Seventeen short films about Graham Chapman, A Liar’s Autobiography offers a kaleidoscopic view of the legendary gay and alcoholic Python.
The Life Of Graham by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Based on the untrue life and times of Graham Chapman, A Liar’s Autobiography is an anthology of animations from 14 cartoon companies, recreating with the voice of the deceased gay Python his own 1980 comic autobiography. Just as Chapman’s book of his life wasn’t exactly a truthful recounting of his time on earth, authored by four pens as well as his own, A Liar’s Autobiography the film is credited to directors Bill Jones (son of Python Terry), Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett, not to mention Graham Chapman himself, who recorded his memoirs on audio tape before his death. And more than a faithful, chronological recounting of Chapman’s life through boyhood, Cambridge University, coming out, pipe-smoking, Monty Python, secret alcoholism, Los Angeles, cancer and death, A Liar’s Autobiography, like its partly self-penned printed counterpart, is a collage of Chapmanesque experiences, clever and utterly chaotic.
A Liar’s Autobiography begins with a Wilde sketch performed by the Monty Python troupe on Broadway, where the living Pythons’ voices are mixed with Graham’s recordings, brought back together and brought to life with cut-out photographs for heads atop computer-generated spindly bodies. It’s a moment of anxiety when Chapman forgets his lines that provokes an anxious fantasy, jetting off in an imaginary (and obviously phallic) spaceship for a homoerotic Biggles adventure. From here, we delve almost at random into snapshots of Chapman’s so-called life, whether real or imaginary, of cricket and burgeoning sexuality, an adolescent bookish outsider in his parents’ car supping picnics in a rain-swept Northern seaside town, or his pink bicycling experience with John Cleese, heading uphill in Ibiza to write or maybe just shout in a few words from a sunlounger, before meeting his life-long partner David Sherlock.
There’s sherry in Cleese’s room and queasy vagina dialogues given by Cambridge lecturers, as well as Chapman’s Self Sex Test, a Kinsey-style examination of his sexual history where the puzzled Python discovers he’s 70% gay. And so Chapman gave up medicine and became a poof, coming out in 1967, one of the first British celebrities to do so following the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK in the same year. He even threw himself a party, introducing boyfriend David to all his friends. There are also salacious sing-and-dance extravaganzas like Sit On My Face, a camp disco fantasy with enough Seventies stereotypes to rival the Village People. But Chapman was less open about his drinking habits, and there are grimmer sections recounting endless days of intoxication, flitting between groupie and gin, as well as a dark retelling of three days of unpleasantness – a Burroughs-esque nightmare of shakes, pipe-smoking, his body invaded with insects.
Chapman’s drinking was the silver bullet that shot Monty Python in the foot, and despite a few self-referential sketches with Idle, Jones, Cleese and Palin reconfigured as monkeys wistfully examining the Meaning Of Python, there are no big revelations on the comic troupe – just snippets hinting at the awkwardness of ego and collaborative comedy. After giving up the hard stuff on Boxing Day 1977, Chapman became a tax exile in Los Angeles, and friend to David Hockney and Alan Bennett who it is said liked to compare the size of their accents. This cartoon sequence is redolent of Hockney’s A Bigger Splash in its sunny Hollywood pinkness, but filled with the indoor darkness of Chapman’s therapy sessions where he proves himself an incorrigible name-dropper and confesses to chronic Nivenism, living through the fame of other people.
A Liar’s Autobiography doesn’t explain Graham Chapman, yet nor does it intend to. Rather, it’s a homage – irreverent, anarchic and funny – that ups the heartstring-tugging ante in the final reel with footage of John Cleese’s wisecracking eulogy at his funeral. Chapman died aged 48 before he had the chance to achieve more or have more fun, and Jones, Simpson and Timlett’s film is testimony to the funny man – his highs and lows, laughs and loves. It’s no biopic in the ordinary sense, with a veil seductively drawn over its truthfulness, or even meaningfulness – a suggestion of the futility of attempting to capture a life in autobiography. And yet, it’s a wonderful reminder of Chapman’s greatness, brought back to life through his voice recordings, and of all the Pythons. And as a composite anthology of confessional cartoons, A Liar’s Autobiography is less one man’s auto-da-fé and more a collective Spanish Inquisition. Now who could have expected that?
A Liar’s Autobiography is released on 8th February 2013 in the UK