I’ve been a Monty Python fan since my early teens when I first discovered John Cleese and Michael Palin through A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda is among my very favourite comedies and I’ve seen it an absurd amount of times. This eventually led to my parents telling me about Monty Python, and thanks to the magic of youtube, I was able to peruse hours worth of their skits and clips from their films. Obviously, I actually sought out both the show and movies after a while, and it was well worth it.
This past week I’ve been watching the documentary on the Python’s, “Monty Python: Almost Truth- The Lawyer’s Cut”. It runs as six hour long episodes, and despite the fact I paced myself at one a day, I could have easily watched the entire thing in a single sitting. It is one of those rare documentaries that passion and respect for its subject matter is translated in both the thoroughness and style that it employs. I’ve seen a few documentaries and profiles, or whatever you’d like to call them, on the Pythons and this is by far the strongest. It not only offers new insights that others never touched on, but is unmatched in its level of seriousness (or unseriousness) and the general spot on tone it employs.
I think the film is strongest when exploring both the dynamic of the group, as well as the show’s influence. The discussions about how the group operated, wrote and collaborated was all new information to me. As most of the film is simply “talking” heads of the five living members of the troupe (along with TV interviews Graham Chapman gave in the past), they recollect the ups and downs of working together. I think I easily take for granted the trials and tribulations involved with working with other people, as I haven’t in a long while. It’s easy to forget or assume that people like McCartney and Lennon didn’t always see eye to eye, if they did, their work would not be as great. Similarly, you have more than one group of writers involved in Python. They rarely worked as an entity, Terry Jones and Palin were one group, Graham Chapman and John Cleese another, while Idle and Gilliam tended to work independently. Beyond that, they all had to come to further agreements when they all came together. This worked more or less smoothly, but was exasperated towards the end of the series, as well as during the production of the films (less with Life of Brian).
Beyond that, you have personality clashes. At the core, Terry Jones and John Cleese seem to be the most dominant physical personalities. Both are apparent control freaks and perfectionists, though they share almost entirely opposing ideas as to what “Python” is. On one hand this is what led to the strong quality of the sketches, as a lot of the bad was weeded out, and constantly pushing and pulling for compromise only made for a higher grade of work. However, they also discuss the difficulties presented by Chapman’s alcoholism which put a strain on his professional relationship with many of them, especially Cleese.
Some have complained with some of the gossipy feel of the documentary, as none of the surviving members seems to be unafraid to pass some judgments or throw some digs at each other (except maybe Palin, but the documentary only proves that he’s nice to a fault, it’s actually quite amusing). I personally don’t have a problem with it, it’s the nature of group dynamics and when you are dealing with “art” (yes, even comedy), it’s difficult not to hold a few grudges. As they all still have more good to say about each other than bad, gripping about their criticisms of each other seems utterly inconsequential. A circle jerk would have been far duller and much less honest.
The doc also features a huge amount of clips from their television shows, films and other various appearances. I have to say, the segments taken from Holy Grail and Life of Brian especially look incredible, if they are from some kind of new HD version of the films… well I’m convinced.
Since no discussion of Monty Python can go without this little “conversation”, some short discussions on some favourites;
Favourite Member of Python: Michael Palin
I’m such a sucker for Michael Palin, he is not only the best looking of the group, but is so adorable I just want to squeeze the life out of him. The documentary only confirms that he is genuinely an incredible, nice guy with a huge amount of passion, and that only adds to his appeal. It’s clear in all his performances that there is this wonderful earnestness and love for what he is doing and portraying, and he is easily among the best performers of the group. Even post Python, I love his own work in documentary film, and travelogues. He is just one of those people who is endlessly appealing and never fails to make a smile. I think my favourite part of the doc though, at least Palin-centric moment, was when he was getting visibly angry in a TV interview about the release of Life of Brian back in 79’. It’s especially funny to watch Cleese reacting to him, because it’s clear seeing him so perturbed is a rare sight.
Favourite Sketch: The Spanish Inquisition
Probably the hardest question, so many others come to mind… I love, especially, so much of those really short sketches that almost seem to be time fillers, like Palin complaining to a police officer (Cleese), that his jacket was stolen, then inviting him over to his flat. It’s just so deliciously mundane and yet inexplicably hilarious. Back to the Spanish Inquisition, I think it perfectly sums up for me everything great and wonderful about their work. First we start with this historical reference (though, with all of their work, missing the reference is no great loss… part of the brilliance), and a violent one at that, which is completed deconstructed and mocked. The absurdity of the Inquisition needing to leave and come back again and again because they haven’t properly rehearsed their terrifying entrance is beat only by the fact that their torture methods are badly thought out, useless or even… comfortable.
Favourite Film: Life of Brian
This is an easy one for me, as much as I like their other work, this one is by and far the most cohesive film. I think it works best as a cinematic narrative and rises far and above works in sketches and episodes. Life of Brian stands as one of the greatest cinematic insights into religious mis-interpretation and dogmatic belief structures in general. I am consistently impressed with how shocking the film manages to be, without ever being truly blasphemous… well, close to not being truly blasphemous. It’s anarchic and heretical, but somehow is hopeful and human… the film’s final act is absolutely wonderful in this sense. I also appreciate the amount of research poured into this, and all their films. As a nerd, I love that they’re book nerds too, because the first thing I think when I start on any kind of artistic project is that I must head off to the library and do some research. That’s how it’s done, yo.
Favourite work by a Python after Python: A Fish Called Wanda
Maybe the funniest movie I’ve ever seen, I laugh so hard it hurts when I see this. I don’t know what else to say, everything about it is brilliant.