The fans outlying MoMA for the New York premiere of The Rum Diary were quadruple deep, awaiting the arrival of the star, Johnny Depp. Too bad the Titus I screening room was three-quarters filled. Apparently the star did not want a full house. Why? Let's call it the vagaries of stardom. I had met Depp before, before his turn as Jack Sparrow turned him quirky. At the premiere of an earlier film we talked about his double roles in Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls (brilliant), and his passion for beat literature. With Hunter S. Thompson, it's guilt by association.
As a scholar on the subject with a Ph.D. in Kerouacology, I spoke on panels with Hunter S. Thompson. At one academic panel in the mid-'90's Hunter lit up a pipe and the auditorium's first five rows inhaled in a grateful wave. Ah, that's what we expected from Hunter, and that is what his reputation thus far is based upon: his irreverence.
That stance tied him to the so-called Beat Generation writers, with a further link to William S. Burroughs' fondness for guns. Yes, they were shooters, and you could say, each with tragic consequences. But he is also tied to them as a writer who is hip-ly regarded more for the myth he created of himself than his actual writing. With the literary aesthetic he invented, Gonzo, the persona and the language may be inseparable, but now it is time to reassess Thompson's contribution to American letters. Toward that end and to Depp's credit, he rescued the Rum Diary manuscript and saw to its publication.
The movie would follow, with Bruce Robinson's direction, less as a faithful version of Thompson's early work, and more as a San Juan situated prequel to his road trip, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, wild alcohol addled antics emphasized. For me, the best part of this meandering cartoon movie is a sight gag with Depp's Paul Kemp riding atop his sidekick photographer Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) in an open vehicle, up and down, up and down over cracked cobblestones on bumpy streets. That's as close to titillation you get despite eye-candy provided by Amber Heard as Chenault, and Aaron Eckhardt as her rich boyfriend Hal.
The higher hope is to give readers a taste for The Rum Diary, Hunter's Ur-Gonzo novel, and to the rest of his oeuvre. To loosely paraphrase Burroughs on writers: Writers write. The rest is bull...
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.