Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Buffalo Will Roam -- 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, although there are 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 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 is 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 true-to-life encounter with him... and they talk football. The most powerful man in the country and the clown reporter chat about 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 are on the soundtrack. But the film has something else on its mind. Thompson's dolled up at the end in the costume that got him the farthest, a suit and a tie and hair slicked back, and he's gotten into the innermost bowels of power.

And it's a men's room.

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

Thompson's Rolling Stone article circles around whether it's Hunter's fault or everyone else's. Not even Hunter can control the beast. And he's left on a runway, the wind mussing his tie, no more umbrella in his glass, standing alone.

The movie may suggest he'll go on 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'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 screw things up.

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 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 hero Woodstein. 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 produce The Untouchables, Dick Tracy and Fight Club among a respectable array of films. Hunter S. Thompson stopped his own presses in 2005.

As a comedy, the film isn't really that funny. But it's a great treatment of being trapped as a counter-cultural icon, before anyone involved quite knew what kind of prison that was.

Not funny at all.

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