The International Writers Magazine: REVIEW of Wayne Ewing's
Documentary on PBS
GOES TO THE MOVIES
In Praise of "Breakfast With Hunter"
On the eve of a celebration for his greatest literary
achievement thrown by the glitz of New Yorks publishing elite,
the infamous outlaw journalist shuffles into the enormous Manhattan
offices of the once hippy magazine turned multi-million dollar periodical
empire, partly on the back of his work. Gripping a bouquet of freshly
picked flowers in one hand and his obligatory glass of Chivas Regal
and ice rattling in the other, he passes several large board rooms and
fancy offices, mumbling despondently to himself about "a fucking
rats maze". Followed nervously by a young assistant he decides,
with a fair amount of impish glee, to grab an absently placed fire extinguisher
from the corner of the hallway and brandish it menacingly at a secretary.
Blasting her with it, he proceeds, chuckling madly, into the publishing
moguls office and covers it, and the nattily attired mogul with
the misty foam.
"You bastard!" the mogul screams, leaping up from his seat,
phone in hand. "Its not too late to cancel this party. Youre
banned! Youre banned!"
The outlaw scribe is none other than the venerable, Doctor Hunter Stockton
Thompson, Father of Gonzo Journalism, (bastard offspring of the once
lofty, New Journalism), and his victim is Rolling Stone magazines
founder, Jan Wenner. The year is 1996, the 25th anniversary of Thompsons
groundbreaking "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas" and the
scene appears in living color in a compelling documentary just out on
DVD aptly entitled, "Breakfast with Hunter".
Although the scenario is all-too-familiar to fans of the author for
whom lifestyle has sometimes unfairly dwarfed his revolutionary literary
efforts, it is not nearly the bulk of 55 year-old filmmaker Wayne Ewings
engaging cinéma vérité. In fact, for the first
time what I consider to be the finest living American writer alongside
Kurt Vonnegut is portrayed with due respect and enviable insight, a
serious portrait dedicated to the very inspiration of Thompsons
best work, his own extremely fascinating life.
A telling quote by Thompson in the film speaks to the delicate balance
of the madness in his method. When confronted with his inclusion in
a study entitled, "The Enigma of Personality" which refers
to the author as "a modern eccentric" and diagnoses his odd
behavior as "obsessive compulsive", Hunter muses, "Well,
when William Faulkner spoke of the will to write, he said 'a writer
will walk over his grandmother to get the book finished.' So welcome
to the club, Bubba." Ewings dead aim was to be fair to the
delicate balance without exploiting it, and "Breakfast With Hunter"
proves to be right on target.
"In a way it is difficult to be true and honest to Hunter,"
Ewing told me recently during a lengthy phone conversation from his
home in Aspen. "How do you define your audience right away when
there are a certain number of people out there who are looking for the
cliché, the cartoon character that has nothing to do with Hunter?
"Hunter is obviously a very interesting personality, but he is
primarily a writer and a great figure in American literature,"
Ewing continues. "My intent with the project was to present a homage
to that and not the usual stuff."
The "usual stuff" being the stream of legend and folklore
surrounding Thompsons exploits over decades of hard-living and
wild abandon, erratically covered in three unofficial biographies, two
feature films, various news clips, articles, and, admittedly, volumes
of the mans own work. However, beneath all the hyperbole attached
to Hunters high life there is a raucous plethora of damn good
writing. To its infinite credit, "Breakfast with Hunter" captures
the very essence of the soul who achieved it.
Ewing, a longtime documentary filmmaker, whose credits include films
for PBS "Frontline", NBC televisions "Gangs,
Cops, & Drugs" hosted by Tom Brokaw and an impressive list
of self-produced features, spent the last 15 years with Thompson on
and off; traveling alongside him, helping to edit manuscripts, and generally
hanging around the authors purported fortified compound called
Owl Farm. Gaining Thompsons confidence, a difficult endeavor since
the Doctor is normally cantankerous with outsiders he doesnt trust
implicitly - and by cantankerous one could mean being fired at with
an array of highly dangerous firearms or sent packing on the other end
of a swift kick to the rear - Ewing received unprecedented access to
his subjects life both public and private.
"In a sense, I became an instrument for this great ongoing experiment
in Gonzo journalism Hunter started over thirty years ago, and was able
to do what he has always wanted to do," notes Ewing. "Hunter
describes Gonzo as 'a reporter with the eye and mind of a camera' and
he has been literally obsessed with documenting what is going on around
The results are stunning. Ewing is right beside Hunter as he makes public
appearances, takes television interviews, hangs in hotels with actors
Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, hobnobs with fellow authors like the
late, great George Plimpton and friend, P.J. ORourke, and verbally
spars with doomed original director of "Fear & Loathing",
Alex Cox over what Thompson perceives will "turn one of the best
thing Ive ever written into a fucking cartoon joke".
The episode ends with a furious Thompson throwing them out of his house.
In each case the footage is unerringly, but grippingly too close for
comfort. "Its earning your stripes with Hunter," Ewing
points out. "It takes a long time to earn the kind of trust I needed
to complete a film like this. So for every night I filmed, there might
be 15 that I wouldnt, when I would just work on books with him
or hang out or watch ball games." It would seem Thompson finally
wanted to get the story straight. "Sure there would be a few times
when he didnt feel like doing anything," recalls Ewing. "But
more so, he would get upset with me because I wasnt filming. I
seemed to get him going in terms of getting ideas and writing, the idea
that something important is happening right then."
Few subjects as mercurial and mysterious, not to mention as important
to the landscape of American literary subculture, have ever been covered
so completely and directly. Ewing even manages to trump his hero and
inspiration, D.A. Pennebaker, whose signature masterpiece, "Dont
Look Back" about a young Bob Dylan touring Britain in the mid-60s
still fails to completely unveil the Dylan myth. You get the feeling
throughout that Dylan is playing a part, rarely letting his guard down,
even during more intimate moments. No such problem with "Breakfast
with Hunter". The fact that Thompsons dozen or so books and
hundreds of articles have been as much an influence on my professional
endeavors as anyone, it was easy to love Ewings film for its honesty.
Having spoken with Hunter on several occasions as not only a reader
and a fellow journalist, wherein the length and breath of the legend
roared, but a published author, wherein a more serious encounter ensued,
it was a pleasure to see both sides portrayed in such close detail.
Highlights of "Breakfast with Hunter" include a running storyline
throughout of Thompson defending himself against what he feels is a
bogus DUI charge, wherein the evidence reveals the arresting officer
lied under oath, a disturbingly heart-warming discussion between the
author and his esteemed partner in artistic Gonzo rendering, Ralph Steadman,
an insightful tribute written and read by Thompsons son, Juan,
and one dramatically framed scene in which Hunter reads a prescient
excerpt from what I deem his journalistic tour de force, "Fear
& Loathing on the Campaign Trail 72".
Ewing reflects, "So often for a documentary filmmaker, the real
magic comes out of the moments when you didnt do anything to plan
it." A long time in coming, "Breakfast with Hunter" is
a fitting tribute to the rarest of magical visions, the manifestation
of a fertile mind and a wild heart framed for posterity.
© James Campion April 2004
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