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Entries in Animals Whores and Dialogue [2010] (1)

Saturday
Jul312010

Animals, Whores and Dialogue (2010)


Fear and Loathing on the Periphery

Documentary filmmaker Wayne Ewing spent several years following Hunter S. Thompson around.  He was given amazing access to the father of gonzo journalism—capturing moments both inspired and terrifying—and in 2003, Ewing released Breakfast with Hunter.  The faded-VHS-tape aesthetics, primitive scene titles and utilitarian DVD artwork screamed low-low-budget indie, but the film offered Thompson’s fans a fascinating peak at the private life of a literary icon.

The coolest thing about Breakfast with Hunter is that it’s comprised exclusively of home movies.  There are no talking heads; no editorial narratives; no Ken Burns collages filling in the details of Thompson’s turbulent life.  Ewing set out to give viewers the experience of hanging with a crazed, brilliant writer, and he delivered; the fact that he never appeared in the movie meant that he was always behind the camera, standing back from the action, but very much in the middle of it.

Thompson was famous for holding court in his kitchen in the wee hours of the morning, inviting neighbors, journalists and artists to share drinks and stories; Ewing achieves unique intimacy, giving we, the audience, the feeling of having been invited to Thompson’s salon as the friend of a friend—and when illustrator Ralph Steadman breaks away to talk directly to the camera, it's like one of the cool kids confiding in a shy on-looker, just for a moment.

While seeing Hunter Thompson berate a hack reporter at the Viper Room or throw director Alex Cox out of his house for suggesting that the famous “Wave Speech” be animated in the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas movie are indeed thrilling, a documentary needs some kind of through-line to keep from being a fan-boy mix-tape.  To Ewing’s credit, he weaves some kind of sequence of events together to create the story of Thompson’s various adventures in promoting the twenty-fifth anniversary of Las Vegas.

Flash forward seven years later, to the release of Animals, Whores and Dialogue: Breakfast with Hunter: Volume Two—or, as I like to think of it, the most delayed extras disc in the history of home video.  The sequel is a spectacular let-down.  Much of the spark and discovery have been excised in favor of what amount to extended takes or behind-the-scenes vignettes of portions of the original film.

We get more podium reads from childhood friends of Thompson’s during a ceremony in Louisville, KY.  We see more neighbors hanging around the kitchen watching Thompson eat and drink and try to come up with ideas.  There are what seem like countless minutes of the author’s friends reading his words back to him—they are great words, sure, but Warren Zevon was no Johnny Depp, especially when orating via speaker phone.  And there are more shots of the author’s beloved peacocks roaming his compound.

I may have spoiled myself by watching Alex Gibney’s documentary on Thompson, Gonzo, the day before.  That film pops with talking heads, dramatic re-creations, and all of the other things I just praised Breakfast with Hunter for not including.  Gibney’s secret is that he infused a slick, star-studded production with a solid narrative, making it accessible to Thompson novices and thrilling to long-time fans.  Gonzo actually incorporates footage from Breakfast with Hunter, making the earlier doc a fine companion piece; akin to watching the movie adaptation of a favorite book.  Animals, Whores and Dialogue comes off as a reel of leftovers that someone stuck a price tag on.

Which brings me to a question I kept asking myself during the movie: Why was this feature necessary?  Why didn’t Ewing simply release a new two-disc edition DVD of the first film, with this as the bonus disc?  Or, better yet, incorporate the non-fluff footage into an extended cut of Breakfast with Hunter?  I got the feeling that this endeavor was a ploy on the director’s part to keep the Hunter S. Thompson revenue stream flowing, five years after the writer’s suicide.  It’s a cold assessment, but I’ve been burned by this guy before.

You see, a couple years back, Wayne Ewing put out another HST documentary called When I Die.  It purported to tell the story of the famed Gonzo Memorial, a 153-foot tower with a mold of Thompson’s signature two-thumbed-fist-holding-a-peyote-button sitting atop it (his ashes were blown out of the fist during a fireworks show following his funeral).  I purchased the DVD from Ewing’s Web site (the only place you can find his movies, outside of illegal downloads), expecting to see footage from the memorial party—which featured guests such as Bill Murray and Senator John Kerry.

What I got in the mail was a ninety-minute how-to video on constructing the Gonzo monument; which is okay, if you’re an engineer/Thompson obsessive.  But as a regular fan, my interest in Thompson’s widow’s struggles with the Aspen city hall (or whatever bureaucracy it was) began to wane around the twenty-minute mark; and the scenes of the memorial party amounted to little more than bystander footage of the giant fist; the A-listers were nowhere to be seen.  Though, given the slapped-together nature of Animals, Whores and Dialogue, I have a feeling we’re only three years away from The Party’s Over: Fear and Loathing at the HST Memorial (A Film by Wayne Ewing).

He’s a canny businessman, that Wayne.  But his goods are starting to rot: Early in Animals, Whores and Dialogue, we see Thompson honored at the Lotus Club in New York.

The title card reads “The Lotos Club”.

Keep in mind, there are scenes later in the film where Thompson unabashedly interrupts and corrects people who get words wrong—especially his words.  I can only imagine the kind of holy hell he’d raise were he to watch a for-sale documentary about his life that contained a spelling error in the first ten minutes.

It’s telling that the film’s title comes from a banner taped across the head of Thompson’s word processor, which read, “Animals, Whores, Dialogue, Electricity.”  Wayne Ewing’s latest documentary has the first three elements in spades, but lacks the last ingredient, the key ingredient.  Breakfast with Hunter: Volume Two doesn’t have the energy, passion or care of the original, and I think Thompson deserves better.