Archive for July 2021

Fear and Loathing in Aspen

July 25, 2021


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.


July 18, 2021


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


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.


July 3, 2021

The opening salvo of Robert Cormier’s novel The Chocolate War is “They murdered him.” Though the “murder” is a figure of speech, it resonates throughout the book — and also its belated sequel, Beyond the Chocolate War.

Cormier, who died in 2000, started as a journalist and columnist, then branched out into novels for adults (Now and At the Hour, 1960; A Little Raw on Monday Mornings, 1963; Take Me Where the Good Times Are, 1965). In 1974 he published The Chocolate War, which like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was about teenagers but was dark and complex enough to reach adults. In the end, millions of teenage readers embraced the book despite its harshness and its depressive ending — or probably because of those things. They responded to what Cormier had to offer, the one thing a cynical teenager can respect — honesty. Life often sucks, Cormier and his book said, and good doesn’t always win; indeed, through sheer force of will, or friends in high places, evil frequently triumphs.

Both books are set at Trinity, an all-boys Catholic school. Trinity is run by a secret society of students called The Vigils, who meet in darkness and come up with “assignments” devised by their sociopathic leader, Archie Costello. Another boy, the tough jock Carter, is The Vigils’ president, but everyone knows the smart and manipulative Archie is really in charge. The “assignments” are pranks carried out by hapless underclassmen, selected by Archie with the help of his conflicted right-hand man Obie. Nobody really likes Archie, and Archie doesn’t like anyone either. Nor does he hate anyone. To Archie, a person is only a collection of flaws and passions to be exploited.

We never see Archie’s home life or meet his parents; in general, parents don’t exist in these books. They are tired, compromised grown-ups shuffling through the drudgery of their days. They are glimpsed by us, and pitied by their sons. (Yes, sons. The Chocolate War books, unfolding as they do in an all-boys school, are sausage-fests that only occasionally bring in girls for boys’ sexual pleasure or pain; born in 1925, Cormier, while not what I’d call a virulent sexist nor certainly a misogynist, perhaps felt it best to stay in his lane and not attempt to tell stories too far outside his own experience as a male. This is a gentle way of saying that significant female characters in Cormier’s work, though not altogether absent, are in the minority.)

Trinity’s chocolate sale is coming up — a big deal for the school, traditionally. The stakes are more urgent this year, because the wormy Brother Leon, a sadistic and corrupt teacher grooming himself to take over as Trinity’s headmaster, has gotten himself $20,000 in debt to the school and needs the student body to sell twice as many boxes of chocolate as they did last year, at twice the price. Leon approaches Archie to ask for The Vigils’ aid in this matter — the secret group is seen by the school’s authorities as potentially useful, to be tolerated or ignored as long as they keep order in the school.

Archie agrees, but privately he and Obie work against Leon. They select a freshman, Jerry Renault — the closest thing the first book has to a hero —and instruct him to refuse to sell the chocolates, at least for ten days. When the ten days are up — after which he’s supposed to agree to sell — Jerry, inspired by the poster in his locker reading “Do I dare disturb the universe?,” goes on refusing to sell the chocolates, rebelling not only against Leon but against Archie and The Vigils.

Archie (Wallace Langham) and Jerry (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) in the 1988 film version.

The legend on Jerry’s locker poster, of course, comes from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and the next lines in the poem are “In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” It only takes a minute for something, usually bad, to happen and change everything. And if there’s anything the 1985 sequel tells us, it’s that, as bad as things seem now, they can always get worse. And probably will.

The consequences of Jerry’s sitting out the chocolate sale radiate out and mutate almost everyone involved. In Beyond the Chocolate War, a traumatized Jerry doesn’t show up until about page 50. The new protagonist would seem to be Obie. A new character is introduced in the sequel’s first sentence — Ray Bannister, a new kid at Trinity, who brings with him a talent potentially useful to The Vigils. Ray aspires to be a magician, and is building a trick guillotine. This time, though, it’s not Archie who’s most enthused about Ray’s magic — it’s Obie. Archie is graduating out of his position as “the Assigner,” and The Vigils, including Obie and Carter, have grown sick of him.

What is Jerry’s role in the sequel? Not much. Cormier said at the time that he didn’t want to pit Jerry against Archie again — that would just have been a rerun. Though published eleven years later — and written to satisfy young readers’ questions to Cormier about what became of various characters — Beyond picks up only a few months after the first book left off. (In both books, Cormier mostly avoids signifiers that would tie the story down to a specific time. The first book has references to hippies, and the sequel mentions disco music, but for the most part — aside from the notable absence of technology — the story could unfold anytime; in some indeterminate past, maybe.)

