Dirk, Barry, Stig and Nasty are The Rutles in Eric Idle's All You Need is Cash.
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A selection of the best Python projects outside of Monty Python

Ryan Gilbey celebrates the best work by individual Pythons outside of their famous collaborations, from John Cleese’s slick Brit-flick A Fish Called Wanda to Eric Idle’s Beatles pastiche The Rutles.

The Monty Python reunion is almost over, the reviews are in (including this equivocal notice in the NS from Mark Lawson) and the commemorative concert Blu-Ray boxed-set and accompanying souvenir lumberjack shirts and tins of Spam are doubtless being readied for the pre-Christmas shelves. How to silence your Python pangs in the mean time when you’ve already watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and you feel that now it’s time for something completely different? Well, moderately different anyway. Plug your longing, then, with this handy mini-festival of the best of the Python members’ extra-curricular cinematic activities:

John Cleese

Conventional wisdom would have it that, Fawlty Towers aside, A Fish Called Wanda was John Cleese’s post-Python peak. And that movie is certainly a slick, punchy piece of work, notable both for its cosy British nastiness and its transformation of this garden rake of a man into a romantic hero. But for an undiluted shot of Cleese’s livid energy, try Clockwise, the simple but comically agonising 1986 tale (written by Michael Frayn) of one punctiliously punctual headmaster’s attempts to reach a conference on time. Key line: “It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand…”

Eric Idle

He hit paydirt—or further paydirt—with his Holy Grail musical, Spamalot, but Eric Idle has never been smarter or funnier outside Python than he is in All You Need is Cash, a laugh-a-second 1978 mockumentary about the Rutles, aka the Prefab Four, the popular beat combo (Dirk, Barry, Stig and Nasty) who bear a remarkable resemblance to the Beatles. The Rutles, born out of Idle’s TV show Rutland Weekend Television, are both loving homage and prickly parody; their songs are immaculate pastiches as well as sparkling compositions in their own right. Idle, playing several roles in All You Need is Cash (including the McCartney-like Dirk and the ingratiating host of the documentary), is at his prissy, bristling best.

Michael Palin

Palin is not only the sprightliest member of the troupe, he is also the one clutched most tightly to the public bosom. Travel documentaries, frank and jaunty diaries, the matchless Ripping Yarns TV series (written with Terry Jones), endearing and vulnerable turns in A Fish Called Wanda and Alan Bleasdale’s Channel 4 series GBH, not to mention Palin’s sheer bloody niceness—all these things have contributed to his spotless persona. That’s why I’m prescribing as an antidote his cameo turn as a dapper, smiling torturer in fellow Python Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. No one else had exploited or even identified Palin’s capacity for the sinister (and, no, the Spanish Inquisition sketch doesn’t count) so it was both chilling and mildly revelatory to see him in that context.

Terry Jones

The two Terrys (who shared directing credits on Holy Grail before Jones got sole credit on the remaining Python pictures) were alone among the team in becoming established filmmakers in their own right. Its view of the sex industry may be delusional in its softness but I retain a lingering fondness for Jones’s naughty-but-nice 1987 comedy Personal Services. The film has a winning performance by Julie Walters as a suburban madam (based on Cynthia Payne), a gender-oriented surprise that predates The Crying Game and a delightful climactic courtroom scene in which Walters surveys those assembled to condemn her and realises that most of the men are clients of hers.

Terry Gilliam

The only member whose film career has eclipsed anything he did as part of Python is Terry Gilliam, who went on to become a visionary, if latterly infuriating, filmmaker. Brazil was his masterpiece, but his 1981 comic adventure Time Bandits is as near to that status as makes no difference. As well as featuring cameos from Cleese (as a sneaky, what-ho Robin Hood) and Palin, it fuses Pythonesque eccentricity with a properly thrilling time-travel plot and a robust sense of wonder. The unsentimental ending cheers the soul.

Graham Chapman

The “one” in the “One Down, Five to Go” title given to the Python’s reunion shows, Chapman died in 1989 but lives on, animated and re-animated, in the recent inventive documentary A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman (co-directed by Terry Jones’s son, Bill Jones).

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game