Wife on cell phone: pick up allergy prescription. “Also could you get me some allergy –“ Dead air. Put down the phone. It rings again; no one there. Okay, well, allergy what? I go to the drug store, get the prescription. Four people in line to pick up prescriptions. A woman walks over, waves at the pharmacist, and says “Is this where I drop off prescriptions?” She’s standing under a sign that says PICK UP. Ten feet away is another window, with a sign that says DROP OFF. Everyone in the line gives her the hairy eyeball. The pharmacist tends to her question while the guy at the head of the line, a ringer for Junior Soprano, writes his check. We will all give this line-jumper a pass unless she starts to soak up the pharmacist’s time, which of course she does. Insurance card? Phone number? Prescription? Now everyone is looking at her as if we wished hard looks were Taser filaments. And what a cross-section of America: skinny white guy with a bottle of Windex in his hand, late 30s black guy, mid-20s white female with many piercings and a profusion of henna tattoos, all mentally beseeching the Somali-American clerk not to reward this boor.

This being Minnesota, we all stood there and took it. In silence.

No one was in a mood to do anything anywhere for any reason anyway. Three days of rain. Three days of low barometric pressure. Oh, it’s good for the lawns. But it’s just depressing. Not for Gnat; she capers about in high-glee mode. She wants to put on plays for us, so she reenacts Snow White or The Wizard of Oz; her version of the Lolllipop Guild and Lullabye League scenes is quite charming. Although I can’t help but wonder if the Lollipop Guild suffered the usual anti-union violence when they attempted to organize; did the Mayor of Munchkinland bring in some Pinkertons to knock heads? To what extent was the Lollipop Guild compromised by Soviet penetration of the upper governing councils?

Mostly I wrote. Went to the office on Saturday afternoon, wrote two columns. Wrote a bang-up addition to the Gallery of Regrettable Food, which you’ll see Wednesday. Friday I watched TV, blessed TV. Watched half of “Kissing Jessica Stein,” which was delightful. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” season finale: brilliant. The third episode of “The Sopranos” new season: they’re three for three. It’s still the Golden Age of TV, if you ask me. All this in one night plus a Dick Van Dyke from 64 – by the time the remote fell from my hand, I was a happy fellow. Saturday night was movie night. A few notes follow.

“Life of Brian” has been released on a Criterion DVD, with a new transfer, many extras, 47 commentary tracks. (Before I proceed, obligatory disclaimer: I think the Pythons are the most ingenious comedy troupe of the 20th century, but that’s another bleat.) “Brian” isn’t as much fun as “Holy Grail,” and it’s not as uncomfortably grim as “Meaning of Life.” The first half is better than both. Scene after scene, it’s damn near perfect. But about halfway through the film you feel a fatal sag; we see Graham Chapman running away with a panicked look for the 19th time, and the unrelenting drabness of the sets make you wish someone would get seriously stabbed, if only so we’d see some color. The movie recovers, but the second half – the philosophical core of the film, really – isn’t as strong as the first.

Now. Remember the appearance of the Judean People’s Front Suicide squad? Commandos appear, storm the hill where the crucifixions are taking place, and stab themselves en masse. Well. In the commentary track Cleese notes that these characters had appeared in an earlier scene which didn’t make the final edit. He notes that some might find it offensive today, and his tone suggests he wishes they’d let the JPF out of the ending altogether.

Gee, I wonder why? I didn’t notice it at the time, but it stuck out this time:

German helmets, Star of David, Hitler moustache.

The deleted scene is on the DVD. Eric Idle plays Otto, the leader of the JPL. He speaks in a German accent and gives the Hitler salute, then embarks on a speech: his group has been waiting for a "leader who will save Israel by ridding it of the scum of non-Jewish people, making it pure, no foreigners, no riff-raff, no gypsies!”

Take a look at the insignia again: It’s a Star of David cross-bred with a swastika.

So what had Israel done in 1978 to merit this, I wondered? What would make the Pythons confident that audiences would laugh at goose-stepping Jewish suicide commandos with Hitler moustaches and German helmets? According a story about the movie, filming began on September 16, 1978.

On September 17, the Camp David Accords were announced. If only the Pythons had waited a day, they might have rethought Otto on the spot. A Guardian story on the movie ends thus:

Life of Brian ended up being banned in Harrogate, parts of Surrey, east Devon (where councillors refused even to watch it, arguing, "You don't have to see a pigsty to know that it stinks") and Cornwall (where, after one screening, a local councillor rather overstated the case by arguing for all the participants in the film to be locked up in Broadmoor).

Gilliam noted, "In Britain, it was banned in different towns; what that meant was that people in those towns organised charabancs and went to the neighbouring town where it was showing. But in the States they banned it in the Bible Belt area and nobody went. You see, the British can't be controlled and the Americans can... that's what we learnt over that."

have been looking for stories about the movie's bannination by court order, and I can’t find anything. Next time I’m at the office I’ll hit the fiche, and determine exactly how city councils or county commissioners "banned" this movie. Unless Gilliam is full of self-aggrandizing crap, of course. There’s a first time for everything. (And a 97th.)

