This Column Originally Ran on Comics Bulletin
Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2012's A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman directed by Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett.
Sacks: So, Elkin, last time in Convenient Truths, we looked at a documentary of Dr. Jack Kervorkian, an insightful and thoughtful profile of a very serious man who frequently saw himself to be a real person of vision, carrying insights that few other men had. Kervorkian often felt himself to be a bit intellectually superior to his common man. He seemed at times to feel like a man on a mission to bring truth to the world, most especially in his insights and approach to the important issue of assisted suicide. Truth was incredibly important to Dr. Kervorkian and he always saw himself as a kind of evangelist for mankind to arrive at greater insights into the world about important matters.
And now, as they say, for something completely different.
Graham Chapman was about as different from Jack Kervorkian as I am from Jay-Z. Chapman was an entertainer, a storyteller who seems to have been predestined to a life of pure fun and hedonism. His life was all about hilarity and escape, about the joys of pleasure above all. Chapman deliberately rejected a safe and conservative life as a medical doctor to work on the footlights, have fun in the theatre, become a member of Monty Python, and have as much sex and alcohol in his life as possible.
A Liar's Autobiography is a tremendously eccentric look at the life of Graham Chapman. This film adapts Chapman's book of the same name, in which the famed Python member tells some tales – occasionally even true tales – about his life. The film features around a dozen animated segments that tell the story of different eras of Chapman's life, all in different styles and with different approaches to the material.
When I first heard about this movie, I was excited to see it. I was intrigued by the eccentricity of this film and thought it might be a clever way to tell the story of a very unique performer who has had an especially unique approach to his career and life.
Unfortunately, this film just didn't click for me. In fact, it had just the opposite result on me than I had hoped it would have. I was ready for this film to make me laugh, giggle and chortle while I also enjoyed the wonderfully wacky animation in each of the segments. Instead, the animation distanced me from the story. The use of different animated studios and styles had the effect of making me less engaged in A Liar's Autobiography, giving the story a real fit-and-start style that lurches from wacky humor to extreme tedium to crushing sadness. In the end, the endless stream of shaggy-dog stories became rather tedious for me.
Elkin, you told me that you disliked this biography, too. Why did you have problems with this film?
Elkin: Before I get to the problems I had with this film, I just want to revel in the image of you, as Jay-Z, giggling and chortling. Thank you for that gift; I am all the more better for it.
My problems begin where yours do, Sacks. My expectations for and excitement about the story of one of my favorites of the Pythons far exceeded the “documentary” with which we were presented here. I, too, found the different animation styles distancing and their differences made for an already disjointed “story” all the more hard to follow. The film plods where it should run, it's heavy where it should be light, and it dulls where it should enliven. It took me three nights to finish watching this movie because I kept falling asleep during it.
Falling asleep during a movie about Graham Chapman? That's un-possible! Yet somehow this trio of directors made it so.
Perhaps a more interesting documentary would be to follow Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, and Ben Timlett as they go to seemingly great lengths to completely fuck this up.
And I just don't understand how this could have happened. Like you said, Sacks, this should have been “a clever way to tell the story of a very unique performer who has had an especially unique approach to his career and life.” The concept and subject seem like a perfect match, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, as it were. Even a three-year-old can make a decent PBJ! How did this go so wrong?
I haven't read Chapman's autobiography, but perhaps the fault lies in his writing. Maybe he's just plain boring when talking about his own exciting life? Or maybe he purposefully obfuscates? Or maybe the directors had so much to choose from that, by having to limit the run time of the film, they ended up making a muddle of the whole mess?
Or maybe it is one final elaborate joke, the punch line to which has yet to be delivered?
Regardless, I couldn't connect to this film, which, like the Spanish Inquisition, I did not expect to happen.
Sacks: No one expects the Elkin Inquisition!
And nobody expects a muddled mess, either.
You know what this project was missing for me, Daniel? Passion. The documentaries that we’ve enjoyed the most have had passion at their center – passion for Formula One racing, passion for one's political beliefs, passions for one's absurd hobbies and ways of making a living.
But somehow this film was missing passion – which is perhaps very British and somehow just not a winning combination for an intriguing video.
Maybe the problem with adapting something that declares itself to be a liar's autobiography is that the story ends up being a bunch of lies. Events that are interesting by themselves get subsumed and trivialized in a way that might not be the case if we didn’t have the animation styles jumping around from moment to moment and giving the film a fractured, uneven tone.
Yeah, as you say, maybe Chapman is plain boring when he talks about his life. I certainly had moments when I was bored – the endless scenes in the rain on the English Coast, for instance, or the surprising interminable sex scenes that seem to ramble and rumble along much too long. You know when you're complaining about a sex scene that there's something wrong with a movie.
The thing is, I admire this movie. I still think it's a cool conceit, a clever idea that, well executed, could actually bring us closer to the person being portrayed in the film. Good animation can be like good comics, using the built-in artificiality of the medium to paradoxically bring the viewer closer to the person being presented in the animation. There are small fits and starts to that idea – the early scenes in which young Graham is forced to deal with an absurdist vision of the Nazi blitz of England goes a long way to describing Chapman's deadpan sense of humor and obvious nihilism – but other moments simply draw the reader away from the narrative.
Maybe most notably, for me the film only picks up in the rare moments when we see real archival film rather than animation – for example, early TV appearances or Chapman's fascinating appearance on a British chat show talking about his many addictions (that would have been a great bonus feature to include on the DVD, by the way).
I can sum this movie up as having both too little and too much: too little anarchic Pythonesque spirit and too much of the diverse animation styles. I wanted so much to like this movie. In an alternative universe this is the most genius idea ever for a film.
Elkin: Well, sure, and in an alternative universe there would always be a sandwich shop nearby.
You've made me think a bit more about this film here, Sacks. As you pointed out, taking into account that the title of this “documentary” is A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman, I have to wonder what exactly is the untruth. Is this a reference to Chapman's lie of hiding his true self, his homosexuality and his alcoholism, from pretty much everybody in his life? And if so, perhaps the disjointed nature of the film reflects, in some way, the difficulty of leading this sort of double life – of course it will be contradictory and oftentimes hard to follow.
Or, rather, is Chapman just taking the piss and, being a Python, upending our expectations in order to point the finger in our faces and laugh? Is this whole narrative the work of a liar and therefore something we should view as a fiction?
Maybe we're just missing the point?
Regardless, I just couldn't connect with this movie on either an emotional or intellectual level.
Then again, “You know what they say: some things in life are bad. They can really make you mad. Other things just make you swear and curse. When you're chewing on life's gristle, don't grumble; give a whistle, and this'll help things turn out for the best. And... always look on the bright side of life...”
Trailer for the film
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