Salute Your Shorts is
a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any
other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.
Unlike most of the shorts that get covered in this column, Terry Gilliam’s “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” is something fans of the director are likely to have seen before without digging deep into film archives or rooting around youtube in the hopes that someone has uploaded them. It’s easy to find, right in front of nearly every release—both theatrical and home—for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
That in itself, though, makes the short pretty unique. Its place in
the movie reflects an odd juncture in Terry Gilliam’s career. After
years spent animating for first Do Not Adjust Your Set and then Monty Python’s Flying Circus,
Gilliam had transitioned away from the form in favor of live-action.
His method of animation is impressive in how it allowed a single person
to do so much, but even so, it still required countless hours spent
alone drawing and moving objects frame by frame.
When the Monty Python TV show ended and the troupe turned towards feature filmmaking with Monty Python and the Holy Grail,
Gilliam joined the group’s other Terry (Jones) in directorial duties.
By all accounts, this wasn’t a particularly enjoyable enterprise for
Gilliam, Jones, or the rest of the group. Gilliam’s focus on visuals
rather than performance irked the rest of the cast, who on the whole
felt that Jones’ sensibility led to more humor—even if he wasn’t as
rich in the details.
Jones directed the Pythons’ other features solo, but the venture
gave Gilliam the opportunity to head up several other projects. These
two early pictures were Jabberwocky and Time Bandits, which seem more like a form of journeyman training for Gilliam than accomplished features. Jabberwocky largely
fails as a comedy and has an uneven grasp of narrative, dragging along
slowly to a ramshackle plot. Its visuals are as baroque as later
Gilliam, but not as detailed, leading to a far more low-rent look than
anything he’d do later. The movie suffers not just in comparison with
the similar Grail, but also with later Gilliam, which frequently took on similar themes but without so much plodding and hand-holding.
Time Bandits was more successful, but was still working on
the kinks in Gilliam’s style. The movie exhibited a continued reliance on Gilliam’s
Python friends for much of its comedy, and its episodic plot works only
because it’s a children’s movie. The seams in Time Bandits
show, and while it’s by no means a bad movie, its ambition oversteps
Gilliam’s ability at the time. Still, it featured some of the first
truly Gilliam-feeling scenes, in particular when a horse bursts through
its protagonist Kevin’s door. Much else in it has aged poorly, but the
invasion of fantasy into reality has become a staple for what Gilliam
Four years after Time Bandits, Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil was finally released in more or less its creator’s desired form. From there on out, Gilliam’s vision rarely faltered (The Brothers Grimm
being his only feature that feels compromised) and despite his
difficulties making the movies he wants to, Gilliam’s voice is still
unique, even if it can at times be unique in a bad way.
The jump between Time Bandits and Brazil is immense, but the
transitional picture “Crimson Permanent Assurance” helps make sense of
it. Originally conceptualized as a short animated sketch that would be
used late in The Meaning of Life, the sketch grew into live
action because Gilliam, with two films now under his belt, wasn’t going
to spend the time to do animation, and it grew to 16-minutes long
because, according to Gilliam, no one told him to stop.
“The Crimson Permanent Assurance” is slapped onto the front of Meaning of Life
with a note explaining that it is the “short-feature presentation.” It
then begins in earnest, explaining that due to its dire financial
situation, the Permanent Assurance Company has been taken over by the
Very Big Corporation of America. Working conditions have become bleak,
which is conceptualized in a particularly Gilliam-esque touch in a
fantasy sequence where the company’s employees row oars as slaves to
their new corporate masters’ drums. When one of them is fired, the
employees stage a revolt and force their bosses into a safe or off a
plank reaching out from their building’s window. At this point, the
employees convert their office building into a pirate ship and head
West, attacking the Very Big Corporation of America in its own building
and soon afterwards wreck havoc on various other American corporations
before suddenly falling off the edge of the world.
With “Crimson Permanent Assurance,” Gilliam finally directed
contemporary adults and their plight, rather than children or fantasy
settings. Strangely, though, this seemed to make him less stylistically
restrained than before. The short features several ambitious long
takes, one of which pre-figures the signature shot from Brazil, and his assurance in moving the camera seems to have grown ten-fold from Time Bandits.
Rather than following his material around with the camera, Gilliam
instead seems to choreograph the action to the camera and with this
creates a much more realistic world, even with its focus on an elderly
group of accountants/pirates travelling in a surprisingly seaworthy
Added to the bold camera moves is a willingness to experiment with
lenses, particularly with wide angle shots that would feature
prominently through the rest of his career. While Gilliam had certainly
used these before, now they’re used not for emphasis but rather as a
stylistic element of their own. Again, how Gilliam chooses his lenses
and framings doesn’t seem motivated by the material he’s given, but
rather he seems to adjust the material to reflect his stylistic
Perhaps it’s the influence of the Pythons and their emphasis on
written material and performance that caused Gilliam’s early films to
be so restrained. Gilliam’s work on production was rarely less than
exceptional, but his first two features don’t look unique in any of
their other aspects. Seemingly as a contrast to Jones’ (and with it the
Pythons’) more traditional directing throughout the rest of the
feature, in “Crimson Permanent Assurance” Gilliam is finally willing to
go all out and stake out his own grounds as a filmmaker. From this
point forward his stamp on films was as much the way he moved the
camera (and its lens) as it was what he put in front of it.
The uniquely Gilliam synthesis of content and form is much of why
the short remains a landmark for its director, but what stuck with me
the first time I watched The Meaning of Life wasn’t its content
so much as the way it latched onto the feature. Its tone, while funny
in its own way, is nothing like the Pythons to the point that I thought
I must have put in the wrong movie—a tribute to how far Gilliam finally
took things. Refusing to use the same cast or crew as the rest of the
movie, the short sticks its ground as unique despite being nominally
part of a whole.
Even whether or not “Crimson Permanent Assurance” is in fact a short
film is hard to grasp. It certainly stands on its own, but the short’s
full-blown effect is reliant upon usurping the main feature in a way
that is, as far as I’m aware, completely unique in the history of film.
Not only that, but the short actually “attacks” the longer film later
on when, midway through the fifth act, it reappears with Python cast
members pondering both the meaning of life and how people aren’t
wearing enough hats these days. The companion portion of the film is
strange in its own way, acting as yet another unique meta-textual joke.
Because of this, “Crimson Permanent Assurance” ends up as both the
defining moment when Gilliam stepped into his own apart from the
Pythons, as well as an elaborate Python joke contained within one of
their features…if that makes any sense. Whatever else it may be, it’s
definitely worth watching.