Fear and Loathing
Where the Buffalo Roam Directed by Art Linson At the Sack 57 Cinema
WEIRDNESS IS "Dr." Hunter S. Thompson's trademark. The father of New--or what he calls "Gonzo"--Journalism, Thompson helped shatter the image of the solemn, mild-mannered reporter by writing pieces that would have turned Clark Kent's blue hair white. As a Rolling Stone correspondent and in his Fear and Loathing books, he chronicled his lavatory run-ins with Richard Nixon and George McGovern and his experiences with grass, mescaline, acid, cocaine, uppers, downers, Wild Duck, Budweiser and ether. In between trips, he produced some of the most incisive perceptions of the sixties and early seventies in print. Irreverent, volatile, and almost always stoned out of his mind, Thompson couldn't conveniently be categorized as a hippie or a freak; he was just weird. Nixon denied him press credentials to the White House. His editors at Rolling Stone forced him into solitary confinement so that he could meet his deadlines. Sounds like great material for a movie, doesn't it?
Unfortunately, Where the Buffalo Roam does not do justice to the good doctor and his outlandish escapades. Director Art Linson and writer John Kaye have created a mess. Not knowing whether they wanted to turn Thompson's life into a wild and crazy comedy or a trenchant attack on the insanity of the American political and judicial systems, they've made a film which isn't funny enough to be a good farce or insightful enough to be good social commentary. Where the Buffalo Roam has no unifying theme, no cohesive structure, and no method to its madness.
The fim's first scene is promising, though. As Neil Young wails into the title song, Linson's camera pans across a snowy Western terrain to a secluded cabin where Hunter Thompson, amidst his strange interior decoration, struggles to meet his latest deadline. He guzzles liquor as he types, shoots his telephone, and cavorts with his Doberman, who is trained to attack on the word "Nixon." But, all too soon, our hero begins reminiscing and Where the Buffalo Roam slides into the quicksand of banality.
Thompson's memories of his radical lawyer, Karl Laszlo, provides the film with what little plot it has. Thompson traces Laszlo's progress from crusading counselor to wild-eyed revolutionary. Through Laszlo, Linson and Kaye make their feeble attempt at social commentary. He rages and sputters at the judge who sentences his teenage defendant Billy (Jon Matthews '83) to five years in prison for possession of a pound of marijuana. This first courtroom scene sets the tone of Laszlo's character for the rest of the film. He's passionate and irrational, but that's all.
When Thompson meets up with Laszlo and Billy four years after the lad's conviction, the two have become gun-running revolutionaries, holed up in a shack somewhere in southern California with a small army of violent Chicanos. At this point, Where the Buffalo Roam almost makes a statement about how injustice breeds violence and corrupts the concerned and the innocent. But Laszlo and Billy are so two-dimensional the message falls flat. Laszlo seems merely to have reached a new plateau of raving fanaticism and Billy becomes the standard Victim of Society. Worse still, this hideout scene quickly degenerates into unfunny slapstick shenanigans. In this film, political statements and rowdy humor go together like chocolate milk and pepperoni pizza.
THOMPSON'S PUBLISHER, played with inappropriate solemnity by Bruno Kirby, serves as a perfect example of Where the Buffalo Roam's failure to explore its observations about life in the Nixon era. As the years pass and his magazine becomes more successful, the publisher trades in his Levis for a three-piece suit and brings his golf clubs to work to practice his putting. But all this character does is rant at Thompson. Linson and Kaye seem afraid to get too serious, so instead of examining or satirizing the publisher's establishmentarianization, they pad his scenes with dumb lines about Thompson's eccentricities.
While most of the film's humor consists of raunchy, Animal House-type yuk-yuks, complete with crashes, screeching cars, and general destruction, Bill Murray's performance as Thompson provides the movie with its only originality. Whether hungrily gobbling amphetamines, babbling stoned before a college audience, or scrambling around imaginary linebackers in a hotel lobby, Murray's lunacy is inspired and hilarious. Proving himself a gifted comedian, Murray, even at his most lunatic, displays a masterful control over his performance and an ability to rise above the banality of the script and the mediocrity of the direction.
Murray emerges tainted but unscathed from Where the Buffalo Roam's idiotic Big Message scene in which Thompson, confronting Nixon in a men's room, pleads with the president to look out for the "doomed." Nixon leans over the growls the stupidly profound line, "Fuck the doomed." The fact that Murray makes this scene bearable is testimony to his talent.
At the end of the film, we rejoin Thompson in his cabin as he bangs out his story. The movie says nothing about the New Journalism or about Thompson's vision. Where the Buffalo Roam ignores Thompson's peculiar optimism, his cynical idealism that makes him distrust the system but hope obstinately for something better. The only insight the film makes into Thompson's character comes when, reflecting upon his bizarre adventures, he sighs, "It never got weird enough for me."