Archive for July 2021

Fear and Loathing in Aspen

July 25, 2021

falis

They keep dredging up Hunter S. Thompson’s bones, even as the passage of time pegs him as a cautionary tale, an Icarus who flew too close to his own inner sun. This time his skeleton is being made to speak for a good cause, I guess — the importance of voting. Fear and Loathing in Aspen is a largely fictionalized and aimless account of Thompson’s run for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, in 1970. The story has been told before, in Thompson’s own “The Battle of Aspen” — his first Rolling Stone piece — and in last year’s documentary Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb. This microbudget docudrama can’t afford the star power or psychedelic imagery of previous HST cinema (Where the Buffalo Roam, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary), though it does one thing right; its mildly fuzzy-grainy look makes Aspen out as a homey idyll worth fighting for. (It was shot in Silverton, about four hours south of Aspen.)

Primarily a writer/director, the lead actor Jay Bulger bravely steps into Thompson’s Converse shoes, competing not only with those who went before (Depp, Murray) but with copious recordings of HST himself. Bulger does look the part, and he sets his body or jaw at querulous angles while his voice dips into Thompson’s gruff, rounded tones. It’s just that he isn’t tasked to move much beyond impersonation, and whatever Thompson feels about his quixotic run at the system — fear, loathing, hope, anything — remains a blank to us. His supporters seem to care more about whether he wins or loses than he does, and that puts a real damper on how much we care, especially if we remember the actual outcome. If there’s a larger story here, writer/director Bobby Kennedy III (yes, RFK’s grandson) doesn’t locate it.

The film is edited at a clip (it’s only an hour and twenty minutes plus end credits) but never really comes to rest. Too much of the narrative flips by as montage — Thompson gladhanding potential voters, the powers that be trying to squelch him — and only briefly settles down to spend time with Thompson or his family or his campaign manager (Amaryllis Fox, who is Kennedy’s wife). So the film leaves the impression that the events, which blur past, were more significant than the people involved. Thompson is always spouting rural, isolationist rhetoric (being able to drop a dookie in his own back yard seems important to him), but we don’t get a sense of what the place means to him. At some points he seems to be running just to spite the clownish cops. (Are there only two? What, if anything, do the other cops make of Thompson?) There doesn’t seem to be much at stake. A certain lack of focus is probably baked into any Hunter Thompson story, but in that case we need more than a tepidly reanimated Raoul Duke to hold our attention.

Fear and Loathing in Aspen isn’t terrible — in some ways it’s preferable to the SNL-level tomfoolery of Where the Buffalo Roam insofar as it tries to ground itself in some semblance of the real world — but it’s tough to recommend when Thompson’s own account is right there (it’s in his essential collection The Great Shark Hunt). The definitive aesthetic action painting of Thompson’s chaotic realm will likely remain Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which at least offered a surplus of bad trips (not all narcotic) for Gilliam to illustrate. This film doesn’t add to the HST tapestry of representation; Bulger tries, but lacks the inner wildness that Depp and Murray had. (Those two also had the advantage of hanging out with the real deal, something sadly denied future interpreters of Gonzo since 2005.) 

The final shots leave us with an image of Thompson outdoors grinning manically up at the clean sky, the savage beast restored to nature and soothed. This beast, this giant, is too untamed and pure for politics or society. Rejected by a majority of his fellow townspeople, he retreats into solitude, and from there, in real life, a prolonged slide into solipsism and self-parody. The family of man is decadent and depraved, Thompson seemed to conclude, and he withdrew in disgust (which, as Richard Linklater told us, is not the same as apathy). Meanwhile, as the movie has it, the corrupt sheriff stays in power and things, presumably, do not improve. There’s something sour and sad behind those last shots. The movie carries the inadvertent toxic message that voting doesn’t change anything, running for office doesn’t change anything, so you might as well get blitzed and shoot at things on your back acre for all the good anything’s going to do. Well, thanks.

Roadrunner

July 18, 2021

roadrunner

The suicide asks the world, “Why?” The question has levels: Why me? Why am I here? Why should I go on? And the suicide, most often, is answered by the same word with a different meaning: Why did you go? Why did you leave us? Why wasn’t I enough to save you? The messy but honorable documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain does its best work when it engages with all the whys — not only Bourdain’s final why (he took his own life in 2018) and the many whys of those who loved him, but the whys of Bourdain’s packed and perpetually in-motion life. 

