Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Buffalo Roam

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 columns. I just like his earlier funnier work. 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 "screwheads" or doomed. 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. Grunge-period Neil Young 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 (hair all slicked back), having gotten closer to the innermost bowels of power he ever has before. And that's in a goddamn 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. 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 convince Hunter.

Who would? Thompson's original article insisted Acosta was the crazy one. No one could control the buffalo. And he's left alone on a runway, the wind swirling his tie and fire extinguisher foam spattered on his ill-fitting suit.

The movie suggests he goes 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 now more embattled than busman's folly), Thompson had been co-opted by that 3-piece suit. It's as if he's realized, "I'm crazy, but 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 didn't have the conviction to, maybe, be crazy enough. Don't worry, it's all an act.

The film didn't do well when it was released. No one knew what to make of it, or Murray. And Hunter Thompson was no popular Woodstein hero figure. A cinematic footnote because of some Motown tracks (and possibly Murray's singing a couple bars 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, 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 only get really 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 end up being.

No wonder Thompson didn't like it. He saw his own future, and it wasn't as playing himself.

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