I discovered Monty Python’s Flying Circus when I was about eleven. I was still a little young and unaware of some parts of British culture, so a lot of the sketches went over my head at first; instead, my favorite bits were Terry Gilliam’s cut-out collage-style animations. They were short, looney, and often looked like they were driven by random chance – a sort of visual free-association game based on clip art from vintage catalogs and classic paintings. In truth they were planned out to serve as the transitions between one live sketch and the next, but I didn’t realize that yet – I was too busy giggling about how an image of a Tudor nobleman ran off down a road, only to have a “killer car” chase after him for a while until the car got killed by a giant cat – only for the cat to end up in a clip-art meat grinder, with the resulting ground meat leading to tendrils of Boticelli’s Venus, who did a can-can before freezing back in place in time for the next sketch. They were completely silly and went in some unexpected directions, but still felt like they had a goofy logic all their own.
The typical Gilliam animation was only a couple minutes long, and took their cues from the preceding sketch before cuing the next one. Heaven and Earth Magic uses the same kind of cut-out style – but felt like what would have happened if the rest of the Pythons told Terry – “you’ve got a whole hour and we have no cues to give you, so go nuts.”
Apparently there is a plot – animator Harry Smith stated that the film was about a woman suffering from a toothache “consequent to the loss of a very valuable watermelon”, and consults with a dentist prior to a sudden tour of Heaven – with the heroine’s return to Earth prompted by “being eaten by Max Muller on the day Edward the Seventh dedicated the Great Sewer of London.” However, the actual images are a surrealist hodgepodge, with eggs hatching into horse skeletons or a corkscrew sprouting an eyedropper for a head. A skeleton and a dentist chair play keepaway with a baby. A small dog chases the aforementioned watermelon throughout the film. A Victorian lady with stilts for legs looks on as a spoon judges a boxing match.
I had no idea what kind of plot or overall story those images were trying to tell while I was watching – but I didn’t quite care, since it was the same kind of freewheeling, improvised mayhem Gilliam would do with the Pythons. It’s entirely likely Gilliam saw this himself and was inspired. My biggest complaint, though, was that an hour of this kind of mayhem ran a bit long – about 40 minutes in I started feeling unmoored and my attention started to flag. But there still was enough there to tempt me back into focusing.
Smith wasn’t just a filmmaker, and he didn’t stay in film for long. He was a bit of a renaissance man fascinate by folk art and ethnography, but he didn’t fit into a traditional academic path and instead started a self-devised course of study, visiting different cultural groups or communities and watching various rituals or folk dances. He felt that the worlds’ disparate cultures had a lot in common, and strove to capture evidence of his theories. He was introduced to the Beats’ counterculture via a Woody Guthrie concert in San Francisco, and lingered to explore the art scene there – and try his own hand in film. But at the time he was better known for having amassed a huge collection of folk music recordings – so much so that when he tried to sell them to the Smithsonian to make some cash, they instead hired him to produce an anthology album of his own. Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music was released a few years before Heaven and Earth Magic, and the liner notes included the same kind of clip-art vintage photos used in this film. Smith only kept at film for a few years before returning to painting and music collection.