Thursday, April 15, 2010

Why Michael Palin is, and isn't, My Favorite Python

Having recently finished reading the wonderful, revealing, and somewhat curious first volume of Michael Palin's diaries, and having recently finished watching the last of his many television journeys around the world, I feel a need to say something about Mr. Palin. He's a fabulous writer, a witty conversationalist, a skilled media performer, and a very funny man. My favorite Python, though? That's hard to say.

If you claim that Michael Palin is your favorite member of Monty Python, you're not really saying anything controversial. His enormous popularity speaks for itself--the Royal Geographic Society didn't invite him to be their honorary president for nothing. He's the key player in my all-time favorite Flying Circus skit (if I can ever say "no" to a student with half the timing Palin demonstrates at 2:16, I'll die a happy man). He has a tremendous range, from flustered weakness to strong-armed smarm. All of the Python's express nothing but fondness and admiration for him as a man and a co-worker; John Cleese himself has said that there's no Python he'd rather work with than Palin.

And yet...maybe that's too easy; maybe Palin is to Python as Paul McCartney is to the Beatles. He wasn't Python's best comic actor (that was Graham Chapman), nor its fiercest visionary (that's the two Terrys, Jones and Gilliam), nor the best at wordplay (Eric Idle). And then there's Cleese--a near-unmatchable physical comedian and, more than that, someone whose whole comic perspective has been profoundly shaped (or so it has often seemed to me) by his own sometimes-angry, sometimes-aristocratic engagement with Britain's class system. Perhaps that's it: Cleese--and, to greater or lesser degrees, all the other Pythons--seem to be willing, on occasion, to get angry; to engage in critique. Palin isn't.

This comes out, again and again, in his diaries. Now to be sure, my knowledge of Britain (and, specifically, England and London) in the 1970s is minimal at best. And moreover, it's not as though Palin--whose diaries are a marvelous display of an inveterate record-keeper at work--had any kind of obligation when he was writing this entries to systematically critique or evaluate his social, cultural, or political environment(s). Still, as much as I loved all his little idiosyncratic and insightful observations on the pop culture world which he and the Pythons came to dominate through the 70s--Bruce Springsteen comes off like Billy Graham (pg. 266), Ringo Starr is dangerously deep into booze (pg. 484), Mark Hamill looks like a chirpy delivery boy (pg. 560), and more--I kept waiting for him to, well, say something about the world that was changing, and changing in ways that could not be turned back, all around him. Changes that he was, in fact, very much a part of, though perhaps I can only say so now that spent years thinking about the connection between culture and economy.

Early on Palin is contemptuous of the Heath government, and describes himself as a "fervent socialist" (pg. 71)--but he's a socialist with a sympathy for and a love of the kind of local life that his neighborhood in London affords him; when he talks about his ideal form of urban planning ("open play area[s] at least twice the size of the car park...severe restrictions on cars in central indoors and outdoors, where people would want to stop and gather"--pg. 66) he sounds very much like he was anticipating New Urbanism. And yet...he never seems to reflect upon what kind of costs or limits which preserving or promoting such environments might entail. On the one hand, he's a cosmopolitan: a trip to Dorset leads him to write rather condescendingly of the "oppressive weight of years of tradition" experienced in the country, and describes himself as "hopelessly and happily corrupted by the richness of London life" (pg. 200). On the other hand, he grouses about the decimilization of English streets and phone numbers (pg. 55), and leans towards a "no" vote in the 1973 referendum about whether Britain should stay in the European Community (pg. 238). He celebrates the liberation of British culture, taking delight in the new freedoms of expression and sex around him (pg. 326), and admits that he feels like a fraud when speaking with the vicar who performed his first son's christening (pg. 56), but is never really able to figure out if he believes in God or not (pg. 594). Meanwhile, the strikes and power-outages of the late 70s are grist for morbid humor for him, and when Margaret Thatcher arrives in 1979 and lowers tax rates, he figures he's probably become about 10,000 pounds richer in a single day (he admits that "there is some inescapable lack of social justice" in the budget, but that "it doesn't keep me awake"--pg. 559).

Palin, in short, comes off, slowly but surely, entry after entry, as a smart but uncritical man, or at least not a man at all interested, ultimately, in orienting his life or his commentary about such around a critique of his and his friends' and his country's situation. He's not ideological; he's not a troubled person; he's living the best ordinary life he can. Which, of course, makes him great fun to read--not to mention showing off his own devotion to his children and family. But given the troubled times he lived through, I wanted something more.

