Beyond Bat Country: Madness in Every Direction

Remember Gore Verbinksi’s kiddie western, Rango (2011)? Did it remind you of anything? The parched, empty Mojave Desert, the alarmingly bright and out-of-place Hawaiian shirt, and then the words “starring Johnny Depp.” Clearly we were reliving one of the classic drug trips…but where was the TarGard Permanent Filter System cigarette holder, green translucent visor, and hallucinatory manta rays?

We can't stop here. This is bat country.

“We can’t stop here. This is bat country.”

The sixties are dead and the seventies don’t look like they’ll be near as much fun, echoes the wistful message of cult favorite Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). Terry Gilliam (one of my personal favorite directors) might have been the ideal choice to film this unfilmable story by Hunter S. Thompson (one of my personal favorite writers). If you haven’t read the book (first published in novel form in 1972), correct this immediately, but if you have read it you would know just how impossible it seems to put on film. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is a fractured quasi-autobiographical account of a drug-addled excursion to casino central. It is also a lament for the loss of the innocence and purity of the sixties counterculture while simultaneously an ironic discovery of how perverted and hollow the American Dream had become. There are isolated events and meandering amusing tales woven throughout the story, but nothing really strikes one as being particularly cinematic. The only real feature uniting the book’s passages are the two main characters—Raoul Duke (aka Thompson) and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (aka Oscar Acosta).

Ralph Steadman

Ralph Steadman

That the movie works at all is an incredible accomplishment. The ink smeared intro evokes the instantly recognizable illustrative work of frequent Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman. Johnny Depp delivers a manic, cartoonish performance that might just be his most enjoyable to watch. His portrayal of Thompson is a hilarious caricature of the real person. Benicio Del Toro also gives a very dynamic and twisted performance as the unsavory, unpredictable “Samoan” attorney. Nicola Pecorini’s constantly tilting camera-work and wild color and light shifts also feeds the delirious experience very well. The classic song choices are perfectly placed too. The production does a marvelous job of recreating the demented, gaudy aura of a 1971 Las Vegas. Director Terry Gilliam’s bold visual style (from Time Bandits to Twelve Monkeys) made him an excellent choice to capture Thompson’s energy and anarchy.

"Let's get down to brass tacks. How much for the ape?"

“Let’s get down to brass tacks. How much for the ape?”

All of these things are fine inclusions to a strange project, but perhaps the most important element is that virtually every line of dialogue is ripped directly from Thompson’s typewriter. One thing that sometimes bothers me is that film adaptations of books I love often fail to capture the voice of the source material. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas uses the original words the whole way, which was the best choice because what makes Hunter S. Thompson so great is not always what he is writing about, but how he describes things. In adapting the language of the original Gonzo journalist, one has to use the words.

the reptile zoo

the reptile zoo

Directors like Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) and Oliver Stone (Nixon) said it couldn’t be done. And after seeing Gilliam’s take, some critics said it had remained undone. It may be a semi-lucid muddle, but I’d still call it a triumph. The film feels like a wild drug trip, complete with its highs and lows, but always anchored by the perceptive and dogged mumblings of our Virgil-like guide in the form of Thompson’s words ejaculating from Depp’s mouth. Fear and Loathing succeeds in being a cinematic representation of a grouping of abstract ideas. It’s a story that probes the mind rather than pluck the heartstrings. These guys are too concerned with making it out of this withering, neon-lit trap alive to share a fount of human emotion. They take note of their surroundings; imagine them to be altered; forget their surroundings; abuse their surroundings; navigate impossible obstacles and impositions all in the name of journalism; and then take note again.

"So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.”

“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.”

Is the movie about drug use? Many of its followers would say yes, but it is so much more than that. To me it is about writing and about somehow counting one’s losses and recovering. It is about how you cannot go back to the same place twice and expect it to be unchanged. If the film seems like a wreck, just remember that one of the themes is salvaging the pieces. There be much fear and loathing in this litany of a lost ideal.

