Two Python Docos

I’m not a visual anthropologist or film person, but I do love films that seem ‘ethnographic’ to me — and I’ve been watching a lot of them on Netflix Streaming while taking care of my kids. Two in particular struck me as sufficiently anthro to mention here — and both have to do with Monty Python.

The first, Monty Python: Almost The Truth: The Lawyer’s Cut, is an ambitious six episode documentary about Monty Python’s Flying Circus, beginning with the childhood of the members and ending with Meaning Of Life. The main reason to watch the film is, of course, to relive all of your favorite Monty Python moments and to learn more about what went on behind the scenes. If you, like me, have not watched Monty Python since you were a teen-ager, it’s a real treat to revisit half-remembered (and thoroughly memorized) sketches. The best part of the documentary is that it is not just about Python, but it is also done in the style of Python, complete with newsreaders in gravel pits, montages, flying cattle, and sudden cuts to television screens with images that then become the image on your television screen.

Beyond the nostalgia value, though, the topics — British sketch humor in the 1950s and 60s, Python’s place in counterculture as it developed and so forth — are of broader interest. And even more interesting are the interviews: most of the footage for the documentary is based on long, biographical interview with each Python.

Whatever they did to get those guys to open up worked — it is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people who are, as Gary Fine would say, in the ‘late summer’ of their lives, reflecting back on something that was very very important to them. I’m sure many anthropologists have been in the position of interviewing people like this. The interviews are candid and fresh — neither distanced nor (despite the occasional anecdote that you can tell has been phoned in) the extremely surface-level ‘official candid’ story that you get sometimes from celebrities. That, I think, is what good interviewing looks like.

Their stories are interesting in and of themselves as well — these are happy, well-balanced people who have managed to become incredibly successful doing something they loved. Their different personalities are obvious — Cleese’s self-confident, genteel extroversion; Palin’s teddy-bear amiability; Gilliam’s narcissism-tinged ambition. But despite these differences you can’t help watch it and think: I wonder if there’s a lesson in here for me? I’d more than highly recommend it.

The second is Terry Jones: Medieval Lives, one of a series of miniseries he’s done. Those of us who remember back in the day when The Return of Martin Guerre was the shit will recognize it as not just history, but cultural history: engagingly told, featuring Gilliam-esque cutout animation from medieval books. Like much of Jones’s work, the narrative works by debunking common assumptions and is organized loosely around stereotypes: one episode on the minstrel, one on the kind. In fact these end up being about politics (the king), governance (the minstrel) and so forth. But they do a great job of disabusing people of the Victorian lens through which this period — and thus so much in the fantasy genre — is set. It is, as they say, ‘good for teaching’.

Hmmm… I haven’t really touched on Michael Palin’s travel documentaries (the dhow episode in Around The World In 80 Days a huge favorite of mine) but perhaps I’ll cover that in a future entry…. or maybe we could get him to guest blog?


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at