Film Review: For No Good Reason

A feast for the eyes and the mind, the brilliantly original work of the great Ralph Steadman finally gets its due.

Ralph Steadman is one of the greatest, most underappreciated living artists, so it's wonderful that this celebratory documentary has arrived. It also happens to be one of the finest docs ever made about an artist.

For No Good Reason starts with the man himself, and director Charlie Paul benefits from the fact that Steadman is such damn good company: courtly, confidently expressive yet not egocentric, and possessed of an unquenchable love of and curiosity about life and art. There's not a dull moment in the film as he recounts his beginnings as a newspaper illustrator in England who came to America on assignment, and kept coming back to brilliantly depict such events as the infamous Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match, the Kentucky Derby and the Honolulu Marathon. And then, of course, there was his collaboration with that singular madman, Hunter S. Thompson, whose career-making Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was blessed by Steadman's drawings, which were the wildly perfect visualization for, and artistic equal of, his bracingly over-the-top prose. Together, they created gonzo journalism, to wit: "Find an event. Immerse yourself in it. Become the story."

The most fascinating part of the doc is the many scenes which show Steadman at work, as he takes a pristine sheet of fine white paper, flings a brush of black ink at it, and, from the shape assumed thereby, is inspired to create one of his distinctively florid images. The process is both exhilarating and painstaking—actually far more impressive than movie records of Jackson Pollock doing his thing—with the artist blowing more ink through an ingenious device which adds additional pointillist texture. Such labor-intensiveness largely accounts for the devastating visceral impact of his drawings, and it's small wonder that he jealously hoards his original drawings rather than sell them.

It's a tribute to the man's talent that his results and process are so enthralling that one barely notices the lack of any real personal information here, apart from his staunchly liberal political beliefs, although there are glimpses of family. His mind, too, is quite a beautiful, angry and laser-honest thing, and his eloquent, passionate pontifications are pungent, not windy. The most emotional moments occur when he and Johnny Depp, a charming and highly admiring interlocutor, reminisce about Thompson's suicidal end, but all the other interviewees—Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, Richard E. Grant, Terry Gilliam, even Thompson himself and William S. Burroughs (this film was 15 years aborning)—are entertaining and enlightening.

The disdain with which the artistic establishment views cartoons obviously rankles Steadman, but he can cry all the way to the bank, as his recent decision to make limited lithographic prints of his work available for sale has been an immense success. At any rate, it's been one crazy, fun, anecdote-lavish ride, given the fact of the counterculture era and Thompson's drink-and-drug-fueled excesses, whereas Steadman was often sober. As brilliant example after example of his oeuvre appears on screen, some of it vividly animated, it becomes apparent that however nutty the party got, it was always marked with a distinctive sense of purpose.

"I want to change the world," Steadman says simply, and rather than seeming impossibly pretentious or high-minded, that statement is impressively backed up by the work itself in its decades-long attack against the misuse of power, be it political (Nixon being an especially fecund target) or personal, for Steadman can still vividly recall the abuse he suffered at the hands of now doubtlessly long-dead schoolmasters. "Authority is just a mask for brutality" is another of his mantras, and this fabulous artist will go to his grave railing against it, even though he and so many of his weary contemporaries now feel that the fruits of their protest have become universally blunted for a new generation that "just wants to shop."

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