Thursday, August 05, 2004

Breakfast with Hunter

In 1971, anybody who thought Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would still be in print 33 years later probably would have been declared a fool or a lunatic. But it is. And in three decades, it’s one of two books I’ve read and re-read over and over again, maybe a dozen times. (The other is Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, but that’s another story.) Twelve books later, Vegas remains Thompson’s high-water mark. So it’s no surprise that much of Wayne Ewing’s 91-minute 2003 documentary, Breakfast with Hunter, deals in some way with that “savage journey to the Heart of the American Dream.”

This is no voiceover-narrative, talking-heads, A&E “Biography.” Breakfast with Hunter follows the great doctor of gonzo journalism here, there, and back again without the director’s meddling. We’re taken to the Viper Room in L.A., where Thompson, joined by actors Johnny Depp and John Cusack, presides over one of his infamous give-and-take sessions with an audience. Then we’re whisked inside the heavily fortified walls of Hunter’s Owl Farm near Aspen, Colorado, the shriek of peacocks punctuating all conversation. We’re invited to a birthday party for former presidential candidate George McGovern in Washington, D.C. We attend a 25th anniversary celebration of Fear and Loathing, hosted by Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner and attended by journalists P.J. O’Rourke and George Plimpton. The film assumes familiarity with Hunter’s work, which may be its only shortcoming, but for us fans, this is a fascinating, once-in-a-lifetime glimpse into Thompson’s life.

But as I said, the center of the movie is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — both the book and the movie that finally sprung from it in 1998, directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro. The development of that movie was troubled for many years by false starts and ongoing angst, and an absolutely astonishing, 12-minute segment of Ewing’s documentary shows one reason why. The scene is as compelling as those eye-averting Mondo Cane films from the early ’60s. It depicts a meeting at Owl Farm between Hunter and the original team assigned to the Fear and Loathing project — director/screenwriter Alex Cox (whose Repo Man is one of the seminal punk films of the ’80s) and scripter Tod Davies. What begins with warm greetings quickly erupts into terror when the pair from Hollywood pitches an idea to use cartoon animation, based on the book’s famous Ralph Steadman drawings, for key scenes in the film. Hunter turns angrily on the two like a cornered wolverine, snarling and snapping obscenities, eventually banishing them from his home. Davies is left in tears, and both she and Cox are fired. It’s a powerful cinema verite moment upon which Ewing’s documentary revolves. You won’t forget it. Ever.

Until now, Breakfast with Hunter had been screened only sporadically at film festivals. But Wayne Ewing has independently released a phenomenal DVD of the movie. Besides the film, the DVD provides audio commentary by both Hunter and director Ewing, plus 45 minutes of extras, including Thompson writing song lyrics with the late Warren Zevon, unused footage of Hunter editing his novel The Rum Diary, and discussions about journalism and drugs with Hunter and P.J. O’Rourke. Amusingly, the DVD even offers English subtitles that can be accessed for viewers having difficulty fully translating Hunter’s notorious, guttural mutter.

The DVD is required viewing for Hunter S. Thompson devotees. You can order it directly from the producers’ website.


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