Long Live My Happy Head (2022)
Directors: Will Hewitt, Austen McCowan
Screenwriters: Will Hewitt, Austen McCowan
Long Live My Happy Head is a wonderful new documentary exploring impending death through art, and telling a story of love and perseverance that would have been against the odds even if a good chunk of it didn’t take place during the Covid-19 Lockdowns.
Gordon is a 39 year-old comic book artist living in Edinburgh. Almost a decade ago he learned he has an inoperable brain tumor. His story of treatment, coming to terms, and romance, is told through animation in the style of his comic book illustrations and his own voiceover.
When he was diagnosed in his early 30s he was given a life expectancy of eight to ten years but this was soon downgraded to two to three as his tumor continued to grow. Seven years later he is still here and living with his tumor who he regularly converses with and has named “Rick”. As Gordon so wittily and correctly puts it, “Brain tumors are literally head-f*cks!”.
On the suggestion of his school friend Richie, Gordon began processing his complex thoughts on living with cancer by drawing comic books. The protagonist of his comics is a caricatured version of himself. Gordon is visibly and understandably emotional during the talking head sections of the film in stark contrast with the impassive animated “him” who doesn’t even have visible eyes behind his glasses.
Gordon’s comics and the film’s animated sequences inspired by them are profound and hard-hitting but also wittily funny, like when his comic self muses that “Confronting your mortality is not an easy thing to do” before passing a toilet roll to a bear.
Gordon met his partner Shawn while the latter was over from the USA on business and didn’t expect anything long-term, but they just clicked. Eventually Gordon came clean about his terminal diagnosis and Shawn stuck with him.
Living as they do in Edinburgh, we of course see the couple having a romantic moment atop the tourist hotspot Arthur’s Seat that overlooks the city. They’re also very much part of Edinburgh’s Pride celebrations.
Gordon attends a Graphic Medicine conference in Brighton, meeting many like-minded people who confront disease and attitudes to terminal illness through various art forms. Gordon turns his tumor into a character on the page as a way to process the fact that he likely doesn’t have much time left and he discusses this with a fellow attendee also living with a brain tumor who feels (regarding their creative drive, their desire to help people): “I needed to write things I’d have wanted to have read in that position”.
Gordon suffers from regular seizures and isn’t able to describe the experience from inside his own head to others as he is completely out of it when they occur. You need good friends at your side for the really bad days, which could come along at any moment, a much more pressing concern when the Covid Lockdown hits.
As well as drawing himself and his tumor Rick as characters, Gordon tries to evoke the feeling of being in an MRI machine in one comic and after conducting a series of interviews writes about what’s involved with being a carer for someone with cancer in another. “Does Shawn see himself as a carer yet? If he doesn’t, he should.”
Gordon’s journey would be tough enough on its own but then Covid-19 shuts the world down and has Gordon fearing he’s wasting a year he really doesn’t have to spare. Shawn was unable to travel back from the USA to be with him and Gordon was considered part of the vulnerable group so became completely isolated with only his art, interviews and doing laps of his flat to keep his spirits up.
It looks for a time like Gordon and Shawn won’t be able to say goodbye to each other in person as Gordon turned 40 during Lockdown (cut to a particularly emotional birthday Zoom call) and is not predicted to see 41. Thankfully, when the UK came out of Lockdown, Shawn was able to visit again for a tearful reunion – “I can’t rescue you and I can’t fix this” – but sadly neither man was able to permanently relocate to be with the other because of the many work, health and financial roadblocks.
Alexandra Hamilton-Ayres’ musical accompaniment to Gordon’s story is perfectly pitched, never overwrought or feeling like its tricking an emotional reaction out of you; this story makes that connection to your heart all on its own.
Most of us have been affected by cancer one way or another in our lives so Long Live My Happy Head tells a pretty universally devastating story. You could wish to hear a bit more from the interviews with those living with cancer and those in their support system that form the research basis for Gordon’s ongoing series of comics, but you don’t begrudge this for being a laser-focused tale of one person’s experience confronting their mortality. It might sound like a heavy watch but it’s also warm and funny and strangely positive in a very pragmatic, bittersweet sort of way, capped off by Gordon’s arrival at acceptance of his present situation: “I’m happy but sadness is there. Perhaps in equal measure”.