Gateway to Gonzo Cinema: Where the Buffalo Roam at 40

These days, Hunter S. Thompson is arguably more famous as a movie character than he is a writer.  Founder of the ‘Gonzo’ school of journalism and a manic, drug-addled Jiminy Cricket to America’s troubled conscience during the brutal twilight years of the Free Love era, Thompson began as a reporter and essayist—for magazines like Esquire, Harper’s, and, most notably, Rolling Stone—before establishing himself as a literary icon with the publication of his books Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1966), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), and Fear & Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72 (1973). While his books remain widely read, chances are most people know of his antics because of the movies that have been made from them.

It’s hard to feel too bad for Thompson—who died in 2005 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound—in this regard, not merely because he openly revelled in the spoils of his infamy, but also because he’s very much responsible for this outcome. As he himself wrote in his book of collected essays, The Great Shark Hunt (1979), “True Gonzo reporting needs the talents of a master journalist, the eye of an artist/photographer and the heavy balls of an actor… probably the closest analogy to the ideal would be a film director/producer who writes his own scripts, does his own camera work and somehow manages to film himself in action, as the protagonist or at least main character.”

While Thompson never transitioned into the full-blown cinema auteur he describes, he did see to it that his legend made it to silver screen numerous times over the course of the last four decades, starting with the semi-autobiographical comedy Where the Buffalo Roam, released 40 years ago this week.

The directorial debut of Hollywood producer and memoirist Art Linson, Where the Buffalo Roam stars Bill Murray—then still a Saturday Night Live cast member—as the hard-living reporter. The narrative, if it can be called that, consists of a series of loosely-connected vignettes inspired by various Thompson sources. Over the course of 99 minutes, we stick with Thompson as he bulldozers his way through hospitals, hotels, courtroom and press pools, gets mixed up with Latin American revolutionaries and drug runners, and interrupts Richard Nixon during a Presidential piss break, conducting himself at all times like an acid-tongued and trigger-happy nightmare version of Monsieur Hulot.

The crux of the film is Thompson’s charged friendship with a civil rights lawyer named Lazlo (Peter Boyle), a wild dreamer who grows increasingly radical in his opposition to straight society, even as the bright light of Sixties’ idealism grows dimmer by the hour.  Lazlo is based on real life Chicano lawyer, author, and activist Oscar “Zeta” Acosta, who Thompson immortalized as the monstrous Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Here, Acosta is renamed Lazlo, and his Chicano ethnicity is scrubbed, a change precipitated during pre-production by vocal opposition from Chicano groups over the casting of the Anglo Boyle. (The more things change, eh?)

That such a drastic change had to be made in the first place speaks to the slapdash way in which the film came together, and it’s especially ironic given that it all began with the optioning of “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat”, Thompson’s obituary for Acosta (who disappeared in 1974 while traveling through Mexico). Thompson would serve as a consultant on the troubled production, working closely with screenwriter John Kaye on the script, though he went on to disavow the film, with the exception of Murray’s performance.

It’s easy to understand why—the film is desperately unfunny, while also coming off as shamelessly self-serving. Characters constantly describe Thompson as a brilliant and intimidating figure, though he only ever comes off as an obnoxious pest. The film intermittently remembers that it’s supposed to be a political satire, but it’s never less interesting or more grating than when it adopts a faux-righteous air of fury on behalf of the embittered counterculture. But It’s mostly a by-the-numbers slobs versus snobs comedy in the vein of Animal House, minus anything that made that film successful (though not for lack of trying: the filmmakers go so far as to recast Neidermeyer actor Mark Metcalf in practically the same role).

But the film’s biggest problem isn’t its nonexistent plot, haphazard structure or reliance on broad slapstick—all of which could work well within an shaggy-dog stoner comedy—but rather, the main thread, which traces the relationship between Thompson and Lazlo over the course of several years. At no point do we buy that these two would even be stoner running buddies, let alone the mutant soulmates the film presents them as. Even disregarding the white washing, Boyle feels completely wrong for the role; there’s something to be said for casting against type, but ten years after playing the quintessential hippie-hating Hard Hat in Joe, Boyle simply flounders as that character’s antithesis. 

Despite Thompson’s approval, Murray doesn’t come off much better—while he gave himself so fully over to the role that he was said to have picked up a number of Thompson’s real-life bad habits, his performance never feels authentic. One could make the argument that, by the time Where the Buffalo Roam was made, there wasn’t much about Thompson that was authentic, but Murray’s performance nonetheless comes off as pure mugging.

This is especially apparent when comparing his turn as Thompson to Johnny Depp’s 18 years later in Terry Gilliam’s truly bat sh– adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, an embodiment that plays far more mythic and human than Murray’s in every way. Even at his most beastly, Depp never loses the kernel of humanity floating behind Thompson’s yellow Aviators and jaundiced eyes, and in holding onto it, he gives us brief but meaningful glimpses into the tarnished soul of a recovering idealist still yet given to sudden relapses. (If Depp’s turn as Thompson is a world apart from Murray’s, then Benecio Del Toro’s towering and terrifying portrayal of Dr. Gonzo exists in an entirely different solar system from Boyle’s.)

It’s not really fair to compare Linson’s directorial debut to what many (myself included) consider Gilliam’s best work, but it is worth noting that for as impressive as the latter’s film is on a technical level—and it is a marvel, albeit an exhausting one—the most impressive thing about it is its refusal to valorize its subjects. A late scene in Fear and Loathing, in which Dr. Gonzo sexually harasses and violently terrorizes a Las Vegas waitress (Ellen Barkin), all while a craven Thompson refuses to intervene, is a truer reflection of the Gonzo ethic than anything to be found in Where the Buffalo Roam.

Still, Linson’s hagiography might have worked, had he actually managed to capture Thompson’s voice, rather than just his vocal inflections. Both he and Gilliam take greedily from Thompson’s prose, but whereas Gilliam overloads his film with truly wild mise-en-scene, there is a distinct lack of flair to Where the Buffalo Roam. Linson commits the cardinal sin of adapting Thompson: he makes him boring. (Much the same can be said of The Rum Diary, Bruce Robinson’s turgid adaptation of the author’s early novel, which sees Depp play a slightly more subdued Thompson stand-in in what amounts to a laughable and unconvincing origin story.)

Both films were savaged by critics and rejected by audiences upon their initial release, although Fear and Loathing’s reputation quickly went into turnaround once it hit home video. Critic J. Hoberman has described it as “perhaps the most widely released midnight movie ever made,” and today it ranks among the prestigious Criterion Collection, while also remaining a staple of stoner bro dorm rooms the world over. Meanwhile, Where the Buffalo Roam remains a little seen curio, and a frustrating failure—frustrating mostly because of what it might have been.

Still, Thomson’s legend would never have lingered as long or loomed as large within the larger pop cultural consciousness were it not for the movies about him. If Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a full sheet of Orange Sunshine, then Where the Buffalo Roam is the first hit of dirt weed that opens the door to those interested in getting weird.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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