Of course, for those who are intellectually inclined (like myself), any period of time can be understood as a time of crisis, a troubled time in need of diagnosis and assessment. So it's really rather foolish to be bothered to discover that an excerpted collection of diary entries, three to four decades old, written by a comedian and television and film actor, seems to lack much of that at all. Yet I am still somewhat bothered by it, by the lack of anger or regret or resolve which comes through Palin's basically generous, optimistic, pedestrian prose. Perhaps I can blame Crooked Timber for this. My knowledge of Britain in the early 80s was, for years, the product of the Reagan-era American conservative celebration of Margaret Thatcher; I'd heard about the Miner's Strike and such, but had no appreciation of what it seemed like to those who were there. Two CT bloggers--Chris Bertram and Harry Brighouse--have shared their thoughts and memories of that traumatic event often, and the firm conclusion I've come to from talking with them and following their links is pretty simple: that by the early 80s Britain had become so transformed, so urban and advanced in its needs and expectations, so capable and presuming of economic flexibility, that the rigid particulars of the postwar British social contract--a contract in which the National Union of Mineworkers played a huge role--simply weren't workable any longer. In 1974 Palin considered the Three-Day Week a tool in the Tory propaganda war, and saw the Heath government's moves against strikers as sinister and Orwellian (pg. 156); by 1979, Palin was delighted to learn that, thanks to Thatcher's spending cuts, Shepperton Studios (which Palin was a board member of) could rent an additional stage from the surrounding community (which was desperate for income) for cheap (pg. 572). I'm not saying his views changed; I have no evidence of that. I'm saying the terrain shifted under his feet, making what worked for the miners in 1974 incapable of replication in 1984...and that meant that, for better or worse, Britain was a different sort of country by the time the decade ended: a stronger country, perhaps, but also a harsher one. Unreasonable demand though it may be, I wanted to see Palin recognize that.

Some people did, even if they were artists and entertainers. The following passage, from a tribute to Morrissey, seems to express it well:

1983, the year of "This Charming Man," is the year the '80s became the '80s. Up until that point, Thatcherism in England and Reaganism in the United States had been little more than hollow promises. Then interest rates fell, the two economies thawed, and spandex was everywhere. It was the year of Flashdance at the box office, of "Every Breath You Take" and Thriller on the Billboard 100; the year of Risky Business and The Big Chill. If this list doesn't make you want to crawl into your bolt hole–well, you are probably not a Smiths fan. I think the word that best captures the times is heartless, as evident in the stupid rictus of Sting's face, circa 1983, as it was in Margaret Thatcher's budget cuts. No wonder Morrissey's voice sounded so fresh, so slyly subversive. As much as he publicly avowed a hatred of Thatcher, culminating in "Margaret at the Guillotine," it was Thatcherism that made Morrissey. The Iron Lady represented a hardness of purpose, a pitilessness that would allow England once again to produce winners. But also, inevitably, losers.

A country of winners and losers, as opposed to the mostly poor, compromised-but-still-traditional, apologetically-egalitarian-but-not-really country that, if Palin's diaries are any guide, was an empty shell by the end of the 70s. And who knows? Perhaps it was terminal, just waiting for the final crisis to knock it over, for much longer than that; perhaps one of the reasons the Pythons saw relatively little need for active satire, and instead preferred outrageous absurdity, was because the world around them, the pretension that the Queen was on her throne and all was in its place, already seemed by the end of the 60s simply ridiculous: a fallen social structure, just ripe for being kicked when it was down, especially since the powers that be didn't know that it was already gasping for breath on the floor. (It is revealing, perhaps, that one of the few times Palin does come of as genuinely angry is in his recounting of his and Cleese's infamous "debate" over The Life of Brian with Malcom Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark; in Palin's words, Stockwood sat there, "resplendent in his purple bishop's cassock...fingering his spectacles and cross with great dexterity," accusing Palin and Cleese of wicked mockery "with all the smug and patronising paraphernalia of the gallery-player, who believes that the audience will see he is right, because he is a bishop and we're not"--pg. 595.)

Well, Thatcher's Britain, the Britain after the Miner's Strike, the Britain of Morrissey and more, was certainly a land of winners and losers--and by the time Palin and the bishop clashed in 1979, it must have been obvious to just about everyone who the winner of that contest was going to be. The writing must have been on the wall for years; indeed, in a sense Palin's diaries are themselves a transcription of such: of the slow, perhaps inevitable gestation of the modern capitalist Britain, needing only the neoliberalism of Thatcher and Co. to kick away the legs of a social order that, thanks in no small degree to Monty Python itself, was probably already hollowed out through and through. So in the end, I guess I'm saying I wish Palin's writings showed a little self-consciousness; a little awareness of how his own life choices and work were part of the trouble (and, of course, the gains and the laughter) of a changing decade. If nothing else, such a realization would certainly make for a good joke.

