Tommaso

Posted May 25, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama

tommaso2In Abel Ferrara’s 1993 autobiographical indie drama Dangerous Game, Harvey Keitel played a Ferrara-like movie director. In an especially cringe-worthy scene, Keitel confesses to his onscreen wife — played by Ferrara’s actual then-wife — that he’s had lots of on-set flings. What does it feel like directing your surrogate character to confess such things to your wife? For that matter, how did Ferrara’s wife feel about it? (Answer: the marriage was kaput within five years.) I wondered anew while watching Ferrara’s new autobiographical indie drama Tommaso. Here, Ferrara’s avatar is Willem Dafoe, whose young Moldavian wife is played by Ferrara’s current wife, Cristina Chiriac. He suspects her of infidelity; he has fantasies of hanging out with naked women and of dark, violent scenarios. For good measure, Dafoe and Chiriac’s toddler daughter is played by Ferrara and Chiriac’s toddler daughter Anna. Takeaway: either Cristina Chiriac has never seen Dangerous Game or she really trusts Abel Ferrara.

I was thinking other things, too, such as how fit Willem Dafoe is looking in his sixties (he’s been doing Ashtanga yoga for over thirty years, and does some in the movie). His instruments, as always, are precisely aligned; he’s one of the best we have. And Ferrara gives him some thick meat to chew on in Tommaso. Sober for six years after a netherworld of crack, coke and heroin — it appears Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant was more self-based than we might have thought — Dafoe’s character, whom everyone calls Tommaso (or, once, Tommy), is trying very hard to be decent, to balance family life with creative life. So Dafoe gets to enact self-doubt, self-hatred, eventually self-destruction. But the scenes feel like actors’ workshops — you’re ashamed of not being a better father to your adopted daughters from your first marriage! Go with that! And Dafoe goes with that, but meanwhile he spends a good amount of time playing opposite Cristina Chiriac, an amiable nonactress who covers her face when she has to pretend to be crying.

There are worse ways to pass a couple hours than to watch a great actor being puppeted by a great-ish director. It sure does dawdle, though, and daydreams like the one in which Tommaso is brought to the precinct in handcuffs — for speaking his truth too loudly, or some such banality — presume our patience. They feel like padding in an already overpadded movie. Tommaso goes to AA meetings and to teach an acting class and to attend Italian lessons, not so much to shed light on his day-to-day activities, we may feel, but to get him out of the apartment (which is also — what are the odds? — Ferrara’s own apartment). Tommaso’s occasional excursions to the park with his daughter seem to have no point other than to take them and us out for some fresh air in this otherwise four-walls, no-windows movie. (Well, there is a balcony, from which Tommaso has a fearful vision of his little girl getting Pet Sematary’d on a narrow street. But what a view!)

Tommaso is set and filmed in Ferrara’s stomping grounds in Rome, not that we get to see much of the great city; the point must be that a miserable artist is miserable anywhere. Tommaso is shown tinkering fruitlessly with a script that involves a bear attack, among other things; some research reveals that the project is actually Ferrara’s forthcoming film Siberia, also starring Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac, and Anna Ferrara. Does this make Tommaso the Barton Fink to Ferrara’s Miller’s Crossing — the smaller meta-project about creative blockage the filmmaker(s) took on while dealing with writer’s block on a larger project? Who the hell knows. That script sounds livelier than anything in Tommaso, or, to put it more generously, Siberia ought to be a hell of a movie! Tommaso isn’t bad; Ferrara simply can’t sell out — even his Body Snatchers was a weird goddamn thing — and he hands the film to his great star and shouts “Be me! Be you being me! Be me being you!” But its “we have the actors and the locations, let’s go do it” improvisatory spirit isn’t enough to sustain our full engagement for almost two hours. When Ferrara goes, there’ll be reason to mourn; many reasons. By and large, Tommaso, for all its art-house sincerity, won’t be among them.

Verotika

Posted May 17, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comic-book, horror, one of the year's worst

verotika A word of caution before we proceed. Some bad movies are, as they say, “so bad they’re good.” Others are just excruciatingly bad. And then there’s Verotika, the directing debut of metal musician Glenn Danzig, based on his comic books. And I’m realizing that there’s no way to describe this film that will not make some of you want to see it. I could list the endless parade of inept choices, the dialogue, the acting, the effects … Even viewed with a drunk crowd of friends, Verotika will cause pain. It was made with a great deal of sincerity, that much is clear. Danzig believes in his film. That it has become a cult film begging for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment does not make it less hazardous to your brain and soul. You have been warned.

