Austen McCowan and Will Hewitt’s warmly moving portrait of a lovestruck comic artist with an inoperable brain tumour.
The brain and the heart vie for supremacy in Austen McCowan and Will Hewitt’s wistfully sentimental feature doc Long Live My Happy Head, which offers a tear-frosted window onto the life of Edinburgh-based comic artist Gordon Shaw who has toiled for over a decade with an inoperable tumour in his noggin.
What begins as the gently meandering tale of a shy, indomitably self-effacing man attempting to retain his spirit and sanity through the consolations of art and love (the latter via his long distance relationship with jovial Virginian grizzly bear Shawn) soon develops into a piece about the bizarre obstacles that life throws up that make achieving happiness that much more difficult.
Gordon’s intricate system of coping mechanisms are predicated largely on a number of things being able to happen: Shawn being available to visit him as often as possible; being mobile and sharp enough to design comics; having his family nearby to support him. Yet the epic, morale-crushing patience-tester that was the Covid-19 pandemic throws Gordon’s already-precarious life through a hoop and leaves him facing his dire existential journey alone.
The film doesn’t choose to go particularly deep into the medical aspects of the tumour, and instead focuses on it as something more abstract and psychologically pertinent – a situation that prompts a constant change of lifestyle and character. Gordon’s own acerbic graphic novels detail his struggles with the malignant fiend which he has named Rick, and even the film’s various animated digressions don’t see the pair engaging in much dialogue beyond a dismissive, “Fuck you!”
One of the film’s main pleasures, though, is its central relationship between Gordon and Shawn who, from the outset, seem to have very little in common with one another. Where Gordon is introverted and sometimes a little inarticulate (a symptom of his condition), Shawn is loquacious and emotional, already ready to blast out an Irish ditty down the line. Much of the conversation captured on film is of the logistical variety, about flights and appointments and organising Zoom calls. Yet a climactic scene in which both men break down while trying to take stock of their insane situation confirms the sincerity and strength of their bond.
This is a film about the highs and lows of illness and how painful it is to constantly jack-knife between emotions. Although Gordon tries as best he can to make a game of his endeavour (turning the clanking sounds produced by MRI machines into techno music), there’s a sense that he’s only able to remain calm and collected because the whole situation is just so metaphysically unfathomable. The moments where he suddenly looses it are often the result him taking stock of life’s wonders, and his cool bravery in the face of such trauma makes you hope and pray that his battle with Rick still has a l