Earlier this week, Ari and I watched Monty Python’s Life of Brian. It was one of those classics I’d never seen but had heard that I would like, and in some ways it felt just right for the last few days of 2020.
Quick plot recap: The movie is about Brian of Nazareth, born down the street from Jesus, and Brian’s stumbling around Jerusalem under Roman control. He joins a splintering leftist group whose goal is to throw off Roman rule entirely (but not, of course, to do away with all the wonderful things like sanitation, public order, roads, and medical care that the Romans brought), and then he is captured during a botched attack on Pontius Pilate’s palace. While Brian is making his escape, he finds himself posing as one of the many prophets in the city at that time, when he unintentionally amasses a crowd of followers believing him to be the messiah (and they know something about messiahs; they followed a different one the week before). Eventually he is arrested again, and the movie ends with his crucifixion (the leftist group thanks him for voluntarily becoming a martyr, even though he would have happily been rescued). Classic Monty Python.
It’s important to note that a lot of the jokes in the movie don’t work like they did when the movie was released in 1979. Let’s start with the opening scene, when one of the Magi is a white actor dressed in an exotic, quasi-Arab-looking costume, and he’s wearing blackface. Then there is a scene in which one minor character comes out as trans, which is clearly meant to set up later jokes. There are also two prison guards who are ridiculed, one for his stutter and the other for being deaf. And though there is a truly hilarious scene in which the Roman centurions are trying not to crack up at Pontius Pilate’s talk of his friend Biggus Dickus (not to mention Dickus’s wife Incontinentia Buttocks), most of the jokes about Pilate and Dickus are at the expense of their speech differences.
So here’s one way the movie is fitting for 2020: watching it requires confronting what’s funny and what’s not. There is racism, transphobia, and ableism, and there are even some Jewish jokes that made me squirm a bit. It’s not that we’ve suddenly uncovered these things in 2020; they were there before. But much of 2020 has been about reckoning with their place in our society, as well as with our individual and collective responsibilities for rooting them out.
And then there’s the other way Life of Brian is fitting for 2020: this year has been absurd. On the lighter side, there’s been a lot that can’t seem to get weirder, but does. On the heavier side, there is the massive suffering that the pandemic has wrought, highlighting just how much of life is outside our control.
Honestly, sometimes it seems like the best conclusion to 2020 is the conclusion to the movie: Brian and others up on their crosses, singing what is probably the movie’s best contribution to popular culture, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
Here we are, at the end of this ridiculous year, trying to make the best of it. We’re not really okay, and we’ve even accepted this year that we’re not really okay. No one really knows what they’re doing anyway. So we make the meaning we can, we do the work we can, and we Zoom far more than we can. And that’s just about the best that we can do.
All jokes aside, I feel deeply grateful to be sitting on my couch in a safe and warm apartment (wearing sweatpants, of course), as I type this on the last day of 2020. Though I didn’t see my parents or my sister even once during this calendar year, I acknowledge how fortunate we are to be healthy. I am particularly, immensely thankful that Ari and I have each other during these isolating months, and I am also appreciative that we were able to move to a new city and start new jobs, even in the midst of the pandemic. We are blessed now to live near many of our friends as well as much of his side of the family. We’ve also been able to complete almost all of the approval process to become adoptive parents, and we hope officially to be a waiting family in a month or two. Oh, and I’m excited about getting a new vaccine and a new POTUS and VPOTUS soon too.
So while I think it’s wise to have as few expectations about 2021 as possible, I am cautiously optimistic.
For now, and as a more prayerful counterpart to the song above, I’ll close out 2020 with this:
For each day I live my God,
For each day I live,
I am grateful, grateful,
Grateful each day I live.
I am gifted by your glory,
I am lifted by your love,
I am grateful, grateful,
everyday I live.
I am grateful, grateful
everyday I live.
(Music and Lyrics by Beth Styles)
Thank you, Sam. Your wit and your wisdom are flourishing under duress. They make me smile and give me hope. I am grateful that I know you and call you a friend.
Thank you, Jan! Hope there’s good health and happiness for you in 2021, and hope to catch up soon. Shabbat shalom.