Verotika is a horror anthology, meaning that instead of making one unwatchable short film, Danzig has made three and glued them together like a cinematic human centipede, shitting and eating shit. If the stories have a common thread, it is the kind of story one can film with a cast largely made of sex workers or similar purveyors of meretricious cheese. Most of the killing is done by female beasts; two out of the three villains are female, preying mainly on other females. It’s all part of the movie’s sub-Heavy Metal aesthetic that drenches well-endowed horror vixens in gore. None of this is uncommon in low-budget horror, which so often has to make do with what it has, and if what you have is a band of strippers and literally vats of fake blood, the result is Verotika. What’s different here is that Danzig doesn’t seem to know we’ve seen all this before. He thinks he’s really showing us something.

The first story, “The Albino Spider of Dajette,” concerns a prostitute with eyes for nipples. Her nipple tears transform a spider into a six-armed killer the police dub “Le Neck Breaker” (the story is set in Paris). Le Neck Breaker breaks les necks, all women victims, before the police finally catch up to him and plug him with lead. How anyone can make a bonkers premise like this so flat and stupefyingly dismal is beyond me, but Danzig manages it.Next up is “Change of Face,” about a stripper with a scarred face; she deals with this by killing pretty women, removing their faces, and hanging them on her wall. The press calls her either the Face Collector or the Face Ripper — Danzig apparently couldn’t decide. Finally, there’s “Drukija, Contessa of Blood,” wherein the titular woman bathes in virgins’ blood (pronouncing “virgin” to rhyme with “Bergen”). The virgins are always nude, of course, and Drukija is often topless. A virgin tries to escape, gets caught, is beheaded; Drukija adds the head to her collection of heads. Oh, and all the segments are introduced by Morella, who plucks out women’s eyes and calls us “darklings.”

If you wanted to imagine a movie fed on adolescent fantasies grounded in comic books and movies flooded with gore and T&A, what you imagine will undoubtedly be more entertaining than Verotika. That’s because Danzig takes his material so grindingly seriously he drains the fun out of it along with the blood. Danzig hasn’t learned that you have to insert comic relief or the audience will laugh at whatever else presents itself, and that’s why the movie is gaining purchase as a doofus party item. There are problems with camera movement — one time you can see the camera jiggle — and the middle segment, about the face-stealing stripper, is often bisected by harsh horizontal flare beams, sometimes three or more in a shot. I don’t know why. Neither will you.

Something like Verotika really tests me, because I have grown to believe that there can be value in even the most moth-eaten, bereft crap. Someone cared enough to make it, and there can be accidental moments of art and revelation. I refuse, for instance, to call Ed Wood’s films “bad”; no films so passionate, and with so much to express, can be called bad. Verotika might be passionate in that it scratches Danzig’s itch for babes and blood, but it really doesn’t express anything except that itch, over and over — the movie is repetitive and, finally, dull. It takes a lot of doing to take a movie full of the sort of things teen hetero boys love and make it so lifeless and dreary. Was Danzig even aroused by his own film? Russ Meyer filled his movies with buxom women, and you could feel he loved them so much it hurt, and therein lay the art. What does Glenn Danzig love so much it hurts? Women covered in blood, apparently. But he doesn’t have the art to make us love it, too. He just pulls it out again and again, flaccidly.

Shirley

Posted May 10, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, biopic, drama, one of the year's best

shirley The stories of Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) are enjoying a bit of a fresh wash and airing out lately, what with recent treatments of The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and (on deck) “The Lottery.” So it’s not surprising that the experimental/instinctive filmmaker Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) got the go-ahead to make a movie about Jackson. Given Decker’s involvement, it also shouldn’t be surprising that the result, Shirley, turns out to be an elliptical riff on the themes that Jackson’s life and work open up; it’s far from a standard biopic. Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins, adapting a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, approach Jackson as an avatar of misunderstood, squelched female creativity at a time that didn’t value or encourage it. (Trying to square the film’s hazy timeline with the real events isn’t useful; we’ll say the film is set in the early ‘50s.)

Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) is beating her head against an inchoate novel she’s trying to find her way into writing, which eventually became 1951’s Hangsaman, loosely based on the disappearance of a local college girl. At first, the anguished Moss as the depressed, blocked Shirley seems like typecasting, and I wished anew that Moss weren’t shaping up to be the next Christian Bale, miserable and self-crucifying forever. But Moss finds pockets of wit and even giddy pixellated fun in Shirley’s antisocial moods and games. (The agoraphobic Jackson had no problem with social distancing.) Moss’s Shirley has a kind of mischievous though maliceless curiosity about the world around her. Much of it she sees through the prism of men’s betrayal of women and all its forms — her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman (a twinkly caricature of ebullient mansplaining by Michael Stuhlbarg), beds down with legions of his female students.

Into this miasma of spoken and unspoken psychic violence drift a fictional couple — Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young). Fred will be interning with Professor Hyman, and Rose will be doing some cooking and cleaning, because Stanley and Shirley don’t. Shirley and the pregnant Rose develop a complicated rapport based on shared feelings of being overlooked, underestimated, vilified. (The movie reminds us that Jackson’s famous story “The Lottery” sparked as much loathing as love; the script unfolds sometime after the heated response has more or less flattened and blocked Jackson.) The unknown fate of the missing Paula Jean Welden haunts Shirley — she recognizes that she, too, is lost, and she has visions of Rose as Paula enacting self-abnegating psychodramas, literally squirming in the soil. Paula/Rose/Shirley become a triptych of fear of female erasure. Through all this, Decker’s filmmaking is quiet, diffuse, questioning yet assured. The camera floats between the characters, gets up close, breathes along with them. The film toys with the idea of a tryst between Rose and Shirley, then withdraws it. Sex is too physical for what’s really going on here, a sort of meditation on the female oversoul in the ‘50s.

I told you this wasn’t a typical biopic. And some of it plays better in memory than it may when you watch it — a few of the scenes are awkward bordering on cringeworthy, not out of ineptitude but by design. Decker wants us to feel what her characters feel, and a lot of the conflict has to do with the manners and mores of the day. Moss and Stuhlbarg dig into each other’s soft spots so masterfully it’s sometimes easy to forget Odessa Young and especially Logan Lerman are even there. But the movie isn’t really about the male-female war. What Decker (and Jackson before her) understand is that women’s inner lives could be dark and twisted (sometimes beautifully so) even without men. Add the creative urge to that mix and the test tube might explode in your hand. Despite its egghead premise and milieu, Shirley isn’t a hostile art object. Unexpected warm breezes of intimacy waft through it. At heart it’s a fantasy about a crank, misanthrope and artist who crosses paths with a muse and sees her artistic life project laid out before her. It tells her to speak for the haunted and silent.

Peeping Tom

Posted May 3, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: cult, horror, one of the year's best, thriller

peeping tom Perhaps the most shocking thing about Michael Powell’s notorious Peeping Tom, sixty years now after its premiere in England, is that it looks respectable and classical and almost sedate — until it doesn’t. The movie genuinely appalled critics of its day, who must have assumed they were getting a delectable, harmless thriller from the director who, solo or with Emeric Pressburger, had presented many of England’s most prestigious films. (Critics already knew pretty much what to expect when Alfred Hitchcock unveiled his near-contemporaneous Psycho.) But no. Peeping Tom, written by Leo Marks, may look and play “normal” but is drenched with the flop sweat of sexual mania. I think if it had been made by anyone else, possibly in America, in the poverty-row style of something like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, it might still have kicked up a fuss, but not as much rage.

Peeping Tom turned out to be part of a wave of thrillers in the ‘60s, including the better-known Psycho but also movies like William Castle’s Homicidal, that focused on a killer’s psychological damage inflicted by cruel parents. Here, our subject is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), who acts as a focus puller on movies and takes naughty photos for a local bookshop. He also has an elaborate fetish involving women looking frightened. He films them at the moment they realize they’re going to die, and he adds a vicious touch that should remain unspoiled for newcomers to the movie, though the most horrifying moment in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 Strange Days owes most of its punch to it.

Mark has been doing his thing unimpeded for a while now — in the opening scene, he disposes of a prostitute, who screams in her room though nobody cares enough to look in until he is long gone — but when he meets Helen (Anna Massey), a tenant in the building Mark inherited from his father, his thing deflates a bit. He shows the kindly Helen footage his demented shrink father (Powell himself) shot of himself tormenting the young Mark at night. She feels for him, and part of him responds to her sympathy. He promises he will never photograph her. He seems to want to cordon his psychosis off from her, but we and he know that’s not going to work. He has a run-in with Helen’s blind mother (Maxine Audley), who senses what he is but can’t do much about it. Helen, who has just turned 21, may be falling for Mark precisely because of his pain.

