Reviews

Be the Best Gravy You Can Be: 'The Wavy Gravy Movie: Saint Misbehavin'

Wavy Gravy emerges not only as a fascinating character, but as a powerful, inspiring, even heroic man. This is what the '60s always wanted to be about, but almost never were.


The Wavy Gravy Movie: Saint Misbehavin'

Director: Michelle Esrick
Cast: Wavy Gravy, Odetta, Jackson Browne, Ram Dass, Bob Weir
Distributor: Docurama
Rated: n/a
Year: 2009
Release date: 2011-11-15

By the late '50s, Hugh Romney was a Greenwich Village poet, actor, and comedian. He ran with the artists emerging from that heady proto-hippie scene, befriending burgeoning stars like Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, and Odetta, and appears to have been a key figure in the development of that influential little cosmos. But when Romney, an ex-military man and increasingly dreamy mystic, travelled to San Francisco in 1962 to record an album – after his new manager, Lenny Bruce, set it all up – he found himself seduced by the left coast. So he stayed, and the rest is certainly history.

By 1966 he was running with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, setting up the Hog Farm (a commune outside of Los Angeles which also developed those famous light shows for rock bands like the Grateful Dead and the Jimi Hendrix Experience). Radicalised by the Berkeley Free Speech movement and the horror of the ongoing American War in Vietnam, Romney became a front line activist and was severely injured in repeated altercations with riot police.

But perhaps his most famous contribution was when the Hog Farm crossed the country, Prankster-style, for the Woodstock music festival in 1969 where they’d been asked to run “security” (which they took to mean providing food, shelter, and medical aid). Into the '70s and beyond, while most of those 400,000 or so hip kids from Max Yasger’s muddy fields bled into the mainstream of American life, Romney kept pushing for social justice, for independence, for joy, for the liberating pleasure of the absurd. In surprising ways, the whole kaleidoscopic tangle of narratives that is the “American Counterculture” wraps around this one man’s life.

You’ve probably never heard of Hugh Romney. Almost no one has; or, if they have, then they’ve forgotten. This is because “Hugh Romney” was reborn in 1969 – renamed, “christened”, identified – when blues legend B. B. King randomly addressed him as Wavy Gravy. Nonsensical, ridiculous, surreal, and entirely of the psychedelic moment, Romney looked at the man and agreed. Yep, that’s me. From then on, Wavy Gravy became a moniker, a handle, but also a motivating force in Romney’s life. It provided him, a wandering hippie with a gentle and benevolent spirit, with a purpose. His daily prayer (to virtually every deity one might name since he believes in all and none of them simultaneously) is that he might “be the best Wavy Gravy I can muster.”

This charming and surprisingly moving documentary seeks to examine just what that might mean. In some ways a standard biographical film – it's told in chronological order through recollection, found film, archival footage, and anecdotes – there is an appropriate zaniness that colours every tale, every revelation. Early in the movie we watch as a 60-something Gravy completely (and hilariously) fails to make dinner as his wife gently chastises him. It’s simultaneously bizarre – who doesn’t know how to cook frozen vegetables? – and revealing.

Maybe the reason this oddball dreamer has been so successful at changing people’s lives, and shifting the way we look at the world they inhabit, is that he himself is incapable of ‘normal life’. Though he is a man who threw himself on the gears of the machine in the anti-war '60s, who spearheaded much environmental activism in the chemical-drenched '70s, who battled the nuclear power industry in the Reagan-dosed '80s, and who has since worked to raise thousands of dollars for thousands of cornea transplants in developing nations through his Seva Foundation, and has founded a carnival-themed summer camp for a diversity of American children (Camp Winnarainbow), though he has accomplished all of this, the man can’t cook peas.

In director Michelle Esrick’s hands, Wavy Gravy emerges not only as a fascinating character, but as a powerful, inspiring, even heroic figure. Though some will perhaps dismiss the film as a bit of hippie hagiography (and the title doesn’t exactly try to push you from this interpretation), if you are open to the possibility that this demented cherub with his tie dye and his clown paint might just be worth spending 90 minutes with, I am here to tell you that you will find it tough to come away unmoved by his accomplishments, by his day-glo spirit. This is what the '60s always wanted to be about, but almost never were. You may just find yourself praying to him every morning.

Extras on this DVD are all worthwhile (if perfunctory), including a music video of Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Bob Weir singing Wavy Gravy's song "Basic Human Needs", and almost an hour of bonus footage.

9

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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