April 18, 2006

The Sun Speaks With A.D. White Prof. Cleese

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Friday afternoon, after a quick run through of Peter and the Wolf, John Cleese and Gerri Jones, administrator of the A.D. White Professor-at-Large program, sat down with The Sun to reflect on Cleese’s eight year tenure, his long and varied career in cinema and his views on religion.

The Sun: Throughout your term as a professor-at-large, you have become known for choosing mostly smaller gatherings of students and faculty rather than the large lectures, What did you find appealing in the smaller groups?

John Cleese: In a way the smaller groups are more rewarding, because you make more contact with the smaller number of individuals and you get to know them a little bit more. This morning I had seven in the acting class, and by the end I knew all seven of them. Where as if you have 5,000, its very nice and they like it, and afterwards you feel that’s good but you haven’t made personal connections.

Sun: What have been your favorite groups?

Cleese: I thought the acting class was good, and I did a screen writing course that I liked. It’s something that I’ve been doing for a long time so I feel I can say something useful about it. But one of the best, oddly enough, was with Prof. Steve Ceci. I did a television series documentary with the BBC called The Human Face, and I knew Steve from early on because he was one of the group that proposed me. We did a joint presentation and I found that was very good … I just remember you could see the faces, I felt very connected, where as yesterday, when talking with David Dunning, I enjoyed the content but it was very hard to see the audience. We weren’t so high up. There was a bit of background noise and it required a projection of energy to overcome the noise. It wasn’t so enjoyable because it required exertion.

You know, I can’t remember one visit from the next. I remember the individual events, but I can’t remember the visit I did them.

Sun: How do you make time for all your ventures?

Cleese: Well my main problem is that about five years ago I bought the most beautiful ranch in Santa Barbara. And it costs me a small fortune to run. It’s only 15 acres, half of which is hillside, so it’s not one of those big ones. But we do have horses, and llamas, and dogs and cats and an aviary. That costs me a lot of money, so I have to work and earn to keep it going. But I feel now my life is too busy for man who is 66 and half. So we’re beginning to scale things down, trying to simplify things. You can easily get caught in the hamster wheel, the rat wheel. You get caught at it at various different moments in your life, and you say oh yes, I’ve been here before, and then you have to simplify.

Sun: You’ve been an A.D. White Professor for 8 years now, which is more than the tenure of most Cornell presidents …

Cleese: Well you see, I only come three times every two years, it’s not more than once a year. We missed last year, because Gerri actually said we have so many professors coming so why don’t you take the year off? And it worked well, because it ended up being the busiest year I’ve had in ten years. A lot of different stuff, because in my profession or business or whatever you call it I never know what I’m going to get next … a few years ago it was Will and Grace, and then I was doing a lot of speeches and then 9/11 happened and there were no speeches for 15 months, so you never know from one year to the next. and then this year I’ve been doing a lot of creativity seminars. I’m doing 9 different creativity seminars, in places like Oslo and Stockholm, and Australia and Hong Kong.

People say do you like coming to Cornell and my joke is I hate coming here and I love being here. Domestic airlines here are like Uzbekistan. I love the contact with the students Every time I come here I meet someone new who really, really knows about some area I’m interested. It’s wonderful to have a one on one dinner with someone who is an expert in their field.

Some people know a great deal about a very small area. I know almost nothing at all about a great wide gamut of subjects. If I had not been landed with two terrible teachers when I was 15, I’m sure I would have ended up in the psychology dept. I can give you there names if you want …

Sun: Why Cornell?

Cleese: A lot of times, people from England ask me why did you go to Cornell and not an English university and the answer is because cornell asked me and English university didn’t. the trouble with movies is that sometimes you need to earn money, and sometimes you know it’s not a great movie. Since most movies aren’t great movies, I can’t wait for just great ones because you’ll do two in your lifetime.

Sun: Speaking of movies, what is your favorite role?

Cleese: I don’t think I’ve got one … isn’t that funny? I think probably the best acting that I did was when I did the BBC Shakespeare in 1980. I did Taming of the Shrew. I was on a bit of a high because I loved the director, Jonathan Miller so much, and it was the first time that I’d worked with a Shakespearian text, and it was a process of exhilaration and discovery because the solution to a scene was always in there, if only you could find it. And I think Life of Brian, I think it’s our best movie and I think it was very well organized. Terry Jones did a great job shooting it, and we never had to work long days or hours. It wasn’t too busy. Except for the last week, when we got down to the desert and had to do the crucifixion stuff and I got a chest infection from the dust. So I had this awful chest infection and then I had to be crucified … Cruel and unusual.

Sun: What is your greatest accomplishment?

Cleese: I don’t have an answer to that. There’s a number of things that I’ve done, but if you asked me today if I had to be buried with one thing it would probably be my documentary I made on lemurs, but if you asked me a year from now it probably wouldn’t be that. That was quirky and very personal, and I loved the program, and I had new species of lemurs named after me. Some people have really dedicated their life to a particular art, some of the great directors and actors. I have always felt that I’ve scattered my interests too widely, and though I have had an interesting time, I don’t have the body of work that I feel a great artist should have. That’s fine, because I chose not to. That’s why I don’t think of myself as having a great accomplishment … I’ve had several medium accomplishments.

Sun: So if you could teach a class, what would it be called?

Cleese: I think that I have something useful and interesting to say on religion. But since I have been so busy I haven’t developed it very much. Recently, I’ve been reading about how the New Testament was put together. Who decided which books should be included and which books should not be included. I have a feeling that there are certain points that I make about religion that are important. A lot of people around don’t think there’s anything in religion, and that’s because the kind of religion that is around doesn’t appeal to people, it doesn’t strike a lot of people as being very intelligent. I think there is some force out there and I think the interesting thing is how we get in contact with it. We certainly won’t get in contact with it racing around, looking at our watch and using our cell phone. I think it requires getting very, very quiet.

Sun: At your talk two years ago, you spoke extensively about a personal religion. Do you think that idea of religion has come under fire with fundamentalism in America and abroad?

Cleese: What fascinates me is what causes people to be literal minded. Jesus taught in parables, and the whole point of the parable is you don’t take it literally. The fundamentalist cast of mind, and you don’t just find it in religion, you find it in science, too, is that they are looking for a one-to-one relationship. I don’t think that is the point. I think the point is to accept the mystery of it, how little we can know, but to still be curious about the experience. That is very hard in a society where everyone is in a society racing around achieving things, where the kids have their schedules so filled up that they don’t really have a chance to live. If you are fitting ice skating and basketball and chess, where do you learn just to be?

Sun: If you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would they be?

I want to talk with someone with whom I can connect, have personal contact and not just them telling me what I can read in the books. There are two people in Hollywood I would really like to meet … one is Charlie Chaplain, who I actually met when he was very, very old and unfortunately just a little bit gaga. And Carey Grant, who I think is the greatest of romantic leads. And philosophers, David Hume, who preferred playing billiards to philosophy which I think is very appealing. And Churchill, who was voted recently the greatest man of the century and yet at the end of his life felt he was a failure.

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