I grew up in California where kids are taught to pursue happiness above all else. The wealthiest people I knew were only incidentally affluent: They invented some kind of organic juice or they started Banana Republic way back when. There was no correlation between success and persistent hard work, between achievement and academic rigor. If you were 16 and wanted to go the beach after school instead of doing your homework, that was great, for as anyone — even parents — would tell you, it was “beautiful out!” I resent this now, and when I see such a lifestyle depicted in books or film, I get riled up. Michelle Esrick’s documentary, Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie, stirred these foul sediments of my past.
There’s nothing funny about The Funnies. And sorry, but there’s nothing comic about clowns. Before he was the emcee of Woodstock, or the official clown of the Grateful Dead, or founded the world’s longest running hippie commune; before he was even Wavy Gravy, Hugh Romney was a beatnik who read poetry and played folk music at The Gaslight on MacDougal Street. But the man at the center of Saint Misbehavin’, at least in his current iteration, doesn’t seem like the type to inspire playful nicknames from B.B. King or the sort who Bob Dylan might want to share a room with. Apparently though, he was.
The film reminded me of what it felt like to be confronted with voluntary idiocy. I don’t like, at 23, to be made a Scrooge, but I also don’t like the conflation of “being critical” with “being judgmental.” Wavy Gravy and his cohort are definitely non-judgemental — they’ll be the first ones to tell you that — but they’ll also never be critical. Neither will the people I grew up with. It’s around the holidays that these bitter thoughts begin to worm their way into my consciousness. I’ll be back in California for Christmas, and I bet you $100 that within twenty-four hours I’ll be told to relax.
The film opens with Wavy Gravy at his commune house in Berkeley. It’s his night to prepare dinner for the dozens of people with whom he lives. Wavy Gravy gets in his van (hippies love Dodge Caravans) and drives to Ben and Jerry’s to pick up some pro bono ice cream (a flavor is named after him, and it is, of course, a stoner’s dream: caramel-cashew-Brazil nut base with a chocolate hazelnut fudge swirl and roasted almonds.) Most everyone in the film looks like frizzy haired Edward Koran cartoons. “I know this is trivial,” a friend said to me en route to the subway after the movie ended, “but why was everyone obese?” Maybe it’s all the free dessert.
Wavy Gravy wears a rainbow felt jester hat around, miniature bells tinkling off the tip of each floppy point. He makes a stabbing effort to intellectualize his garb, explaining that by dressing up like a clown, or Santa, or the Easter Bunny, he’s protected from the police; a man in a silly costume is non-threatening. It might be true that such characters aren’t threatening, but they’re also not particularly effective. Ram Dass, the author of Be Here Now, says that “he’s infused politics with humor.” But Wavy Gravy, nice as he may be, is neither of those things: political nor humorous.
There were more abstract nouns uttered here than in your standard Chelsea gallery press release. The talking heads describe Wavy Gravy as “unique” and “amazing,” that with him comes a spirit of “trust” and “freedom.” For a subculture so insistent upon creativity, originality, and “intense elevated shenanigans,” its members all seem to be strikingly similar. Wavy Gravy’s personality is indistinguishable from his peers’. “We’re all the same person, trying to shake hands with our self,” he says fauxosophically towards the end of the film. Well, mission accomplished! Even the young children who attend Camp Winnarainbow, the circus camp that Wavy Gravy founded, talk this way. In between sessions of juggling, stilt-walking, and trapeze, Esrick interviews some of the campers. When prompted to describe Wavy Gravy, Dylan, who is no more than nine, looks straight into the camera and says: “He’s hilarious. He’s everything.” Children, it seems, are indoctrinated with vagueness at a young age, rendering the speaking patterns of grade schoolers and retirees identical.
The documentary is pretty evenly split between present day interviews and archival b-roll footage, and the juxtaposition between the two often yields unintentional comedy. When Wavy Gravy’s wife, Bonnie Beecher, talks indistinctly about wanting to “involve people,” for instance, the camera cuts to a pie-eating contest. And it’s when the commune members start talking about being non-judgmental that we learn Wavy Gravy’s son, Howdy Do-Good Gravy Tomahawk Truckstop, changed his name to “Jordan” on this 13th birthday. In interviews, he speaks positively and warmly of his parents, but it’s still obvious that he embodies a counterintuitive kind of rebellion. Jordan, who has close cropped hair and a presumably more traditional job, is now married and lives in a single-family home in Philadelphia, where he doesn’t “have to share a wall with anyone else.”
Wavy Gravy co-founded the Seva Foundation, an international health organization that works to perform cataract surgeries in Asia. The last quarter of Saint Misbehavin’ focuses on the charity work. It’s heartening to see the buffoonery of a bubble-blowing clown channeled into a worthy cause. But for the sake of sounder rhetoric, this section should not have been tacked onto the end of the film as some sort of altruistic redemption for the years of fun and folly. Rather, it should have been incorporated consistently throughout or even frontloaded to justify all the casual time we spend with Wavy Gravy and his bumbling jokes.
The interviewees speak to radical politics and how good it feels to be empowered, but of what they’re opposing or what they feel liberated to actually do remains unclear. At one point, the social circumstances that allowed for the Summer of Love to take place (the invention of birth control, the nonexistence of AIDS) are literally refused in favor of the argument that “it was a time when people were thinking they could make the world a better place.” It would be one thing if these hollow anthems were trumpeted only by Wavy Gravy and his acolytes; the problem is that Esrick’s angle reinforces their misguided, nebulous ethos. I don’t mean to be cruel to Wavy Gravy, someone whose unanimous reputation is one of kindness, joy, and generosity. There’s nothing malevolent about having fun, playing the banjo with your friends, or being generally optimistic, but when those values trump everything else, including a realistic grasp of history or the proper use of language, it becomes infuriating to witness. Just relax, I tell myself. But that only makes me madder.