“Breakfast With Hunter” Review

Aquarian Weekly 4/7/04 REALITY CHECK

GONZO GOES TO THE MOVIES In Praise of “Breakfast With Hunter”

Hunter S. ThompsonOn the eve of a celebration for his greatest literary achievement thrown by the glitz of New York’s 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 rat’s 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 mogul’s 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. “It’s not too late to cancel this party. You’re banned! You’re 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 magazine’s founder, Jan Wenner. The year is 1996, the 25th anniversary of Thompson’s 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 Ewing’s 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 Thompson’s 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.”

Ewing’s 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 Thompson’s 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 man’s own work. However, beneath all the hyperbole attached to Hunter’s 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 television’s “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 author’s purported fortified compound called Owl Farm. Gaining Thompson’s confidence, a difficult endeavor since the Doctor is normally cantankerous with outsiders he doesn’t 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 subject’s life both public and private.

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.

“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 him.”

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. O’Rourke, and verbally spars with doomed original director of “Fear & Loathing”, Alex Cox over what Thompson perceives will “turn one of the best thing I’ve 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.

“It’s 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 wouldn’t, 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 didn’t feel like doing anything,” recalls Ewing. “But more so, he would get upset with me because I wasn’t 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, “Don’t 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”.

Despite the fact that Thompson’s 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 Ewing’s 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 Thompson’s 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 didn’t 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.

For more on the film visit: Breakfast With Hunter

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