Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Buffalo Will Roam Because They Have No Where Else To Go

We miss Hunter S. Thompson more than ever recently. His journalistic viewpoint aside, his character is as large and as imposing as any on the political landscape, although it's generally considered he deteriorated into a sideshow (back into a sideshow?) after Nixon's fall from grace, which he took partial credit for.

Shout Factory has just released Art Linson's 1980's "Where The Buffalo Roam" on blu-ray,  previously MIA in its original form because of some troublesome music rights that couldn't get cleared until now.

It's Hollywood's first foray into codifying Thompson's unique brand of journalistic anarchy, a vein with a rich history in movies I've written about before. Newspaper writers are outsiders, colorful, generally "good guys" and tend to find themselves in the middle of the action. Without having to shoot anybody.

The film is loosely based on his article in Rolling Stone ("The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat" in 1977) about the disappearance of his friend/lawyer/partner in crime Oscar Acosta. You may know Acosta by Benicio Del Toro's depiction in Gilliam's Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. I think this article was about the time in which Hunter became unreadable to me. At this point he'd become Hunter-exclamation-point (trademark pending) and was more concerned with playing the brand cashing the checks than in adding to his written legacy. Nothing wrong with the Examiner column work. I just like his earlier funnier films. As it is, this first version of history is instructive and on its face much more transgressive than Gilliam's strangely conservative take, and is poking down at HST himself as the asshole he really is. And he was listed as a consultant.

It's the first directorial effort of Art Linson, who previously produced rock'n'roll stalwarts as Car Wash and American Hot Wax, and starred Bill Murray, still not sure what he wanted to do with his SNL fame (this just before Meatballs and Stripes). Later he'd figure out he wanted to be in Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch movies.

The film rides the supposed anti-establishment charm of HST and a weird Nixon nostalgia, produced forebodingly at the beginning of the Reagan era. It ends up, accidentally, as a paean to a mode of press coverage we didn't know we'd never see again.

And it's packaged as a buddy film. Murray gives a coked-up Snagglepuss performance that Johnny Depp would channel in Gilliam's Fear and Loathing, hanging, fighting and increasingly focused on the yin-yang of his relationship with Lazlo (the "Buffalo"). As in any good buddy film, Peter Boyle (as Lazlo) goes one way while Hunter tries to pull him in another. Lazlo veers increasingly out of his lane while Thompson, determined to bring down his man (Nixon), gets closer to the white-tiled corridors of power, with many antic stops along the way.

The Buffalo is the metaphor of chaos HST is either siding with or fighting. Lazlo's more radical than the radicals he's representing, while meanwhile, Thompson screams at phones, breaks statues, drinks with apparent ill effect, shoots guns, gives his press credentials to total strangers, slips drugs to straights. It's all slapstick background to his real goal, which is to get a story, or simply, to be in one more exciting than the one he's assigned to cover.

And Linson in 1980 pulls it all off with straight-faced incorrectness. Gilliam's version, 10 years later and behind the curve, seems too reverential to really embrace Thompson's true thuggish nature, too anxious and guilty, even as it falls head first into the shiny neon of CGI hallucinations. If only Alex Cox had stayed on the project.

Linson is just happy he got Bill Murray. He should be. It's a velvet-smooth performance, a barrel-aged sing-song Venkman, deeply flawed with his insecurities completely under the waterline. He's a crooked top that seems to gain momentum with each careen off the bumpers of authority.

Spoiler alert. Near the end, HST finally comes face to face with Nixon on the campaign trail, at a urinal in a men's room. Apparently based on HST's single true-to-life encounter with Nixon, the most powerful man in the country and the clown reporter make small talk. Thompson, having appropriated the credentials of another reporter ("Harris from the Post") strips down while he talks. People in this world are either doomed or "screwheads." Is this an existential identity crisis? The scene both belittles and raises both men, and beat journalism and high-stakes politics, to the level of inscrutable metaphor and myth.

