Documentary now! Season 4 Episode 5 Recap: My Monkey Scammer
The vast majority – probably all of them, from what I can gather – parodied films on Documentary now! are established classics that are sent with great affection. Not only does the show scrupulously replicate the look and feel of those documentaries, but the best of the best, like this season’s “Two Hairdressers in Bagglyport” or last season’s Company riff “Co-Op”, end up expressing the same themes and feelings in a satirical form. Despite the series’ self-deprecating niche quality, starting with those sultry Helen Mirren introductions, it’s clearly driven by a love of non-fiction cinema in its highest form.
My octopus teacher is not non-fiction cinema in its highest form, although it won the Oscar for best documentary in 2021. The Netflix sensation, directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, follows Craig Foster, a diver free who dived into the invigorating cold waters near Cape Town, South Africa, and developed a bond with a young octopus he discovered in a kelp forest. For a year, Foster not only observes this creature, but learns from it about life, death and the essential fragility of nature. The effort even enhances her bond with her own son, who has a passion for diving and marine biology. Paraphrase Charlotte’s webit’s octopus!
I have to say that My octopus teacher is widely appreciated by critics and the public. Review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes approved it at 93%, and user reviews on Google average 4.9 stars out of five, which is a sign that people liked it and that it’s not about women and/or people of color. So maybe that’s my yellowish point of view as My octopus teacher hating that “My Monkey Grifter” feels like he has a hostile side that’s rare on Documentary now!. Either that or the episode unpacks all the tacky pop psychology, New Ageism, and stylistic tics of the widely acclaimed movie so completely that it seems wildly on point if you were driven crazy for it.
“My Monkey Grifter” immediately takes on the boring tone of My octopus teacher right: the dreamlike musical overlay, shallow depth of field photography, cutaways and stylized titles. It also brings re-enactments, reminiscent of Errol Morris (The thin blue line, The fog of war), one of the great innovators of the documentary form, pioneered many of the worst habits of modern documentaries. Our hero filmmaker is Benjamin Clay (Jamie Demetriou), a bespectacled naive who found inspiration to make a sequel to The man who talked to the birds, a critically acclaimed documentary about an elderly man who was working on a bird-human dictionary. “As someone who had trouble communicating with people,” Benjamin tells us, “I was deeply touched by his efforts. However, when the film was released, the man I had taken for a genius was called an old bugger.
Benjamin’s gullibility has made him a target for tabloid ridicule, but one of the most amusing elements of “My Monkey Grifter” is that he falls for not just an obvious fraud, but the exactly the same cheat who cheated him before. Now he’s the one working on animal-to-human translations, while revisiting the theme of trying to be a better husband and father to a family that hates him. The question of how one of these monkey things improves him as a person is another solid dig at My octopus teacher, which offers universal truths and bromides, but more often than not feels strangely, uncomfortably narcissistic. Even an autobiographical documentary maker like Ross McElwee (Sherman’s Walk) never had the audacity to put “My” in any of his titles.
Nevertheless, Benjamin is delighted to receive an email from Dr Mbeko Mwenda of the Zoological Institute of Kenya, who is an admirer of his work (big red flag there) and wants him to check Lulu, a monkey who has showed an ability for sign language. It only takes one look from Lulu at Etherington Zoo in Ipwhistle for Benjamin to see the potential of this project: “Did you really think that madman could talk to birds? or ‘How could you forget it was Nigel’s birthday?’ With Dr Mwenda offering a £200,000 grant for the film, Benjamin embarks on a year-long effort to improve himself by communicating with Lulu.
The exchanges between the monkey and the man, through hand gestures that Benjamin traces meticulously on his “monkey board”, are almost all affirmations: “Artist”. “I like this.” “Risk taker.” “I want to see your movies.” “Thank you. I feel supported. And that’s all poor Benjamin needs to isolate himself from hostile people that he’s disappointed, especially his wife, who isn’t happy to hear he’s pledged his assets to finance the film while waiting for Dr Mwenda’s £200,000 to be wired in. His connection with Lulu becomes strange, such as when he strips off his clothes to remove all barriers between them, and it makes him gives the opportunity to become philosophical (“Does Lulu dream? And if so, does she dream of me? And if she dreams of me, am I a man or a hairless ape?”)
This episode’s directors Demetriou and series regular Alex Buono love plugging in telephoto shots of Benjamin posing in the wild as he recounts various fake free depths or focus shots of him at his desk. The way some documentaries use cinematic language is always an important layer of Documentary now! – and gives episodes like “Two Hairdressers in Bagglyport” a visual texture indistinguishable from its source material – but here it’s part of the overall satirical strategy, poking fun at the range of slick “cinematic” touches that are now common in non-fiction.
The big twist in ‘My Monkey Grifter’ is that Benjamin gets scammed by Lulu and her human caretaker, who manipulates him into stealing £500,000 worth of artwork from his wealthy stepfather. In this case, the episode looks like the great doc of 2012 the impostor, about a French con artist who tricks a Texas family into thinking he’s a long-lost relative who disappeared years earlier. In both cases, it’s about the brand believing what it wants to believe rather than what should be patently false. (That this episode’s writer, Seth Meyers, brings up the Nigerian prince’s email scam with “Dr. Mwenda” is a nice bonus.)
Poor Benjamin will never learn. He may, however, be shortlisted for an Academy Award.
• Another annoying doc tick parodied here: The echo effect in the reenactment dialogue. A very specific target, but it works wonders when we get a fuzzy re-enactment of Benjamin’s confrontation with his wife and she says, “You’re a terrible husband and father.”ather-ather.”
• “I was already closer to Lulu than I had ever been to any other human being. In his presence, I felt no judgment. Another “Mon” documentary that reminded me of: The Abyss Movie of 2004 My date with Drewin which the director/subject attempts to fulfill a 20-year-old fantasy by asking Drew Barrymore out on a date.
• Benjamin remembers being devastated to have been evicted from his apartment, “because that’s where I had installed my monkey board”.
• “But I also felt joy knowing that she forever changed the kind of man I was. It wasn’t clear how I changed, only that it happened at the deep inside of me Direct hit!