Wheaties aren't exactly what Judge Bill Gibron thinks of as the breakfast of champions. He'll take cold pizza and a Bloody Mary, thank you.
"Buy the ticket, take the ride."—Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
There are many facets to the life and personality of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson that most people aren't aware of. When they think of the maverick mutant, a demented genius who helped shape modern journalism with his gonzo reporting style, they automatically begin free-associating on drugs, drink, and Raoul Duke (his literary, and Doonesbury, equivalent). Few have had a chance to view Thompson's personal life, his close family, or bevy of devoted friends. He is a staunch activist, fighting for the legal, civil, and social rights of all people. He is a proud protector of the written word—especially his own—and loves to hear his own passages read aloud back to him. A dedicated animal lover, unrepentant gun nut, and all around wealth of weird and wacky information, Thompson also represents one of the few certifiable legendary figures in modern literature, a creator of pristine prose marbled with surrealistic imagery and philosophical thoughtfulness. His influence is as monumental as it is unrelenting.
With both Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Thompson chronicled the death of the 1960s and the foundation for Watergate, as he transformed the correspondent into a witness—an opinionated pawn hopelessly intertwined with the story he was telling. Still, many people consider him a raving loon, one of the many drug culture casualties (like Brian Wilson and Timothy Leary) whose creative impact is the last remaining component of their current relevance. But this ideal is really a load of horseshit. Thompson is as vital now as he ever was, that rarity in today's total conformity society: an atypical, eccentric original, a tumultuous, titanic reflection of the life and times he grew up in and eventually influenced for all future generations. Thompson is the freethinking, questioning spirit of a population that once challenged its government instead of championing it. And it's time for his brilliance to be embraced, not shrugged off.
Wayne Ewing's bold, beautiful documentary Breakfast with Hunter is one of the most fascinating and satisfying looks at an author and his personal legacy ever crafted for the motion picture screen. Representing unlimited access to the known recluse (Thompson's not J.D. Salinger for Christ's sake, but he does tend to hole up in his "heavily fortified" Owl Ranch compound, a "mountain" to which so many Mohammeds must make pilgrimage), and focusing on a particularly volatile period of events in the late '90s (an arrest for DUI, the pre-production on a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas movie adaptation, a 25th anniversary celebration of said work), this fact-filled free-for-all is part biography and part cinema vérité trek through the mental minefields of one of literature's most enigmatic men.
As events unfold, we are inside the selective circle of this American symbol, this logo to life lived in pursuit of experience and enlightenment. There is not a great deal of personal history handed out, though. What we learn is hidden in between recollections, toasts, tributes, handshakes, Q&As, mumbled asides, and inebriated celebrations. Drugs and liquor become characters in the cavalcade, and readings from Thompson's work seem to directly comment on his emotions and interpersonal relationships. Archival material is kept to a minimum (we do witness a British television segment on Thompson's bid to be elected sheriff of Aspen during a 1970 run for public office as a member of the Freak party), allowing us to see Hunter as the sum total of more than just the specifically scandalous slices of his occasionally tortured, tabloid existence. As the court case draws to a close and the movie production heats up, Breakfast with Hunter moves from tribute to tribulation mode as we see the struggles Thompson faces, both with his past and with the issues of the present, to maintain the integrity and ethics of his work. Though the interviews and speeches are nice, it's the instances where real life makes a gangbuster's presence that truly ignites Breakfast with Hunter, turning it into a brilliant window into the world of an artist at odds with the forces of frivolity around him.
Perhaps the single most sensational moment in Breakfast with Hunter, especially for us film fans, is a wonderfully confrontational meeting between Thompson and the original creative team behind the film version of his classic work Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Fans of the Terry Gilliam-helmed Johnny Depp / Benicio Del Toro tour de force, as well as individuals who own Criterion's crackerjack release of the title, will marvel at the strange, self-destructive argument that arises between original director Alex Cox, co-screenwriter Tod Davies, and Hunter. What starts as a minor discussion about a key moment in the film (an interpretation of the famous "wave" speech) turns vindictive and spiteful, as Thompson challenges the creative team's vision of what is, perhaps, the single most telling statement about the end of the peace generation that's ever been committed to paper. While not spoiling the subject matter involved in the irate debate, Thompson, Cox, and Davies cannot seem to find common ground between an author's integrity, a contributor's artistic input (said provider being original F&L cartoonist Ralph Steadman), and a desire to destroy the context of a classic literary moment. Each side has a point (though Hunter's is the most persuasive and decisive). but Cox and Davies will not give in. Even as the camera captures this rare bit of career suicide on the part of the Sid and Nancy / Repo Man's director, the level of animosity and ego rises. In the end, Hunter warns the Hollywood hacks to watch their step. They've past "1" and are well into "2." They do not want to make it to "3." And with those words, the moviemakers abandon the Owl Ranch (and we later learn, the entire project as well).