I imagine part of the vehemence of the response to the film was due to Powell’s pre-punk indifference to what his more monocle-dropping viewers would think. For instance, Powell takes Moira Shearer, beloved star of his The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman, and contrives an undignified fate for her comparable to Janet Leigh’s. Yet always, the filmmaking is smooth, assured, suffused with cinematographer Otto Heller’s sumptuous palette. Powell shows us pretty pictures but uses them to lure us into a dark, seedy alley where two-quid whores loiter and warped men get them alone. It’s a classic bait and switch, and the trope of the voyeuristic beast locked in the city with his own misery until a beauty comes along may have informed Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese, whose reverence for Powell almost matched his reverence for Christ.

We also sniff a Scorsesean element in the finale: a beauty cannot redeem the monster; only submission to the same treatment he has given his victims might do that. Roger Ebert mused that Peeping Tom’s real crime in the eyes of its early haters was that it implicates the viewer — it uses its own medium to wrench us into complicity with a killer. It wasn’t the first film to pull this rug, but it did it with such blunt-force trauma that it has been called the first slasher film. I don’t know about that; proto-slasher, maybe, or even proto-giallo — it predated Mario Bava’s seminal The Girl Who Knew Too Much by three years. In any event, Peeping Tom survived its initial shower of spit and rotten tomatoes — largely due to Scorsese, who spent some artistic capital to restore and re-release it in 1979 — to become a feverish cult object among horror acolytes and classic film buffs alike.

The Wretched

Posted April 19, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror

wretchedAnyone who’s been watching a lot of horror movies during the shutdown because they prefer to be frightened by something fun that has an end in sight may want to know about The Wretched. A second effort by the brother filmmaking team of Brett and Drew Pierce (2011’s zombie comedy Deadheads), the movie is about as comforting as a film can be that deals with an ancient witch that steps into people’s skins, kills their babies and makes them forget they ever had babies. Perhaps the grim premise is mitigated by its young heroes, who — along with Conor Murphy’s handsome widescreen compositions and Devin Burrows’ robust score — remind us of the ‘80s as seen through the magic-hour filter of Steven Spielberg. It’s all confidently crafted, even if some of the plot points could be better laid out; if you have to stop to remember why a character would have a gun, it hinders the momentum of the thrills.

The setting is both soothing (a lakeside marina where some of the characters work) and eerie (a forest that hosts a dreadful-looking tree whose existence seems conditional). Our young anti-hero is Ben (John-Paul Howard), a typical teen, smart but emotionally turbulent, moping over his parents’ divorce. This summer Ben is assisting his dad at the marina, lining up the boats at the dock just so, giving the little kids sailing lessons, along with pal-and-maybe-more Mallory (Piper Curda). Next door to Ben and his dad lives a family with mysteriously dwindling numbers. The Wretch, you see, has gotten into one of them, and … Well, the Wretch lives in the aforementioned ghastly tree, and likes to kidnap children, probably for food. I mean, why else would a Wretch want kids around?

Again, some of the storytelling leaves us in the lurch. If we’re wondering why a father seems unaware his infant child is missing, it takes us out of the movie momentarily, even if it’s explained later. When a baby is gone and his father doesn’t know or care, we need the context now or the fragile, fragile imaginative contract is broken. The explanation arrives alongside the movie’s twist, and it isn’t my favorite aspect of The Wretched, although it does pull us inside the confusion of the affected character. But much of this gets a pass from me because the leads, Howard and Curda, are so low-key appealing; Mallory is funny and sometimes seems to be tickling the film’s somber lore on its tummy, and Ben is realistically wounded but not obnoxious. We are (there’s that word again) comfortable in these kids’ company. Not only do we root for them to prevail over skin-shedding, baby-munching evil, we want them to be happy. And some of the relationship stuff — say, between Ben and his dad’s new girlfriend — feels authentic enough that we expect it to continue, until the movie reminds us it’s a horror movie and pulls us up short.