The film is busy and sloppy. Neil Young from his grunge period and Jimi Hendrix pepper the soundtrack. But the film is trying to get at something. The final scene has Thompson's wearing the disguise that got him the farthest, the suit and tie in his Harris persona (and hair slicked back), having gotten closer to the innermost bowels of power he ever has. And it was a men's room.

His triumph is ephemeral. Thompson ends up standing on a lone airstrip, pleading with his gonzo friend Lazlo, trying to talk sense into him. But the Buffalo is onto another journey, heading for a far-off jungle to fight another vague rebellion. This time he'll disappear for good, having (literally) lost the map, unable to agree with Hunter.

Who would? Thompson's original article insisted Acosta was the crazy one. Not even Hunter could control the buffalo. And he's left alone on a runway, the wind mussing his tie, fire extinguisher foam staining his ill-fitting suit.

The movie suggests he'll go on fighting the good fight. But reading it differently (and now we know Thompson drank himself into obsolescence, and in an era where journalism is more embattled than busman's folly), in that 3-piece suit, Thompson's been co-opted. It's as if he's realized, "I'm crazy, but I'm not that that crazy." He's been tamed, trapped by his appetite to get inside -- and his own inability to break the rules that really matter. That really meant something.

Thompson's childhood pranks are just that, adolescent, sexless and ultimately inconsequential.

The film, loose-limbed and compelling as it is, both holds up Thompson as a figure of anarchic fun and damns him as someone who doesn't have the conviction to, maybe, be crazy enough.

The film didn't do well when it first came out. No one knew what to make of it, or Murray, and Hunter Thompson was no Woodstein hero figure. A cinematic footnote because of those Motown and Hendrix tracks (and possibly Murray's singing of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds"), now resurfaces 35 years later, a completely different kind of history lesson.

Linson directed one other film, The Wild Life, Cameron Crowe's follow-up to Ridgemont High, and would produce The Untouchables, Dick Tracy and Fight Club among a respectable array of films. Hunter S. Thompson stopped his own presses in 2005. Bill Murray reportedly bad-mouthed the film too, even though it may be his best sustained performance.

As a comedy, it's a bit of a failure. It's one of those films that are only funny the third time you see it like Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's really a drama, with funny people in it. Now it has the unexpected subtext of showing the downside of being a counter-cultural icon, before anyone involved quite knew what kind of prison that could be.

No wonder Thompson didn't like it. He saw his own future, even if wasn't really playing himself.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Fellini In Order

I haven't been able to find anything worth watching on Netflix lately. All old shows and flashy fake sitcoms.

Amazon Prime's selection, beyond the darts at a more meaningful new internet TV, is a disaster. They even took off Take This Job And Shove It last year.

So for the last month or so I've been watching old stuff again, like I've been promising myself for years. My own personal film festival.

I always told myself I should really revisit was Fellini's oeuvre; I'd seen maybe half of them over the years, out of order of course and mostly the classic middle period. Some of the early neo-realist ones eluded me and most of the tired later films never made it to my attention.

He directed a couple dozen films along with a handful of shorts; not insurmountable to get through the entire list. Most all are easily available at the local video store if you have one. The local video store without a Fellini section isn't in business anymore anyway. And if you have to, there are streaming options.

To follow an artist with such a signature personality and outlook as Federico is to newly understand his development as if it were preordained. His work breaks down into 3 distinct phases. The neo-realist/rural vs. urban cautionary tales, going from Variety Lights (1951) to La Dolce Vita (1960), is the first, where his characters are invariably diminished in social stature while aiming at something much larger and likely impossible to attain, whether it be fame, understanding of a spouse, to simple grace. La Strada (1954) is the closest to a parable outlining his concept, highlighting what people do what they do, even if they don't know they're doing it.

This is the meat and the heart of Fellini's stature, the awards and the international recognition. The second phase begins under what must have been the crushing fame and existential crisis first hinted at in La Dolce Vita. In his first entry post that glorious signature bummer, "The Temptation of Dr. Antonio" in the portmanteau film Boccaccio '70 (1962) he's magically developed (perhaps helped by access to more money) the baroque camera moves and surreal design sense that not only defies narrative but, somehow, will soon become it. Nothing can be taken literally anymore.