In a movie filled with many magical, manic highlights, this key quarrel illustrates what is so special and exasperating about Thompson. He's hopelessly tied to his principles, a man married to the words he has written and the meaning they have had for eons of readers. He does not tolerate fools readily, but can be swayed by well-crafted, reasoned arguments. He is not stubborn so much as filled with foresight, knowing how bad or good an idea seems through a combination of intelligence, experience, and pure personal instinct. This is the lasting legacy in Breakfast with Hunter, a chance to see the man behind the madness, the real human being as he deals with the "immortality" he'll eventually leave behind.
A perfect companion piece to Criterion's 2003 release of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Wayne Ewing Films's magnificent DVD of Breakfast with Hunter is filled with its own creative carnival of visual, audio and delectable bonus materials. On the sound and vision side, this must-own film is breathtaking. The 1.33:1 full screen image is razor sharp, giving us a sense of reality and authenticity that some direct-from-digital video transfers miss. Colors are crisp and details are so vivid we can practically smell the scotch and cigarettes constantly consumed by Hunter and those around him. On the aural side, Ewing and Wayne Ewing Films do an amazing thing. Since Thompson is a rapid-fire wit, tossing out words in such speedy succession that he's practically developed his own dialect, subtitles are offered to decipher his dialogue. Even with a crystalline Dolby Digital Stereo soundtrack with easily understandable elements, the addition of a Thompson "translation" adds a magnificent dimension to the DVD.
As does the wealth of bonus material. Thompson can only tolerate about 30 minutes of narrative interaction before he begs out of the commentary, but while he is there, he is incredibly insightful and prosaic about the praise heaped on his head. Joining director Wayne Ewing in dissecting the discussion of his life, Hunter is a genial—if occasionally irritated—host. You can hear the proud papa in his voice whenever son Juan is onscreen, and he truly loves to hear people read his words (he responds in the alternative track even as his recorded image does so on screen). When Ewing goes it alone, you can tell he feels a need to apologize for and explain Thompson to those unfamiliar with him. While sparse at times, this commentary track is one of the disc's excellent contextual highlights, and adds a great deal to our understanding of the influence and importance of Thompson as a literary figure.
Equally enthralling are the various featurettes, minor moments that play like planned outtakes from the film, each given their own, individual importance. We hear Hunter's idea of a "sex" story, the carnal cat in the hat called Screwjack (as read by writer P.J. O'Rourke and Don Johnson). O'Rourke also questions Thompson on his ideas regarding the term gonzo, his influence on reporting, and the truth behind Oscar Acosta's "disappearance." Warren Zevon stops by to talk to Hunter about some pseudo-scandalous lyrics the good Doctor has contributed to the quirky songwriter. And we witness Thompson hard at work on two future volumes of his writing, 1999's The Rum Diary (a novel!) and 2000's Fear and Loathing in America (a collection of letters from '68 to '76). In combination with the film itself, these all form a fascinating first person glimpse into the life and career of the mythical, magical man.
There is no great ambiguity to Thompson's take on existence. From the excitement of a well-aged shot of scotch, to the wistful nostalgia of the prescience of the past, this is a man who lived life to its fullest, secluded in his wealth of friends and comforted by the words he crafted. Breakfast with Hunter is a stellar work, a glimpse inside a complicated, confounding figure who just may be the last important writer of the 20th century. The fact that he can occasionally be mad as a hatter is beside the point. After all, what better way to describe a literary legend than by comparing him to one of fiction's greatest icons? Only question is—which one's which, and who's the more complimented?
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