Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie

Saints,” George Orwell wrote of Gandhi, “should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” and the same might be said of Wavy Gravy, the self-proclaimed “Saint Misbehavin'.” He is the Berkeley-based jester who has been clowning for the counterculture for nearly half a century. Looking like he's carved out of lumpy mashed potatoes, the former Hugh Romney would seem a perfect subject for a documentary. Michelle Esrick's film draws heavily on the image bank to take the young Romney from Village poetry sessions circa 1959 through his Zeliglike manifestations with Dylan, the Merry Pranksters, the Hog Farm, and Woodstock, before his final ascension into clown white. The highlight of her archival trawl is a 1970 bus ride from Germany to Nepal; found footage of the hippies interacting with Afghan tribes is delightful. The rest of the film is devoted to Gravy's present-day charitable work. His summer circus for children, Camp Winnarainbow, seems particularly benign. The subject of this movie, however, remains frustratingly elusive, somewhat surprising in a film devoted — in both senses — to Wavy Gravy. His childhood is skipped over completely, as is his Army service and pretty much everything else before his early 20s. What made Hugh Romney a poet to begin with is thus missing, just as is what made him start sporting the cap and bells — it's gotta be more than just protective coloration to avoid police beatings. And what makes him tick today? Perhaps the fly-on-the-wall approach of Esrick's mentor (and this film's executive producer) D. A. Pennebaker would have been more revealing, but one guesses any revelation of a giddy, cranky, normal person that might have occurred would have been edited out. There's no hint of any sort of three-dimensional human being in this movie, just a mystery man in white.

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