The fragmented and fanciful episodes of 8 1/2 (1963) and Juliet of the Spirits (1965) are better served embodied in his larger historical epics. Both the hippie Fellini Satyricon (1969) and Fellini's Casanova (1976) (both using the possessive in the title, not an accident) are parables and have little to do with history as much as Fellini's own personal artistic crises. The title "Fellini Satyricon" places the creator on equal footing as the source work, while "Fellini's Casanova" reasserts the fact that both these works, actually age-old classics, were more known by their authors ("Have your read your Petronius today?") until being appropriated and re-authored by the new maestro.

A film near the end of this cycle, Fellini's Roma (1972) (that possessive again), highlights the friction he's exploring with narrative from the other side of history. He's taking on the documentary form full-face, and, starting with the film-maker as character in 8 1/2 through A Director's Notebook (1969), a behind-the-scenes film for television, Fellini has moved off graceless savages and is increasingly interested in how film itself constructs story. Even a story presumably "autobiographical" and true.

Since La Dolce Vita with a journalist at its heart, to 8 1/2 which treats film-making as existential burden, to his short in 1968's Spirits of the Dead, about a decadent actor who sells his soul to get out of the business (and of life), Fellini investigates how a film tells lies about itself. "I'm a born liar." Roma is Satyricon's good twin, not really about Rome, and not really a documentary. It's self-consciously staged, and includes a character called Federico Fellini who's the director of the film you're watching, played by Fellini himself.

How meta can you get? The process doesn't seem to matter anymore. Casanova is arguably the most lush, decadent, personally depressed treatment to assert that the "artiste" is no longer happy when he does it too long. Whatever "it" may be.

This middle period is soaked with self-disdain, a surprising lack of fun (in spite of the antics of 8 1/2's circle-of-life finish, which in retrospect seems forced and half-hearted, I'm now reminded, by ending on a minor key with that out-of-tune rag-tag band as the light fades).

Was it the money? The girls? The drink? Film-making used to be so much more fun when people (and the producers) weren't paying so much attention.

The last period goes from Orchestra Rehearsal (1978) to the final The Voice of the Moon (1990). The budgets are shrinking, the triumph of Amarcord (1973) had been waterlogged by the failure of Casanova, and his themes seem less relevant, playing in minor keys with limited aspirations. Had Fellini taken the criticism of extravagance and arrogance to heart? Amarcord certainly seems like a mature and measured melting of what we liked before, the perfect marriage of La Dolce Vita and Roma without the crazy bits, his nostalgic Limelight.

But -- Chaplin didn't stop making movies either. City of Women (1980) reads as a weak-wristed swipe at feminism by a provincial misogynist who's not sure he wants to change his ways, and his takes on television, both Orchestra and Ginger and Fred (1986), are grumpy and begrudging, considering it was TV money that got them funded in the first place.

The familiar playfulness with the documentary format reaches its naked apogee with Intervista (1987) which adds Fellini's nostalgia about being "Fellini" (trademark) with awkward cameos of Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, wishing they were younger, in a film that makes you wish they were, too.

I found it astounding how many of Fellini's themes persist through his 40-year career, many present from the beginning. The mode of attack and resources at his disposal change dramatically after the success of La Dolce Vita and then 10 years later with Casanova's failure. Yet you can watch a film from the mid '50s and see its echo in the '80s. He continually shows a curiosity about people, a gentle hand against questionable behavior, a willingness to explore how art can reveal the heart of the most ugly character.

In all of them, Fellini "hates the sin but loves the sinner." And not one of these felt a chore to sit through. Okay, maybe The Clowns (1970). I don't get the clown thing. I'm not sure he got to the heart of it, either.

It's a misconception Fellini was obsessed with clowns. This isn't his statement on something we've seen his entire career. There's a thin layer of grotesquerie, really a showman's distraction, and side characters with too much make-up and funny hair inserted for effect, all with an underlying threat of artistic anarchy.

Maybe that was his point the whole time. I took it too literally. I should watch it again.