sean Hannity calling any form of government health care socialistic-communistic; then Michael Savage gets even more specific by saying health care reform will lead to taking away guns and free speech.

So you see, this Tea Party thing is nothing new.  It’s been happening since the Middle Ages.  But we are making progress.  Modern technology first gave us the motion picture with which to mock this political theater in the greatest tradition of Greek comedic theater.

Today, it is brought to even wider distribution through the wonder of the Internet, the same vehicle that has given birth to the Coffee Party movement, now nearly 180,000 members strong on Facebook, where it began.  In last week’s edition, I reported that the movement was nearly 150,000 thousand; and the week before I noted that had just passed the 100K benchmark.

Keep your eye on that movement and keep your eye out for next week’s edition.  Perhaps a movement that’s growing this fast and is so grounded (I’m such a pundit) in reality might just become as influential in our politics as the Pythons were in comedy.  Just don’t forget to take a break from such wishful thinking to laugh to yourself every once in a while. 

In fact, try laughting at yourself, too.  You might just find exactly what you were looking for! 

Until next week, thanks for reading and keep up the good work!


Soundpolitic said...

This diary was cross posted on the front page of The Albany Project and the diaries of DailyKos.

Lots of Python fans on Kos!

Terrence said...

It's amazing how well that witch-burning scene fits our present political climate! Pundit or Politician, no demagogue will ever have to work too hard to dupe the public.