Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Buffalo Will Roam Because That's What They Do

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 Lacosta. You may know Lacosta 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 work. As it is, this first version of history is instructive and inadvertently much more transgressive than Gilliam's strangely conservative take, often 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 had 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 we'd figure out we wanted him 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 loose-limbed performance Johnny Depp would channel in Terry 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 is going one way while Hunter tries to pull him in another. Lazlo gets increasingly out of his lane while Thompson, determined to bring down his man (Nixon), gets closer to the white-tiled corridors of power, with antic stops along the way.

The Buffalo is the metaphor of chaos HST is fighting. He's more radical than the radicals he's representing, while meanwhile, Thompson screams in phones, gooses women, drinks with apparent ill effect, shoots guns, slips drugs to straights. It's all slapstick background to his real goal, which may be to get a story, or to simply be in one as exciting as those he's covering.

And Linson in 1980 pulls it all off with a gleeful incorrectness. Gilliam's version, 10 years later and a bit behind the curve, seems too anxiously guilty to embrace Thompson's true fuck-all nature, too reverential and careful, ultimately a buzzkill even as it falls head first into the surreal neon of CGI hallucinations. Oh, if only Alex Cox had stayed on.

Spoiler alert. Near the end, art following life, HST finally comes face to face with Nixon on the campaign trail, anticlimactically at the next urinal in a men's room. Apparently based on HST's only encounter with him... and they talk about football. The most powerful man in the country and the clown reporter chat over gladiator sports. The scene both undermines and raises both men, and journalism and politics, to the level of inscrutable myth.

The film feels grungy. Noisy Neil Young (remember that period?) and Jimi Hendrix pop up on the soundtrack. But the film has something else on its mind. Thompson is dolled up at the end in the costume that gets him the farthest, a suit and a tie (hair slicked back), and he's gotten into the innermost bowels of power.

And it's a men's room.

His triumph remains ephemeral. Thompson standing on a lone airstrip at the end tries to convey to the Buffalo there's still work to be done, but Lazlo is onto another journey, jumping on a mystery plane to go to some jungle to fight a mystery rebellion. He disappears, having (literally) lost the map, unable to come to his, or Hunter's, senses.

Thompson's RS article circles around whether it's Hunter's fault or everyone else's. Not even Hunter controls this beast. And he's left on a runway, the wind mussing his tie, no umbrella in his glass. Standing alone, the movie may suggest he'll go it alone, keep fighting the good fight.

But reading it differently (and now that we know Thompson drank himself into obsolescence, and in an era where journalism is more embattled than busman's folly), in that 3-piece Thompson's been co-opted. It's as if he says, "I'm crazy, but I'm not that that crazy." He's been tamed, trapped by his need to get inside -- and his own inability to break the rules that really matter.

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

The film, confused and compelling as it is, both holds up Thompson as a figure of anarchic fun and yet also damns those who don'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 hero Woodstein. It was a cinematic footnote because of those Motown and Hendrix tracks (and possibly Murray's singing of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds"). Now resurfaced.

Linson directed one other film, The Wild Life in 1984, the Cameron Crowe script post Ridgemont High, and would go on to produce The Untouchables, Dick Tracy and Fight Club among a respectable array of films. Hunter S. Thompson stopped his own presses in 2005.

The film isn't that funny. But it's a pretty great treatment of what it's like to be trapped as a counter-cultural icon, before anyone involved quite knew what that meant.

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.