Long Live My Happy Head
(UK, 90 min.)
Dir. Will Hewitt, Austen McCowan
Gordon Shaw has a friend named Rick. He’s with him all the time. However, Gordon and Rick aren’t really friends. They’re frenemies at best. They’ve been inseparable since Gordon was 32. Gordon, now 39, doesn’t really like Rick, but he can’t get rid of him. The problem, though, is that Rick lives inside Gordon’s head. He’s a tumour and one day he will kill Gordon.
The peculiar relationship between Gordon and Rick fuels the offbeat and wholly original documentary Long Live My Happy Head. Directors Will Hewitt and Austen McCowan observe Gordon’s daily life as he fuels his creative impulses by confronting his mortality through art. An illustrator, artist, and graphic novelist, Gordon chronicles his experience in humorous vignettes. He converses with Rick in animated sequences and shares their back-and-forth with audiences. The stories feature some morbid omens in which Rick tells Gordon that the time is nigh. However, Gordon consistently defies life expectancy forecasts.
Long Live My Happy Head follows Gordon as he meets with doctors, undergoes MRI scans and chemotherapy treatment. He has a remarkable sense of humour despite living with a dire prognosis for nearly a decade. Gordon knows that, like it or not, he needs to keep Rick around if he wants to stay alive. The doctors tell Gordon that the tumour (they don’t call it Rick) is especially active. It’s not growing and therefore is something that can be managed so as long as nothing drastic changes in Gordon’s health. Gordon travels to health conferences and he shares his art and his story. In doing so, he encounters other people who’ve received potential death sentences, yet defied the odds. His humour and love for life are infectiously inspiring.
The Role of Caregivers
Gordon has another reason to live. His name is Shawn. Unlike Rick, Shawn is a real flesh and blood person. He’s Gordon’s partner. Gordon giddily recalls in an interview how he met Shawn while the Virginian music aficionado was in Edinburgh on business. The film sees how they maintain a long-distance relationship despite Gordon’s diagnosis. Shawn can’t always be there physically, but he’s in it through sickness and health, to be sure.
The film is a refreshingly candid portrait of a queer carer relationship. Gordon and Shawn navigate the bittersweet reality that they won’t grow old together and vow to make the most of time that lasts. The filmmakers accompany them to the Pride parade, offering glimpses at the insatiable joie-de-vivre that keeps Gordon going. Gordon also finds support in his family, particularly his brother, who steps in whenever Shawn can’t be at his side. The film therefore offers a therapeutically productive portrait of the role that personal support networks play in one’s health. Moreover, Gordon equally appreciates the role of caregivers. In fact, the subject fuels his next book. He interviews carers about the personal tolls, sacrifices, and selfless love entailed within the act of caring. When the conversations transition from in-person chats to Zoom video calls, the role of carers hits home especially hard.
A Unique Pandemic Portrait
Long Live My Happy Head sees the relationship between Gordon and Shawn face another hurdle as the COVID-19 pandemic forces precautionary safety measures. Travel restrictions mean that Shawn simply can’t fly from the USA to Scotland. Moreover, Gordon’s health, which deteriorates shortly before the coronavirus outbreak, classifies him as a vulnerable person. Gordon therefore faces many days of what he expects to be his final year alone.
As Gordon self-documents his quarantine, capturing monotonous exercise routines, daily sanitizing regimens, and the crippling loneliness that compounds a difficult time, the film offers a window into the many heartbreaks endured during this era of isolation. Gordon continues to make his art and tell his story, and there is wonderful levity to be found here. Animated sequences throughout Long Live My Happy Head preserve Gordon’s ability to look death in the face. If laughter is the best medicine, Gordon has the prescription down pat.
The film is a touching reminder to embrace life and celebrate our moments with loved ones, frame by frame. Gordon’s story and work inspires audiences to laugh in the face of heartache. Shawn asks him a similar question when they ready to confront the inevitable: how can things possibly worsen when one has a terminal brain tumour? All one can do is to follow Gordon’s cue and make the best of it.
Long Live My Happy Head screened at the Windsor International Film Festival on October 28 and screens again on November 3.