By Ray Young
Breakfast with Hunter
A film by Wayne Ewing
Produced and directed by Wayne Ewing. Executive producer, Andrew Ewing. Associate producer, Jennifer Erskine. With Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro, John Cusack, Warren Zevon, Ralph Steadman. Released in 2004. 91 minutes.
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On the DVD audio commentary of Breakfast with Hunter
, producer/director Wayne Ewing says that this documentary of Hunter Thompson was eighteen years in the making. I can believe it. A veteran of over thirty news documentaries for PBS and NBC television, Ewing hooked up with the Gonzo journalist back in the 80’s. They experimented with a proposed TV show that never came to fruition, and clips from that ill-fated “Gonzo Pilot” roll behind the end credits of Breakfast with Hunter
. As they remained friends, Ewing was on hand to film business meetings, live appearances, parties and Thompson at home, and the end product of all that footage is a tight, proficient souvenir, an hour-and-a-half of Gonzo in the raw, and a fitting tribute, especially in the wake of Thompson’s recent and unexpected death.
For those who are in the dark, Gonzo is defined (by Answers.com
) as “an exaggerated, highly subjective style, especially in journalism…a style of reportage or film making in which the reporter or filmmaker is intrinsically enmeshed with the action (rather than being a passive observer).”
And Thompson is hailed as the chief perpetrator of the form, since he employed it in articles published in Rolling Stone
and Scanlan’s Monthly
in the early 1970’s. (Although Thompson is generally credited for coining the term, it was first used by a Boston Sunday Globe
critic who called a Thompson piece “pure Gonzo.”)
Published in 1971 and his most popular work to date, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
(subtitled “A savage journey to the heart of the American dream”) is an outrageously funny account written in a fever, with pointed and poetic observations of a turbulent, drugged era. Ewing captures the hoopla surrounding the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of its publication and profiles the evolution and premiere of the 1998 movie version
that starred Johnny Depp, who subsequently became good friends with the author. Blended with coverage of a live appearance Thompson gave with Depp and John Cusack at The Viper Room
in Los Angeles, a gala held in Louisville in 1996, and scenes of the author’s legal fight over an ostensibly trumped up DUI charge (although you rarely see him without
a glass of scotch in his hand), Ewing manages a collage-style approach that is quick, informative and certainly never dull.
When he wrote about himself or under the guise of alter ego Raoul Duke, Thompson exaggerated a hair-trigger intensity that made him appear comically volatile. The vibe was milked by cartoonist Gary Trudeau for the character of “Uncle Duke”
in his syndicated comic strip, Doonesbury
, an homage which supposedly infuriated the writer and marked Trudeau as an enemy. (“If I ever catch up with that little bastard,” he once told a Playboy
interviewer, “I’ll rip his lungs out!”) Still, Thompson cultivates the Uncle Duke legend here, as we watch him incinerate the family Christmas tree in a living room fireplace, or sneak up on Rolling Stone
editor Jann Wenner to hose him with a fire extinguisher. (Were it not for the written word, would arson have been his calling?)
Part of Ewing’s film captures the writer—a sincere observer of human foibles, gifted with crass but impish humor and a knack for vivid hyperbole—as he’s confronted by other, similar forms of caricature. Ralph Steadman, the artist whose insane renderings figure prominently throughout Thompson’s work, is interviewed both alone and with the author, the latter episodes offering a rare glimpse of the brotherly affection shared between the two men. Steadman’s ham handed charge that his art is as equally responsible as the writing for Fear and Loathing
’s popularity is a soapbox rant that Hunter’s apparently been humoring for years.
When cartoons are designated for the movie version of the book, however, we’re privy to witness an unprecedented escalation from anger to near rage. In a conference over the screenplay with director Alex Cox and screenwriter Tod Davies (the original filmmakers before Terry Gilliam was called in), their point that some scenes be animated meets a disastrous fate. (Thompson is adamant that his work not appear “Mickey Mouse.”) It’s a pivotal moment for Ewing, and he’s there to capture a misunderstanding that pushes Thompson to the edge. It warrants a second viewing with his audio commentary—“Their intransigence…put Hunter off”—for Cox’s unsuspecting, foolish gamble when he invades the author’s space. “This scene should be shown in film school,” Ewing explains, “as an example of how not
to approach the author of some material that you’re going to adapt.”
Yet even in anger, Thompson’s deportment is the antithesis of what we’ve come to expect from Raoul Duke or Dr. Gonzo. Throughout most of Breakfast with Hunter
, in fact, he appears composed, lucid and . . . gracious
, three words I never imagined I’d be using to describe him. During literary readings by Depp, Cusack, and a vivacious Roxanne Pulitzer (whom the author once affectionately—and perhaps accurately—dubbed “The best piece of ass in Palm Beach”) or when he’s hobnobbing with George Plimpton, Tom Wolfe, George McGovern, and McGovern’s 1972 campaign manager Tom Mankiewicz (who calls Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72
“The most accurate and least factual account of that campaign”), a warm camaraderie comes into view. We soon wonder if Thompson is as terrifying and anti-social as his writing would have us believe.
Ewing’s simultaneously objective and intimate verité style hits on people, thoughts and fears that are dear to the subject. Hunter’s son, Juan, eloquently expresses his father’s influence, to read between the lines and see beyond the lie. This is where Hunter mined most of his writing ideas, the gray area of truth. In a bittersweet aside, the filmmaker recognizes the fear and loathing within the author, the prospect of loneliness. “Hell for you,” film producer Laila Nabulsi tells him, “would be a world with no one to talk to.” Discussing the afterlife, Thompson divulges his belief in reincarnation, a form of payback in which we return as someone or something characteristic of the way we conduct ourselves now. (It’s at this point when Ewing notes Thompson’s resemblance to the Dalai Lama.) Before seeing Breakfast with Hunter
, I would’ve figured him for a testy pit bull, but now I’m not so sure.
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