F&L CT2My knees ache. I must be getting old. It didn’t help that I gave my left knee a nice twist when I was mowing the lawn the other day. That’s the problem with letting your kid go to college—he’s not around to mow the lawn anymore.

So, my aching pins have kept me from doing a lot of walking lately (except for a 10-mile hike around the Gettysburg battlefield a couple of weekends ago. Thankfully, my knees were fine for that.) Instead of trudging around the neighborhood listening to music on the iPod, I’ve been sitting on my ass reading books and watching movies. I guess you can call me the Sitter for the time being.

This past weekend I sat and watched four movies plus some baseball playoffs. What movies, you say? Well, thanks for asking. After seeing Richard Linklater’s Boyhood a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I decided we should watch the three Before films he made that chart the relationship between characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy over the course of 18 years. The first film, Before Sunrise, came out in 1995 and shows how the couple met on a train and spent a night wandering around Vienna and talking. The second, Before Sunset, is from 2004. It has them meet again nine years later in Paris and talk. The latest, Before Midnight, was released last year. I think this one takes place in Greece and involves talking. In a way, that 18-year project is even more impressive than Boyhood, which Linklater filmed periodically over 12 years. (“He’s obsessed with time, isn’t he?” my always perceptive wife mused).

I had avoided these films because I have had an intense dislike of Ethan Hawke ever since I saw Reality Bites a long, long time ago. Hawke’s character in that movie is an irritating jerk. I hated the character and hated Ethan Hawke. His life since—writing precious little literary novels, knocking up Uma Thurman—didn’t help him in my eyes. But Boyhood earned him a little of my respect. His character goes from a bohemian young father with a GTO to an insurance salesman in suit and tie who drives a minivan—yet he remains an oasis of decency and stability throughout. I decided to forgive him for Reality Bites.

All that’s a long way to say that I liked the first two Before films. Sure, they are talky and occasionally the incessant chin wagging gets a little pretentious, but the movies beat with a human heart and have a refreshing lack of guns, serial killers, explosions, and Adam Sandler. I look forward to seeing the third.

I also watched Robot & Frank, which was a lot of fun. Frank Langella plays a former cat burglar with growing dementia whose son provides him with a robot helper. Frank decides to use the robot as an assistant for robberies. It’s funny and a little sad and has one plot twist that surprised me. Langella is excellent, making Frank just unpleasant enough to head off potential sentiment at the pass. Plus, at a mere 85 minutes, the movie was easily digestible viewing for a weekend afternoon when I knew I should be doing something productive.

The fourth movie I watched was For No Good Reason, a documentary about Ralph Steadman, best known for illustrating Hunter S. Thompson’s writings. That had been perfect match between writer and artist, with Steadman’s crazed, ink-splattered drawings mirroring Thompson’s jittery and paranoid Gonzo approach to journalism. The movie was pretty good, too—a little frantic, perhaps, with all its myriad techniques (animation and models and split screens and anything else that seems to have occurred to the filmmakers) and it included too many shots of Johnny Depp nodding sagely as he listened to Steadman talk. But it was fascinating to learn a little bit about Steadman’s history and his techniques, and it was a lot of fun to see vintage clips of him with Thompson.

The cover of the book I bought way back in 1980. It's a little worse for wear and tear--in fact, it's no longer attached to the book.

The cover of the book I bought way back in 1980. It’s a little worse for wear and tear–in fact, it’s no longer attached to the book.

There was a time when I—like so many young people who want to be writers—fell under Thompson’s spell. I remember going into the Mr. Paperback in Augusta, Maine, just before I was going to fly out to California to start school there. This would have been the summer of 1980. For some reason I wanted a Thompson book to read on the plane. I think I had become curious when I learned he was the inspiration for the character Duke in Doonesbury. So I went to Mr. Paperback and tried to choose between Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The former was a much thicker book and more likely to last me for the long airplane flight, so I picked that one. It was probably the wrong choice.

Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed Campaign Trail—but Las Vegas really knocked my socks off when I finally read it out in California. It begins, “We were somewhere outside Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” and it takes off from there. It was outrageously funny, wonderfully written, and endlessly quotable.  I loved it. I read everything of Thompson’s I could find and as a result the papers I wrote for my film classes began to assume a kind of sub-Thompsonian style. (I would probably hang my head in shame were I to read them now.)

I even saw Thompson speak once in Washington, D.C. He was late and probably drunk and talked mostly about politics and polls. I asked a question but was disappointed by the reaction. Thompson had just been busted for allegedly groping a woman in his hot tub, which led to a search of his home and a resulting legal crusade to stay out of jail. At the same time a female reporter for the Boston Globe had filed suit against the New England Patriots after reportedly being sexually harassed by members of the team when she was in the locker room after a game. I thought Thompson, as someone with a passion for sports and a man in the middle of his own sexual harassment difficulties, might comment on the parallels but he basically dismissed the question as stupid. I got him to sign a book anyway.

I gradually lost interest and Thompson his talent. It was the price he paid for a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse. He made himself appear indestructible in his books but real life is much less forgiving. I did read both volumes of his letters and pretty much all of his books as they came out, but Thompson’s new stuff couldn’t compare to the old. It felt tired and recycled, a series of riffs that had too many miles on them. It was like hearing a once favorite band play new material that was good only for reminding you how much better the old songs had been. It all came to a tragic end with his suicide in 2005.

Watching the Steadman movie made me think about how I had cast off my Thompson influences and that made me feel a little sad and old. Like Ethan Hawke’s character in Boyhood, I have become somewhat settled and boring, and I have sore knees to boot.

But then I got a flash of realization.

I recently wrote a book about Civil War general George Gordon Meade, in which I mixed past and present, telling the story of Meade’s life but also including accounts of my visits to the battlefields where Meade had fought and other placed connected with the general. (You can buy it here. Go ahead. I’ll wait.)

My inspiration for that approach had been Tony Horwitz’s wonderful book Confederates in the Attic. Watching the Steadman movie, though, made me recognize a little Thompson influence as well. His trademark brand of gonzo journalism put the writer/reporter inside the story—and that’s what I had done with my personal “search” for Meade. It wasn’t quite like reporting on a district attorney’s convention in Vegas with a head full of drugs—and I kept things strictly factual throughout my book—but it was something, a little echo of my younger days. So maybe I have Hunter S. Thompson to thank (or blame) a little bit for the end result.

Come to think of it, I probably should have started the book like this: “We were somewhere outside Gettysburg on the edge of the battlefield when the drugs began to take hold . . . .” I could have called it Fear and Loathing in the Civil War. Come to think of it, that would not have been a completely inappropriate title.

Maybe there’s a little gonzo in me yet.

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