Monday, December 6, 2010

Michelle Esrick's fine SAINT MISBEHAVIN': THE WAVY GRAVY MOVIE opens in SF & NY

What does it mean to lead a good life? To be a good person? To teach by personal demonstration rather than by endless and often fake "preac-hing" (fundamental-ists, please take note)?  If I am not mistaken, the word "saint" is not used anywhere except in the title of Michelle Esrick's eye-opening and immensely appealing new documentary SAINT MISBEHAVIN': THE WAVY GRAVY MOVIE. And I doubt very much whether the subject of the film would particularly approve of its use. (Are true saints much aware of -- or do they even care about -- this lofty designation?)

When many of us hear the words Wavy Gravy, we probably think first of the object shown at left -- yum! -- which was indeed named for this fine fellow. But the actual guy (below) does exist, and Ms Esrick has opened a window onto his world that should send you out of the theater on air that someone like this has survived and continues to flourish. Compare this film to that about another kind of survivor -- let's use as an example the popular and decently-made Joan Rivers documentary that debuted a few months back -- and you're faced with quite the conundrum.
As someone once said, it takes all kinds .

When TrustMovies sat down to watch this wonderful documentary, he had no idea in hell of who Wavy Gravy was.  He got up from his chair 87 minutes later, steeped in nostaliga (for the 1950s and 1960s) but with his spirit renewed (not an easy thing to have happen as one's 70th year approaches). I hope that this does not make the movie a shoo-in for only elderly hippies (which it is) but that younger audiences will have their eyes opened and minds expanded a bit, too. We shall see.

Born Hugh Romney (in 1936), Mr. Gravy has had quite a life. (That's he as a younger fellow, at right.) Watching the movie, you'll discover his rather heavy-duty connections to everyone from Bob Dylan (who is said to have used Hugh's typewriter to write some songs) to Tiny Tim, Moondog, and especially Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. You'll see a different side of  the famous Woodstock festival, too, as Hugh's Hog Farm group is given the job of security. (Something like the character played by Liev Schrieber in Taking Woodstock, perhaps -- but without the transvestism?) "No one who is laughing can run," Wavy insists, and then, during the festival, has the very smart notion of training those he has coaxed back to normalcy from bad acid trips to help the newer bad acid trips find their way home.

As it shows us the positive side of communal living, the movie is a wonderful antidote to an angry, blaming film like the recent Happiness Runs.  In later days we see Wavy training children to become clowns. "We're inclusive," he exclaims with a grin.  "There's even a kid here who's --"  But why spoil one of the movie's best lines. Along the way we see Romney/Gravy's move from poet to fool to inspired fool to clown to intuitive clown. A genuinely fascinating subject, he seems to fully live in the world while taking into his existence and making use of literally everything that comes his way.

We hear from the likes of Jackson Browne (shown at bottom, left), Joan Baez and Bonnie Raitt (above, right).  One interviewee tells us that the guy has gone way beyond the counter culture, and from what we've seen, this is a certainty. Today his wife of decades calls him "The most heroic person I  have ever met in my entire life." (That's she two photos above, and below, in the early days of their marriage.) "And in that place in me where I am saying these things," she continues, "I'm not his wife; he's my teacher." With all this, the film manages to sidestep hagiography by being so damned specific as to the good Romney has done within the confines of what is very definitely his outsider role. As you might expect from a documentary about the guy, the credits are nine minutes long -- and most of them seem to be thank yous.

Gravy is the kind of useful, hands-on "saint" we need, rather than one who talks to birds, endures ridiculous pain and torture unto death, or simply tells people to "renounce."  This guy is, excusez mon Français, a fuckin' inspiration -- and the movie about him's a must-see.

Saint Misbehavin' , from Ripple Effect Films, opened in San Francisco last Friday (at the Red Vic Movie House and the Landmark Shattuck), and will open this Wednesday, December 8, here in New York City (at the IFC Center). For further playdates, click here and then, from the menu on the right side of the screen, click on Screenings and Events.

News flash for New Yorkers! Mr. Gravy and director Michelle Esrick will appear in person at the IFC Center on Wed., 12/8, and Thur., 12/9, at the 6:25 & 8:30 pm shows! Ben & Jerry will appear in person -- with free ice cream! -- on Wed., 12/8, at 8:30.

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