A chef turned writer turned host of several food/travel shows, Bourdain seemed to mainline experiences as he once injected heroin. He was never one to err on the side of moderation. As much as we would have wanted a storybook ending for him — retiring to his beloved Vietnam, kicking back — that wasn’t in the cards for him. Director Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor) sits down with a bunch of Bourdain associates and friends, who all still seem raw about losing him. The narrative picks up around the time the spotlight landed on Bourdain — when his addictive tell-all Kitchen Confidential was published in 2000. From there Bourdain wandered into television, a medium he was not initially suited for.

At certain points one might feel a better title for the film would be Storyteller, since more than one person calls him that. But Roadrunner better matches up with the movie’s portrait of a man with an itchy foot. Bourdain was always running towards new worlds; he was also, we begin to sense, running away from himself. We might as well knock it out of the way now: I don’t blame Bourdain’s last lover, Asia Argento, for what he did, and I don’t think anyone who watches Roadrunner with a reasonable amount of attention could, either. Any attempt to make Argento the “why” of Bourdain’s ending runs contrary to his own ethos, his very soul. He knew nothing is that simple. This man who wrote about everything else, though, did not leave a note. He felt, perhaps, the act spoke for him.

By liberally seasoning the film with talking-heads footage of those who loved him — second wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, fellow chef Eric Ripert, many others — Neville avoids the trap of making a compilation of clips from all Bourdain’s shows, and Bourdain’s survivors help put him in context. He was generally miserable and dissatisfied with himself, which drove him to immerse himself without restraint in new passions, like jiu-jitsu — or Argento. After a while, the portrait takes shape: the profoundly sad implication is that some people aren’t meant to last — the old “light that burns twice as bright” adage — and that Bourdain escaped self-extinguishment in a few major ways (I still remember the New Zealand episode of No Reservations when an ATV flipped over onto him and, by some fool luck, he didn’t end right then and there) and in countless, everyday minor ways until it finally caught up with him. Bourdain, though, lasted long enough for millions — not just those he hung out with — to mourn him bitterly.

The big takeaway here, I think, is a brief bit when Bourdain sits across from Iggy Pop, who says that what still thrills him is being loved and appreciating that gift. Bourdain nods blankly, as if Iggy were talking about alien abduction. The entirety of the movie is in that opaque nod of incomprehension. Bourdain was stopped and praised wherever he walked in New York City and increasingly elsewhere in the world. It would have been balm for his ego, if not for the damage it did to his role as an observer and chronicler. Once he became the observed and chronicled, which on an elemental level he seemed to feel he didn’t deserve, it was only a matter of time. If you don’t feel worthy of adulation and random stranger affection, you don’t feel you belong in the world that lavishes it on you. And perhaps you act accordingly. Roadrunner shakes out not as a biography so much as an inquiry into grief.

Werewolves Within

July 11, 2021

werewolves

Something about Werewolves Within doesn’t sit right with me. It’s a horror-comedy, which often means that people and even dogs die and you’re not asked to care much, but even so, this is a glib and breezy affair. We may find ourselves asking why we care if the characters live, either. The script, by memoirist Mishna Wolff, based on a video game, hands the actors lumpy mouthfuls of dialogue that they mostly turn into sentences that sound like real people might say them.

The cast is likable and game; the lead, Sam Richardson, is a large and huggable bundle of neuroses and kindnesses. But most of the rest of the characters are annoying, stereotypes, or both. Wolff and director Josh Ruben betray a snide contempt for flyover country, although a well-to-do gay couple also take some abuse (more for being rich than for being gay; I suppose we must be thankful for small favors). After a longer-than-necessary set-up, Werewolves Within settles into a one-location whodunit, in which evidence mounts that a large animal is savaging men, dogs, and generators in the tiny mountain town of Beaverfield.

There’s already drama in the town over a guy who wants to run a pipeline through the area, waving big paychecks. Some refuse the money; some can’t afford to. The script largely separates anti-pipeliners and pro-pipeliners into elites and Trumpsters. Werewolves Within keeps flirting with the notion of a divided-America metaphor in the whodunit mode; Knives Out did it a lot better, or at least was more enjoyable. Rian Johnson believed in his characters more purely than I believe Ruben and Wolff do, and Johnson’s cast was having a ball with the things they got to say and do. This cast seems to be working against the script. Not to mention that big, gaping traumas both emotional and physical seem far too easily gotten over (lose a husband, lose a hand, keep on truckin’). And if I never again see the gag where someone talks in the middle of the road, oblivious to the large vehicle that’s about to flatten them, I’ll feel no pain.

