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‘Where the Buffalo Roam’ at 40: Hunter S. Thompson’s big-screen debut can’t live up to ‘Fear and Loathing’

Where the Buffalo Roam
Still from 'Where the Buffalo Roam' via MoviestillsDB
 

Editor’s Note: With a relative lack of new film releases due to the coronavirus pandemic, Vanyaland is taking a look back at some notable films on the anniversary of their release. For the full archive of this series, click here.

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As anyone who has ever spewed clouds of grav bong smoke in a darkened punk house surrounded by drained Busch cans and English majors and shredded couches and ash-strewn wood-paneled flooring knows, Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas holds a special place in the mind of a certain type of young and intelligent hedonist. It’s an iconic take on an equally legendary source material, but it wasn’t the first time that someone tried to bring the work of the man who invented Gonzo journalism to the big screen. No, that honor is held by Art Linson’s Where the Buffalo Roam, a bizarre 1980 translation of Thompson’s life story as filtered through the lens of early ‘80s frat cinema, in which the good doctor is played by none other than the Peter to John Belushi’s Christ: Bill Murray. Despite the involvement of one of the era’s most popular actors, fresh off both the success of early Saturday Night Live and Ivan Reitman’s Meatballs, it was a colossal failure and would be pulled from distribution shortly after its release. On Saturday, April 25, the film turns 40, and it’s worth examining just how and why it failed, and how Fear and Loathing would later succeed where it failed.

 
 

Based on Thompson’s relationship with his “attorney,” the lawyer and activist Oscar “Zeta” Acosta, who served as the inspiration for “Dr. Gonzo” in Fear and Loathing and with whom he’d spent a few bizarre years with prior to the latter’s disappearance in Latin America in 1974 (Thompson assumed that his friend overdosed or was kidnapped) and his eulogy, “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat” forms the basis for the film. It was optioned soon after publication and eventually found its way into the hands of Linson, a producer who was angling to make his directorial debut with the project. According to the writer, who agreed to sell the rights as soon as they came up, he never expected the film to ever get in front of cameras, and felt a “moment of terrible horror” when he realized that they were. Murray signed on to play Thompson, and Peter Boyle was recruited to play “Carl Lazlo, Esq.,” whose surname was changed from “Mendoza” after members of the Chicano community threatened to protest, given that Boyle was whiter than the fake blow he and Murray would hoover up on set. The script, penned by John Kaye, was a source of much consternation from the star and the subject, both of whom hated the fucking thing (For more on the making of this film, check out this great blog post from 2009).

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Split between three encounters between Thompson and Lazlo, with occasional intermissions of Murray shooting up Thompson’s Aspen abode and training his dog to rip the testicles off of a dummy at the utterance of the word “Nixon,” Where the Buffalo Roam makes for some weird, disjointed viewing. The first vignette, set in 1968, sees Thompson sprung from a sanatorium by Lazlo, who wants the writer to pen an article about the various injustices surrounding the impending conviction of his latest clients, young stoners who may get the book thrown at them (this is, of course, discussed by the characters during a wacky drive, while Boyle throws out legal jargon). Thompson’s in the courtroom to witness Lazlo finally snap, and after his youngest client (who was caught with a large amount of grass) gets a five-year sentence, he freaks out, hurling the prosecuting attorney into the judge and causing a panic in the courtroom. This is where that sinking feeling will hit a first-time viewer: “Oh, this really isn’t Fear and Loathing, is it?” Murray’s given bizarre direction, and he chases dumb bits left and right — sharing a Bloody Mary with a square next to him in court, or drawing blood from a nurse staffing a blood drive — and Boyle brings a fierce passion to his role, which feels, well, out of place here, especially with the set-up.

 
 

The second vignette, set in ’72, sees Thompson arrive in LA to cover the Super Bowl. Passed out in the back of a limo, he leaps to his feet and attacks the driver, demanding to know where he is. When he realizes he’s at his hotel, he tips the guy well (after the poor fellow brings in his luggage) and immediately begins hurling abuse on the hotel clerks and busboys (some of whom I believe played different roles in Gilliam’s film a decade later). Lazlo shows up one morning as Thompson is eating breakfast, and convinces the writer to ditch the Super Bowl and follow him for another great story: he’s putting together a band of revolutionaries, of which some of his former clients are involved in his cell. They are running guns to some spot in Latin America, and Lazlo wants him to join up. Hijinks ensue as there’s some serious culture clash between the actual revolutionaries and Lazlo’s squad, and Thompson isn’t convinced of the purity or efficacy of his friend’s cause. Discouraged, He helps the revolutionaries load up their guns in a small plane and flee, but sticks around when the police decide to show up. There’s one amusing bit here, when Lazlo and Thompson pick up a hitchhiker and proceed to freak him out, but I can’t actually tell if I was laughing due to the scene being funny or from it just being so different from Gilliam’s interpretation of events that it sent me into mild shock.