Apart from all the Thompson documentaries, there were a few other cinematic incarnations. Johnny Depp played Thompson again in 2011 in The Rum Diary and before that Bill Murray played Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam (1980).

The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary

Whitnail and I director Bruce Robinson’s Rum Diary movie suffers from being a little boring in comparison with Gilliam’s insanity, but it’s not that bad actually. I’d say it was unfairly maligned. It’s a gentle examination of early Thompson and a decent adaptation of the source material. I actually defend The Rum Diary. It never really finds a proper momentum and it’s not the tropical booze-binge the marketing insinuated, but it has great atmosphere and some fun characters. Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi, and Richard Jenkins give memorable performances as well. As an American expat living abroad myself, I find myself strangely drawn to the characters’ plights of living from delayed paycheck to delayed paycheck at a failing business in a foreign land…and the looming threat of American industrial encroachment peaking over the horizon. It’s no Fear and Loathing, but it’s not trying to be.

Where the Buffalo Roam

Where the Buffalo Roam

Art Linson’s Where the Buffalo Roam suffers too from being a little tepid and unfocused. Buffalo Roam is kinda like Occupy Wallstreet, you can tell it feels strongly about something but you’re not quite sure how it plans to achieve anything or where it’s ultimately heading…maybe that’s the perfect Thompson movie then? That being said, it’s not a total waste as there are some moments of snarky wit and Bill Murray actually gives a pretty solid performance as Thompson. Peter Boyle is also pretty good as Dr. Gonzo.

Perhaps it makes no sense to harp on a film that has become a thriving cult classic. Perhaps Rango did not intend to pay homage either…but wait! Who’s that CG gentleman in the speeding red shark? Why, I do declare! Hunter S. Thompson has a cameo in RangoFear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a writer’s paradise and the movie (and Ed Wood) are the main reasons I still pay attention to Johnny Depp. Fans of Thompson shouldn’t be disappointed, and newcomers might be turned off, but them’s the chances ya take with a strong literary voice.

Get in.

Buy the ticket. Take the ride.

Top 10 Reasons to See Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

1. It contains what I hesitate-not to dub Johnny Depp’s best performance.

2. The incessant drug use is the perfect excuse for Gilliam to go crazy.

3. Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Harry Dean Stanton, Tobey Maguire, Cameron Diaz, Mark Harmon, Verne Troyer, Ellen Barkin, Michael Jeter, Katherine Helmond, Penn Gillette, Christopher Meloni, and even Hunter S. Thompson himself have cameos. What fun.

4. Is it better than the book? Not a chance, but I’d rank it alongside Watership Down (1978) and The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers (1973-1974) and a bunch of other great and worthy literary adaptations.

5. In keeping all the dialogue the same it basically functions as an audio book, but with Gilliam pictures!

6. You wanna get anxious? This film will make ya anxious. It’s got some scenes that’ll make ya anxious.

7. It manages to find somberness and sobriety amidst its hallucinatory mayhem.

8. Despite some grotesqueries it maintains a constant absurd sense of humor.

9. It’s a great gateway drug into the worlds of both Terry Gilliam and Hunter S. Thompson.

10. You will understand why The Rum Diary (2011) could never live up to it.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 11, 2011

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More Movies You Didn’t See: Zaniness Abounds

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I am a simple person who is really tickled when things surprise and take me off guard. Like a baby being shown a set of jangling keys.

The first movie has become something of a cult classic. It was directed by a prominent cult filmmaker (the guy behind Audition, Ichi the Killer, and Gozu) and it blends genres in a fun, unforgettable way. It’s Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001). I first saw it several years ago with my good friend Mat, as part of a crazed double-feature with Jan Svankmajer’s Alice. It was a good time had by most.