At just over an hour and a half, The Wretched doesn’t presume our patience. You didn’t ask, but my feeling is that the best horror movies work along the lines of a good horror short story — punchy, potent, to the point. And one thing the recent mode of season-long arcs in television has taught us is that if you want the equivalent (or a successful adaptation) of a horror novel, it’s best accomplished now as a season of TV, or at least a miniseries. (This isn’t new, of course; 1977’s Roots was an early “novel for television” whose story couldn’t have been told in a feature film’s two hours.) You can do things in that elongated medium that you can’t do in movies; you can develop dread in depth, and layer your characters. But pacing is as important at length as it is in works of greater brevity, and there’s a reason Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (146 minutes) is more fondly remembered than the one Stephen King himself wrote for television (273 minutes of po-faced fidelity to the source, in word if not in tone).

Anyway, The Wretched is a fine horror short story. It confines itself to a few locations and a few people; if converted to prose, it would fit nicely in an anthology alongside, say, Let the Right One In and It Follows and The Babadook and, if you insist, Hereditary. Oh, and the original 1981 Evil Dead. That this film seems to have some Sam Raimi in its quiver, in terms of theme and milieu but not style, is probably no accident; like Evil Dead, it was shot in Michigan, and the directors’ dad is Bart Pierce, who was on Evil Dead’s FX crew. So we have here a film that more or less successfully channels Spielberg, Raimi, Grimm and Dahl. That’s not bad company to be in, either.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

Posted April 5, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, cult

cook thiefThirty years ago this month, we in America began to hear of something dark and alluring, a British film with a title worthy of Grimm: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Those of us who caught it in an art-house theater, with an actual audience, remember the hushed noises around us. It was a weird crowd. Viewers accustomed to rather more genteel and artsy fare were confronted with images of sex and violence; viewers with a thorough grounding in exploitation flicks were confronted with allusions to great painters and dramatists. Either way it was a confrontation. Does it say anything today, though? And really, did it ever?

I’m not a Cook, Thief hater. Its creator, writer-director Peter Greenaway, crafted an extraordinary — and extraordinarily memorable — fable about art and love adrift in a cruel world of … of what? Consumerism? Capitalism? Thatcherism? Cook, Thief can be an attack on whatever you want it to be an attack on. But is it really an attack? Certainly the second character in the title — the thief, crude gangster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) — seems meant to stand in for ugliness and brutality wherever we may find it. Spica sits in his favorite restaurant, which he has also bought, and spews about disgusting topics as though he were a naughty little boy testing the patience of his elders. But no one dares to push back at him; doing so may get you stabbed in the face with a fork, or taken out to the parking lot and smeared with dog excrement.

Whatever narrative tension there is in Cook, Thief derives from Spica’s abused and soul-tired wife Georgina (Helen Mirren), who loathes Spica and has her eye on a literally bookish man, Michael (Alan Howard). Michael comes to the restaurant each night, reading about the French Revolution over the meals prepared by the head chef, Richard Boarst (Richard Bohringer), who also hates Spica. If Cook, Thief belongs to anyone other than Greenaway, it’s Mirren, who wrestles the movie away from Greenaway’s often pompous clutches and invests it with recognizable human emotion — even during a late scene that goes on forever and spoils what might be, in a “lesser” film by Greenaway’s lights, the big twist. If you’ve never seen the movie or haven’t for years, you will come away from it with an even deeper-seated respect for Mirren, who does her damnedest in a largely unwritten role. Greenaway, it seems, doesn’t do humans any more than his opposite number — say, Michael Bay — does.

Yet it’s this very tension between humanity and the film’s rigorous scheme — between life and art — that digs its hooks into our memories. The lurid cruelties that Greenaway lingers over, out of perhaps some disdainful conviction that this is what the mass audience wants, help to file the movie on a rarefied art-exploitation shelf alongside, say, Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant or Darren Aronofsky’s mother!. I don’t mind Greenaway’s fixation on art. I actually prefer his Belly of an Architect, made two years before Cook, Thief, and not just because Brian Dennehy dominates it brilliantly. There’s a compassion, a generosity of spirit, in it that’s missing from Cook, Thief. But by the time Greenaway made this film, he’d been in the business and dealing with money men for enough years that his experience, I suspect, informed the Juvenalian satire here.