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Finally, Linson reaches the end of his road, and the final segment ends with a whimper. That same year, Thompson gets accredited to cover the ’72 Presidential election, following the “Dixon” campaign from town to town and making enemies with the Candidate’s press secretary. The Press Corps is split on to two different planes: The high-class press, who sit in luxury, envious of the attention Thompson’s getting, and the Animal House plane, where all the freaks hang out and they’re one “Louie Louie” away from crashing the fucking thing. Thompson winds up sitting next to a square Washington Post reporter (played by Rene Auberjonois) and drugs the guy, and as the nerd’s freaked out, singing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the Chad Thompson steals his clothes and pass in order to get close to the Candidate. He catches Dixon mid-piss and strips nude while ranting about “the screwheads,” who make up the Utah State Senate, and “the Doomed,” who are the good in the world. Dixon says “Fuck the doomed,” while getting him kicked out, and, man, I felt that. Back on the plane, Lazlo finally finds Thompson once again and asks him to join a new nation that he’s forming – an ideal place for idealists. He gets Thompson tossed off the plane, and Lazlo’s papers — his proof of this place’s existence — are soon scattered across the tarmac. Yes, that’s really how this segment ends. It’s rough.

The most frustrating thing about Where the Buffalo Roam is that it gets most of the surface details right. Murray’s impression of Thompson is solid, littered with decent barbs delivered in a clinched-jaw monotone in-between puffs of cigarette smoke. The rough details of Acosta and Thompson’s relationship are preserved as well as they can be, though they are, of course, exaggerated (more on that in a minute), and the rough anthology structure of the story has its benefits, as they all feel like lengthy digressions that the writer would have gone in himself. The sturdy hand of Tak Fujimoto, Jonathan Demme’s longtime collaborator and go-to cinematographer, makes the environments look crisp and allows for the small details in each one to stick out, like the weird fake-rolling stone covers sitting behind the desk of Thompson’s editor at the Faux-Rolling Stone that he works at. Neil Young’s soundtrack is solid, and the film opens with his cover of — you guessed it — “Where the Buffalo Roam,” over shots of Buffalo grazing in the plains. Aside from that, it is an unremarkable production, doing little to distinguish itself from the pack of early ‘80s comedies that one would remember before summoning up this from the recesses of their mind. Even that, bizarrely enough, is a compliment — not only was this Linson’s first film but, according to Ralph Steadman, he’d taken a four-month crash course in order to learn filmmaking techniques — and its competence is remarkable given that.

 
 

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But when you compare it to something like Fear and Loathing, you can understand why Thompson vastly preferred that film. For one thing, regardless of how you feel about the content of his films, Gilliam is a top-notch aesthetician, and the intoxicating combo of early ‘70s Las Vegas style, the unhinged psychedelic drug abuse of the characters, and the distinct style derived from Steadman’s illustration allowed the director a chance to jump feet-first into a world of vivid colors and arresting imagery. Despite all of Fujimoto’s efforts, there isn’t a single frame of Where the Buffalo Roam that can compare in almost any way. This gets to a certain issue with Thompson’s work — split away from his illustrative language and any measure of his self-reflection or insight, it gets repetitive — and Gilliam does his best to preserve both Thompson’s skill as a writer through the narration and through literally breathing life into his metaphor. The drugs and antics are the shit that draws people in, but they’re really just extraneous details, and it’s all that Linson and company concerned themselves with. As such, Thompson just becomes the standard Murray protagonist, a skilled everyman buffoon who charms the righteous and irritates (or wins over) squares, who automatically draws all eyes to him upon entering a room. Gilliam, on the other hand, sees Thompson as a part of the rooms he is in — he is of his era, not above it, and the characters react to him as such, never getting away from the central key fact that this is all from his perspective.

That perspective — or, rather, any sort — is missing from Where the Buffalo Roam, which reduces Thompson’s activist journalism and his experiences down to something less than a Nixon-era Mad Magazine fold-in. There’s no moment for self-reflection or consideration about what any of it means, and the film’s tonal blandness wouldn’t allow for it — there are no opportunities for analyzing where “the high water mark” of the wave of the ‘60s crested, or for Thompson to examine his surroundings in any way other than in the style of the classic screen comedian. He shares more with Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp than the actual man he’s based on, and the great success of Johnny Depp’s work in Fear and Loathing was to merge Thompson’s antics with the physicality of a silent actor like Buster Keaton — a touch that gets closer to the way the Doctor presents himself on the page. I’d be remiss in not mentioning the differences between the way the Acosta character is presented in both films: in Linson’s film and in Boyle’s hands, he’s a dreamer, let down and failed by the system that he originally was a part of, and in Gilliam’s take, as played by Benicio del Toro, he is a chaotic force of nature at turns suicidal and violent, and he’s dramatically more interesting to watch if more of a wholesale fictionalization on Thompson’s part.

Where the Buffalo Roam’s failure did little to stunt the growth of its participants’ careers, though Kaye, the screenwriter, wouldn’t write or direct another film until 2000. Linson was a much better producer than he was a director — the same year that Buffalo hit theaters, a little film he produced by the name of Melvin and Howard would hit screens — and he’d have a massive hit two years later with Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He’d team up with that film’s screenwriter, Cameron Crowe, to direct a similar project, 1984’s The Wild Life, and then would retire from the director’s chair in order to produce films like Dick Tracey, The Untouchables, Heat, Fight Club, Into the Wild, and television shows like Sons of Anarchy and Yellowstone. Murray, of course, would go on to become a true superstar, with lead roles in Ghostbusters and Stripes cementing him as a genuine draw, and supporting roles in Caddyshack and Tootsie padding his batting average. Thompson, who hated the film, would continue being a counterculture icon, penning articles consistently up until his death in 2005. Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing would eventually grow on him, despite his initial reticence, but he would never like this film for anything other than Murray’s work in it. He, ultimately, would be right.