As an English teenager with arty tendencies, Withnail and I was compulsory (and frequent) viewing. So on discovering that the latest Bruce Robinson cinematic effort was gracing Hong Kong’s screens, it was a no-brainer. Last week, I dragged along a dear and unsuspecting friend to our local multiplex.
My expectations were low. Though I will always love Withnail, I feel acutely aware that its success is accidental. I once heard it said that no one ever writes a cult film, they can only ‘have written’ a cult film. Withnail works because it became a cult film. Because it did something right, at the right time, with the right people.
If I weren’t a follower of Jesus, I’d say something trite here about ‘stars being aligned’, or fate or something. But since I think both of these things are bollocks, I’ll stick with it being an accident.
The Rum Diary is based on a Hunter S. Thompson book. And thus, it is a swirling, drug-fueled, maniacal affair, with (very) fleeting moments of genius and a handful of wonderful lines. But, as with all of Thompson’s work, it is unsatisfying. But that’s not because it’s a bad film, that’s because the very lifestyle it upholds is flawed. It doesn’t work.
My university years were spent exalting hedonism and new experience as the reason for living. I aspired to a bohemian, epicurean existence, looking for answers in the bottoms of vodka bottles, the local arthouse cinema and the pages of poetry books. I didn’t find any answers, and I always had a cold.
And I avidly consumed Hunter S. Thompson’s writing. I loved all of it. The madness, the imagery, the peripetetic lifestyle, the writing, Rolling Stone Magazine, the booze, the drugs, even the fear and loathing. And somewhere in the back of my mind, I hoped that Thompson’s lifestyle was the answer; the way that we should all be living if we had the balls.
University finished and I returned to London. A year later, standing in the kitchen of my flat, I received a message from a friend informing me that Hunter S. Thompson was dead. He’d shot himself in the head, at home, with his own gun.
I still remember reading the text message, in the same way that we all remember where we were on 911, or when we found out that Princess Diana had died, or when we found out that Micheal Jackson was actually black.
And as I read the message, I felt like I’d been punched in the face. Because my question had been answered, and it wasn’t the answer I was hoping for. Hunter S. Thompson’s lifestyle didn’t work. What he stood for didn’t work. It wasn’t the answer. In fact, it was so far from it, that by his middle age, despite his wealth, success and cult status, he didn’t have any hope. So he killed himself.
Because it’s not the full story. Right? Because the booze and pills and women and trips and hotel rooms and road trips across America and beautifully dishevelled artiness of it all, isn’t the full story.
The books and the films don’t show the comedowns. And when they do, even the comedowns are glorified. They don’t show the fear and the agony and the anxiety. They don’t show the next day. The wretched loneliness. Throwing up. Missing deadlines. The moments of feeling utterly disorientated and completely alone. They don’t show all of the people you screw over along the way. All of the people you tread on in the quest for your hedonistic abandon. They don’t show all the people you hurt.
On that night in East London, everything I thought might be the point of it all came crumbling down around my ears. Again.
Hunter S. Thompson and Bruce Robinson both made a point of pushing the boundaries, both in their lives and in their art. And more and more I question, what is the point?
Because the boundaries will always shift. Bohemia will always have to shift its own boundaries, otherwise it’s not doing what it set out to do: it’s not pushing the boundaries if the boundaries have already moved.
I don’t believe we need this kind of art in order to challenge the way we think about things. I don’t believe it does any good. At all. And in the end, I think it only leads to death.
When we push the boundaries, we get in a mess.
This isn’t to say we should live by a set of rules. We know from the history of humanity that this doesn’t work either.
So all that’s left is heart. And love.
The only really truthful line in The Rum Diaries was this:
‘Human beings are the only creatures on earth who claim that there’s a God. And they’re the only creatures who act like there isn’t.”
He was right, wasn’t he?