But at what cost?

I was always amused by Terry Gilliam’s animation segment “The Killer Cars” from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in which — at first — automobiles spring out from alleyways to crush innocent pedestrians. Then, scientists engineer a killer car killer — in the form of a vast, erect, Siamese cat, which devours the homicidal vehicles with alacrity. “But at what cost?” booms the narrator in best William Alland manner*, as the colossal kitty goes on to feast on the metropolis itself, sucking entire tower blocks up like spaghetti.

The cat appears in Terry Gilliam’s illustrated biography, Gilliamesque, an entertaining read, as you’d expect. Turns out the ‘meser was Gilliam’s own, though it never had a name, save for “cat” (unless we count the secret feline name attested to by T.S. Eliot) and the picture of it on hind legs was taken while Gilliam’s dad supported the protesting beast under the armpits. As a Siamese owner or curator myself, I have occasionally had to lift Tasha the Terrible away from danger or valuable treasures, and am always amused by the way her body and back legs go rigid, hanging like a slightly curved hook, like an inverted comma. And I always say “But at what cost?” in a stentorian voice.

*False memory syndrome: watching the clip, I now discover the voice was a plummy, high-pitched squawk, suggestive perhaps of a public information film from the forties, when primitive sound recording colluded with certain voice types to create shrill, honking narrations.

How thrilling! Cat appears in this archive interview at 2.52, licking itself as the interviewer asks “How does the sound work?” in a very BBC manner.

And yes: very sad about the other Terry.

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7 Responses to “But at what cost?”

  1. He is so charming.

  2. He is.

    Only bad story I ever heard was via Terry Zwigoff, who bumped into Gilliam in a studio parking lot while he was struggling to make Crumb and thought, Ahah, a former Crumb colleague: maybe he can help me! He started telling TG about the project and Gilliam said something like, “Oh, you’re looking for a hand-out? Here!” and gave him I think a dollar.

    In fairness: studio parking lot. Gilliam may have been having a really bad day.

  3. My proudest moment as a critic was spurring the Los Angeles Film Critics Association to award Brazil Best Picture of the Year in order to get Universal to release it.

  4. revelator60 Says:

    The realistically stilted posture of the cat has always been my favorite part of that animation. Gilliam briefly discussed “Killer Cars” in the book The First 20 Years of Monty Python:

    “It’s 1950s science fiction, like ‘The Worm That Ate New York,’ a lot of silly things like ‘Them,’…There’s a lot of ‘2001’ influence in the cartoons. It’s just taking something monumental and quite serious, and making jokes about it. It’s easy to make jokes about something that serious and on that scale. It’s easy pickings—but it’s also some wonderful stuff.”

  5. David E, well done! There aren’t many times that critics can make a positive difference to movies in that way…

    I like that the voices are so British, it’s not pure pastiche, it seems to be happening in an altogether strange vein than parody, in a universe several universes away.

  6. I wonder if the sketch influenced Peter Weir when he was making The Cars That Ate Paris. Someone should ask him!

  7. The Cat who ate Cars?

    And from there to Mad Max: Fury Road is a short step.

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