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Katakuris is actually a liberty-taking remake of a Korean film called The Quiet Family directed by Kim Ji-woon. The story is quaint enough. An adorably down-and-out Japanese family opens up a bed and breakfast in the country but nobody shows up…but when guests do start arriving and then dying unexpectedly the Katakuris decide to bury the bodies on the property to avoid bad publicity. Did I mention it’s also a musical?

There are many other subplots among the characters. Katakuris is narrated by the youngest Katakuri as a sort of innocent reflection on what makes a family. Her mother is always looking for love and winds up getting conned by the sleazy Richard Sagawa. Her uncle is trying to find direction in his life and overcome the stigma of being a thief in the past. The grandparents are the ones who are trying their darndest to keep the bed and breakfast alive and great grandfather has an ongoing rivalry with birds that fly overhead.

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Miike weaves in some weird jokes throughout: a fly burrows into a newscaster’s nostril; the entire cast is arbitrarily transformed into stop-motion clay figures at random. You know. Stuff like that. The film is purposely campy and very silly at times, yet despite all of its melodramatic whimsy and spoofery there is a real heart beating down in there. The songs are actually really good too. Every song evokes a different style, be it showtune, rock, sing-along, karaoke number, etc. It’s a wild, weird, funny, and oddly heartwarming film about the importance of family and I strongly urge you to see it for yourself.

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Next up is a film that springs from the early career of Werner Herzog. Mr. Herzog has proven he is a master storyteller and documentarian (often blurring the lines between fictional narrative and traditional documentary) with such memorable films as  Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1985), Grizzly Man (2005), The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans (2009), and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) to name a few. Whether he’s looking for desert mirages (Fata Morgana), remaking F. W. Murnau’s immortal classic Nosferatu with Klaus Kinski or he’s directing a literally hypnotized cast (Heart of Glass) Herzog is always full of invention and surprises. His second feature film, Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) may not be for everybody.

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It’s an all little-person cast, black-and-white, German-language movie that appears to take place in some Spanish desert. It’s got everything. Satire. Dwarfs. Car stunts. Maniacal laughter. Persecution of the blind. Monkey crucifixion. The dwarf who plays the president is even the dwarf who plays the president in Robert Downey, Sr.’s Putney Swope.

The story is fairly simple enough. An all dwarf mental institution is taken over by the patients (think Svankmajer’s Lunacy). They lock up the president and run amok. Like many ill-bred revolutionaries they lack foresight and don’t really know what to do with themselves once their dimly conceived role reversal is achieved. The revolution quickly goes awry and devolves into chaos. Much symbolism and much humor and much, much craziness in this early film from a cock-eyed filmmaking beast. A treat for a very special few and would make a great triple-feature with The Terror of Tiny-Town and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Or For Y’ur Height Only!

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A Town Called Panic (2009) is Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s feature-length adventure based on their Belgian stop-motion TV series of the same name. It is a madcap romp through a whimsical world where anything can happen…as long as it is absurd or funny.

1c

Three lovable roommates, the aptly named Cowboy, Indian, and Horse, go on an adventure to correct a construction error. Horse, a pragmatist, signs up for music lessons to get closer to the music teacher (who is also a horse), but Cowboy and Indian, in an attempt to order 50 bricks to build Horse a barbecue pit for his birthday, accidentally purchase 50,000,000 bricks and thus the bent harmony of Horse’s world is thrust into a twistedly inane series of events.

Evil scientists lob snowballs from the north pole in a giant robot penguin, the trio gets lost in the center of the earth, and they meet an underwater parallel universe inhabited by amphibious pranksters. It’s nonstop silly excitement. Perhaps what makes A Town Called Panic such an unusual experience derives from the crudity of the cheesy plastic toy animations. The film kinda feels like your watching a child’s school project diorama do crack and come to life. I also enjoy the little touches, like the farm animals that behave like farm animals but also go to school and can drive (like children playing with toys). It’s light, breezy, fun, and funny and sure to entertain the whole family.

