An expanding DVD market and digital streaming made the Criterion Collection edition of Life of Brian superfluous. I purchased the CC copy of Life of Brian before a cheaper copy was available; and, even if there was one somewhere out there, I could not imagine how, as I held a sixty dollar DVD in my hands, a non-Criterion release would have had the same extra features.
I’m not complaining. Life of Brian is one my favourite comedies. However, its reasons to be included in the Criterion Collection were challenged almost immediately after its release. For context, here is the mission of the Criterion Collection (as of 2021):
Since 1984, the Criterion Collection has been dedicated to publishing important classic and contemporary films from around the world in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements. No matter the medium—from laserdisc to DVD and Blu-ray to streaming—Criterion has maintained its pioneering commitment to presenting each film as its maker would want it seen, in state-of-the-art restorations with special features designed to encourage repeated watching and deepen the viewer’s appreciation of the art of film.https://www.criterion.com/about
My CC copy does not look better than what I can find elsewhere. The commentaries are nice, but they have since been included in copies that cost far less. A fan of Monty Python might also learn little from the commentaries. The living cast of Monty Python rank high on any list of artists that are repeatedly interviewed about career highlights older than twenty years. Therefore, a dedicated fan is likely to already know some of the Life of Brian stories–George Harrison’s investment; filming in Tunisia; Graham Chapman’s sobriety.
But the film deserves its inclusion. In the event that the film did not look better than it did before, or if there could not be many special features, Criterion selected Life of Brian in order to perform what the Library of Congress does in the American public sphere: declare that a cultural object is important.
“… and I should know because I’ve followed a few!”
A good comedy knows how to follow each funny thread to its best end point. If you can’t stop at the right time, things start to crumble. An imaginative premise is shortchanged if one stops a joke too quickly. When a joke needed to end seconds or even minutes ago, the gag feels cheap and in creeps tiredness.
Monty Python jokes are rarely short punches, so the risk of audience fatigue is high. Thankfully most of Life of Brian finds the right tempo for its silliness. In the stoning scene (Jehovah! Jehovah!) the violence grows exponentially rather than in linear increments, because the disguised women are impatient to perform a forbidden act of execution. The two scenes with Pontius Pilate (played by Michael Palin) are some of the longest in the film. Palin’s Pilate is also a drawling character. Nevertheless, the pace is just right because slow and long makes the game of lisps, accents and dirty names frustrate Pilate, who, like the soft-speaking administrator of the crucifixion line, believes there is nothing funny about Imperial Rome.
“… in an extremely cheap and tenth-rate way.”
On the timeline of taboo filmmaking in mainstream cinema, Life of Brian is a mark after the death of the Production Code Administration, but well before Western societies, including their conservative pockets, grew to tolerate levels of vulgarity that would be culturally lethal in an earlier time. Almost two decades before crowds grew comfortable to see Jason Biggs fuck a pie on the big screen, and without precedent to combine the era of Jesus with comedy, Life of Brian was a lone target for religious groups in Britain and America.
How the controversy played out for Life of Brian should be familiar to those who follow the news cycles of most film and television controversies: tension is high for a brief period, everybody is either offended or defensive, but then the item in question is forgotten, because down the road attackers and defenders will reunite on the battlefields of The Last Temptation of Christ, The Satanic Verses, The Simpsons, Dogma, South Park, Family Guy and so on. The anxiety about Life of Brian was highest on a BBC2 talk show, Friday Night, Saturday Morning. An episode of the show allowed John Cleese and Michael Palin to debate Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark. Muggeridge and Stockwood viewed the film before the show, but supposedly they missed the first fifteen minutes of the film, which is when the story establishes that Brian is not Jesus.
A full viewing of Life of Brian would have changed little. Bishop Stockwood spends the first minute of his “review” reflecting on the inability of communist countries (Romania, China) to eradicate Christianity. Holding a silver crucifix around this neck, which is big enough to make Flavor Flav jealous, he then performs the typical headmaster maneuver: stating that he considered the ideas of the youth, but the ideas are too naive and fail to show respect for the big structure the headmaster occupies a position within. As Stockwood makes clear, he hardly had the energy to find Life of Brian funny because he spent the morning delivering communion: “I didn’t roar around with laughter at the alter in my chapel this morning, I just fell down, genuflected and worshiped”.