As my brightly painted Seafoam and White Coaster travelled South toward us, this super-tracker pushed Northward, Earth Toned, all rust and dust, with a rumbling loudness that shook the wooden bench I sat in. The thing seemed to be all Engine... Engine as far as I could see... There must have been seven or eight of them all linked together, backwards and forwards, pulling their load as they pushed North. Several Tanker and Cattle cars followed after what seemed to be an endless line of Coal-Jockeyed Motors, all active.
As my own passenger train descended toward me, a brief illusion half convinced me that these two machines occupied the same track and an irrational curiosity struck me over what might happen should these two Diesel rumblers collide. What could we, any of us do about it. The illusion passed, but the surreal feeling did not. At that same moment the Coaster and a Red Trolley matched speed and rolled into the station, one on either side of me, like a choreographed moment from a trippy Wenders flick. Acrid wind, sound and color hit all at once, changing the line of sight. I shook it off and boarded the train realizing that sometimes reality makes dreams unnecessary. I took a moment to revel in the normalcy of the moment before committing this to HTML.
Luckily there was no collision... but what if there had been? Some things, dear readers, we just can't control. The unexpected pops up and the expected disappears.
Some things we can't control. That is unless you're Hunter S. Thompson, whose larger-than-life existence seemed to be in perfect harmony with his own design. Even in his failures (like a failed run for Sherriff back in the '70s) became some of his most noteworthy stories. His campaign poster, for example, featured a two-thumbed fist holding a Peyote Blossom. This symbol of symmetry, power and illusion was very much part of the life that Thompson coveted. Even his own death was his choice. Rather than face a terminal illness, Hunter S. Thompson took his own life, leaving a rich legacy... and a self-made plan to preserve his memory.
To say that Hunter wanted to go out with a Bang is an under-statement, as this underrated documentary by Wayne Ewing attempts to tell us. Ewing is neither a stranger to documentaries about Thompson, nor to Thompson himself, having spent a good amount of time filming the man in his daily life (see Breakfast with Hunter).
Yet the footage upon which this film's theme is based wasn't shot by Ewing, but by a British Documentary Film Crew back in the 1970s. This footage features Hunter S. Thompson on a remote point in his "Owl Farm" in Woody Creek Colorado, describing the monument he wants built for him in lieu of a tombstone. The monument, unsurprisingly, was envisioned as a towering obelisk through which his ashes could be shot to the heavens to rain down over Owl Farm. At the top of that column would be that symmetrical Gonzo Fist (complete with both thumbs) defiantly clinging to its hallucinogenic flower as it reached for the sky.
A lofty, larger than life goal? You'd better believe it... but this was Hunter S. Thompson and the man was in control.
And it was easier said than done. Larger than Life? This one had to be Larger than Death. Could such a monument even be done?
Ewing's camera follows the posthumous players in Thompson's script as they attempt to make his concept (which they all took quite seriously) into a reality. But it wouldn't be easy and it wouldn't be cheap. The second part was alleviated by Johnny Depp a friend of Hunters who agreed to bankroll the entire construction. That first part... was complicated.
Ewing shows us the hoops that everyone involved had to go through to get this sky-puncher built. The blueprints, the transportation, the work crews... hell, you had a team of designers, a team of technicians, the construction crew itself, a different dude to build the glowing Peyote petals, electric experts, pyro-technicians, security and, as this was to culminate in an ash-splashing funeral, even a guest list with an incurred catering bill to boot. This isn't even to mention the fact that the City Council had to approve the project, somebody had to keep paparazzi helicopters from flying overhead (and potentially getting hit by fireworks) and, at 153 feet tall, somehow "the Gonzo Monument" had to be concealed from sight until the time of the unveiling. And that's no short order.
In many ways, When I Die is a more focused film than Breakfast with Hunter as its hour-long run time is devoted to just the subject of the conception and realization of Hunter S. Thompson's flying fuck at the sky. In other ways the film plays like a litany of building events that lead up to a fitting end, but seem to leave out a good deal of theoretically fascinating moments. This may be why some fans of Ewing's aren't necessarily fans of When I Die. The Funeral itself isn't covered (except the spectacle of it, which is arguably the most important part). Unlike Breakfast with Hunter, none of the celebrity Amigos in Thompson's life are seen or discussed in any great detail (even Johnny Depp appears here only in name). I get that... that's what a lot of people would want to see, rather than discussions with construction workers who didn't know much about the man and with City Officials who claimed to be Hunter's friends.
However, this wasn't Ewing's point. Ewing's point was not to make Breakfast With Hunter II: The Fist of Night!", it was to document the realization of one of Hunter S. Thompson's biggest and most enduring dreams. Not all of that will be exciting. Could Ewing have made a few better choices? Perhaps, if he was shooting a piece of entertainment. In its own way, When I Die is not a document of Death, focusing on a great, big, phallic epitaph. Instead, When I Die can come off as a celebration of Life. Or at least one more of the many ways that this great writer will live on after his chosen demise.
Yes, When I Die is flawed, even if it is unified in purpose. Don't go into this expecting Fear and Loathing at the Owl Ranch. This is a documentary made by a man who knew Thompson and who wanted to focus on this Memorial to one hell of a writer. And for that, Wayne Ewing deserves a "High Six". A High Six and 3 1/2 Stars out of Five! As my train headed back North today, bringing me home, we passed that lumbering, Seven Engined Locomotive, leaving it to slow down and back up in its city confinement. Some things you just can't control. Unless you're Hunter S. Thompson.
See you in the next Peyote-hinged, sky-borne reel! Adios Amigos.
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