Happy Birthday Dr. Thompson: In Praise of “Animals, Whores & Dialogue”

Happy Birthday Dr. Thompson: In Praise of “Animals, Whores & Dialogue”

—by , July 23, 2010

In my situation, and I believe this is really the key to what I’ve done all my life; I’ve been extremely aware of not being taken into the system.

Hunter S. Thompson, Animals, Whores & Dialogue

The Outlaw Journalist sits restively at his writer’s throne; an unassuming swivel chair pushed slightly back from a cluttered kitchen counter. He is staring at a well-worn IBM typewriter, as if its silent challenge is beyond comprehension, despite all the tumultuously wonderful years of glorious soliloquies it has rendered for the man. A man now legend—looking very much his age; a ravaged mid-sixties—dressed in the midnight uniform of his craft; dark shirt and jeans offset by a white safari cap pushed down to the eyebrows where a pair of black reading glasses have slipped to the tip of his nose. It is mid-November of 2003, Owl Farm, a purported fortified compound deep in the Colorado mountains, and filmmaker Wayne Ewing is capturing this intimate image of Hunter S. Thompson at work for all eternity; the rare, grizzled genius felled by the vast white nothing.

“Blank paper,” the Father of Gonzo sighs. “The curse of the writing class.” The camera moves from the starkly mocking visage to the icon of latter 20th century satire, irony and mayhem as he chuckles to himself, “There is no writing class.”

These are the incredibly transparent moments in time, shot, compiled, reviewed and edited by Ewing after over 15 years of following, filming and working with the great Doctor Thompson, which make up his new documentary, Animals, Whores & Dialogue. These were also moments left on the cutting room floor, when his first brilliant documentary, Breakfast with Hunter hit the streets in 2003—a few months before this opening scene and one year prior to the suicide of its mercurial subject.

When speaking to Ewing then on why Breakfast with Hunter—this space correctly described its portrayal as “done with due respect and enviable insight”—did not display more of the master at work, the filmmaker mused, “Watching Hunter write is quite like watching paint dry.”

So then it is only fitting that Ewing’s stirring follow-up takes its title from a humorous scribbling atop the aforementioned IBM typewriter, which Thompson describes later in the film as “a relief just to read.”

“It’s very unusual to have a film where the main character sits in the same place over a period of about ten years in different scenes,” Ewing told me this week, a few days removed from the film’s release, celebrating what would have been Thompson’s seventy-third birthday. “To have it work is truly a piece of alchemy that only Hunter could be responsible for.”

Animals, Whores & Dialogue is a remarkable glimpse into Hunter S. Thompson’s “process”; the act of getting the whirlwind of sledgehammer phrases banging playfully around his skull onto the page, whilst he sufficiently feeds his psyche with booze, dope, music, ranging his spastic ammo on every media distraction from piles of newspapers to his ever-running televisions, and, of course, gathering an audience for “the show.”

“It was that way,” Ewing recalls. “Sometimes we did what many of his previous editors would do; tape record stuff, then transcribe it, let him go at it, spruce it up, and that would be it. It’s fairly typical. It’s how he did it.”

In addition to the haphazard style of pouring his thoughts on the blank of the page, Animals, Whores & Dialogue delivers the most intimate portrait of a true American original.

“Hunter really came through as a bright and shining spirit through the whole project,” remembers Ewing. “There wasn’t any particular genius on my part to think it was a good idea to hang out with Hunter Thompson and film everything I possibly could, but for whatever reasons Hunter trusted me and that’s why I was able to get the kind of footage that I did, and the whole project took on a life of its own, especially after his death.”

Over the years Ewing says his camera became an extension or evolution of the great experiment of Gonzo Journalism. Its probing gaze actually takes the place of Thompson six months after his death, as his friends and family pay tribute—an extremely moving scene at the close of Animals, Whores & Dialogue—or as the director described shooting it, “chilling.”

“It was as if Hunter was manipulating things from the grave,” Ewing explains. “I more or less resurrect him. Suddenly the camera, after ninety minutes of pretty much non-stop observing him at one point or another in the kitchen chair, suddenly takes on his point of view. And that wasn’t something I planned to do, but right before we were going to light the candles on the cake, Ed Bastian, longtime friend and former campaign manager from Hunter’s sheriff’s race in 1970, said, ‘Wait, you should get in the chair! You should be Hunter with the camera.’ And as you can see from the footage, there’s not a dry eye in the house.”

This truly sentimental moment is the culmination of two hours of a tour through the inspiration, making, and celebrity of Hunter S. Thompson, through his words, work, and the poignant reflections of his childhood friends, colleagues, and those who knew and loved him most.

Animals, Whores & Dialogue is an investigation into a southern gentleman of letters, deconstructing what he describes at one point in the film as “a miracle.” This ability to take the core of individual experiences and craft them into engagingly poetic accounts, as only Hunter S. Thompson could. “Anything else I did in my life, I was punished for,” the Outlaw Journalist states in one of several contemplative moments in the film. “When I worked at writing, I was praised.”

Ewing says he always knew there would be a sequel to Breakfast with Hunter.

“There was so much material left behind, so many good scenes; the problem was I could never figure out how to put it together. Then I came upon that scene I shot in November of 2003 when Hunter was writing a Hey Rube column, which at the time I thought really went nowhere, because it’s the quest. He’s just writing and never gets it done. And I suddenly came up with the idea of using that as home base, that he would continually throughout the film be trying to write this column, and that would be the glue that held the whole thing together.”

Since Breakfast with Hunter and the author’s death in 2005, Ewing has kept in touch with The Desk, and during that time, and for much of our discussion this week, I had to remind him of the importance of his work. Animals, Whores & Dialogue is living history, a treasure in the long line of American literature in that it captures the consciousness and motivation, the fears and triumphs of a seminal talent. It’s as if someone had access to Mark Twain or as Ewing cites, William Faulkner for weeks on end, culling the most telling signs of where the genius arrives and how it evades, which truth be told, it did for Thompson most of his life—these hits and misses, but never without the plentiful grind.

As Thompson philosophizes in the film, “I figured out what you have to do in this world—to be able to do one thing better than anybody else, no matter what it is. Find it.”

Once again, as with his first film, Ewing’s choice of scenes, whether it’s Thompson reading aloud from his work or talking about his love and need to write, accentuated by a muted smile, the face contorted with sudden joy, the tongue lashing out, the almost stunning awe at what has come from him; the indescribable wherewithal to get the thing on paper. That’s the Hunter I knew in brief but memorable encounters.

“I think this film, more so than Breakfast with Hunter, truly gives you a sense why we all felt so lucky to be able to hang out in the kitchen with Hunter, what was so important about it,” Ewing concludes. “Not just the art and the writing, but the magnificence of his personality. He was an incredibly endearing human being, and you felt fortunate to be his friend. You understand completely why his mother describes when he was four or five years old all the kids in the neighborhood waiting for an hour or two on the front porch for Hunter to come out to play. So we were really lucky to be able to play with Hunter.”

Thanks to Wayne Ewing and his Animals, Whores & Dialogue, so are we.

James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of Deep Tank Jersey, Fear No Art, Trailing Jesus, and Midnight For Cinderella. His work is archived at jamescampion.com.


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