Cook, Thief was the first film by Greenaway distributed in America by Miramax, which at that point was building a reputation as a tony studio specializing in prestigious works from the indie scene and from abroad. After the movie’s success — driven by all the buzz about its ghastly content — Miramax got into the Greenaway business briefly, with Prospero’s Books and Drowning by Numbers. Nowadays, of course, Miramax is associated with far more sinister things than a movie featuring vomit and shit and corpse-munching. The bearded, balding Albert Spica, with his potato face, his violently menacing swagger, his ferocious misogyny, and his deafening contempt for anything uppity while conspicuously consuming fine food (art food!) only to shit it out later, strikes me in 2020 as nothing so much as Greenaway’s prescient portrait of Harvey Weinstein. Viewed as a metaphor for Greenaway the cook’s hatred of the slimy vulgarians he had to prepare exquisite dishes for in order to continue to cook at all, Cook, Thief takes on considerable thematic weight. And who among us can object to the way Greenaway deals with his Weinstein, by putting the means of revenge not in the cook’s hand, finally, but in the wife’s?

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Posted March 30, 2020 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, cult, one of the year's best

holygrailFor all the talk about Monty Python and the Holy Grail being the Python troupe’s first “proper” movie — with a narrative and everything, unlike their previous film, the sketch assortment And Now for Something Completely Different — it is still, in large part, a sketch assortment. The film turns 45 this month, and in the intervening years, its bits of business have become every bit as iconic as the boys’ greatest hits from Flying Circus. “Bring out your dead.” The Knights Who Say Ni. The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. And so on. The movie’s anarchic, shambolic nature (and the abruptness of the troupe’s desire to get on with it and get out of a bit) will shock a string of laughs out of the first-time (like-minded) viewer, but past a certain point, as it did this most recent time I sat with it, it becomes simply a warm bowl of comfort food. The film’s world of amiable nonsense looks so much better than the world of frightening nonsense we now occupy.

The filmmaking duo of Python, the two Terrys (Jones and Gilliam), cut their teeth here. Having no idea how to make a film, they taught themselves how to make a film by making this film. It shows, though charmingly. Occasionally there is a striking image that links Holy Grail to Gilliam’s Jabberwocky, Time Bandits and so forth, but largely it’s a slovenly piece of work directorially, though not necessarily in a bad way. The Pythons, after all, were thumbing their noses at the very concept of films, or epic films. As a film artist, Terry Gilliam grew astronomically in the ten years between Holy Grail and Brazil. Terry Jones, bless his soul, did not improve. The Jones-directed Life of Brian, naggingly funny as it often is, is as crude as the crudest parts of Holy Grail, and he continued to prove in such uneven attempts as Erik the Viking that filmmaking was not his strength. (I would say that aside from performing, Jones excelled as a writer and historian, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at.)

None of this is to throw shade at the film as a cult object and cultural going concern (even though the lucrative spin-off musical Spamalot ended up costing the boys 800,000 pounds in legal fees and royalties). We settle into the film’s ramshackle absurdity very quickly, as soon as the credits start being subtitled in increasingly baffling “Swedish.” We all agree to accept the “story” of King Arthur (the perfectly cast Graham Chapman) assembling his knights in search for the Grail, though usually the agreed-upon illusion of this as a story we’re being told doesn’t last long. There’s just too much meta-commentary for that illusion to hold firm. I don’t remember, say, Airplane! even at its most chaotic calling its own structure and credibility as a movie into question the way Holy Grail does. I think it was Danny Peary in Cult Movies 2 who floated the notion that we may as well be watching an asylum escapee who thinks he’s King Arthur, and the assorted goofs and loons accompanying him. Like Life of Brian, this film has little respect for mob illogic; a straight line could be drawn from the “Burn the witch” bit to the easily gulled crowds of followers in Brian.

I’ve seen Holy Grail on cable, on video, on the big screen (possibly a 20th-anniversary showing at the Coolidge Corner), and now on Netflix. All the things I appreciate in it — its restless, reckless imagination and its insistence on using its budgetary limitations for comic effect — are still there. Much as I love Python, I find a little of them goes a long way for me, and my watch beckoned a couple of times here, as it does during all their other feature-length romps. (It’s possible that their cinematic swan song, The Meaning of Life, has held up the best solely by virtue of not having been quoted to death.) Still, Holy Grail has a rumpled, unpretentious quality that ties it to other well-loved British cult films like Withnail & I and much of Edgar Wright’s output. It is the very definition of “right, boys, let’s go putter around these Scottish castles and see what we come back with.” The comedy may be harsh at times — its quantity of (glaringly fake) gore may raise eyebrows among parents who take its PG rating on faith — but its impulse to entertain via what amounts to a clothesline of blackout sketches is reassuringly human.