Terry Jones, RIP

Terry Jones, the least-known and most commonly overlooked member of the great Monty Python comedy troupe, has died. For the past several years, he has been out of the public eye, due to an aggressive form of dementia, which was already affecting him during the group’s final reunion performances in 2014, and soon left him largely unable to speak. (He appeared at the 2016 BAFTA show to receive an Outstanding Achievement award, but his son delivered the brief thank you speech, in a horribly sad moment.)

Being a bit of a softy for unsung heroes, and people whose very significant contributions have been somewhat overshadowed by more popular faces, I feel obliged to point out here that not only was Jones the regular writing partner of the more famous and beloved Michael Palin, and therefore partly responsible, behind the scenes, for many of the Python group’s most popular sketches and characters, but in fact he was also the principle director of the group’s three original feature films, most importantly its two final and most “serious” films, Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1983).

Even his directing, however, though impressive — particularly given relatively low budgets and the difficult task of creating plausible narrative unity out of somewhat disparate sketch-style scenes composed by three distinct writing factions (Palin/Jones, John Cleese/Graham Chapman, and Eric Idle) — tends to be overlooked or undervalued, even among Python fans. This unjust oversight is partly due to the group’s other Terry, American Terry Gilliam, later becoming an acclaimed film director in his own right, thus leading many casual viewers to presume that it was he, not Jones, directing the Python movies.

In fact, there is little doubt that without Jones’ work behind the camera, Life of Brian would never have achieved its enormous popular success (or beneficial controversy), with its remarkably coherent, though nutty, story of a man born in a manger down the street from Jesus, who, by a series of accidents, comes to be mistaken for the Messiah, and to develop a devout following in his own right, in an age (not unlike ours, of course) in which men were excessively susceptible to fanatical hopes of messiahs. This, at last, many years into the group’s celebrity, and long after the original TV series had run its course, was a new, mature Monty Python with a certain trenchant seriousness of intent, though without any of the pretentiousness or monotonous preachiness of a “message movie.”

And then, in The Meaning of Life, in my opinion Jones’ great achievement, a collection of comic ideas only vaguely united by theme are transformed by sheer directorial vision into a kind of fantasia on the cycle of life, from birth to death, in a film that is less overtly hilarious than Python’s earlier work, but that more than compensates for the loss of the pure silliness of the group’s glory days with a certain degree of genuine Swiftian nastiness about the follies and self-important stupidity of Man. If ever there was a truly successful film that might have ended up an incoherent mess in the hands of any other director, it is this one. 

In honor of Terry Jones, then, here is a representative scene from his best film. In addition to showing his maturity as a film craftsman — note how the visually and aurally believable battle scene atmosphere never wanes for a moment, in spite of the foreground absurdity of the dialogue and situation — it is also a rare scene that features Jones himself in the central role. Notice further, however, that even in this scene, Jones’ performance, though funny in its own right, is calibrated to hand the biggest laughs to the other players. 

I will probably have more to say about this topic a little later, as my memory will undoubtedly be replaying Monty Python scenes in spite of myself all day long.

For the time being, however, I will simply say “Rest in peace, Terry Jones, and thank you for so much purposeful silliness.”

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