The plot runs over with red herrings; we figure pretty much anybody could be the culprit. When one of the more annoying and inconsistent characters comes forward and seems to admit to everything, and another character snarks that it would be a disappointment if this person turned out to be the werewolf — well, that also applies to the actual culprit. About halfway through I felt the familiar chill in my belly telling me that I didn’t honestly care who the werewolf was and that I was wasting my time. The tone is just too offensively light; it plays like the pilot of a CW show that only lasts one season. Towards the finish, people keep lurching forward and seeming to reveal themselves. It’s all amiably meaningless.

There are any number of ways Werewolves Within could’ve been about something, could’ve worked its paranoia into a statement on mistrustful America. But it’s too hip for that, too ready to score points off of ignorant small-towners who just want to open a craft shop (okay) but are willing to murder for it (wait, what?). Maybe it shouldn’t have bothered with its shallow stabs at relevance — the little attempts at commentary (rural types love their guns and beer) make it always seem on the verge of satire.

Character work at the script level might’ve helped. Michaela Watkins is a force of nature, and it’s sad to watch her playing yet another braying yahoo. Milana Vayntrub might emerge with some new fans, even though the movie betrays her. Sam Richardson comes off best — unsurprising, as he’s one of the producers — but he deserves better, too. One minute his character is bleeding badly from a gut wound; not much later, he’s flinging heavy axes at a nemesis. It’d be cool if even horror-comedies about werewolves could at least acknowledge reality, how things like bodies and blood and grief work.

Summer of Soul

July 5, 2021

summer of soul

If you’ve been on the fence, for whatever reason, about catching Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul, I urge you to fall on the side of seeing it. It’s a guaranteed mood-lifter. Questlove’s achievement here goes far beyond what some might take to be “just a concert film.” The bulk of the film, under the direction of Hal Tulchin, is footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. The performers included Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The 5th Dimension, Nina Simone, and Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples in a duet that generates more power than you’ll find in any Marvel movie.

The Harlem Cultural Festival ran for six weekends in the summer of 1969, and Hal Tulchin shot it all. Then, despite Tulchin’s best efforts to sell it around as “the Black Woodstock,” the footage sat unseen on tapes in his basement for the next few decades. Questlove and his team unearthed it and whittled it down to two hours, with some interview space given to people who were there, either in the dense crowd or onstage. There isn’t a dud in any of the performances Questlove selected, and many of them do double duty as great music and as great human moments. You can see that all the artists know they’re a part of something major. “We were so happy to be there,” says a visibly moved Marilyn McCoo as she watches herself and the 5th Dimension finish a number.

It becomes an almost humorous motif: again and again we hear performers and audience members say they’d never seen that many Black people in one place before. You do see the occasional white face in the crowd (or, surprisingly, on stage; one man who caught the show talks about his bemusement that Sly Stone had a white drummer), but largely it was a Black event. Some of the performers made gestures towards brotherly love between the races, but there is an overriding concern, informed by the urgency of the day, that Black people must be allowed equity before any smiley talk about equality. These were not quiet times, and the Festival was in some respects an oasis but also an opportunity to reflect on the power, pain, and pleasures of the Black soul. (I’d say the use of that word in the title has at least two meanings.) Songs were sung as much in anger and longing as in joy and togetherness.

Questlove’s main accomplishment is to thread the joy alongside whatever anguish it came out of. The energy of the music is profound and rich — the performers, especially the gospel singers, seem to tap into something direct, elemental, occasionally almost frightening in its force. I don’t know anyone still vertical who wouldn’t be wiped out by Nina Simone’s set, or a rare taste of Stevie Wonder on drums, or the moment when Mavis Staples, having scorched the air with her voice, hands the mic to the ailing Mahalia Jackson, a dragon awakened, who reaches inside herself and pulls out something annihilating yet restorative. And this almost never saw the light of day.

What we take with us, perhaps even more than the warming memory of the music, is the vibe passed back and forth between artists and audience. That exchange of spirit is common in concert films, whether the exchange is cool (Jazz on a Summer’s Day) or toxic (Gimme Shelter). Here, the give-and-take is a bit more complex. Some of the faces in the crowd are wary, closed off; some are wide open, embracing the experience. None of the music is insular or wise-ass (they had comedy bits for that — Moms Mabley and Willie Tyler turn up briefly); it’s all transportive, reaching out to community and to life. If you were in that crowd, you would have had to work at it not to be won over. Questlove has a light touch, alternating historical gloom with aesthetic elation. This is a beautiful work of restoration and tribute.