These days the only movies that get screened at midnight are big Hollywood blockbusters hoping to squeeze a few extra bucks out of fanboys and girls with added showings in the middle of the night. There was a time, however when midnight movies were Midnight Movies, with capital m’s. Years ago the term referred to mind-bending fare like “El Topo” and “Eraserhead,” counterculture movies that brought together like minded—read stoned—people for singular movie experiences.
“A Liar’s Autobiography – The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman” is a Midnight Movie, a film that would benefit from the altered states that characterized the classic midnight viewing experience.
Graham Chapman was many things. A gay Cambridge graduate, physician, writer and actor, but it is as a founding member of Monty Python that he is remembered. “A Liar’s Autobiography,” directed by Python Terry Jones’s son Bill and based on Chapman’s book of the same name is an animated, impressionistic, surreal portrait of the comedian, that doesn’t focus on the funny.
Chapman was a complicated man. An alcoholic who drank four pints of gin a day to dull the pain of his insecurities, he rebelled against the “airlock” of fame, while hanging out in Los Angeles clubs with Keith Moon and Marty Feldman.
The film begins with a brain freeze on stage then cuts to his birth in Second World War England. At three years of age he witnessed a wartime incident when his street was littered with body parts. “Oh come on mum, this must be one of my major formative experiences!” he says, although we never really find out whether it was or not. Instead we are treated to a series of impressionist biographical tidbits that only loosely hang together.
The formation of Monty Python is set in a Monkey Zoo, fame is portrayed as being in outer space and his journey to discover his sexuality is shown as a rollercoaster. It’ll keep your eyes dancing, but isn’t very satisfying as a narrative.
Aping the anarchistic spirit of “Monty Python,” the style of animation switches every few minutes, which keeps things lively, but also adds a disjointed feeling to the story. The cumulative effect of the imaginative visuals is meant to create a fitting portrait of Chapman’s raucous life, but only succeeds in splitting the viewer’s attention one too many ways.
Focusing on Chapman’s often troubled personal life rather than his on stage and screen work with Python means that “A Liar’s Autobiography” isn’t simply a greatest hits packages of his best known work, which is interesting, but it doesn’t quote work as a bio either.
We are given some insight—the narration and many of the voices are supplied by Chapman, taken from recordings made before his 1989 death—about coming out—he invited all his friends over to announce he was “a bit bent”—his alcoholism, sexual appetite and problems with fame, but a movie about Chapman should be funny, right?
But it’s not. It works best when gentle humour mixes with and insight—a sequence about “Niven-ism,” the Hollywood disease characterized by name-dropping, is letter perfect.
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