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What’s one more cult classic? Oingo Boingo (then called The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo) founder, Richard Elfman, made the off-color assault, The Forbidden Zone (1980) to create something that would feel like one of their concert shows. The result was a bawdy, black-and-white (finally colorized in 2008), cracked musical-comedy adventure steeped in the surreal. The film is loaded with frog-headed men, human chandeliers, torture, butt jokes, songs, and plenty of wild, wacky sound effects and characters.

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Hervé Villechaize (Fantasy Island) stars as the super horny King Fausto of the Sixth Dimension (a strange amalgam of Max Fleischer cartoons, minstrel shows, and sexual fetishism) with Susan Tyrell as the jealous Queen Doris. The Hercules family purchases a humble shack in Venice, California from a narcotics dealer—unbeknownst to them there is a portal to the Sixth Dimension in the basement.

When starry-eyed Frenchy Hercules (Marie-Pascale Elfman) winds up passing through the intestinal portal of the Sixth Dimension, the amorous King of this highly unusual dominion takes a shine to her and so he keeps her for himself. My favorite characters, Flash (a curiously old man for Frenchy’s brother) and Grampa Hercules, descend into the bowels (quite literally) of the Sixth Dimension to rescue her. Things get weirder and weirder. The Kipper Kids perform a raspberry grunting duet, a Chicken Boy (Matthew Bright) loses his head, Danny Elfman plays a Cab Calloway-covering Satan, and soon everyone is bouncing around the cartoon walls of King Fausto’s kingdom.

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As with Katakuris, this movie has a lot of great songs (a must-see for Oingo Boingo fans), and it also has a special place in my heart because it was one of the first “weird movies” I ever saw. It’s a special kind of cracked gratuitous raucousness and it definitely won’t be for everyone, but it is a solid cult classic and (for the right mindset) it can be a whole lot of fun. (The main theme was also lifted for the Dilbert TV series intro music). This movie opened my eyes and changed my life. There was life, then there was life after I had seen The Forbidden Zone.

So there you have it. Two musicals, an animated kid’s show, and a social satire…but oh, so much more. Movies are supposed to be fun and sometimes when movies seem like they almost don’t even care about the audience they appear to have the most fun.

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Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 23, 2010.

Talking Head Tells the Truth

Awhile back I re-watched two movies that I was initially very perplexed by. When I first watched these films I found myself at once curious and fascinated, but I ultimately didn’t know what to make of them. This time around I have new-found respect and admiration for them.  The films were   Stalker (1973) directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (brilliant Russian auteur) and  True Stories (1986) directed by David Byrne (of the The Talking Heads). Guess which one I’ve decided to write about.

"I am not an alien."

“I am not an alien.”

I like The Talking Heads and I like unusual movies, but even I was unprepared for the ultra-mellow of True Stories and the ineffable affability of tour guide David Byrne (who always seems like an alien trying to pass for human). As the tagline insists, True Stories is “a completely cool, multi-purpose  movie.” This uber-light foray into the realm of film by Byrne is peculiar in a very 80′s music video kind of a way. In the tradition of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964), The Who’s Tommy (1975), Oingo Boingo’s Forbidden Zone (1980), and Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982), True Stories is a musical featuring many familiar contemporary tunes (this time by The Talking Heads).

The fictitious town of Virgil, Texas is getting ready for their Sesquicentennial Celebration of Special-ness and ten-gallon hat wearing David Byrne can’t help but investigate and share the town and townsfolk with the audience.

TrueStories-WifeWanted

Writer-director David Byrne escorts us through the excitement and weird drama amidst the mounting anticipation for celebration all with the utmost of nonthreatening nonchalance. As he pulls into a parking lot in his red convertible, Byrne tells the audience that what’s going on inside the building behind him “might be part of Virgil’s Celebration of Special-ness. . . or it might not be.”