Is it blasphemous? Well, no. It’s about human fallibility, and the way it infects – at the first possible opportunity – any search for transcendence. Not an original idea, and not a profound one either, but it’s done with grim brio and comic skill. It’s much funnier when it’s slamming secular targets, though – the Roman legionnaire’s grammar lesson, the revolutionary councils, the Pontius Pilate scenes are much more satisfying and clever than jibes at Brian’s disciples. (The way the onlookers go from jeering contempt at Brian’s first homily to uncritical devotion doesn’t work, and you feel the director’s heavy hand turning your head in the direction he wants you to look.)

But. Brian makes a speech to the crowd in the alley, and tells them not to follow him. Good enough. Then he tells them not to follow anyone - including, presumably, that fellow who was preaching on the Mount in the earlier scenes. “You’ve got to figure it out for yourselves!” he insists. Yes, you do. But upon what do you base your conclusions? I mean, a serial rapist has it figured out for himself. No, no, no, I’m not saying that theistic beliefs are a prerequisite for coming up with a jim-dandy moral code. It is entirely possible for people to “figure it out for themselves” and decide to adopt a code of behaviors that would result in a peaceful, civil society if everyone else acted the same way. Do unto others, etc. But Brian sets up a false dichotomy. We do figure it out for ourselves. And that usually involves following someone, since we’re walking along a path that’s been flattened by billions of feet before we got here. I know this sounds as if I’m reading too much into this, but after listening to the commentary tracks it’s apparent that Jones and Gilliam thought they were making A Statement, so I’ll treat it as such.

Defenders of the film (and if I had to choose, I’d defend it) note that the Pythons make fun of everyone and that’s true. There aren't any explicit attacks on what religious-minded folk would call humanism, but a) that’s a nebulous concept with elastic definitions, and b) it’s hard to make specific attacks on it from a secular viewpoint, which is where the Pythons reside. But it all comes down to that Eric Idle song, “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life.” On one hand, it’s a clever parody of saccharine pick-me-up songs whose inappropriateness in this context rivals the “Springtime for Hitler” scene in “The Producers.” On the other hand, it’s the message of the film:

For life is quite absurd
And death's the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow.
Forget about your sin - give the audience a grin
Enjoy it - it's your last chance anyhow.

So always look on the bright side of death
Just before you draw your terminal breath

Life's a piece of shit
When you look at it
Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true.
You'll see it's all a show
Keep 'em laughing as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you.

This is the result of figuring it out for yourselves? Life is shit?

I watched the original “Phantom of the Opera,” a restored version of the theatrical release. I love refurbished silents, especially if they have the original orchestral score, as this one does. “Metropolis” is probably the best example of the genre – the original movie is pulled together from a dozen sources, and the result is like nothing you’ve seen; it’s a different movie. “Phantom,” unfortunately, is the same movie. The DVD has another version on a second disk, a bad print with additional footage, but I’m not inclined to watch it. Aside from the sets and Chaney, it’s just not that good. I had one hand on the shuttle wheel through the movie, because it’s stagey, unimaginatively directed, and – this is an odd thing to say about a silent movie – talky. Chaney’s great, though, even if he does gesture about in that “you must pay the rent!” mode of the time. A few things caught my eye:

The color. The famous masked ball sequence was shot in two-strip Technicolor, which lead to scenes like this:

And we think color began when Dorothy opened the door to Oz. Nope.

The music. The score isn’t bad – better than the movie. But my ears perked up when the heroine is taken to her bedchamber by the Phantom, and the score turns moody and ominous. Sound familiar?

There it is
: the most recognizable riff from the Andrew Lloyd Webber version. I have no idea how many houses that riff got him. And it’s not his. It’s Carl Davis’ notes. I googled around to see if he ever gave Davis credit; found nothing, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t admit it at some point. But even if the theater program gave Davis a nod it wouldn’t begin to describe the debt.

There’s another version of the film with Joseph Cotton as Erik the Phantom, and I seem to remember it as stagey and lame as well. But they did a better job on the chandelier drop, I’ll grant; the original version isn’t too impressive. It looks as if they used a razor blade to cut the chandelier out of the print, then did step animation to drop it. The scene takes less than a second.

Never was a big Phantom fan. Saw it at Kennedy Center 12 years ago - in the President’s Box, as a matter of fact. I’ve told that story. My wife had a relative who worked for Bush 41, and we got the box for a Saturday matinee. Everything in the anteroom has the Presidential seal; there are bottles of champagne with the seal, napkins, towels, matchbooks, stir-sticks, darning kits, etc. Private bathroom. A sitting room off the small rotunda. The only downside: everyone in the theater looks up to see who’s in the President’s Box. At the end off the evening the Phantom actually doffed his mask to us, pointing to our box and taking a bow. Standard operating procedure, since they didn’t know who might be there, and anyway if someone was there, they obviously had connections. In this case: me, my wife, her relatives, their son – now a brilliant neuro-biochemist I saw again last summer in Duluth, where we studied the effects of alcohol on the cerebellum – and my wife’s irascible Grandmother, who had spent the day complaining about her bunions. She was a piece of work, let me tell you. Tough as saddle leather. She ran her own business at a time when women simply didn’t do that thing in this part of the world. She used to go to New York on business, to meet with buyers; she packed heat. Once she showed me the gun, too. What a dame.

Anyway. It’s a good show, but I’m always a bit put off by people who love it to death and overhype the whole thing. And whenever I hear Webber’s music – even that gorgeous Pie Jesu from his Requem – I always think “Nice tune. Where’d you get it?”

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