As a fledgling young journalist in the late 1970s, I often labored under the shadow of Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson had recently goosed the profession by replacing the notion of objective distance with subjective indulgence, injecting every story he was assigned with a drug-fueled midnight ramble that may or may not have provided relevant subtext, but was always a fun read. It left a lot of us wondering if we were saps for not tackling the fear and loathing in our local city council meetings, and cowards for not gobbling acid and scotch while on the job.
Hunter S. Thompson became a counter-culture icon, the closest thing journalism had to a rock star. But even the counter culture wasn't quite sure what to do with him. Thompson was always older and balder than the hippies, and with his fondness for sports, guns and Chivas on the rocks he could have held court in any country club he wanted. But there's no getting around Thompson being an occasionally breathtaking writer and a genuinely dedicated trouble-maker. He may not be responsible for every wretched attempt to imitate him, but he has been a willing promoter of his own legend. So he made himself available to filmmaker Wayne Ewing between the years of 1996 and 1998 and the resulting documentary "Breakfast With Hunter" is now available on DVD.
Now here's the rub. If you don't really know who Hunter S. Thompson is, this documentary is virtually unintelligible. If you're a fan of Hunter S. Thompson, you may start to wonder why. Ewing is dangerously enamored by his access to Thompson and appears to think his rare footage will speak for itself. He has pursued a documentary without a point of view, without a narrative, without context, without discretion, passion or curiosity, and one begins to suspect without an editor. It may well be the laziest documentary I have ever seen. At a time when documentaries are brimming with drama and entertainment this is as criminal as drunk driving. Which, it turns out, could have provided a decent thread for the film. Ewing opens with a court case in Thompson's home town of Aspen, Colorado where Hunter claims the sheriff is railroading him on trumped up DUI charges. After all these years do the Fat Cats still fear and loathe our legendary non-conformist? Who knows. Breakfast With Hunter never follows up with the case, though it does gleefully capture Thompson driving through Hollywood with a glass of scotch on the rocks.
There are events surrounding the 25th Anniversary of the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the simultaneous attempt to bring the book to the screen. The documentary captures Thompson berating would be director Alex Cox for wanting to animate a sequence of Fear and Loathing, but we donít know how Hunter's pejorative use of the word "cartoon" plays with his longtime illustrator Ralph Steadman, or the film's eventual director, Terry Gilliam. We do get to see a lot of people hanging out with Hunter, including Johnny Depp, Benecio del Toro and John Cusak, but they offer little beyond a sheepish celebrity.
If you dig long enough through the rubbish you will find in the DVD special features some segments of P.J. O'Rourke interviewing Thompson in Hunter's cluttered Aspen study. Suddenly here is Thompson talking about writing with a respected peer. In five minutes OíRourke puts more meat on Hunter S. Thompson than the preceding 91 minutes of unfiltered cinema verite. Ironically Thompson still works as a character and a cartoon, and perhaps even as a writer. It's a wonder he's still alive and terrifically nostalgic how little he's changed. But the only thing established by "Breakfast With Hunter" is that you need more than a fascinating subject to make a documentary.
© 2004 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 7/28/04
Breakfast With Hunter
USA - 2003