By 1985, Cormier had moved on, writing the equally stinging and popular I Am the Cheese (not my favorite of his, but a noble effort to pursue other themes within Cormier’s paranoid wheelhouse), After the First Death, and The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. But he revisited Trinity in good faith, refusing to rehash what he’d done before, and in fact raising the stakes. The first book gets awfully dark and violent, but we trust that nobody will actually get killed. With the sequel, we’re genuinely not sure. It’s not Archie (who professes to disdain violence — it’s not as subtle as his mind games) or the jock Carter or even the “animal” Emile Janza (who does some of The Vigils’ dirty work of physical enforcement) who we suspect of potential murder. It’s the student with whom we have been pulled into unwilling but strong complicity.

You may have noticed I’m bending over backward not to spoil various plot incidents. That’s because Cormier is a two-tiered master: he excels at drawing us into a given kid’s emotions and thoughts, and he works up plots that are complex but not complicated. A reader doesn’t need to flip back a few pages to be sure of what’s happening. But the plot twists emerge organically out of the characters. We never doubt their actions, because we’ve been privy to their dreams and nightmares.

As scholar Patty Campbell points out in her essential study Robert Cormier: Daring to Disturb the Universe (2006), the only one with significant face time in either novel who never gets an interior monologue is Brother Leon, whose corrupt desperation animates the first book’s conflict, and who hangs around in the sequel mainly as a figure of impotence. By the second book, Leon has become the school’s headmaster, and swans around (“mincing” is a word Cormier uses for Leon more than once) wearing a fancy cross, as if showing off his piety and daring anyone to question it. But he’s not the big bad in Beyond; hell, he’s barely the head villain in the first book.

In these books, as in much of Cormier, there is a nasty and tainted system within the larger oppressive system, sustained and tacitly indulged by that larger system but operating under its own power. Brother Leon supposedly wields power over all he surveys, and behaves accordingly in the classroom, where he casually, sadistically lords it over the students. But even he must come to The Vigils, figurative hat in hand, for their help. After all, without The Vigils, the school would fall to anarchy, or so tradition insists. The more thought we give to these books, the less they seem like little fables for teenagers and the more they take their rightful place as commentary on the American apparatus.

John Glover (left), perfectly cast as Brother Leon in Keith Gordon’s 1988 film version.

There is a movie adaptation of the original book. The first thing a reader needs to know is that the painful ending of the book has been altered. Purists abominated the very idea, but hold on. The film’s writer-director Keith Gordon — best known perhaps for his stellar performance as the nerd turned vengeful supernatural cat’s-paw Arnie Cunningham in Christine — has acknowledged that his ending may look sunnier at first glance, but it really isn’t; in Gordon’s words, it’s “unsettling in a different way.” In a way, Gordon does in his movie what Cormier’s sequel did —Gordon emphasizes that there isn’t just one evil person for us to point at and to feel relieved when that person is (temporarily?) defeated. Not that there would have been a movie based on Beyond the Chocolate War anyway, since Gordon’s film cost $500,000 and didn’t even make back that much. But Gordon’s ending more or less squelches any idea of Jerry or Archie or Obie coming back on film the way they do in Cormier’s sequel.

Perhaps the books can be tackled on a streaming service as a four- or five-hour adaptation, divvied up into parts. But as much as I value what Gordon did with the first book — and it ain’t half bad for a first feature by a 27-year-old, and certainly I can imagine some coarse, crass director coming along and doing a lot worse — the characters really only come to full bloom in Cormier’s deceptively plain prose. We hear what they think; we feel what they feel. Past a certain point, cinema can only do so much to suggest a person’s inner workings on the level that even a merely decent novel does. The first book opens with Jerry getting creamed during football practice; even those of us completely ignorant of football can relate to Jerry’s emotions, dominated by physical pain and emotional shame. His mother has recently died; his father, a pharmacist, is adrift. Jerry has no rudder at home. He has a good friend, Roland “The Goober” Goubert, who deals with his own grief and guilt, mostly from being a flawed kid who just isn’t there for Jerry when it counts. So in this universe, you can have a friend and still be, ultimately, alone.

This is the universe that Jerry dares to disturb — a cold universe that preys on weakness. The Chocolate War has been challenged in schools and libraries for decades, ostensibly because of its darkness, brutality, and candor about teenage boys’ sexuality. I wonder, though, if part of the problem is that, as Keith Gordon opined, Cormier’s vision here can be seen as nihilistic. All you get for your rebellion is a beating. In the sequel, though, taking a beating is shown as a way of winning against a foe who can only defeat you through violence. Non-violent resistance, then. But will that work? Not always.

At the end of our journey through Trinity, though, the legacy of The Vigils is left in the hands of fools and brutes, mainly out of spite. Without sharp leadership or a clever “assigner,” we may assume The Vigils’ days as a true force are numbered, especially if they fail to deliver on the promise of keeping the students in line. But, as Patty Campbell suggests, in a chilling sentence given its own paragraph, the school may be better off without Archie Costello, but now he’s out there among us. Will he prosper in the larger world, or will it turn out that he peaked at Trinity — the perfect place for his sociopathic imagination to take wing, but not easily replicable elsewhere? Cormier doesn’t tell us. He leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. The lifelong journalist was all for afflicting the comfortable, but not so much on comforting the afflicted.