Saturday, June 27, 2009

On DVD: "The Terry Jones Collection"

Several of the Monty Python alumni have, as they’ve gotten older, stumbled into about the least likely secondary profession imaginable: educators. Michael Palin got there first, with several acclaimed BBC travel series (Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, Full Circle, etc.); John Cleese did a BBC mini-series called The Human Face and followed it up with TV documentaries on wine and soccer. But the leap from ribald comic to television documentary host makes the most sense for Terry Jones, a longtime history buff whose informative and humorous looks at ancient civilizations have been assembled for the new two-disc Terry Jones Collection.

The first disc collects the three shows of his 1998 Discovery Channel mini-series “Ancient Inventions”. This jolly series puts forth the notion that many of our most ingenious and modern innovations were, at least in embryonic form, utilized by ancient civilizations. Each of the three episodes tackles a different area of modern life and technology, and our grinning, globe-trotting host travels to the regions in question and examines their “primitive” yet advanced tools.

Episode one, “War and Conflict,” finds Jones examining such early weaponry as the boomerang (“the world’s first guided missile”), the Molotov cocktail (the weapon of choice, he says, for “revolutionaries like me”), early guns and cannons, and even a flamethrower. He also touches on codes and communication, battlefield medicine, and scientific advances in warfare. Episode two, “Sex and Love,” is expectedly cheekier (pardon the pun) than the other installments; there are plenty of laughs in Jones’ eyebrow-raising examination of not only the obvious run-ups to the act of love (Egyptian make-up, the Kama sutra, early birth control and pregnancy tests) but unexpected innovations that came about as a result of sex (he notes that the first clock was invented “not to tell time, but to regulate the sex life of the emperor of China”). Episode three, “City Life,” examines the first “cities” of the Middle East, India, Greece, and Central and South America, and how many of our modern conveniences (high rises, fire engines, concrete, banking, even toilet paper) were first used there. Again, Jones makes some unexpected connections; my favorite was the moment in which he muses, “The ancient Greeks apparently invented the hamburger.”

Throughout the mini-series, our host is consistently engaging, funny, and genuinely excited about the subject matter. He also has plenty of opportunities for his cheerful good humor and occasional dry ad-libs, and directors Phil Grabsky and Daniel Percival have fun dressing him up in period duds to illustrate the stories being told; in one ingenious sequence, they do a series of cross-fades showing the host in steadily increasing amounts of armor, to show how battle garb was amended and perfected over time. The shows are also briskly paced, which helps things from getting too dry; in one wonderful scene, for example, they shoot his explanation of the “ultimate weapon” from three moving close-ups, and then intercut them. There are clever stylistic touches like that throughout; Jones and the filmmakers take great, and appreciated, pains to make sure these shows aren’t just history lessons (even when it means going into some of the more stomach-churning details, like how women in Greece would cover themselves with the sweat of their favorite gladiators). Reenactments, related stock footage, computer animations, drawings, hieroglyphics, even models are used to impart information in the most dynamic way possible.

The second disc is comprised of three stand-alone programs; they have the same winsome tone and sense of fun, though these often find Jones interviewing and touring with historians and scholars (as opposed to “Ancient Inventions,” which is strictly a one-man show). The first, “The Surprising History of Sex & Love,” sounds like it would cover the same ground as the middle episode of the mini-series, but this one is less about technology and more of an examination of sexual mores through the ages; Jones (and his experts) discuss the origination of sexual morality in religion, the switch from early eroticism in Indian culture, Puritanism, odd sex laws, and more. But as with the previous special, it’s full of great tossed-off tidbits and trivia; the highlight here is the amusing anecdote that Corn Flakes were originally developed to help reduce sex drive.

“The Hidden History of Egypt” begins with a booming voice-over and big music, before Jones interrupts and notes, “Look, quite honestly, this stuff isn’t what interests me.” The focus of this special (and the next) is not the tombs and pyramids, not how royalty died, but how common people lived. He examines the day-to-day life of an Egyptian commoner, checking out a typical Egyptian home, investigating their language and religion, and going so far as to sample the clothing, diet, and make-up of the day. “The Hidden History of Rome” takes on a similar approach and structure; its intro separates the haves and the have-nots, and taking on a typical citizen as his protagonist, Jones looks into how they lived their lives. The Roman special takes greater pains to examine the wealth divide (and how that impacted what was left behind by these cultures), even going so far as to pose an interesting question: “Was it worse to be a poor but free Roman, or a slave?” One enjoyable section has Jones and an expert on Roman cuisine shop for and prepare a Roman workman’s lunch, while he has some fun checking out the old Roman baths. This final special comes to a stronger conclusion than the others; he thoughtfully summarizes the good and bad of the period.

Throughout the specials, the former Python proves an excellent host; his enthusiasm and good humor are infectious. Sometimes just hearing his Pythonesque readings gets a laugh; I giggled a bit at his description of “chopping it up into bits and moving it to the top of a cliff” (as you can see, it’s not an inherently funny line, but something about the way he says it…). Jones is clearly having a good time playing with the props and gallivanting around in the funny costumes, but he also has a palpable love for the history and for sharing what he’s learned. The specials aren’t perfect—they drag in spots, some of the conclusions are a stretch, and there is some repeating of information (and footage) from one disc to the next—but all in all, they’re nimble and fun, an enjoyable excursion that could have very easily been a chore to sit through.

The Terry Jones Collection should attract and please fans of the Python boys’ solo work, as well as those who enjoy such offbeat historical works as the Cartoon History of the Universe books. The shows are certainly an acquired taste, but for receptive audiences, they are chock full of interesting facts and obscure information, and Jones’ good-natured and frequently funny hosting is an excellent candy coating for this nutritional set.

"The Terry Jones Collection" hits DVD on Tuesday, July 28th.

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