When Is a Talking Head More Than a Talking Head? When It’s a Python.

Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer’s Cut) holds you in its grip from start to finish — all six hours of it.

In this massive documentary from 2009, on the occasion of the group’s fortieth anniversary, the five living Pythons — John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin — sat down for lengthy individual interviews. Each appears before the camera solo, framed head and chest against black, facing at a slight angle an off-camera interviewer. In other words, it’s classic “talking heads,” the kind of stuff that’s supposed to be deadly. Plenty of clips are on hand to illustrate what those talking heads are telling us, and the interviews are intercut expertly, but nevertheless a substantial part of the film consists of one or another member of the British comedy troupe just sitting there and talking. What the film proves is that talking heads can work when the heads happen to house some of the greatest comedy minds of their generation.

The film is organized into six chapters. (These were shown weekly on the IFC channel in the fall; the film is now available on DVD, and for download on iTunes.) The participants speak seriously, and passionately, but of course with humor (as how could they not?). They make excellent raconteurs. Each hour-long chapter goes by before you know it; I have watched two at a clip while blissfully losing all sense of time.

Their stories pretty well cohere. We learn who these Pythons were, what they did before Python, and how they came together; Cambridge and Oxford educated (apart from Gilliam, the American animator), members in various underground or overground theatrical troupes at their universities, they had early television careers individually or in pairs writing and performing for British comedy-variety shows of the sixties. We hear how Monty Python’s Flying Circus took off, flying under the radar even of the BBC which aired it irregularly and at odd hours. We discover how cult success became popularity, and how their fame spread to the United States when one Dallas PBS station took a “what have we got to lose” chance on the show. (A Boston PBS executive, who had made initial inquiries, chickened out; literally turned white at a screening.) We hear about the creative difficulties and solutions behind the scenes of their three movies (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life).

Along the way are interviews with others who played a part in the story as it unfolded, and with comics whose lives were changed by their exposure to Python at formative stages.

If I can share just one impression among hundreds that emerged from my viewing, it’s my surprise at the drama that prevailed among these guys from the very beginning. Discovering Python as an American in the seventies, I saw a show that spoke with one absurd voice, one brilliantly silly point of view — it was anarchic, but paradoxically, anarchic in a unified way — and I assumed a show like that could only result from superb teamwork. To an extent that was true, but the men collaborated “as one” only rarely. They were really a collection of smaller teams, in alliances that remained what they had been in their college days. Graham Chapman (who died in 1989) and Cleese (Oxford) wrote together as a team, as did Palin and Jones (Cambridge). Idle floated, coming up with many of the musical bits. The internal factions could be harsh with one another, and Cleese could be particularly withering in his criticism of the work from Palin and Jones. Palin and Jones, often as not, would slink off feeling chastened, convinced that their work wasn’t up to snuff — but occasionally sneaking it back into the script when Cleese wasn’t looking.

Meanwhile, in the production of their movies, Cleese often lost patience with Gilliam whom he felt spent an inordinate amount of time tinkering with the “look” instead of just shooting the funny script and getting on with it. In fact, the look of films like Holy Grail is essential to their success as comedy, so Cleese was wrong, but nevertheless his words on the topic have relevance to the success of the documentary itself. Defending his critique of Gilliam, he says, “Everyone talks about film as a visual medium. Well, guess what, life is a visual medium. Yet here I am talking to you, and here you are talking to me.” When the talk is as good as it is in Monty Python: Almost the Truth, he has a point.

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