Though actually, in fact, it did:

I suppose I need to read the second volume of Palin's diaries, to see if there's any behind-the-scenes story to that gag. If there is, whether it reveals any self-consciousness or not, I'm sure Palin will be able to tell it well.


Melissa said...

I think Palin's lack of critique -- of self or others -- is part of what makes him such an excellent travel documentarist. He's so accepting of the world, of other people, of other traditions, so curious (he may not be critical, but he is definitely curious), that you can't help but feel a similar enthusiasm for the world.

That, and he makes me smile.

Russell Arben Fox said...

You're right, of course: I'm not sure you actually learn very much for Palin's travel documentaries (indeed, he actually, I think, takes us away from learning opportunities by never dwelling on or investigating anything: it's always, for example, "these people suffer mightily from poverty and discrimination, but hey, they make tremendous beer!"), but you see so much, and all of it with enthusiasm, openness, and respect. It's the same with his diaries; I'm not sure you can really learn anything from them, but they show the reader so much. And someone who wasn't so basically untroubled and "relatable" probably couldn't pull that off. (And, of course, as you way, he's just so funny: commenting "that's good grub!" after eating fried maggots in Mexico, etc.)

Anonymous said...

He repeats the same stories in all his chat show appearances so doesn't come across as a having the ability to generate fresh humour on the spot.

Fiona Tanzer, Cape Town said...

But how refreshing amidst our post-modern angst to read about the very ordinariness of someone's life! It is so quintessentially English. Do we berate Jane Austen because her writing dealt with the marital aspirations of small-town bourgeoisie and entirely ignored the massive upheavals both on the continent of Europe and in England itself in that period? The point of social progress is that it should enable people like Palin, even if a public figure, to live a life largely untroubled by social and political angst. we should celebrate this with joy and not disappointment!

Anonymous said...

You forget something essential. Michael Palin is the best python because he was the compromise one. He used to do the hard work with enthusiasm and with no complaint. Everyone knew they could trust him and they did.
Sorry about my writing, english is not my native language.

Anonymous said...

Palin has always been my favorite. I've always found something sweet about the way he comes across in Python Sketches.
He does commit to the humor of Python, I don't think anybody can forget his 'Biggus Dikkus' scene in 'The Life of Brian'.
Cleese always said that Palin was the funniest of the Python's simply because he was a funny man. Cleese himself never thought of himself as funny, he just "played funny characters".
Honestly I love all the Pythons~

Seojin Kim said...

This is certainly interesting, and even inspiring. Michael Palin was like a spiritual father to me during my years in high school but yes, I found reasons to move over to someone else for inspiration, and what you pointed out could be one of those reasons.

There are reasons I found why Michael is rather 'detached' from life:

1) His politeness and openness comes from not only his cultural and political influences of the 1960's, but also from his consciousness telling him he shouldn't go over the line like his father always preferred to do. Michael's father used to shout when he was triggered. Michael tried not to act like the way his father did and this is a difficult work for him considering the early influence from his father and the genetic things and all.

2) Because being an observer makes an actor to do his/her job. That's why entertainers can't be intellectually political - they not only don't have the time to know more about the world, but also, when they become famous, prefer to avoid any chances of stirring controversy. They don't even make ill rumors straight - they know they can't do anything about people imagining stories about them. Likewise, they often prefer to let the world go around.

3) There is a possibility he edited out the most emotional and political parts in his diaries.

And uh...I'd just like to point out that I don't agree with you saying "Michael Palin is like Paul McCartney." Michael has always been a very determined, clear-minded person. He might have had troubles in his life like everybody does, but he never messed things up like McCartney did. Something like drugs never suited Michael. I understand you preferring Graham Chapman - he's the leading man type who could really 'act' in the Python group - but Michael had a brilliant set of skills in making characters. After all, he was a great fan of Peter Sellers. He might have done some poor foreign accents but no one can deny he made up great characters like Professor Gumby, the suicidal barber who wanted to become a Canadian lumberjack, Roman emperor who has speech impediments, a cyclist who thinks cycling is basically about food, and many more. He often produced the most off-the-wall jokes for Python, which John Cleese appreciated very much. He contributed to Python with the third most surrealist comedic style - the most important contributor being Terry Gilliam for his animations and later for his films, and the next most important one being Terry Jones. John Cleese often hated just plain silly comedy. He liked Michael's jokes because there were things behind all - stereotypes, politics, history, psychology...anything.

You don't necessarily have the same ideas and opinions as I have, but I think this is the kind of blog I always wanted to read. Good to know there's someone out there who can talk about things without making me uncomfortable. I was getting sick of childish moans people make these days on the Internet. You make a point with detail and finish it respectfully. Keep it going.