Byrne introduces us to many odd characters, including the lovable bachelor Louis (John Goodman); homespun voodoo doctor Mr. Tucker (Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples); idiosyncratic but passionate town leader—who is not beyond incorporating a lobster dinner into a visual balletic illustration of how everything works—Earl Culver (Spalding Gray) and his pageant-running wife—whom he never speaks to—Kay Culver (Annie McEnroe); a compulsive liar (Jo Harvey Allen); a conspiracy-theory espousing preacher (John Ingle); and Miss Rollings (Swoosie Kurtz) who is so rich she never has to leave her bed. The movie winds up following all these characters, but perhaps centers mostly around Louis and his quest to find a wife. Byrne wanders in and out of scenes, interacting with characters as old friends or new acquaintances, and then returns to speaking directly to the audience to prepare us for the Celebration to come.

Spalding Gray's economy lesson at dinner.

Spalding Gray’s economy lesson at dinner.

Byrne seems genuinely fascinated by these strange people and their habits as the film unfolds like some sort of peculiar musical experiment in anthropology. David Byrne claimed that most of the characters of True Stories were inspired by “true stories” in local newspapers. The movie features several songs from The Talking Heads including “Wild, Wild Life,” “Dream Operator” (one of my personal favorites from the film, sung by Annie McEnroe as a parade of unusual garments advance along a local fashion runway), “Puzzling Evidence,” “Papa Legba,” “People Like Us,” and others. The film is charming and extremely off-beat in its comedy style.

So what is the film about? Is it about the town of Virgil? Is it about the music? I think more likely it is about the people that make a town. Byrne displays a weird affection for each and everyone of these people. It’s a calming feeling to simply sit back and watch people with all their quirks and foibles live happily and peacefully without real conflict. Everyone has things on their mind, but everyone also shares the anticipation for the Sesquicentennial Celebration of Special-ness. Amidst it all they are united by one thing. Some have labeled this film a satirical parody of American small-town life that’s really having fun at the characters’ expense. I disagree. It’s not like Christopher Guest’s playful jab at small-town America in Waiting for Guffman (1996). True Stories, to me, feels like a tribute and wistful longing for the American small-town in all its idiosyncratic splendor. David Byrne (a Scotsman or possibly space alien) is celebrating the Special-ness of the American small-town, but he’s not afraid to make it an amusing or enjoyable excursion.

"It's a wild, wild life."

“It’s a wild, wild life.”

I like what Byrne says as he drives past several average suburban homes at the edge of the town. He says, “Who can say it isn’t beautiful? Sky. . . bricks. Who do you think lives there? Four-car garage. Hope, fear, excitement, satisfaction.” Some might argue that the simplistic approach comes from a place of mean-spirited irony, but I am not convinced. David Byrne makes this place a place to love. The moments where he just drives along in his red convertible with the obviously rear-projected background rolling passed are priceless, humorous, simple, and gentle. That’s the word for this movie! Gentle. It’s a quiet, funny, and gentle ride into an American small-town and we know that life will be just as fine after we leave as when we were there and before we came.

truestoriescar

True Stories is a very pleasurable cult film with much humor and warmth. It captures the attitudes of pure-hearted small-town Americans and sets it to the tempo and sentiment of many a Talking Heads tune. Fans of The Talking Heads, David Byrne, John Goodman, quirky characters, off-beat comedy, or the 80′s really ought to take the time to revisit this gentle, little film. But pay attention. Underneath much of David Byrne’s humorous deadpan narration resonates a sobering echo of tranquility; of how magical even a place as seemingly mundane as Virgil can be. To quote Bill Watterson’s cartoon creation, Calvin, “it’s a magical world, Hobbes.” I’m inclined to think David Byrne agrees.

"We're on a road to nowhere."

“We’re on a road to nowhere.”

picture references:

artoftheguillotine.com

filmfanatic.org

ytimg.com

creativebloom.co.uk

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 9, 2010.