For No Good Reason (2012)
Saturday, May 17, 2014 at 06:49AM
Ian Simmons in For No Good Reason [2012]

Beyond Gonzo

Full disclosure: Ralph Steadman is one of my heroes. Long before my film-critiquing days, I was (and still am) an illustrator, and Ralph has always been "one of my guys". From oversized art books to boutique wine labels, I've poured over every splash of India ink in his bold, bonkers paintings. At least, I thought I had--until I saw Charlie Paul's wonderful documentary, For No Good Reason.

In under ninety minutes, I must have seen over two hundred illustrations--many of which were brand new to me. But the sheer joy of seeing them on a big screen paled in comparison to the intimate joy of watching a master wrestle his creative demons to the ground. For as much as this is a career retrospective, it's also a film about process, about the hard work of getting up every morning to configure the work space, mix colors, and tease art out of the soul with vigorous scrubbing, scribbling, and flicking.

It's almost a shame, then, that For No Good Reason is essentially two very distinct films. On our way to the really good stuff, we spend an inordinate amount of time stuck in Hunter S. Thompson's shadow. That's only natural, since Steadman's collaboration with the gonzo author put him on the map, but for die-hard fans of both creators, much of this material has been covered elsewhere (in documentaries by the BBC, Alex Gibney, and Wayne Ewing--all of which draw on the same small well of archival footage Paul does). Not helping matters is the fact that Johnny Depp--who played Thompson's alter ego in two film adaptations of his novels--pops up as Steadman's interviewer; the typically charismatic movie star comes off as a mannequin here, an unsettling contrast to his subject's switched-on vibrancy.

Fortunately, Paul brings us up to speed on the artist's post-Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas career, shining the spotlight on some of his more obscure but no less innovative works. For his book Paranoids, Steadman took Polaroid pictures of friend/filmmaker Richard E. Grant wearing celebrity cut-outs as masks and quickly painted over the still-developing photos to create the kind of ghoulish caricatures that digital artists might labor over for days. In Steadman's DaVinci period, he assumed the identity and work ethic of the Renaissance master, even going so far as to hand-craft a wooden glider.

What's most surprising about For No Good Reason is the unfettered access Paul has to Steadman's warring ego. One moment Steadman can be seen arguing that his drawings--and not Thompson's words--made their Fear and Loathing collaborations a hit. A few minutes later, he laments the commercial products that keep him afloat (it's at once cute and sad to hear him justify selling limited-run prints for hundreds of dollars by saying that his signature makes each piece a unique work; for an instant, we slip into Thomas Kinkade territory, and it's not pretty).*

But it's easy to forgive Steadman the odd, branded coffee mug or t-shirt if it means he's free to continue exploring his artistic voice. Whether he's challenging the status quo through biting political art or whipping out a deceptively touching portrait of the family dog, he's never not creating. And Paul's documentary is never not finding new ways to keep the visual rhythm in step. From the warped-scale fly-throughs of Steadman's ink-bottle setups; to Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner's interview segments appearing on a busted TV set; and animator Kevin Richards' fun-but-not-nearly-detailed-enough animations of some of Steadman's most famous illustrations, the film itself is full of random splashes of innovative color.

Like Pollock, Basquiat, and Jodorowsky's Dune, the cinematic thrill of For No Good Reason comes from experiencing artists (or actors playing artists) creating beautiful, textured works on the big screen. The raw power of Steadman's vigorously chipping away masking compound from an illustration would be utterly lost on the iPad. Paul's film is similar to the others in another way, too: its story is not nearly as interesting as the creative process on display. Luckily, Steadman's visual playfulness goes far in covering up the mistakes, turning For No Good Reason into an essential work of art.

*More disclosure: In my reckless, disposable-income early-thirties, I spent over two grand on a Hunter Thompson Memorial Print, which now hangs in my home office. The signing ceremony--which took place at the author's memorial service and featured the likes of Steadman, Depp, Bill Murray, and Kurt Vonnegut--is shown briefly in the movie, and I engaged in a fun game of, "Would I have spent that money today?" The answer is, "Yup!"

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