Saturday, August 11, 2012

Bill W. (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 
Bill W.

For those of us interested in learning about a man who once pulled himself out of despair to reach a Zen sense of understanding and also helped millions of addicted people in the process, there is "Bill W." a new comprehensive and compelling documentary about the famed co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. The documentary directed by Dan Carracino and Kevin Hanlon, traces Bill Wilson's shambling and somewhat bohemian beginnings in East Dorset Vermont as he is abandoned by both his mother and his father and is possessed by the violin. When his first love, the young Bertha Bamford unexpectedly dies, Bill abruptly stops everything and falls into clinical depression.

Then in 1913, Bill meets Lois on one Emerald Lake and by his own words seems "healed". Yet as Bill discovers, his haunt of depression and anxiety still usurps his spirit like a poltergeist and becomes impossible to shake. After serving in WWI, he has one beer with little diabolical effect. Three weeks later, at a party, Bill feels immobile and tongue-tied by conversation. He is unable to relate to his social situation and fixed with anxiety. He drinks an innocuous-looking orange Bronx Cocktail and magically becomes part of life and the world. Bill called this drink "The Elixir of Life". And until the mid 1930's, Bill never stopped drinking, even while being a semi-prosperous Wall Street speculator. 
But his rum-horned devils soon caught up with him.
This documentary maintains a momentous circular rhythm through stirring re-enactments that are interspersed with some poignant stories by actual AA members themselves whose faces are slanted in shadow to protect their anonymity. This gives the documentary a film noir quality which may or may not have been intentional, yet it makes for strong stuff by illustrating the fact that many are sincerely blighted by some very real Gimlet gremlins that wreak havoc with the soul. The essence of "Lost Weekend" as we are shown, is no mere flickering fiction but truth shown in absolute  starkness. 
Indeed, Blake J. Evans and the directors show Bill  suddenly overwhelmed by a chiaroscuro of shadow and white light as he experiences a "Hot Flash" spiritual jolt at a detox retreat. Bill then gets the idea to help alcoholics overcome their demons and holds meetings at his home. With his cranky voice, his brown suit and hat, Bill seems a brother to William Burroughs, always reaching, searching and exploring to find the meaning of his addiction, no matter that it is hops here instead of heroin.
Battling depression throughout his life, Bill once asked his friend and AA cofounder, Dr. Bob, "Why do we thirst?" Dr. Bob answered "To thirst is human."
Although the documentary does not dwell on dogma, it does mention that the strict Evangelical Oxford Group, gave Bill the idea for God "as we understand Him" as well as the rule of modesty and the need to make amends to those who are hurt. There may be a tendency here for some to see a cult, but the film clearly shows that Bill was guided by a more universal spirit. After all, he championed LSD decades before Timothy Leary, declaring its useful properties in battling alcoholism, together with niacin, which is vitamin B-3.
"Bill W." the film shows the full light and dark spectrum of the man Bill: a sufferer, a seeker, a skirt-chaser (as we learn of the covert affair with AA's Grapevine writer, Helen Wynn. ) Rather then diminish the "Bill" many revere,  this fact only makes the legend more vivid and no cold fish. Alas, Bill is human.
In thinking about Bill throughout the narrative, we become acquainted with a man who remains Jungian in spirit and young at heart, despite all the wracking  torment throughout that nearly kills him. But the real magic of  the film is that it lets us discover all these episodes without judgmental harps and never obscures or excludes. The glimpse that "Bill W." gives us is refreshingly without pretense and open to all.

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