Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed May 23, 2012 1:11 pm 
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The principal man behind the Twelve Steps

William Griffith Wilson must be pretty important, since he is the main man behind Alcoholics Anonymous and the many Twelve Step programs that it spawned. (Time Magazine once put him in the top 20 most important figures of the twentieth century.). Known in the anonymous program's identity-protecting terms as "Bill W.," Bill Wilson gets a good documentary biopic treatment here, in a film that also describes the creation of A.A. and the principles that have made it work and saved millions of lives foundering in alcoholism and addiction since the group was founded in the mid-Thirties. Though it reveals a couple of the man's failings, notably a tendency to depression and an affair with another woman not his wife, as well as experimentation with spiritualism and LSD, Bill W. isn't critical or deeply analytical, and for participants in the program, it's better that way. The details about Wilson and the founding are rich here. Searching analysis is not sought for.

Addiction is as old as humankind and A.A. and its offshoots represent a historic breakthrough of incalculable value. There are dozens of A.A. Twelve Step offspring programs, notably Narcotics Anonymous and Al Anon and Alateen, the latter programs to help adults and youth deal with addicts or alcoholics in their lives.

It's still a little bit of a mystery how Wilson did it, just as it's a miracle when any alcoholic or addict gets clean or sober and stays that way. Wilson was a tall gangly Vermonter who lost his parents early. He and his sister were both abandoned by first their father, then their mother, and were raised by grandparents. This obviously was traumatic, and Bill had struggles early on, but he also revealed qualities of leadership as well as great determination. He became the captain of his school football team and principal violinist of its orchestra. As he grew up he revealed a knack for investment, stock brokering, and the analysis of companies. But he also turned out to be a hopeless drunk. He and his long-suffering wife Lois suffered through a succession of lost weekends and wasted cures for seventeen long rather hopeless years before he found a solution, which involved a sense of spiritual awakening that came to him after he had been visited by Ebby T., a man schooled by the English religions group known as The Oxford Group, or in A.A. terms "The Man Who Carried The Message To Bill W." A wealthy Rhode Islander had told Ebby about the Group after being directed to it by Carl Jung, who said that his alcoholism was medically untreatable, and was a spiritual problem.

It was a combination of elements that made A.A. work. There was the Fourth Step moral inventory-taking; the acknowledgment of and communion with a higher power but no adherence to any specific religion -- these owing much to the Oxford Group. There was the acceptance of personal powerlessness, "turning it over," rather than relying on will power -- which for drunks had never worked. There was the all-important willingness to share with and help other drunks -- addicts helping each other, "doing service," rather than relying on outside authorities or "experts." All these elements worked together to make the program. (Later came the "Traditions," a set of twelve rules, like the Twelve Steps, governing how the various meetings should function as part of a larger organization.) Meetings in which alcoholics (or other addicts) could share their "experience, strength and hope" became the ongoing bond, along with continually "working" the logical progression of the Steps , that enabled recovering people to live in hope and stay clean and sober "one day at a time."

Wilson and other fellow recovering alcoholics -- most notably "Dr. Bob," drew up the program text -- including the famous "Twelve Steps of Recovery" in the chapter called "How It Works"-- that became what members call "The Big Book" which was published (with few sales at first, we learn) in the mid-1930's. These tenets, particularly the Twelve Steps, are so canonical in the program that looking at manuscript pages with alternate phrasings crossed out must seem almost as awesome to recovering alcoholics as if a Muslim could see the Prophet dictating the first pages of the Qur'an.

Clearly Bill W. and Dr. Bob and other founders of A.A. were outstanding individuals. Addiction and alcoholism are not games restricted to losers. They strike even the most talented and gifted people, as is pretty well known, but they are a leveler, another reason why the community of A.A. members is unified -- despite the endless squabbling over principles and organization that led to the Traditions.

This film has plenty of footage of the actual Bill W. and his talks, but it also relies on many stagings with actors to fill in important moments in the life of the man and of A.A., along with talking heads, recovering people and others, the former protected by being shot partially in shadow; other alcoholics' faces are blurred out digitally in period footage.

The most interesting theme of Bill W. is the pull between hagiography and the man's actual flawed humanity. William Wilson was the co-founder of A.A. But he was also an alcoholic. We hear him speaking, "telling his story" -- the film is rich in sound and film documents of the man and his associates -- and he sounds not so diffrent from any salty alcoholic recounting his years of drunkenness and foolishness with simplicity and humor. ("Keep it simple" is one of A.A.'s many sharp-toothed clich├ęs containing essential wisdom for the recovering person.) But it's hard not to think of him as absolutely remarkable. This worship -- people would come up to shake the hand of a man who had shaken the hand of Bill -- is something that burdened him. So did the emphysema that killed him in 1971. He was human. This film, with its documents and its talking heads, looks at both sides.

Bill W.
is a film by Dan Carracino and Kevin Hanlon that opened in New York and Los Angeles May 18, 2012. It was screened for this review May 22, 2012 at Quad Cinema in NYC.

In a 2009 blog entry. "My Name is Roger, and I'm an alcoholic," Roger Ebert described his alcoholism, involvement in AA, and 30 years of sobriety.

┬ęChris Knipp. Blog:

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